Recently a well-known disaster response organizer let me know that right now no one outside of Japan is interested in the earthquake, the tsunami, nor the nuclear disaster that hit the country last March. No matter that those items literally filled the news cycle of the whole planet for a week or two not so long ago. On reflection, it isn’t all that surprising. Such is the nature of the human attention span in the age of CNN, FOX and Al Jazeera. And hey, we all understand that the willy of Wiener is pretty compelling stuff .
But for us, even here in Tokyo, which is on the edge of most of those events, the disasters are still pretty fresh. Sure the TV is back to its famous inanity. We can watch shows where venturous souls are asked to lie down in some variation of a tank full of lobsters again, which is surely a sign of something (don’t ask me what). And the news is definitely less scary, apart from the revelations about nuclear shenanigans and misinformation. But the disaster is still amongst us, and the recovery is part of our daily lives. We can’t help but be aware that the story is not going to be over for some time.
Actually, the time between now and March 11 has been nothing short of surreal. Things are definitely better for a lot of people, but the weirdness lingers and it is impossible to avoid wondering if normal is ever coming back. I mean, when we are still worried that the drinking water is radioactive and friends are updating their facebook status with comments about how much radiation they measured on their clothes, normalcy feels just a bit distant.
There is also the underlying fear that there will not be enough electricity to run the city once summer hits and all us sweaty urbanites hit the switch on the air conditioners. In preparation for the possibility of rolling blackouts the lights are already dimmed or shut off in most businesses and offices; the escalators that take us down and up from the subway tunnels are running only at peak times; and we are reminded to shut off our TVs at night and otherwise be careful with how we use the electricity.
To be honest, that is pretty easy stuff to do. We were lucky to be on the edge of a massive disaster and not in the center. For the people who lived through the tsunami close up the story is much more painful. Nearly half a million people lost their homes, and at least 15000 lost their lives. And it is becoming more clear by the day that Fukushima is not getting better. The people who were lucky enough to avoid damage from the earthquake and the tsunami are looking at their homes and know they can’t stay their anymore because of the radiation. How many will be forced to move is not yet clear but it seems like entire towns and villages will need to move at some point if they haven’t already.
The school year began about a month late this year. Rolling black outs meant there was no power for at least a few hours every day, and the buses were not running either (no gasoline) so the school was kind of stranded. The distance between being a first world advanced civilisation and a bunch of people sitting in the dark turns out to be pretty short. So we started the school year a bit late, and the power is back and so are the cars and buses, and it all feels more or less normal again. But some things can’t help but linger.
This year the graduate studio is taught by myself, Yasushi Ikeda, and Fumiko Maki. We have 15 students, which is a perfect size in my opinion, a great place to work in (I’ll introduce the school in another post), and a campus structure that supports action not just academics (more on this in a later post too). Which is all pretty cool. Originally we were going to devote studio time to examine housing typologies, but that didn’t seem quite right after... well, all of the stuff I described above. Instead we are looking at how architecture might be used to answer some of the problems that inevitably come up after a disaster. Some of them are predictable and some, at least for me, are not.
After we decided on the topic for the term it was pretty clear that we could not just give the students a design project to carry out. That would miss the point entirely. So instead of a program and a site we asked them to look to the news, to visit the disaster areas, or just to think about the effect of the disaster on the country as a whole and to find their own program and their own projects that they would spend the term on. The first month has already gone by. Students have done a really amazing job and are pursuing a wide range of issues. Some are involved with disaster relief in other ways at the school as well. Shigeru Ban was teaching here until recently so a few are working with him on his efforts, while others are involved with a larger project called SFC 3.11 that involves a dozen or more professors and their students. So there is a much larger framework that forms a hidden backdrop to their studio project that is really amazing to see. Usually studio courses are pretty self-contained. In this case the edges are frayed in interesting ways.
So, students are looking at emergency housing, post-traumatic stress disorder, accommodating the dead (mass burials in a country that does not believe in burial at all), preparing Tokyo for the next power outage (metro tokyo has a population of 30 million people - on the night of march 11 a lot of them were not able to go home because the trains were stopped and there was nowhere to go) and for the next earthquake (again with 30 million people, where do the emergency shelters go?) , dealing with the massive amounts of wreckage, relocating the displaced, rebuilding economies. Some of the projects are architecture, some are planning, some are product design, and some are landscape architecture. Which makes things very interesting and I hope will be a good experience not only for the students but for all of us. Since we are also involved with tackling the problems on the ground, particularly in Kessenuma hopefully some of what we learn from the studio can be applied in the real world and make a real difference.
We are coming up to the end of the first phase of the studio and next week students will present their work in some kind of polished form. Mr. Maki will be joining us for that and so I will introduce the student work more properly after that. In the meantime, if I can find the time I will try to introduce the school a bit and give some idea about what we are up to at Keio University. Do check in from time to time and leave comments if this system allows them. You are of course also free to drop me a line by e-mail.
I'll leave you with a few images taken by Erez Golani Solomon on a trip he took a few weeks ago to help clean up after the disaster.
Originally published in Archinect March 2011.
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