For award-winning architect Hitoshi Abe, a native of Sendai, Japan, the one-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit his hometown and devastated his birth country is a heart-wrenching event.
But it is not one without hope. Abe, who chairs the department of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, aims to glean valuable design and cultural learnings from the tragic events. His goal is to educate everyday citizens around the world today, as well as future generations on how to better cope with large-scale natural disasters. One inspiring way that he has worked to inform general audiences around the United States on the magnitude of the destruction in Japan last year is by guest-curating the traveling exhibition “Moving Forward: Life After the Great East Japan Earthquake,” which is now on view at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. It opened on March 4 and is on view through April 15, and features haunting large-scale photographs taken immediately after the disaster (originally published in the newspaper The Kahuko Shimpo), as well as videos and texts.
I reached out to Abe, who beyond heading UCLA’s architecture department, still operates his architecture firm Atelier Hitoshi Abe and directs the Paul and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Study, also at UCLA. I asked him what he learned in the earthquake’s aftermath, in terms of how design can be better deployed in response to disasters–as well as his observations on the resilience and creativity of everyday Japanese people as they engage in the long-term struggle to recover. Here’s our exchange:
SmartPlanet: The devastating events of March 2011 prompted Japanese architects, engineers, and designers — and those around the world — to rethink how to react to damage from earthquakes and tsunamis. In the last year, what have you learned and observed in this area of design?
It has become extremely clear that we have to “negotiate” with nature, and we need to set the right boundary between nature and any man-made environments. Furthermore, these boundaries must be more flexible. In other words, we should not try to work against nature, but what we need to do is create a new type of community and urban design that will make the area more disaster resilient. Of course, it’s not efficient to make every structure tsunami-proof because it’s not economically feasible. But what we can do to minimize future damage is to understand these boundaries — there needs to be certain areas where man-made structures should not be built and areas where the structures are more resilient to natural disasters. An investment into these types of structures is crucial. But in order to make this truly work, we need to be creative and figure out where this interesting, flexible boundary is, so when disaster strikes again, these structurally resilient buildings will be safe and the tsunami will have a natural path where it can come through.
What I realized is that most people in this day are extremely dependent on large systems to sustain our daily lives. These large systems include anything from the government, food supply, police, hospitals, etc. When such a large disaster strikes, the entire infrastructure is affected, or worse, it comes to a complete halt. This has happened in the Tohoku area. The large system could not sustain the new environment, and it became very fragmented. The system that had made all our lives more efficient no longer worked.
This type of informal network naturally emerged in the case of the Tohoku disaster. For example, the large supermarkets could not restock their items for as longas two weeks while the local, smaller-scale shops were able to replenish their inventory because they did not rely on the “system.” The smaller shops were the ones who were able to continue to provide food for the community. Even Twitter played a huge role — during the disaster, it was difficult to find information. It was hard forindividuals to find out if any shops were open for business. With a car, the journey to the store can be about 15 minutes, but without a car, it could take over an hour. Basically, if the store was closed, you would have just lost two hours of your day trying to get there. People were able to use the local network of people through Twitter to share information that the large infrastructures were unable to provide. It really helped the day to day lives of many people.
What is inspiring is that the people adapted to this new community of individuals and created their own network — a community and network that is more resilient and flexible to this type of event. It’s also more democratic. It is interesting because it clearly shows that there is a different way modern society [operates, compared to] the older society that has been enforced by large systems.
Architects and designers fundamentally believe that design is a positive action; with the ambition being to improve the functional and experiential qualities of objects, spaces, communities, systems, etc. Because of this, many designers and architects were compelled to help with fundraising and reconstruction efforts, in a collective effort to try and improve the quality of people’s lives that were affected by the disaster.It is absolutely essential that the design community shares their collective knowledge of “best practices,” and post-disaster design studies and fundraising, in order to create a working knowledge base that will hopefully be able to streamline the process and procedure by which communities effected by disaster can begin to recover.
Have you been traveling to Japan since the 2011 quake, and can you offer a first-hand account of how architects and designers are rebuilding communities?
At this moment the reconstruction efforts are largely being initiated by the government and driven by civil engineering. As far as I know there aren’t any architects involved in the large reconstruction plans and a consequence of this is that all the reconstruction is very fragmented and lacking an overall vision. Arch+Aid, a network of more than 270 architects supporting the reconstruction efforts, was established to try and give cohesion to these efforts. The organization is working on creating a pool of creative talent that will supply interdisciplinary expertise and gathering documentation and knowledge for future generations.
The show has traveled around the U.S., and is returning to L.A. How has the show served as an effective vehicle for inspiring people within and outside of the design community to take action and contribute to Japan’s recovery?
The exhibition has been well-received by the different communities across the United States. Many different organizations have been reaching out to us asking if they can help spread the word and share the different images you will see at the show. I hope this exhibition will stimulate interest among the American people and through these people, a difference can be made.
Images: portrait of Hitoshi Abe, courtesy UCLA; all images are on view in “Moving Forward” at The Fowler Museum at UCLA and appear courtesy of The Kahoku Shimpo newspaper.
More from the Collateral Damage series:
- The plastic legacy of Great East Japan tsunami debris
- Listen to Japan’s 9.0 earthquake
- In post-Japan quake & tsunami era, Noah offers emergency shelter
- Fukushima’s Lesson: ‘Alternative’ nuclear, not ‘no’ nuclear
- Asian Super Grid: How Japan’s anti-nuclear plan could go nuclear
- A year after Fukushima, how life in Japan has changed