Shigeru Ban: Disaster Relief as Architecture Projects (2)

3.11 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011

The Tohoku Earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 was a once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe. (We call it “3.11,” as the term is widely used now) The staggering M9.0 earthquake and tsunami destroyed, gobbled up and washed away a countless number of modern architectural structures from large to small in a blink of an eye. No one was prepared for such an overwhelming natural force; there was nothing anyone could do to stop it from taking away so many things from them – families and friends, homes, jobs, assets and precious memories. As much as it paralyzed the infrastructure, it also paralyzed people’s heart. It was just beyond people’s wildest imagination.

Architects were also shocked, as the disaster literally nullified what they helped build as achievement of modern technology. They had to see so many massive concrete buildings collapse and turn into debris in front of their eyes, exposing unbelievable vulnerability in front of ferocious force of nature. It has been the issue Ban has been tackling with for years through many natural disaster relief projects, but the magnitude of the devastation was just staggering with the 3.11. Again, he was very swift to start taking actions, and was determined to do as much as he could do.

Right after the disaster, displaced people go to large-scale shelters, usually school gyms or city halls to spend nights collectively. As many people share space, privacy has always been a big issue. So he focused on providing make-shift partitions for the victims, as he’d already done that in other places using paper tubes and fabrics. But local authorities were reluctant to let Ban do his job, as “they’ve never done such a thing before,” and because “it would make harder for then to keep situation under control.”

Example of make-shift partitions for large evacuation sites. (Demonstration in Hiroshima, NOT a Tohoku earthquake site)

But Ban had been in the same situation before. As much as he is a capable architect, he’s also become a great communicator and decision maker by working for so many disaster relief projects. In Tohoku, Ban ended up playing the role of a negotiator between the victims and local authorities to make relief projects happen, as he was the one who had solutions, knew who to talk to and where to start and proceed.

The authorities finally OK’ed Bans’ idea as paper tubes were easy to set up – by anyone, including victims themselves – and dismantle. (They didn’t want anything that could end up staying there permanently.) Paper tubes had other benefits such as flexibility to fit the needs of different people in different places. Ban’s team ended up installing about 1,800 units throughout Tohoku. That is a lot for an independent architect with no ties with sponsoring companies or people.

After a couple of months, it was time for people to start moving in to temporary houses, which are basically rows and rows of long, rectangular pre-fabricated buildings, partitioned into small modules.  Ban was concerned because these temporary houses the government provided were usually focused only on cost and fast deployment, and didn’t pay much attention to how comfortable, or how aesthetically acceptable they were.  But he believed that those factors were critical for the victims to heal from the horrendous experiences.  That’s why the architects are pivotal in the process because they are the ones who can add comfort and aesthetics to the project.  Government staff cannot do that, says Ban.

In Onagawa-cho, Miyagi, he proposed a temporary housing complex using industrial containers. Containers are piled up into multi-layers to accommodate more people in a limited area.  Each module was carefully laid so as the living rooms in each floor weren’t on top of each other, to minimize noise pollution.  His project also came with some furniture, which was critical for people to live comfortably.  And we don’t have to mention aesthetics…they were simply pretty.  But with all those improvements, the cost for each unit was under what was allowed by the authorities, says Ban.  He says he needed to demonstrate how much you could do even with a limited budget, which was set so as no specific group of victims could get a better deal than another.

His work reminds us that when architecture is sustainable for Earth, it is also comfortable for humans.  They are connected to each other. Paper is an organic material which is renewable, AND we feel more relaxed when we are enveloped in it.  He also reminds that limited or sustainable budgets doesn’t necessarily mean a compromise.  Industrial containers or pre-fabricated units still have unexplored potential, says Ban. It’s just the matter of involving the right people to add needed values – such as involving architects in disaster relief projects.

Through disaster, which makes humans naked and vulnerable in the face of overwhelming power of nature, he continues to help people figure out what our ultimate strengths and resilience are.  Through paper tube and all other materials that are accessible and easy to use by all of us, we can remember that our strengths don’t always have to be represented by highly engineered, industrial materials such as concrete.