Image above: The Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2012 Image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via CC BY 2.0
Architect Toyo Ito has been on his journey to re-define the purpose of “modern architecture” through his disaster relief efforts following the Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami that affected broad areas of Northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Working at the disaster’s “ground zero” with the people who lost almost everything, he has been questioning the real efficacy of the modern economic system – the driving force of our society – seeking new ways to design our future and happiness through architecture. In the preface of his book “あの日からの建築 (Architecture after the 3.11), Shueisha Publishing, 2012″, he recalls that he was feeling something was wrong with the global economic system when the 3.11 disaster occurred:
We live in a society controlled by the global economy. Buildings are designed, built and demolished based on the decisions made by the large capitals that easily override the moral or ethical aims of individual architects. I was feeling that it had become almost impossible to create spaces that spur spontaneous and serendipitous encounters or gatherings of people, because economic efficiency favors dividing communities into isolated individuals.
When 3.11 happened and violently shook the country, I was in the middle of a struggle on how to reconcile my ambitions as an architect and the reality of the large cities (where most architectural projects occur) that never stop accelerating their build/demolish cycle, driven by the mesmerizing power of global capitalism.
The modern world tries to contain nature. That plan brutally backfired.
The staggering earthquake with a magnitude 9.0, triggered the tsunami and the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, costing more than 20,000 lives. While mercilessly “annihilating” several coastal communities, the quake/tsunami completely destroyed more than 120,000 homes and damaged almost 1 million more. The power plant meltdown forced more than 160,000 people to evacuate, of whom 50,000, even by the end of 2017, haven’t been able to return home.
But even more devastating was the fact that the disaster shattered the very stability of the modern world driven by global capital, as described by Ito. Not only had the tsunami destroyed buildings, infrastructure and consumer products, but it also left irreversible damage in terms of enormous amounts of non-recyclable concrete debris, a paralyzed infrastructure, financial debt, lost job opportunities, a polluted environment and invisible yet life-threatening radiation. These were the enduring economic and social aftershocks, the ruptures in the modern economy and technology caused by the disaster. As Ito points out:
When I saw the staggering damage caused by the tsunami, I felt completely helpless. There was absolutely nothing we could do in the face of ferocious nature other than an unconditional surrender. Even the best buildings, built using the world’s best technology, would have easily been destroyed. Then, what about the nuclear meltdown? Initially I thought it was fundamentally different from the tsunami, which was a natural disaster, because power plants are man-made. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that both disasters were caused because we overrated our technology. We aggravated the damage by blindly relying on the modern system which assumed that technology was powerful enough to control nature.
It is a stark reminder that our modern system, which looks so robust and capable of solving almost any problem, is actually linear, rigid, inflexible, irreversible and far from resilient in the face of the full force of nature.
Ito acted swiftly. He first tried to visit the damaged Sendai Mediatheque, one of his landmark pieces of architecture, designed in 2000. It took him almost two weeks to reach the building because Sendai was severely affected and the transportation system was wrecked. When he finally got there, he saw the reality of the devastation.
I was stunned by the difference between Sendai and its outskirts. While Sendai, the largest city in Tohoku, appeared to be recovering from the disaster, other areas were utterly devastated. At Sendai Port, the tsunami has left rows of new cars, piled up and completely crushed. In the nearby coastal area, I saw leveled land that stretched for miles and miles. Everything was lost, literally everything – nothing could survive. It was as if I was standing at the ground zero of Hiroshima.
It was a huge wake-up call for Ito. When the earthquake occurred, he was at a professional turning point, struggling to create a vision for a modern architecture that had succumbed to the overwhelming power of the global economic system. It was an especially serious question for Ito, an unparalleled architect of “modernity.” His works had always embraced yet-to-be-explored new potential, as well as the risks and limitations that modern society embraced.
But here, in front of him, the very modernity he pursued was devastated, wounded and bleeding like never before. And with an unexpected twist, as it collapsed, it also devastated rural and remote areas of Tohoku, the very region such system had ignored and left behind by applying the merciless standards of economic efficiency.
Ito realized that he was at a critical juncture. For the first time in his professional career, he was ready to abandon Tokyo – the source of his creative inspiration, a monster city embodying everything the modern system could offer – and instead embrace the disaster-ridden but nature-rich, old-fashioned Tohoku. Tokyo is over, he thought. From Tohoku, he could pursue a new purpose of architecture that did not have to obey the rules of economic efficiency. After that first visit, he launched “帰心の会 (kishin no kai)” to support the disaster relief along with fellow architects, Riken Yakamoto, Kazuyo Sejima, Kengo Kuma and Hiroshi Naito. In the message he sent to them, he wrote:
I started my own atelier in 1971. Back then, architects were trying to propose new visions for society through movements like “metabolism.” But soon after, we started to live in the small, closed world of architecture and stopped proactively engaging with the society. And by doing so, we became disconnected from it. However, why can’t we make our disaster aid activities a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-define our relationship with the society?
The reason why I feel so strongly is because the disaster affected remote, rural regions. The people who lost so much are the ones who have been making their living by dealing with the very nature that beat them so mercilessly. So many fishermen lost their families and homes in the tsunami, but they still want to go back home and go back to the ocean. We could say, “but you should move to somewhere else that has higher sea levels to ensure safety,” based on our “modern” way of thinking. But it won’t help them because it’s not what they want. It is time for us to give up our belief in the modern system and try to re-define our relationship with nature. I think that is the only way to truly help people who are in desperate situation right now.
The real voices of disaster victims and the reality of rehabilitation programs
As Ito started visiting Tohoku, he realized that it was one of the most beautiful places in Japan. Surrounded by mountains and oceans, the people lived off the natural world, engaging in fishery, forestry and agriculture. They still relied on a mutual trust fostered in local communities, exchanging and giving away many things without putting price tags on them. Exactly because the rigid rules of economic efficiency dismissed the area, people still preserved closely connected communities in which they helped each other.
Ito was appointed an advisor for the Kamishi City Rehabilitation Project. Far from Tokyo, Kamaishi is a coastal city with a population of about 35,000 (of which almost one thousand died in the disaster) that is about 200 km north of Sendai. The first step in the project was to design the blueprint for the community recovery focused on “safety and security,” the key requirement from the national government. However, even under such a requirement, many people who lost homes did not want to move away from the area to tsunami-safer areas. They were determined that they only had one “home sweet home,” no matter how risky and difficult it would be to go back there. Ito wanted help those people and tried to negotiate with the decision makers from various level of the governments.
But things were complicated. Even after the 3.11 disaster revealed that the modern economic system was not resilient as imagined, the decision makers in public policy were in no mood to re-assess the true efficacy of the efficiency-first administrative procedures. Sitting at various levels of governmental systems, they were committed to follow cut-and-dried precedents, even though they did not work in the face of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The first process involved civil engineering driven by computer simulation: where to place roads, infrastructure and public facilities; how much would it cost and how strong would it be? If seawalls 10 meters high weren’t enough to shield the city from the tsunami, how about re-building them at 15 meters? If community A was damaged because it was only 5 meters above the sea level, it had to move somewhere higher, or else bring in huge quantities of dirt to raise the street level, even if that meant completely burying the old community.
There is no doubt that “safety first” is a necessary objective in the rehabilitation process, but when it relied so heavily on data precedents, it seemed that there was little room for people’s voices to be heard. So Ito tried to propose more resilient ideas and plans that would leverage nature, rather than attempt to contain and allow residents to live in harmony with it. He hoped that his plans could demonstrate that there could be other options to build “safer and more secure” communities based on resilience, and not solely on computer simulations.
For example, how about designing apartment complexes that “lean” on the slopes of the hills next to the coastal communities? (Kamaishi does not have many flat areas; there is little room between the coast and mountains) Residents could still see the ocean from their windows, while accessing, in case of another disaster, evacuation routes that lead up the hill. What about re-using a destroyed factory as a temporary markets to help many mom-and-pop retailers who lost their shops? The steel truss structure of the factory was exposed, revealing a beautiful classical European design. Or, what about building a rugby stadium (Kamaishi is a town that loves rugby) on the planned seawalls – that had to be 14.5 meters high according to the cut-and-dry computer simulation – that the government wants to build in the name of the new tsunami-proof standard?
But they were up against countless procedural and administrative hurdles. It looked almost impossible to pursue new, truly resilient “beyond modernism” ideas.
Architecture. Possible here?
Several weeks after the 3.11, Ito joined a symposium held at the Sendai Mediatheque to discuss the next steps. Ito remembers: “It was full of local people who wanted to do something but didn’t to know what or how. I was struck by their passion and commitment.” He decided that people needed to get together and discuss. Especially for those who lost a home, this was a critically missing piece, because they were now isolated living in one of the various temporary shelter projects scattered around the region. So he came up with an idea to build a small community hut within those temporary housing projects so that people could get together, eat, drink, discuss and heal their wounds.
Reflecting another issue created by the efficiency-first administrative procedures, temporary shelters prioritized fairness: no flexibility to deliver “better” was allowed. They had to be low-cost, built efficiently and uniform. The victims had to go through a lottery process to become eligible. You applied, and were randomly assigned one small room without even knowing who your neighbors would be. People who had been used to living in closely-knit communities for their entire lives suddenly found themselves trapped in a cell-like room, decoupled from the surroundings. “This is a small-scale Tokyo,” Ito thought. Urban planning prioritized standardized, modular spaces that could easily be extended not only horizontally but also vertically, since that saves money and land to accommodate more people in limited areas. But Ito had always been concerned that such an environment could affect people in negative ways. And that was exactly what was happening in the temporary shelters. People who had just suffered devastating losses were now faced with severe isolation.
For Ito, it was far more than just helping the victims who were suffering loneliness in temporary housing. It was a self-questioning process to seek what he could do as an architect for the people who were put in such an extreme condition. He did not want to address the victims, especially the old people, using the highly sophisticated language of architecture or urban planning. He wanted to approach them as Toyo Ito, an individual and a member of the community, rather than a renowned architect, working together with them in order to find better solutions.
Ito had been advocating “opening up architecture for the people,” for several years, so this was an opportunity to conduct a real experiment in truly opening up his architecture. He named the project “Minna no ie (Home for All).” “What a banal name, don’t you think?” Ito asks. But he believed that it was the only name that could talk to everyone – no one should be left out – affected by the disaster.
The first “Home for All” 2011. Miyagino-ku, Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture
The first “Home for All” was built as a community room inside the temporary shelter project in Miyagino-ku, Sendai City, which housed 62 displaced families – mostly farmers. The shelter project place already had a community space, but it looked dry, apathetic and uninviting. Ito visited the place and held multiple meetings to explain his idea to create a hut of about 30 square meters where people could get together and “feel at home.” People were skeptical at first, but gradually started to express their feelings. They complained that they felt lonely living in temporary shelters. There wasn’t even a space where they could chat when they ran across someone. Even a small “engawa” would help, one man said. Another complained that they couldn’t dry their laundry because the eaves were so shallow (people traditionally sun-dry clothes in Japan) and it rained (or snowed) too often. And then they would go on to make a wish list…I wish we had a fire place. I would like a kamado (something similar to an old-style brick-oven) so I could cook. We used to store charcoals under the engawa and I miss that. There were all the things that were part of old-fashioned, traditional Japanese houses, largely dismissed by modern architecture.
So Ito pivoted. “Home for All” was nothing like his previous work, which always signaled something new and unexplored. But here, he prioritized making people’s wish lists come true and landed on an utterly traditional Japanese house with a gabled roof, an engawa and high eaves. It had a charcoal stove and tatami rooms inside. No architectural experiments, adventures or breakthroughs. It was almost anonymous. People from the world of architecture were skeptical: “Why did you have to make something so ordinary? Is it what you are supposed to be designing?” But Ito was confident that it was the only answer.
Although the project was small, it was designed and built with the involvement and commitment of many people. The Kumamoto Prefecture donated timbers and took care of the preparation of the structure. The contractor of the Sendai Mediatheque agreed to build it although was likely to lose money by doing so. Many companies donated materials such as glass, kitchen appliances and lighting fixtures. It became a “Home for All” built by all. Residents were excited and wanted to hold a “mochi-maki,” a very traditional celebration of throwing rice cakes when the basic structure of a new building is complete. Many student volunteers came from all over the country to finish it. When the house was completed, they had a small party. Everyone got together around the large table and the fireplace. They talked, ate and had some sake, forgetting about their titles, roles and the ordeals they had been through. Wood fires provided an intimate atmosphere that the container-like temporary shelters could never have delivered. Ito felt that the place truly became a “home for everyone” – for the people who built the place and those who would use it. In his long career, he never felt such a unity among designers, builders, owners, users and the surrounding community. It was something he could never expect working in an efficiency-driven economic system.
As people started using the place, things began to evolve on their own. The hut became a hub that nurtured various networking activities among the residents of the temporary shelters and the people who helped or were involved in the project. As it turned out, Home for All” was also about a place run, maintained and supported by everyone. It turned that there were no “victims” – they were all people like us, who wanted to take action, do something, heal themselves and move forward. And the “Home for All” became the base camp for their endeavors.
“Home for All” 2012. Rikuzen-Takata City, Iwate Prefecture
Ito happened to be the Commissioner of the Japanese Pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012. So he proposed a plan to build another “Home for All” in Rikuzen-Takata, another severely damaged city, and exhibit the entire process at their Pavilion. He invited the three architects for the project – Sou Fujimoto, Kumiko Inui, and Akihisa Hirata along with the photographer Naoya Hatakeyama, who came from Rikuzen-Takata and who had lost his mother and home in the disaster. Titled “Architecture. Possible here?”, Ito attempted to ask a fundamental question of what architecture was for, and for whom it was really intended in this modern world, by standing at “ground zero” together with people who lost nearly everything.
The three architects were hand-picked by Ito for their talent and the ability to logically articulate their approach towards architecture. They were years younger than him, so he expected them to “work together” – which is very rare in the world of architecture – to pave a new horizon in architecture by working closely with people who were devastated by the disaster. It had to be a process first to dismantle, and then reconstruct the meaning and purpose of architecture.
During the initial phase, the three architects struggled. They discussed and made countless models for a potential “Home for All”, discussed some more, visited the disaster-hit area, and made some more models. But they all realized they were getting nowhere despite all the energy they poured into the project. It was as if they were trying to find the answer using all the talent they had (which was a lot), but they still couldn’t define the problem, let alone the solution. Architecture is inherently complicated. It’s philosophical, mathematical, aesthetic and economic. What should it mean to truly open the process for disaster victims who had lost everything and have no idea what architecture is or how it works? What is the role of an architect in such an extreme situation?
But things changed drastically on the day they went to Rikuzen-Takata and met Mikiko Sugawara, a local woman who volunteered to be a liaison for the project. She was a former barber who had lost her store and family in the tsunami. Emerging as a natural leader, she had been working full-throttle since 3.11 to help local people. When Sugawara first heard of the project, she immediately had an idea. Having helped many people who had lost homes and were forced to stay in different temporary shelters under different conditions, she knew that this “Home for All” had be theirs. So she negotiated and secured a new site that was closer to the old town center and easily accessible for everyone. It was also a site from where you could overlook the entire “lost” town of Rikuzen Takata. The three architects and Ito were invited to inspect the new site and met Sugawara. She talked about everything she’d been through since 3.11 – which was a lot. Suddenly, everyone knew what needed to be done. They felt that they now shared the common goal. No words were necessary.
Ito describes Sugawara as the “mother of the Jomon .” (The Jomon was a pre-historic era in Japan that lasted until about 300 BCE)”. She had compassion, was so fundamental and pristine, says Ito, that she could take people in need into her arms unconditionally. She could instinctively tell what her people needed, which meant she knew what kind of “architecture” the place needed.
Once they shared the common goal – the re-birth of the lost community, and the re-birth of architecture – things started to roll out on their own. Everyone pictured a forceful but natural landmark, recognizable by everyone, in an “empty” land that had lost everything that stood there before. So the three architects came up with a model, defined by wooden pillars reaching towards the sky. Then someone mentioned that it looked like a “kenka-tanabata”, wooden structures used for the traditional local festival and the idea of using erected timbers as a symbol for recovery was cemented.
The area happened to produce cedar trees. Yet another person mentioned that the standing cedars were dying because of the seawater brought in by the tsunami. The team went to check them and determined that they could still be used as pillars. The local people cut and processed the cedar timbers on their own.
The house is surrounded by 19 local cedar pillars, seemingly erected at random. The first floor has a “doma” with a kitchen and a fireplace, and a raised room. The second floor has a small traditional-style room, and you can climb to top of the building using the exterior stairways that wrap around the outside. From the top of the building, the view looks across the town of Rikuzen Takata, that lost almost everything, and from where new hope had to rise. Ito and other architects said they pictured the godmother Sugawara standing on top the tower waving to people coming and going about their daily lives.
Akihisa Hirata, one of the three architects who worked for the project remembers: “At some point, we all felt that the re-birth of architecture Ito was talking about perfectly synchronized with the re-birth of the Rikzen-Takata community, which was just starting to re-connect dispersed people one by one. Once we all knew what we needed to be done, no discussions were necessary. We just had to realize what we commonly shared.
The project has become an unprecedented example in which people’s passion, spontaneous encounters and relationships shaped architecture. At the ground zero of such a overwhelming disaster, the architects saw the true resilience of people, which became the power to generate a new potential in architecture.