One Morning in Kitakami

On a strangely snowy morning at the We Are One youth center, near the mouth of the Kitakami River, twenty-three students gathered to collectively envision, with their minds and hands, improvements to their town.

The event itself was pretty big; I figure I’d make an introduction here, and break down the morning into a couple other posts.

0. The chirping dump trucks
1. How to hold a Mini Mini Kitakami charrette
2. THE RESULTS: Elementary Students Envision a Rebuilt Village
3. Cribs! feat. Sato-san

The Chirping Dump Trucks

All morning long, dump truck after dump truck drove in from over the Kitakami river, passing the We Are One youth center to take a turn down a road leading out behind a hill, into obscurity. Just as frequently trucks would come from this mysterious place loaded with dirt, cross the Kitakami river toward another obscure destination. At intersections emiting a chirping sound, as though singing to one another. It seemed absurd. Almost as absurd as the weather that day, which changed from breaking sun to overcast to blizzard, and sun again melting the newfallen snow. I’m told it’s a rare occasion for Kitakami to get ANY accumulation – as close as it is to the ocean, it simply doesn’t happen. Except for that day, saluting the truck drivers maybe, who are spending a Saturday hauling dirt.

Or the youth charrette at the We Are One center. You wouldn’t hear any of the commotion from inside this building – even if it were quiet, which it rarely was, the morning of February 23rd. Over 20 children from the surrounding communities gathered to envision together a rebuilt post-tsunami town. The kids ranged from grades 1-6…which is quite a developmental range when you’re organizing an activity that engages everyone.

Fortunately, the Japan Team was on it and, working with Sato-san (Naomi, the center’s chief), everything was ready – materials ranging from little fluffy balls to corrugated board, to recycled timber cuts and Sato-san’s own reserve of market boxes.

Now, it’s a blissful moment when you arrive somewhere you’ve written so much about but never seen – even when it’s a modest (albeit gorgeous) youth center.

And the thing I like seeing with completed projects is how they’ve been put to use.

The market side you could tell right away was a boon to the area. The temporary housing complex up the hill, on the sporst fields, clearly appreciate not having to drive all the way into town to pick up supplies, and it’s a job well done for Sato-san who’s coordinated the delivery and sale of these products.

On the youth center side, remember: this is a space for kids who have lost any and all domestic privacy when the tsunami struck. (Temporary housing doesn’t really afford any extra room than what’s needed.) So this youth space is a critical asset to the community, or cluster of multiple communities, now living in this complex up the hill.

The space is amazing: warm, wood interiors, all cedar. A heater had been installed, and beside it, the human-sized calendar that the Tohoku design univerity made especially for We Are One, matching each month to a local event or festivity. The fold up tables were all low – you work at them sitting on a cushion on the floor.

I was particularly drawn to these models that the elementary school had built, and that the youth center had adopted.

They were ideal towns of their own.

The class was prompted to build a small space that they’d love to have, on top of these boxes. Part of the prompt was including a house that can escape the flood waters. Each of these houses slides up a track away from the water to safety.

Our charrette took this conversation to a new level. The participants had previously been asked to imagine what they would like to see in the new Kitakami, and this was their first foray at building it. The event attracted some media straight away (something none of us were expecting), and there were some visitors afterwords that I’d like to talk about as well.

How to hold a Mini Mini Kitakami charrette

Some people think keeping 7-14 year olds focused for half a day is easy. Well I’d be the first to tell ya: it…takes planning. (Otherwise, cake.)

Fortunately if an activity is planned well, then there’s only the smallest chance of it not being fun, engaging and rewarding for everyone involved. Following are some top-level basics for making sure your charrettes, workshops or events go off without a hitch.

1. Plant the Seed. To really get brains working on a certain day, get them spinning ahead of time. Sato-san released a flyer to the youth community announcing the theme (“envision a new home town”) that included a detachable sign-up / bus reservation form. (Getting solid commitments is ALSO a good idea.)

2. Schedule the stages of your event. Any architect will tell you building a model takes time, and once you’ve set out sculpting your vision, you get sucked into this “zone” where you want your model to be awesome. (Note: Rarely do architects think they’ve finished their model – there’s always something else that could make it better. Good thing the Kitakami kids haven’t been formally trained 😉

Anyway, the bulk of the time is building. Bookend this block with an introduction (of concepts, of the crew), and of course “the reveal” where everyone talks about their work and thoughts behind it. Start it all off with an icebreaker (see below) and wrap up with thanks.

3. Get your materials. We went for “absolute variety.” to open up as many creative channels as we could: paper, paint, yarn, fuzzy things, cardboard from Sato-san’s recycling bin, and wood blocks all enter the mix. There is just one provision…that the buildings be sized for Lego people. The buildings should work together for the sake of having a neighborly village. (No one seemed to mind that they were all firefighters.)

4. BRING FOOD. Thinking is hard work, and hungry minds lead to hungry bodies. Sato-san runs a market, it’s true, so nourishment was close to hand. She wanted to be sure we provided a “flavor of the States” – and candy is always a cultural touchstone of ours. Reece’s cups and mini Snickers might keep the tykes jazzed.

5. Award prizes. As, at minimum, a “thanks for coming out,” a little prize for each participant is a plus.

6. Set your ice breaker. Sometimes charrettes bring together a bunch of people who don’t know each other, and you need to make them comfortable in a flash, and make connections with one another. There are some fun games you can play, Kate E in Haiti likes using string (well okay that’s more of a literal ‘connection,’ but it works). The trick is to find a game that people aren’t going “aw, mannnn” when they start to play. Sometimes some friendly competition is called for.

We went for BINGO, sitting the American (me) at the number machine and calling out the turns in English. Aki takes post at the wipe board to translate – and so everyone gets a language lesson at the same time.

7. Set your instruments to “Record.” At least one member of your charrette-giving party should be appointed “documentarian.” Pictures, video, audio, notes and minutes – it’s all good and worth gold at the end of the day. You may not use all of it, and may never revisit some of it, but you’ll be thanking yourself later that week that you took some extra pains on an exhausting day.

8. Oh and Notify the local media! Your charrette is “kind of a big deal.” A lot of other people like hearing about organized community events like this. A member of the Sanriku-Kahoku caught wind of our day and spend a lot of time with us taking interviews and her own photos.

SO – taking the time to follow these steps is a near foolproof guarantee of a successful charrette. Now let’s see what the Kitakami kids came up with…

Elementary Students Envision a Rebuilt Village

On February 23, Students Rebuild and Architecture for Humanity led a student design charrette at the recently completed “We Are One” Market and Youth Center in Kitakami. Students from grades 1-5 came spent the Saturday morning building their visions from all sorts of craft and recycled market supplies, from paints, pipecleaners and origami paper, to bulk boxes and wood blocks left over from the center’s construction.

A special guest designer from America (me) was in attendance to judge the work.


Fifteen projects have been built for the village, all scaled to Lego figures, and included houses & castles; bridges & gateways; parks & gardens; a school, a tall desk and a live/work community center.

The review was all in Japanese – but Aki translated the kids’ comments and thoughts after the fact.

We’ve been following the charrette’s set up over the past couple blogs – check out the construction process and final designs below!img_7257-room-at-work-2




And now, the RESULTS!

Houses & Castles


A few of the students built “dream houses,” insistent on colors, that there be swing sets, and at times, a swimming pool. This blue house was a project of two students who wanted to live together.


Dream house with a loft and an expressive roof


This designer wanted to live in a castle. Good thing he’s using local materials – the heads of reeds harvested from the river for any number of uses, including temporary shrine gateways. The girls here seem amused by the roof – “it says it all.” Aki also notes that he did not specify wanting to conquer Kitakami.

Bridges & Gateways


This designer wanted a bridge to fish from. A tranquil pedestrian bridge would be a nice accompaniment the river crossing dedicated to car traffic.


The designer of this bridge felt the current bridge spanning the Kitakami river was uninspiring. She wanted a colorful, happy one to take its place.


This designer wanted a colorful passageway into the city.

Parks & Gardens


This park includes a garden, storage sheds and a snow-covered field.


A water park, with a bridge spanning two islands


An “elevated garden.” You can see the garden on the yellow rooftop actually includes carrots and radishes. A bunny lives beneath it. We conjecture that the bunny is attempting sustainable living by managing its own food source.

“Wait – in her future she wants to become a bunny?” I wonder during our Skype debrief.
“Maybe their school has a bunny,” Hiromi muses. “I mean we had chickens.”
“We had a peacock,” Aki adds.
“We did too!”
“Are you guys serious?”
“Yeah there was a peacock in a giant cage, and we’d have to clean up after it.”
“Students in Japan typically clean up their school,” Aki notes.
“So there aren’t any janitors?”
“No there are janitors,” Hiromi says, “but they do more of the mechanical stuff.”
Aki: “And other things out of reach.”

Schools, Tall Desks, & Community Centers


You might not be able to tell, but this elaborate school house has wheels! The designer wanted a mobile school so the scenery could change


This tower is actually a desk that one of the designers made for me! Perhaps my 6’4″ness inspired some ergonomic design? “Probably none of these kids have seen a Gaijin before,” Aki tells me. The desk comes with tennisball feet.


The 4th and 5th graders in the multipurpose space teamed up to build this village, complete with a pool, a dog house, roof garden, a computer station and upstairs residential spaces with handmade furniture. It takes a village to build a village.

And the people’s choice:


When asked which project everyone liked most, a clear majority of fingers were directed at this park: an impressive execution by a 1st (or 2nd) grader – including a swing set, varietal shrubberies, well-colored play structure, and hand-made giant sushis. It wasn’t stated why everyone preferred this project, but the sushis look delicious.


We were thrilled by the imagination and diversity of projects that the student designers came up with – this really became a complete village before our eyes. Common themes include heavy use of color (and several comments that the real Kitakami was a little too drab), more recreation and pedestrian-oriented spaces – and generally ways to make their environment more exciting and engaging. Several ideas engaged the water next to the town. (Aki notes that some students from the fishing villages would not have been able to attend the charrette as it was kelp harvesting season, and there may have been even more water oriented projects.)

Nobu, the Japan team intern, noted how interesting it was the older students worked together, and it reflected the way Japanese students develop, and start working cooperatively perhaps a bit sooner than those in North America. Their result was a village in itself, and we can imagine it playing very well with the other work created.

We took careful notes of the work and consider these recommendations for future child- and student-oriented built projects. High fives all around! (But not too high.)

3. Cribs! feat. Sato-san


Naomi Sato introduces the We Are One market and youth center, and the impact it has already created in the community of Kitakami, two years after a devastating tsunami changed the course of many of the town’s residents.

The center is pioneering a lot of local services in fact. On top of acting as a study and relaxation space for kids with little other privacy in their lives, and hosting other community meetings and events, the market provides Kitakami with the only bread, eggs and vegetables currently available in town – before it was a much longer commute for household staples. Additionally the center employs several women – women didn’t tend to hold jobs in Kitakami before the tsunami. But let’s let Sato-san tell the story of perhaps the future hub of Kitakami.


We also got word from Aki that the article on the youth charrette was printed in the local paper! The Fursato project blogged and posted the clipping earlier today.

The article of course is in Japanese, but it followed the event, discussed a few of the built works and interviewed Yoshihama Elementary School 6th grader, Yuki Chiba.

“I created a house that I’d like to live in. I also thought about how we should rebuild the town of Kitakami. I saw many projects by other students that could be fun to have, too.”

Rumor has it the kids are asking Sato-san when the next charrette is going to be, and Ishinomaki Kahoku covered the charrette in its March 8, 2013, issue.





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