After 3.11 Symposium tracks a paradigm shift in design ‘for society’

Three years after the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami struck Tohoku (Northeast), Japan, long-term reconstruction is still in its infancy. According to Hitoshi Abe, architecture professor at UCLA, only 14% of the devastated area’s displaced inhabitants have found permanent housing. The figure may be even lower, say at least one of his professional peers, who assembled by the dozen at 112 Wurster Hall to share their assessment of and ambitions for rebuilding a decimated Japanese coastline.

The stifled recovery comes as little surprise to those who work in disaster reconstruction; every recovery faces unique challenges, but it’s never a straightforward undertaking. It’s commonly acknowledged that full recovery will well outlast the international media’s attention span or international support (funding, or personnel dependent on funding). This said, to presume disaster recovery must have a decades-long metabolism is unacceptable – that’s a generation raised without basic rights to a home, a community, a focused education, a stable economy.

Coinciding with 3.11’s three year “anniversary,” in March 2014, UC Berkeley held a symposium of “New Architecture and Engineering” emerging from the Tohoku region. Given its scale and this unique point in history, this particular recovery effort is being interpreted as a turning point in how architects design, and how societies assign values to communities and the built environment.

Over seven hours, twelve experts discussed different facets of disaster recovery and design reform. Aside from Abe’s sobering status update, and despite the broad range of perspectives presented, no one denied that, following 3.11, a new paradigm in architecture and engineering is taking hold.

Below are a series of insights taken from the discussion:

  1. No two disasters are alike: demographic and political differences vary widely even among economically strong countries.
  2. Geographic/demographic difficulties, and their persistence, command Japan’s rate of recovery.
  3. The architectural profession has shifted significantly in just a few years, codifying grassroots design.
  4. “Value-added” structural design is worth it.
  5. The resiliency mandate: damage control and damage acceptance.


1. No two disasters are alike: demographic and political differences vary widely even among economically strong countries.

Establishing context for the symposium, Mary Comerio, professor at UC Berkeley and seasoned disaster recovery tracker, led the assembly through recent recoveries and the circumstances shaping them, stressing how much efforts are influenced by national politics and policies.

For instance, Chile, following a 6.0 earthquake and tsunami in February 2010, was able to recover in an astonishing four years. Fortunate circumstances propelled the effort: a strong economy, a newly-elected (read: motivated) political party in leadership, and a large affected population – 75% of the country. Chile saw the opportunity to build high density housing where once were single family units, and introduced New Urbanist principles of density and mixed use.

Compare that to Christchurch, New Zealand, a “more developed” nation yet the city stricken in April, 2011, still faces at least a decade to rebuild 1.5 square miles of its central business district. The CBD has been cordoned off and condemned wholesale; the fact that 90% of damages were insured presents an odd conflict of interests. The insurance safety net does not guarantee reconstruction, and in fact provides very little incentive for it. As of the symposium, 1800 damaged buildings were still standing in downtown Christchurch, awaiting an insurance assessment. Plans to restructure the city using New Urbanist principles could result in a much smaller, denser city – given an estimated 20 years of development.

The earthquake that struck Wenchuan, China, was very powerful, however the national authorities instituted a 1% GDP tax on all Chinese provinces to assemble reconstruction funds. Comerio notes in her research that the turnaround for disaster relief was fast, but that the poor quality of permanent reconstruction would not improve the enforcement of building codes or improve the region’s ‘resilience.’

(Twitpic: Comerio’s Seven Lessons for a Successful Recovery)

Tohoku, Japan, is remote, mountainous, with little flat land. Small villages are couched in coastal inlets. The impacted coastline matches, in length, the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Damage to Ishinomaki (pop. 160,000) alone matched what Kobe (pop. 1.5M) suffered in 1995. And only 4% of Japan calls the region home – not exactly the critical mass for national urgency that propelled Chile. Japan’s governmental structure has a role to play in the stagnant recovery, but only a supporting one.

2. Geographic/demographic difficulties, and their persistence, command Japan’s rate of recovery

With few exceptions, fishing villages along the Tohoku coast were obliterated by the 3.11 tsunami, which rose as high as 37 meters above sea level. Many lives were lost; an ocean-based economy forever altered. But this is not to say the event struck without warning – stone markers throughout the region mark the reach of past tsunami waters and warn that no villages be built below that line. Over the succeeding decades and centuries, the historic tsunami markers have been grossly ignored.

Professor Chiho Ochiai of Kyoto University examined alternatives to the enormous governmental infrastructure projects now underway, finding precedents countering the coast-hugging tendencies of Tohoku’s fishing villages. Tsurugaura, near Kesennuma, weathered the disaster better than neighboring villages because some of its houses were built on terraces. These houses and their residents were surveyed following the disaster, but the conclusions drawn from these terrace studies were neither simple nor intuitive changes to the fishing lifestyle. Living on terraces adds complications for the fishermen, with a consolatory advantage that one is able to survey the sea, the weather and one’s farms from the front porch.

(Twitpic: Diagram of Masako-san’s terrace)

Tohoku’s reconstruction also faces exacerbated costs. As we’ve discussed, the region post-tsunami is a rare confluence of construction difficulties: village isolation impacts shipping while local builders have their hands absolutely full. (Some of the Architecture for Humanity projects I’m familiar had circumvented some of these issues, whether through sensible prefabricated carpentry systems, or CNC-routed some-fisherman-assembly-required flatpack kits.)

An example highlighted at the conference comes through a sympathetic Japan-based design recovery nonprofit, Archi+Aid, and their 200-unit Public Housing for All Shores effort in the Kamaishi City region. To date, three units have been completed for the Oishi village, after 15 months of effort and at higher-than-anticipated cost. Presenter and Archi+aid cofounder Makoto “Shin” Watanabe noted the typical difficulties working in coastal villages: the very little flat land available, especially away from the water; working with an ageing population (“the 75-year-old man was the community leader, because he was the youngest among them”), and also how the completed units were criticized by the government for being “too fancy.” In point of fact, only the most basic passive energy techniques were incorporated in these houses, along with Archi+Aid’s standard of community engagement (research, observation and conversation) conducted by its cadre of volunteer architects.

(Twitpic: Oishi topo map reflects typical constraints for Tohoku fishing villages)

(Twitpic: Archi-aid’s completed ‘fancy’ Oishi housing units)

Indeed, moving back to the shore is an impossibility for these villages, despite the difficulty finding new areas flat enough, and far enough from the coast, to accommodate new permanent housing. Efforts are well underway on building vast sea walls that, it is feared, will bury beaches and cut public access to the water. In the eyes of the Japanese government, there is no alternative to preventing future tsunami disasters.

(Twitpic: Seawall projection near Oya – this is where we observed shovels gathering mountains of earth in February 2013.)

Several presenters acknowledge the regional plans devised that would rebuild seaside towns in use strata, with the most disposable (industrial) town elements built towards the water, and residential farthest inland.

3. The architectural profession has shifted significantly in just a few years, codifying grassroots design

It may elude some readers how, as recently as 15 years ago, the pipeline for executing architectural design was extremely narrow: designs proceed after winning dogged competitions, or after the office gains notoriety from collecting awards for built work. In this accolade echo chamber ‘starchitects’ roamed the earth.

“I [was] very disappointed with my profession,” notes Pritker-prize laureate Shigeru Ban on his TEDx Tokyo talk, “because we are working for privileged people or government developers. They have money and power. Those are invisible, so they hire us to visualize their power and money by making monumental architecture…. We are not working for society.” Ban may have been uniquely positioned in the 1990’s to change the design paradigm. His low-cost explorations in paper tubes made it possible for him to propose, and construct, improved relief shelters around the world.

For this work Ban launched the Voluntary Architects’ Network, which Cal professor Dana Buntrock described as ‘controversial.’ In post-disaster Japan (Kobe and now Tohoku), VAN’s collective of small design offices siding with communities over the government and filling gaps in Japan’s official disaster response. Over the years, VAN’s intuition for community-based design grew into experience, and methodology.

Shigeru Ban 2013 TEDx  talk on his rise in post-disaster residential and civic architecture from
1994 employing paper tubes: Rwanda, Kobe, Turkey, China, Italy, Haiti, Tohoku, and Christchurch. Ban notes 
paper architecture can last as long as people love it. See also Arch Daily’s compressed VAN monograph.

Ban was only an early member of the selfish architect generation to defect to doing ‘work for society.’ Fifteen years ago, notes Buntrock, workshops with villagers would have been vilified. Yet to engage in projects after a disaster, according to architect Hiroshi Naito, building trust with affected communities is a critical, and largely an additional, first step of design.

The disaster had shaken the architecture profession in other ways. Immediately, architects felt the responsibility of their buildings withstanding the earthquake, and safeguarding lives. Witnessing entire villages displaced in tsunami-swept areas, and the needs of communities not only for shelter but for humanity, the comforts of interaction, the need for calm spaces, catalyzed a shift long in the making. Toyo Ito, known for ambitious masterpieces of contemporary architecture like the Sendai Mediatheque acknowledges to the Asahi Shimbun that the Mediatheque project crowned a transition from 20th Century trends of privacy and introversion to engaging and open public spaces. Working with post-disaster communities took this transition a step further – into natural materials, traditional vernaculars…spaces for healing. Ito began developing the Minna-no-ie concept, the “Home for All,” as a result.

Ito and Naito joined Kengo Kuma, Riken Yamamoto and Kazuyo Sejima to form the collaborative KYSIN-no-Kai, an acronym also meaning “returning to the heart.” Various members of the group have built Homes-for-All for several disaster stricken villages; each project embracing community-focused design, and each a dramatic departure from the starchitect’s pre-disaster oeuvre.

Interestingly, it was Toyo Ito’s contribution to the 2012 Venice Biennale depicting the design development of the Minna-no-ie that won a coveted Golden Lion awarded by the festival. In 2014 Ban won the Pritzker for his humanitarian work which, as described by the Society, “reflects this spirit of the prize to the fullest.” It appears as though the reigning structure of the design world has begun to acknowledge the significance of this new design approach.

“Sensitive design” is now seen in every aspect of reconstruction – even as entire towns are replanned, their designs so a marked consideration for their footprint in the landscape, and a localized proposals resulting from grassroots design development, notes Hitoshi Abe.

Today, community workshops and charrettes continue to innovate to address both physical and psychological reconstruction, from Ito’s extensive workshops in Kamaishi to the Lost Homes Project, seeking closure in mapping pre-disaster communities from memory.

As an addendum to this discussion, Masayuki Mae, Associate Professor, University of Tokyo, in a very entertaining presentation, argued that technological improvements in the study of building performance also had a hand in toppling hubris in design.

4. “Value-added” structural design is worth it

Meanwhile, the stage is set to usher in a new set of resilient engineering practices. The conflict lies in justifying investment.

Cal professor Stephen Mahin expresses what the structural engineering profession commonly holds to be true: a building that can be reused after a disaster is preferable to those that preserve lives but become structurally deficient. Resiliency of a post-disaster building, or lack thereof, can be measured in “business downtime,” essentially the costs of lost business/revenue/rent while building tenants wait on reconstruction. This is a language insurance companies understand – they like seeing analyzed losses for various structure types, and factor in both building losses and rental losses.

At issue then, according to Mahin, are building code minimums. Code compliant systems are not resilient; a 10-12% increased investment above code minimums would greatly increase a building’s resilience, and would bring positive economic impacts in a moment of extreme economic vulnerability.

Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Kazuhiro Kasai introduces this concept as “Value-added buildings” (VB), and a slew of structural systems that absorb disaster forces and preserve structural integrity. The menu includes base isolation systems and dampers that come in a range of designs for various building types.

(Twitpic: a damping system)

David Mar of Tipping Mar cited strategies his office has utilized in some of San Francisco’s tallest buildings, including exotic-sounding green mass dampers that find stabilizing inertia in roof gardens, vertical post tensioning techniques, and mode-shaping spines. At the smaller scale of building, but perhaps bearing larger impact on San Franciscans, Mar dove into an in-house study on soft story buildings. Tipping Mar identified around 600 different scenarios of soft story structural deficiency in wood frame buildings, and modeled, developed and tested low-impact retrofits for each one.

5. The resiliency mandate : damage control and damage acceptance

According to the Symposium, architectural and engineering professions indicate design trending towards the occupants’ wellness and a building’s life cycle. In Japan these approaches are not without precedence. Given a long architectural history, natural building materials have long been associated with wellness, and are valued for those reasons. The longevity of businesses often lend a preference for equally long-term forward thinking.

Keynote speaker, architect and Managing Officer at the Takenaka Corporation, George Kurumado called attention to this fact by remarking how his company was founded in 1610. He adds, “at the time we designed mostly shrines.”

Where these emerging design values fall short, Kurumado indicates, is when they face human stubbornness. The stone markers indicating historic tsunami levels being a prime example. Kurumado compares general public disaster strength expectations to actual outcomes, and human predictors undershoot reality every time. (Twitpic.) Disaster resiliency is “a psychological issue as well as a political and economic issue.” Does this mean we’ll forever remain underprepared for the next disaster?

Maybe not. When you look at what Kurumado calls disaster countermeasures – damage control (codes, tsunami banks, hilltop refuges) and damage acceptance (shelters, community, business) – technology may well complement the self-inflicting tendencies of humanity. As environmental design models (discussed in the Building Energy Demand and Supply session not covered here) become ever-present, hubris increasingly takes a back seat to clarity and convenience. We can anticipate a similar evolution in the Resiliency conversation.

Kurumado shows a computer animation of a redesigned Tohoku downtown. The animation adapts a fire evacuation model for buildings to suit a larger scale, for tsunamis. Thus the new downtown can be laid out to deliver all inhabitants to safety.

But, Kurumado warns, technology could only assist some of the aforementioned disaster countermeasures.

“Like with a human body recovering from injury,” he acknowledges, “the healthy social body helps regions recover from disaster.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s