Profile: reconstructing post-disaster Japan 06.03.13

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Nearly two years have passed since "3.11", Japan's worst disaster since the Pacific War. When I wrote about the disaster a month after it happened (Icon 096), the country was still in a state of shock, grieving for the dead, awed by the scale of the destruction, and appalled by the spectacle of an ongoing nuclear calamity. "It is clear," I wrote then, "that the future will not be the same as the past. Whether it is a brighter future is not yet clear." Now, twenty months later, we can start to see the kind of future that Japan has entered, and the values and visions that are animating its architects, designers, and artists in this period of reconstruction and renewal.

The clearest sign that indeed something fundamental had changed in Japan came on a swelteringly hot day last July, when tens of thousands of people from across the country marched in the streets of downtown Tokyo, protesting the restarting of nuclear reactors shut down in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Such an upwelling of anti-government protest has not been seen since the violent turbulence of the 1960s. In stoic, conflict-averse Japan, street protests of any size are noteworthy, but what was particularly striking here was who was protesting: in addition to the usual colourful bands of youthful activists were legions of elderly farmers, young mothers, besuited office workers – a deep core sample of Japan's well-dressed, sweet-smelling, unfailingly civil middle class. The dominant sentiment of polite but firm resolve was best captured by one of the most popular images carried by the protesters – a painting by Yoshitomo Nara of a dog-faced girl carrying a "No Nukes" sign.

The sustained demonstration of anti-nuclear sentiment propelled major changes in Japanese energy policy, with a government pledge – later watered down, perhaps now defunct – to phase-out nuclear power over the next thirty years, and the implementation of a generous feed-in tariff system for renewable energy, kick-starting a boom in solar and wind energy projects across the country. Suddenly, towns, villages, farmers, and families have started to realise that they can produce their own energy and sell the excess to the grid. The major energy utilities such as TEPCO, the operator of the doomed Fukushima reactors, no longer have a monopoly on energy supply.

This newfound emphasis on local autonomy and mutual support is characteristic of the contemporary atmosphere in Japan. In the December elections, national politicians sloganeered rightward with calls to "revive", "restore", and "strengthen" Japan, but the conversations among architects, designers, and urbanists are filled with stories of "community building", "facilitation", and "local identity". Students are judiciously avoiding displays of excessive personal expression in their projects, preferring to visualise intricate infrastructure plans and draw up organograms and consultation process diagrams. Nearly everyone in Tokyo's architectural scene seems to be involved in some way or other with a local community in the disaster-affected areas in the North. "Reconstruction" may be the national epic of the day, but it is being written in hundreds of small projects in local communities.

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Across a diverse landscape of initiatives, one of the most celebrated community building projects led by architects has been the "Home-for-All" project. Initiated by Toyo Ito and advanced by a close-knit group of well-known architects called the KISYN group after the names of the members (Kuma, Ito, Sejima, Yamamoto, Naito), the project involves the creation of small collective spaces for conversation and meals in temporary housing sites that are home to tens of thousands of displaced residents, a dispiriting situation that is expected to continue for up to five years.

The project has captured the imagination of architects not only because of its tangible contribution to the welfare of those suffering the greatest loss, but because it combines in a single structure two archetypes of the contemporary architectural imagination – the primitive hut, and the public space. By infusing the emblem of the domestic ("Home") to the sense of the collective ("All"), the Home-for-All seems to respond to a widespread anxiety about the fragmentation of community and the atomisation of social life.

The initiative was launched with a worldwide call for ideas in summer 2011, followed by the individual KISYN members developing their own concrete proposals with particular communities. Five Homes-for-All have recently been completed. The most recent one, completed in November in the city of Rikuzen-takata, was the result of a collaboration between Toyo Ito and three younger architects: Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata, and Kumiko Inui. It was this project that won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation at the Venice Biennale last year.

I visited the Rikuzen-takata project with the photographer Iwan Baan on a cold blustery day in November – my first visit to the disaster areas in over six months. On previous visits to the area, the twisted wreckage and destruction wrought by the tsunami was still a powerful, odiferous presence, picked over by dozens of diggers and a continuous stream of lorries carrying debris. But now, looking out from the building across towards the sea, where once a town of 25,000 stood now there was little more than autumn grasses punctuated by the vacant presence of wrecked concrete structures.

Over this landscape of absence and loss, the jaunty shapes of the Home-for-All entwined about its cluster of stripped tree-trunks, stood like a beacon of warmth and life. We spent an afternoon listening to the incredible stories of tragedy and survival in the tsunami from the building's caretaker, Sunawara-san, who lost half her family and all her possessions, yet expressed her joy at how the shared experience of disaster gave her a new appreciation of life and people. As we spoke in front of the wood-stove, a steady stream of people came by – visitors, locals, children, workers – climbing up the external stairs and platforms, or joining in the main room for a tea and chat. The building worked splendidly as both domestic living room and public drop-in space – a home for all in both name and deed.

At a completely different scale from these small projects are the large-scale reconstruction plans for sea walls, roads, and other major infrastructure being implemented by national ministries and local government. While the tasks of rehousing the displaced residents and clearing the debris have been completed, progress on implementing new plans has been slow. Architects have largely been sidelined from these processes, with the key actors being bureaucrats and engineers, and the bulk of government contracts going to the large construction companies and house builders.

ArchiAid is an organisation that champions the engagement of independent architects in the reconstruction process. Headquartered at Tohoku University in Sendai, it was established in the weeks after the disaster to co-ordinate efforts by individual architects and small firms to help local disaster-affected communities. Their purpose is essentially facilitative – "to engage in close discussion with residents, draft planning with them, and help them realise their ideas with a view to the future".

The effort, comprising hundreds of small architecture firms and individuals, is eminently worthy; however there have been problems. This often comes down to a question of speed. There is an inherent tension between the need for a timely reconstruction and the aim of building a more resilient, more sustainable community. Shoko Fukuya, a founding member of ArchiAid, describes the complexity and frustration of the process: "All of us who are commuting to the stricken areas to lend support have wondered whether we are truly contributing to the progress of reconstruction and felt a sense of frustration. For architects, towns have come to appear like masses of projects with dividing lines."

One success story has been the ArchiAid Oshika project. This gathered twelve university research teams led by individual architects, including well-known names such as Kazuhiro Kojima, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, and Momoyo Kaijima, which surveyed 28 coastal communities over an 18 month period, forming the basis for developing reconstruction and relocation plans that clarified the latent needs and hopes of the towns' residents. Architects here are operating not as planners or visionaries, but as weavers and tailors of the fabric of communities, spinning the threads of conversations into well-fitted garments for their bodies politic.

At the heart of the reconstruction challenge that Japan faces is the question of the relation between the centre and the periphery, or to put it in starker terms, between the strong and the weak. This relation is expressed in many ways – between global forces or state authority and local people; between the metropolis and the countryside; between the victims and the spared. The earnestness with which metropolitan architects have engaged local communities only underscores this asymmetry. Beyond the immediate response to disaster, what many in Japan are seeking is the rebalancing of a long legacy of uneven development.

A number of initiatives have pioneered the use of contemporary culture to help effect this rebalancing. The Echigo-Tsumari Art Field is probably the most ambitious and influential of these efforts. Under the direction of gallerist and art entrepreneur Fram Kitagawa, this extraordinary project aims to bring contemporary art and architecture to a picturesque but declining corner of rural Japan centred on Tokamachi city in Niigata Prefecture, about 250 kilometres north-east of Tokyo. The Art Field has been staging an international art triennial since 2000, with hundreds of artworks and a number of significant architectural interventions scattered across a 7860 sq km swathe of rural territory. The region's bucolic landscape – a paradigmatic case of Japanese "satoyama" (villages and mountains) in Japanese – has become an outdoor museum, full of diverse artistic responses to local sites, memories and patterns of life. Terraced paddies sprout land art alongside rice plants, abandoned schools take on new life as homes for installations and art events, and thatched-roof Edo-period farmhouses become atmospheric frames for meticulously curated experiences.

During the most recent festival staged last summer, in the aftermath of the region's own damaging earthquake, international artists such as Christian Boltanski and Ann Hamilton installed works ruminating on memories of disaster and absence, while Tokyo-based architects Mikan Gumi and Atelier Bow-Wow constructed modest but fetching architectural additions to village railway stations. More visitors than ever before, many urbanites from Japan's big cities, flocked to the region in the tens of thousands. Mikan's contribution, the Gejo Thatch Tower, is exemplary of the values underlying this festival – its creation the result of a close collaboration with the community; its construction helping to revitalise local crafts (in this case thatching), and its use creating new places of attachment for locals and attraction for visitors. The production of resonant local places has become a favoured method recipe for success, both among municipalities rooted in their regions, and among their perpetually peripatetic architects.

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The emphasis on the local extends to initiatives in the field of design. There is a proliferation of projects aiming to connect local craftspeople to metropolitan consumers, seeking to build awareness of the diversity of Japan's regional cultures and the excellence of its local products. This goal animates the "d47" project, which identifies well-designed high-quality products from all 47 of Japan's prefectures and mounts themed retail "exhibitions" in the capital,in which consumers can not only learn about the items on display but buy them too. This might not seem too different from the strategies of a typical department store, were it not for a careful curatorial eye for staging and mise-en-scène. The brainchild of design entrepreneur Kenmei Nagaoka, d47 is run from his platform D&DEPARTMENT, located in a high-ceilinged loft-like floor of a new skyscraper towering above downtown Shibuya. The feel is something between a museum, a contemporary art space, and backstage in a theatre, a space in which shoppers start to feel less like consumers and more like co-producers. "I want to create a kind of 'salon' linking design, products, and regional tourism, which can trigger new projects and opportunities," Nagaoka says.

An alternative approach seeks to apply the design savvy of metropolitan creators to repackage traditional local products to appeal to discriminating urbanites. This is the approach of the "Roooots" project, part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, which has successfully bolstered the fortunes of a number of local sake and rice producers in the Tokamachi region by inviting metropolitan designers to rebrand their products with fresh new bottles and packages.

An integration of these approaches can be seen in Kengo Kuma's "East Japan Project" initiated in the wake of the disaster, both in support of the devastated communities and with a transforming mission for urbanites. Kuma – a former student of Kenneth Frampton, the high priest of "critical regionalism" – has long advocated place-specificity in his architecture, wherever possible preferring local materials and craft skills to generic industrialised building materials. The East Japan Project advocates what he calls "the new lifestyle", a way of life explicitly linked to location. In Kuma's words, "location is another name for the system in which everything about that place – climate, culture, industry and people – is integrated in a most natural way. This system, however, disappeared in the city-oriented society of the 20th century that solely pursued efficiency and convenience. People preferred purchasing mass-produced items, and locally created products gradually lost their power under the naming of 'traditional handicrafts'. 3.11 put this fact under our nose." The East Japan Project aims to develop products for this "new lifestyle" in conjunction with craftspeople from the regions most affected by the disaster.

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Lofty aims, yes, but the results so far are modest: a modular system of timber members named "Chidori" clips together to build interior timber space frames for shelving, storage, and tables; a bottle closure made using materials and techniques found on the traditional kokeshi doll; the "Kirihako", a finely crafted wooden chest. These may not be achieve much by way of "new lifestyles" in themselves, but projects such as those of Kitagawa, Kuma and Nagaoka can be seen as emblems of a broader orientation, in which the relation between tradition and the contemporary, and the rural and the urban, are being rethought.

I write as the results of Japan's first election after the disaster are coming in. The results are unequivocal – a landslide for the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, whose half-century of nearly unbroken rule was ended in 2009 by an electorate eager for a new approach to the country's chronic problems. The stunning turnabout now, only three years later, highlights a pervasive frustration: that, for many, going forwards today seems to require proceeding in reverse – from the present moment of drift and insecurity to a past era of certainties and national confidence.

Yet to be young and creative in Japan today is to experience a heady mixture of maximum precarity with maximum confidence; a situation in which a post-growth economy combines with the urgent need for reconstruction to produce a sense of freedom in which old ideas, expectations, rules can be questioned and cast aside. This can be seen in the work of artist group ChimPom, which employs with ecstatic enthusiasm spatial tactics borrowed from the Situationists of 1960s Paris to reveal new forms of occupation in the city's spaces. It can also be felt in the unfolding experiment in communal living and shared creativity of the 20-strong collective known as Shibuhouse. But perhaps it can be best illustrated through the vivid critical imagination of a young creator named Kyohei Sakaguchi, a self-described "non-building architect". Sakaguchi has spent the better part of the last decade exploring the world of Japan's urban homeless, seeing in their resilience, resourcefulness, and mutual support the outlines of an alternative model of life, in which human ties and individual creativity outweigh relations and productions built around the money economy. After the Fukushima accident, Sakaguchi moved from Tokyo with his family to the southern island of Kyushu and "established an independent state", with himself as "prime minister". He has recently published Practice for a Revolution, a book detailing his views on property, freedom, and the society of the future; his words, drawings, and the constructions Zero-Yen House and Mobile House are on exhibition in the Tokyo gallery Watari-um. Sakaguchi has established himself as an avatar of "confident precarity". It is perhaps this spirit that best captures the positive dimensions feeling of post-disaster Japan, and through which its future can be built anew.



Mikan and Sogabe Lab, Kanagawa University (photo Osamu Nakamura)



Julian Worrall

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Nearly everyone in Tokyo's architectural scene is involved in the disaster-affected areas

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