06 October 2011

Rebuilding Japan

Written by Published in Architecture
Great bamboo wall Great bamboo wall ©Image©Satoshi Asakawa

Imagine wondering, as you put the key in the door of your new dream property, when you might have to do this again. For the people of Japan, reconstruction is offering great opportunities for real, long-term sustainability

Japan is still reeling from its greatest national disaster since the bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaski in 1945. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami of 11 March 2011 devastated the northern Tohoku region of Honshu, leaving more than 27,000 people dead and 173,000 homeless. The cost of the damage is estimated at $309bn. The longer-term repercussions will be considerable as the Japanese completely readdress population dispersal and urban design.

While the earthquake caused widespread damage, it was the subsequent tsunami that killed so many people and resulted in entire communities vanishing in the path of the waves. At its strongest over the Pacific Ocean, the tsunami was travelling at 500mph, the same speed as an airliner. When it struck land, it scraped towns clean, shearing buildings off their foundations and carrying walls of debris inland. ‘I was shocked, especially because I have considered Tohoku to be the starting point of my career,’ reflects leading architect Kengo Kuma.

Many of the towns wiped off the map by the tsunami may never be rebuilt. Once-vibrant fishing ports Minamisanriku and Kesennuma, home to approximately 18,000 and 73,000 people respectively, were completely buried under mud

Following the earthquake, the subsequent and continuing fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power-plant complex has led to heated national debate on the country’s energy policy. The psychological trauma to the nation of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe will be long-lasting.

Politically, too, the earthquake has had major repercussions. In August, Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his cabinet, who were in charge of dealing with the nuclear crisis and rebuilding from the March earthquake, resigned amid fierce public and party criticism of their handling of the catastrophe. The disaster could usher in a sea change in Japanese politics and the social order.

With not just coastal towns but major metropolises such as Sendai being hit very hard by the disaster, the design and even location of many urban areas look set to change dramatically. ‘I see at least three strategies for protecting against a future tsunami: build on substantially elevated ground and away from the coastline; erect a more massive sea wall with an adequate height; or design more buildings to take the brunt force of a tsunami – like automobiles designed to collapse in a crash,’ says Blaine Brownell, a former Fulbright Scholar to Japan and currently assistant professor and co-director of the Sustainable Design programme at the University of Minnesota. ‘The first strategy is the most practical, but would result in the physical transformation of Japanese coastal cities.’

Brownell believes the hardest part is addressing the various and conflicting approaches to what society needs in the long term. Many of the areas lost to the Tohoku tsunami were low-lying coastal neighbourhoods populated by elderly people. ‘It is economically prohibitive to rebuild all of these areas just as they were, particularly when younger generations are not interested in occupying them,’ he explains. Many architects might prefer to focus on rebuilding the lives of families and communities in a widely distributed network of small towns, but large cities like Tokyo simply remain too attractive to the younger generation.

The tsunami has led to a great discussion of the need for homes that are less reliant on vulnerable national power networks. Japan’s nuclear reactors provide some 30% of the country’s electricity. Most of the reactors in the Tohoku region were shut down following the earthquake, leaving more than 4.4m people without electricity. The answer could lie in greener, low-energy buildings that do not need to be part of an extensive electricity and water infrastructure, and instead utilise solar power and hot-water storage.

The Japanese government is already speeding up changes to improve home energy-efficiency standards that were in the pipeline prior to the disaster. Despite this, the big question is whether energy-hungry mega-cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto are capable of further reducing their dependence on nuclear power. Japan is ranked third in the world in terms of electricity production, yet renewable energy, primarily from hydroelectric but also from geothermal sources, generates just 5% of the country’s output.

The average Japanese household already consumes about a quarter of the energy of the average US home, so further conservation will be a challenge. Nevertheless, any re-evaluation of energy supply and consumption will first have to confront fundamental issues about how to create safe living environments and communities at the expense of lifestyle choices in an intensely consumerist society.

And it is a debate that extends across the globe. ‘If we do not transition to a nature-oriented society on a global scale, our society will be unsustainable,’ says Masahiro Harada, of Tokyo-based Mount Fuji Architects Studio. ‘Capitalist societies should be reconstructed into a form which has nature as a fundamental. For instance, CO2 might be a global currency. Architects are at the next stage, where we can adapt and evolve to a nature-oriented social order.’

The March 2011 earthquake was one of the five most powerful in recorded world history. Not even Japan could prepare itself for the sheer scale of the devastation. The country is no stranger to natural disasters – the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake on Honshu killed 100,000 people. Kuma believes a radical rethink is needed. ‘During the process of restoration, we should be able to realise a dispersed model of population distribution,’ he says. ‘The Great Kanto earthquake and the defeat in the Second World War brought into Japan a typical 20th-century, American type of urban design and architecture,’ says Kuma. ‘This time, conversely, we will see ourselves going back to the roots of Japanese tradition.’

For Kuma, who is in Paris working on his new design for the Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee – due to open in 2012, the biggest challenge is to build cities that can both accommodate the risk of tsunami and inherit each area’s history and culture.

Japanese buildings are by law designed to withstand the strongest earthquakes. Even simple wooden houses have cross-bracing and steel ties to reinforce them. Kuma says wood can be resilient to an earthquake, but not to a tsunami. ‘We should seek the possibility of hybrid structures, such as wood and concrete, wood and steel,’ he explains. For Brownell, the challenge facing architects is to design buildings that can adapt to changing future conditions, and that inspire a society’s desire to keep and protect them. This is difficult in a country where the life span of a building is remarkably short. The average Japanese house lasts only 26 years.

Given limited energy and material supplies, future construction will be extremely resource-efficient. Architect Shigeru Ban believes in using weak materials such as paper and wood to create stronger structures. Since 1995, Ban has built shelters for victims of natural and manmade disasters when he designed emergency housing with beer-crate foundations and paper-tube walls for survivors of the earthquake in Kobe. Following the March 2011 earthquake, Ban developed modular shelters, made of cardboard panels and paper tubes, for displaced people. He believes in a new type of urban planning where heavy, high concrete buildings are located near the coast to protect the houses behind them.

Alternatively, green space and forested areas along the coast in front of populated areas can add layers of protection to a town facing the brunt of a tsunami. A forested park along the coast is central to protecting a city on the opposite side of the Pacific. Designed by Chilean practice Elemental, founded by Alejandro Aravena, the seaside resort city of Constitución in Chile is being rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 2010.

While Tokyo’s political, economic and cultural importance as the focal point of a megalopolitan landscape suggests that Japan has a strong, centralised model of population distribution, the reality is in fact a ‘hybrid model, in which Tokyo is a hot spot connected to a seamless and intricate web of conurbations’.

Mount Fuji Architects Studio, one of Japan’s most progressive practices, have designed many private houses including Sakura House and Tree House and argue that a radical change in population distribution and infrastructure is essential, not just to create safer environments but for Japanese society to evolve from a centralised model to a more flexible, independent one. ‘A dispersed life model would be attractive, if we maintain self-organisation,’ argues Harada. ‘A dispersed, autonomous society ought to be widespread, as a safety net.’

‘The disaster will be a turning point towards a decentralisation policy,’ says Kuma, arguing that a regional approach will be taken in the rebuilding process, rather than a traditionally centralised dictum from Tokyo. It will be people and community-centred and will take its origins directly from the tragedy. What was so revealing about the disaster was that it demonstrated that a centralised response from Tokyo was not as effective as the action taken by immediately local people. People relied on each other, and in future a people-centric approach that focuses on creating a sense of secure place will be needed.’

‘The disaster made the entire nation conscious of the problems which we cannot handle in the existing social order,’ reflects Harada. Mount Fuji Architects Studio also highlight how the disaster is an opportunity for architecture’s role in society to be much more proactive and radical: ‘Architects’ consciousness is starting to move on to “workable action” from both top and bottom. In other words, architectural incentives are moving to “concrete sociality”, which is much more pragmatic than “abstract sociality”, which used to be mentioned a lot.’

On a wider level, the earthquake has put under the spotlight the need for a reassessment of centralised governance. Brownell believes in a hybrid model that allows large cities like Tokyo to flourish while incentivising local development in ways that optimise economic efficacy. ‘For many Japanese people, both types of contexts are important,’ he says. ‘Tokyo for its commercial and cultural opportunities, and small towns for their connections to family history and nature.’

The need for decentralisation extends to architecture, as regional design responses to the disaster may well replace the current Tokyo template that dominates the country. Masahiro Harada believes incentives need to grow independently from individual regions upwards: ‘An affection for local communities is the mother of rebirth. To make it real, we need to find a system of reconstruction that promotes industry connected to local communities.’

One impact of the Tohoku earthquake will be to act as a spur to greater innovation. ‘Japanese people are more attuned to changing environmental cycles and the potentially damaging effects of natural disasters than most. They are also more resilient,’ says Brownell. The dignified response to a national tragedy on an almost unimaginable scale is reflected by this sense of resilience, or gaman, one which will form the basis of generating a response on several levels – spiritual, psychological and practical.

Kengo Kuma and Associates, kkaa.co.jp

Atelier Hitoshi Abe, a-slash.jp

Mount Fuji Architects Studio, www14.plala.or.jp/mfas/fuji.htm

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