In the region hardest hit by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami this spring, designers are bringing hope to shattered local communities, reports Mark Dytham
In August, we were in Sendai in north-eastern Japan for the city’s very first Pecha Kucha Night (PKN), an event for young designers and artists to meet, originally scheduled for mid-March. As we got into a car outside Toyo Ito’s Médiathèque (AR October 2001) Oshikiri-san, our energetic local PKN organiser and guide for the day, asked if we would mind if he kept the radio on. You hear this phrase over and over again as you get into cars in the coastal region totally devastated by the earthquake and tsunami last March. The radio has again become a lifeline, a dependable early warning system.
Sendai City was in full festival mode for Tanabata or ‘Star Lovers’ Day’. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over Japan had taken to the streets to attach colourful paper tags with messages of hope and good wishes for the future to the huge paper streamers that line the city’s main street. The recent loss of so many loved ones in the region made this ancient tradition even more poignant.
It was stunning to see the city so abuzz, so lively. As we drove around, we were amazed at how little damage was apparent from the earthquake itself, a great testament to the building codes we work with here. One floor of the Médiathèque was still closed due to a collapsed ceiling, but it was otherwise business as usual. In the lobby, we saw an exhibition called House for Everyone, a project that Ito initiated after the disaster. Colourful sketches from students were pinned up alongside drawings by illustrious architects from around the world.
We stopped at several buildings to see how the earthquake’s sheer force had damaged columns at their base, rendering many uninhabitable. School buildings were among the hardest hit, and although few collapsed, more than 100 will have to be reinforced or rebuilt.
We took the expressway towards the coast. At the tollgate, Oshikiri-san showed his ID and a permit that allows the area’s residents to use the toll road for free for the next year to help reconstruction. The toll road ran straight towards the sea, but a couple of kilometres from the coast turned to run parallel with it. Suddenly, on one side of the expressway there was nothing standing, while dense housing communities still dotted the countryside on the other. Located several kilometres inland, this road and its embankments had acted as this area’s final line of defence from the tsunami.
The once bustling port town of Yuriage was reduced to a sorry handful of uninhabited structures. On that day, five months on, grass was growing over building plots that could still just be made out. Boats, high and dry, still littered the devastated landscape.
But we were there to support the first new signs of life: the opening of an Architecture Café that will act as a hub for the local community in planning the rebuilding of their town. Yes, people do still want to live there, and no, they don’t want to live behind the huge tsunami walls that the local government is contemplating. They want to live alongside the sea, in housing communities that stand like islands some 10m above the ground, each with a 20m to 30m high parking structure which can double up as a refuge when the tsunami returns.
The tsunami will return − the community know it. Local records show that such an event occurs every seven or eight generations. They still want to live with the sea, but want to be better prepared next time. Back in the car, with the local drum group still vigorously launching the Architecture Café, Oshikiri-san asked, ‘Do you mind if we keep the radio on?’