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Japan after the storm

Despite being given no formal role in the recovery programme following the 2011 tsunami, Japanese architects are engaging with communities and devising strategies that respond to the aftermath and plan for the future

Do architects play a role in post-disaster reconstruction? ‘It’s marginal, at best,’ wrote David Sanderson, an expert on emergency practice, in The Guardian in the aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake. Sadly, following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the Japanese government appears to agree. Its official plan for recovery doesn’t even mention architects.

In a country that is world famous for its architectural invention, political leaders view the profession as redundant. Instead, architects have bypassed central government and worked directly with communities. ‘There has been a great surge of creativity, with lots of grassroots initiatives,’ says Christian Dimmer from Tokyo University.

Architects and students, he says, have been instrumental in extensive reconstruction work in the north for the past two years − conducting topographical surveys, holding talks with local people, and constructing models of destroyed villages. The profession has also been forming collaborative networks. One leading example is ArchiAid, which is based at the University of Tohoku in Sendai City. Alongside publishing imaginative design solutions for the reconstruction and prevention of future disasters, it also held an open competition for public housing in partnership with Kamaishi City. Due to be completed next summer, the winning proposal by Hirata Akihisa incorporates a kindergarten and community centre alongside 40 permanent housing units.


Core House, Momonoura - Constructed from timber in the traditional itakura style, this structure by Atelier Bow-Wow can be extended as the fishermen return to the sea, eventually becoming a multi-family dwelling or even the core of a village

Another ArchiAid project is Atelier Bow-Wow’s Itakura Core House. Aimed at residents of Momonoura who are wary of returning to live by the sea, the prototype was built at minimum cost using local resources.

The idea is that the house’s ‘core’ can be gradually built up to accommodate larger families, which, in turn, could become the basis of a small village. Itakura refers to a traditional timber panel construction method, often employed for the construction of kura or storehouses, the most famous example being the Shosoin Repository of Japan’s Imperial Household. Atelier Bow-Wow’s more modest design has elements found in traditional Japanese houses, such as doma (tamped-earth kitchens), engawa (porches) and tatami (straw mats). The layout, which includes an outdoor changing room, is for families making a living from fishing.

It is hoped that fishermen will return home before they renounce their former lives by the sea. It may be a small gesture, but it is an important emotionally-charged one. The repercussions could be felt far beyond Momonoura.


House for All, Heita - Riken Yamamoto, working with the Kishin no Kai collective, created this community centre for a refugee camp. Though it employs modern materials, the structure refers back to traditional rural buildings with its central pillar, exposed beams and open hearth

Creating the House for All
Another important collective, Kishin no Kai, has focused on providing communal facilities for people living in temporary shelters and refugee housing. Led by Toyo Ito, Riken Yamamoto, Kazuyo Sejima, Hiroshi Naito and Kengo Kuma, the House for All initiative aims to relieve cramped and isolating living conditions, creating social interaction between residents randomly billeted together.

For a temporary residential complex in Heita, Riken Yamamoto and his students have completed a new communal building. Though constructed using modern materials, the central pillar, exposed beams and open fireplace all recall elements found in Japanese rural houses.


The term daikoku bashira refers to the central pillar of a house (also traditionally used to refer to the man of the house; hari signifies the exposed beams, and irori, the open fireplace. A raised platform in the corner can accommodate a homely kotatsu − or a table covered by a heavy blanket, with a heat source built into it. The rest of the space is laid out much like doma, except that the mud floor is concrete.

People come and go without needing to remove their shoes − a clear sign that this is an inclusive public space. Mitsu Kawabata, an 80-year-old woman who lives only a few steps away in the temporary house she now shares with her son’s family, says she values her daily visits to the new communal building. The atmosphere feels welcoming, creating a refuge in circumstances most people could not even begin to envisage.


Allusions to vernacular houses are also evident at the House for All in the coastal town of Rikuzentakata, by Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata and Kuniko Inui. Salvaged cedar trees have been erected so that it feels as though you are stepping into a forest.

These pillars act as multiple daikoku-bashira, which continue on the outside supporting a set of external stairs that spiral up to the top of the house.


House for All, Rikuzentakata - Another community centre echoing the Japanese vernacular tradition created by Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata and Kuniko Inui. The view from the roof reveals a bleak tabula rasa of desolation. Rikuzentakata was virtually wiped off the map when the tsunami came

The rooftop platform offers a panorama of a bleak tabula rasa, a potent reminder that the tsunami virtually wiped Rikuzentakata off the map.The house stands defiantly on the edge of the destruction.


It is looked after by a charismatic local woman called Mikiko Sugawara, who lost half of her family in this disaster but does not care to talk about her own losses, instead focusing on the volunteers who came to help build the house. She mentions the growing rift that has developed between herself and some locals because of her role in the creation of this place.


Most visitors are now from outside the town; many are architectural students, drawn perhaps by the project’s international reputation (it featured in the Japanese Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, where it won the Golden Lion).

Elsewhere, SANAA’s characteristically pared-down contribution is perhaps less successful. The project aims to bring together groups of people displaced from three different villages on Miyato Island. However, even before the disaster, villagers tended to have little contact.


House for All, Miyato ISLAND - Designed to unite displaced people from three villages, this simple pavilion by SANAA has had difficulty overcoming the inherent insularity of the islanders

However, even before the disaster, villagers tended to have little contact. This lack of sociability still seems to prevail; the small indoor space for them was deserted when we visited.


Children’s House for All, Higashi - Matsushima - This tripartite structure composed of an aluminium cupola, shingled pyramid and tiled pitch-roofed shed, was designed by Maki Onishi and Toyo Ito for the use of children in a refugee camp

Not far from this project is the Children’s House For All in Higashi-Matsushima City. Designed by Maki Onishi with Toyo Ito & Associates, it is next to the community centre inside a large temporary residential complex. Three semi-autonomous structures with distinctive roofs are reserved for children.


Adults retreat to the neighbouring communal centre, which is connected by a raised footbridge. Functioning much like the traditional engawa porch, the footbridge extends around the new building so that the children can use it to navigate freely around their exclusive new territory.



Rebuilding what was lost

All the projects described so far were designed as non-permanent structures and so have a sense of lightness. Others, however, are built more solidly for the long term. Asahi Kindergarten in Minamisanriku, by Tezuka Architects, has been relocated higher up and inland.


Kindergarten,Minamisanriku - The timber for the Asahi Kindergarten, designed by Tezuka Architects, was salvaged from 400-year-old cedars that lined an avenue leading to a local temple. They had been planted in 1611 after a tsunami that year, and grew there until they were damaged by the recent inundation

Completed last summer, it is one of 15 new kindergartens funded by UNICEF. The architects used the 400-year-old cedar trees that lined the approach to the local Buddhist temple: 16 of these trees, irrevocably damaged by seawater, have been turned into load-bearing columns; others form beams, floorboards and handrails.

‘Constructing the building was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle’, explains architect Takehiro Ota. ‘We didn’t use any metal fittings because they are not flexible enough for the movement of wood that still retains a lot of moisture.’ There are no solid walls inside, so long beams had to be extended by interlocking multiple pieces of wood. ‘We expect a lot of minor movement for years to come,’ says Ota, ‘so we’ll come back annually to adjust the pegs and wedges that support the beams.’


Tezuka Architects’ willingness to embrace and consider the effect of time in their architecture resonates with Mikiko Sugawara’s endorsement for the ‘necessary evolution’ of House for All in Rikuzentakata. Sugawara recounted one architect who, on hearing her plan to build a protective wall around the external staircase, accused her of ‘messing with the project’. She was indignant: ‘He can’t be a good architect if he feels that the place cannot evolve with time.’
Some architects need to loosen up.

Being too controlling of their own ‘products’ − as the public perceives them − leaves no room for flexibility, a characteristic particularly relevant for buildings in disaster areas. Successful projects force people out of the natural shells associated with living in isolation or being affected by grief. When the aluminium pod of the Children’s House for All was completed last year, it was used as a mobile Santa’s grotto to the delight of local children.


Pupils at Asahi Kindergarten are even allowed to explore the space under the floorboards. Such spontaneity impacts not only on the children but also on the adults who care for them. The involvement of architects in post-disaster construction is far from a one-way process. Architects are learning from locals about the nuances of life in the north, which in turn enables them to devise solutions that are more sensitive and imaginative to specific needs, helping people rebuild their communities and even connect with the wider world. The best projects bridge the gap between experts and laypeople, urban and rural, and crucially, between different professionals. Architects can make this link.

Some of the disaster area’s current problems, such as rural isolation, an ageing population, and social, cultural and economic impoverishment, did not begin only two years ago when the earthquake and tsunami struck. This remote and rural part of Japan had been largely left to fend for itself. Young people are now streaming in because of the disaster. But will they − and the country’s gaze − leave this area behind once again?


Edmund Sumner

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