Rebuilding communities

While the reconstruction in Japan proceeds at a slow pace, a group of architects has created a series of public buildings working directly with local communities, erecting kindergardens, community spaces and play centres near temporary housing zones.

This article was originally published in Domus 969 / May 2013


Disasters fade from memory. This fact is at once their tragedy and their blessing. It is an inevitable truth that the living must bury the dead, and occupy the places where the dead once lived. The survivors cannot but remember their dead and fear the power that took them away. But in order to go on living, they must in some important sense forget these things too. In this way, disasters starkly reveal a fundamental truth of life itself, compressing and amplifying the gentle rustle of generational renewal into a terrible roar of destruction.


These meditations are prompted by my encounter with a survivor of the tsunami, an irrepressible middle-aged Japanese woman named Mikiko Sugawara. We meet in front of a wood stove, in a quirky building overlooking a desolate plain of concrete foundations, roads leading nowhere and weeds. This is all that is left of Sugawara’s hometown, Rikuzentakata, once home to over 23,000 people. The building is the built realisation of one of the “Home-for-All” community centres in temporary housing zones that Toyo Ito has pioneered with a band of friends (the KISYN group, made up of Kengo Kuma, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo SejimaRiken Yamamoto and Hiroshi Naito) and protégés since the disaster.

Top and above: the Asahi Kindergarten, designed by Takaharu and Yui Tezuka of Tezuka Architects, was built to replace the nursery school that was completely destroyed by the tsunami at Minamisanriku, in Miyagi Prefecture. The project, which was funded by UNICEF’s Japan Committee, was constructed with Japanese red cedar trees that were killed by the sea water. The trees have sacred importance, having been planted in 1611 following the tsunami of that same year, exactly four centuries before that of 2011

The Rikuzentakata Home-for-All was the outcome of a collaboration between Ito and the younger architects Kumiko InuiSou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirat. Models documenting the project’s design process were exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012, along with photographs showing the scale of the devastation by Rikuzentakata native Naoya Hatakeyama.


The project was widely applauded and picked up a Golden Lion for Best National Participation, a verdict that has since been reinforced by the recent award of the Pritzker Prize to Ito. But here, looking over Rikuzentakata’s landscape of loss, reflecting on the enormity of what happened and the enormousness of the reconstruction task ahead, the glamour of Venice seems a long way away.

Every component of the building has been constructed in wood, without the use of metal joints. The load-bearing elements therefore have a massive appearance. The architects used traditional woodworking techniques, “because these ancient crafts have allowed Japanese architecture to survive for more than 1,300 years”
It has been over two years since the great tsunami of 3/11 savaged Japan’s northern Pacific coastline. For those not directly affected, the event has faded from view, even as it continues to cast long shadows over the national psyche. Fears of a belligerent North Korea and an assertive China now outweigh anxieties of natural disaster and nuclear radiation. The challenge of reconstruction has become one among others. The country has tacked right, the markets have rallied, and the fragrance of sakura blossoms fill the spring air. Life, irrepressibly, goes on.
The Asahi Kindergarten, designed by Takaharu and Yui Tezuka of Tezuka Architects, was built to replace the nursery school that was completely destroyed by the tsunami at Minamisanriku, in Miyagi Prefecture
Yet what is striking when touring the devastated areas is just how slowly the reconstruction appears to be proceeding. The force of the tsunami literally wiped off the map many of the fishing and port towns that once nestled in the inlets of Tohoku’s convoluted ria coastline — places like Onagawa, Otsuchi, Minamisanriku, and Sugawara’s own Rikuzentakata. Today, over two years later, these towns are still silent wastelands pockmarked with stagnant pools, grimly presided over by a few hulking shells of shattered buildings. Beyond the tidy mountains of cleared rubble, restored trunk roads and the serried ranks of temporary housing ranged on higher ground, there is little sign of the 19 trillion yen (approximately 150 billion euros) earmarked by the national government for reconstruction up to 2015.
The Home-for-All, which Toyo Ito, Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirata recently completed at Rikuzentakata, a town in Iwate Prefecture. The vertical structure was built with cedar trunks stripped of their bark. They were selected from trees uprooted by the tsunami in a nearby nature reserve, the Takata- Matsubara forest
The apparent stasis belies the intense process of jockeying and negotiation proceeding behind the scenes. The business of reconstruction planning is a highly political game involving local communities and landowners, all levels of government, engineers and planning experts, and private companies large and small jostling for a slice of the reconstruction pie. Even after a plan has been settled upon, numerous obstacles — logistical, administrative, economic and political — must be cleared before a community can proceed with confidence down its own path to recovery. Formerly productive lands may be rendered unusable by subsidence or seawater, as in the case of Kesennuma.
The town of Rikuzentakata, which in 2010 had a population of about 23,000, was literally wiped off the map by the tsunami of 11 March 2011, as can be seen from one of the terraces of the Home-for-All, a building that has assumed the difficult role of a social centre for a community that lost around 80% of its homes
A plan to relocate a town to higher ground out of future harm’s way may be stymied by the lack of available land or the resistance of key private landowners, as in the case of Babanakayama. The plan itself may require massively time-consuming preparatory work, such as at Onagawa, which aims to raise its ground level by 17 metres using transported earth, an enormous undertaking requiring at least 5 years. In Japan, a country where land ownership is widespread and fragmented, private land rights are protected and consensus is highly valued, reconstruction is slow work. It’s just as well, as Shigeru Ban told me with a wry smile, that “Japanese people are the most patient people in the world”.
The Home-for-All built by Riken Yamamoto for the town of Kamaishi, in Iwate Prefecture
In this contested arena, independent design architects are very much the little fish, largely overlooked and even actively discouraged by the bureaucratic mechanisms of reconstruction planning. Their contributions are volunteer efforts in most cases, bypassing the official processes to work directly with local communities, aiming to bring shelter, solace and a modicum of comfort to those suffering the greatest need. A non-profit organisation called Archi+Aid has taken on a key role in assisting this process.
The Home-for-All built by Riken Yamamoto is situated next to a temporary residential complex also designed by Yamamoto, together with students from the Yokohama Graduate School of Architecture
Based at Tohoku University in Sendai, Archi+Aid aims to facilitate the interaction of independent architects with both the disaster-affected communities and the government apparatus, linking knowledge of local conditions, administrative procedures and a network of architectural expertise. One initiative that Archi+Aid is advancing is the “Core House” project designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, a cheap, single-room wooden house with plumbing that can be self-built from prefabricated components, and which is flexible enough to be combined and expanded as communities regain their economic footing. The Core House aims to provide a method for communities to rebuild housing in a bottom-up way, rather than relying on standardised offerings of public housing provided top-down by government.
At night, the structure lights up like a lantern, and functions as a meeting point for the inhabitants of the adjacent refugee camp
Going directly to local communities means that the architects enjoy more liberty, but it also means that they generally don’t get access to public reconstruction funds, and many such projects are precariously financed by private donations or charity organisations. Yet, despite being of modest scale and limited reach, these projects have frequently been more successful and appreciated by their users than official responses, challenging bureaucratic imperatives of impartiality and neutrality with the architect’s eye for individual distinctiveness and local community character.
Despite being of modest scale and limited reach, these projects have frequently been more successful and appreciated by their users than official responses
In the case of the Home-for-All project, six different schemes have been completed so far, each of distinctive design including ones by Riken Yamamoto and SANAA. Others are currently underway. Particularly charming is the Children’s Home-for-All, the product of a collaboration by Ito with another of his young protégés, Maki Onishi. With privately sponsored and funded projects such as the Home-for-All initiative gaining both local support and international acclaim, such efforts are changing the conception of the architect’s role and possibilities in conditions of post-disaster reconstruction.
A destroyed municipal building in the town of Minamisanriku, Myagi Prefecture, which has now become an impromptu memorial
On that day at the Home-for-All in Rikuzentakata, I asked Sugawara about her experience of the disaster and the period since. I saw her eyes flicker as she composed herself, as she must have done to countless others, before recounting her story. It was a tale of incomprehensible violence, terrible loss and arbitrary survival. Yet despite losing half her family and all her possessions, there was an improbable but unmistakable note of joyful defiance. She had been spared, and now she had to make her survival count. She threw herself into the recovery, becoming the local community leader. As her story turned to the creation of the Home-for-All, her eyes began to sparkle with enthusiasm. The ghosts of the dead seemed to melt away as she talked. The architecture of the project, in its jaunty optimism and unpretentious, open-hearted forms, seemed to be the perfect vehicle for her remarkable energy and personality.
Designed by Toyo Ito with Maki Onishi of the practice o+h (Maki Onishi and Yuki Hyakuda), the Children’s Home-for-All is a play centre built on a temporary housing estate in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture

Then it dawned on me that this was no accident. For Ito, the disaster posed fundamental questions regarding the purpose of architecture. With this small project he had deliberately engineered the process to transcend the individual egos of the architects, while bringing the local community in as equal partners in the design process. Sugawara was therefore as responsible as the architects were for its form and character.


As we talked, the space she presided over welcomed neighbours, workers, casual observers and curious outsiders, clambering up the external stairs to take in the view, or joining us in front of the stove for a chat. All were welcomed as I was — somehow real conversations between strangers were possible here. This, it seemed to me, was what a public space should be: both an intimate kernel for an emergent community as well as an open place for encounters with outsiders.

Inaugurated last January, the Children’s Home-for-All provides the refugee camp with a cheerful landmark. It is highly recognisable to children with its three roofs shaped as a cupola, a pyramid and a spire
In these small but significant projects, the reconstruction process is bringing architects and local communities together in ways that are transformative for both sides. Local communities experience the sense of possibility that an external creative perspective can offer. Meanwhile, architects are finding out how contested, messy and yet deeply rewarding reconstructing communities can be. Julian Worrall, (@julianworrall), Associate Professor at the Waseda University, Tokyo
The Children’s Home-for-All, Designed by Toyo Ito with Maki Onishi

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