Riken Yamamoto and the vision for post-tsunami Japan, from the Domus archive

In the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the winner of the 2024 Pritzker Prize was teaming up with several major names in Japanese architecture for the Home-for-All project, seeking to foster a different future in devastated areas. 

The chain of seismic events, earthquakes and consequent tsunamis that hit the Tōhoku region since March 2011 represents for Japan – although accustomed to such phenomena – an unprecedented trauma, with disastrous consequences such as the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The immediate response to such scenario was an immediate mobilization for the reconstruction of homes and infrastructure, but many felt a lack of attention to a human need in it, that was stronger than ever after the cataclysm: the need to live with dignity while looking ahead, with the guarantee of one's own private dimension but also and above all of a collective and shared one. A group of friends – who also happen to be some of the most relevant names in contemporary Japanese architecture – would then team up under the acronym KISYN, to make a different vision for the future of post-tsunami Japan real and feasible. Kengo Kuma, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Hiroshi Naito are part of the team. And also Riken Yamamoto, the designer and theorist who has won the 2024 Pritzker Architecture prize exactly “for creating in the community an awareness of what the responsibility of social demand is” and being able to create spaces that relate to people and bring people to relate to each other. In April 2012, Domus began to follow the Home-for-All project with issue 867 – a feature from the issue can be read here – and returned to chronicle its development in May the following year, on issue 969.

Domus 957, April 2012

Shelters for all

The acronym KISYN unites five renowned Japanese architects – Kengo Kuma, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Riken Yamamoto and Hiroshi Naito – who have placed their bond of friendship at the service of post-tsunami reconstruction. Their Home-for-All project proposes a vision of respect for people and nature, as an alternative to postwar models and to the heroic outlook represented by Metabolism.

A year has passed since the earthquake and tsunami cut its black swathe of devastation across Japan’s northern coastline. Along a stretch of 500 kilometres, from Miyako to Minami-soma, the intimate jostle of hundreds of Japanese towns – with their small wooden houses and shops, concrete apartment buildings, factory sheds and temples all sewn together with electricity poles – has been replaced by a desolate landscape of concrete footings and debris mountains, picked over by excavators. “Reconstruction” – fukko – a word bearing uplift and hope, is seen and heard everywhere in newspapers, advertising and conversations, but as yet few of the devastated areas bear any tangible signs of this. The dead have been buried; the homeless have been rehoused in temporary housing; the debris has been cleared and piled. 

However, the real task of reimagining, rebuilding and revitalising communities has barely begun. Architects have been vigorously positioning themselves to take on this task. In handing out contracts for post-disaster construction services and consultancy, the government has largely bypassed architects, with construction companies, housing manufacturers and civil engineers taking the lion’s share of work. Pragmatics and production efficiency dominate in this domain. Yet the challenge of not just rebuilding what was lost, but also of imagining a different, better future is one that architects are arguing they are best positioned to undertake. A great variety of initiatives have been launched and developed by architects all across the affected areas, working from the ground up. The seeds of these projects are often little more than individuals motivated by a desire to help but frustrated by a sense of impotence, and where these seeds have taken root in the soil of the devastated communities, they are now beginning to bear fruit.

Domus 957, April 2012

The Home-for-All project (Minna-no-Ié in Japanese) is one such seed. Initially conceived by Toyo Ito, the concept of the Home-for-All is simple: provide a common space where victims of the disaster can share time, meals and conversations, thereby reinforcing and nurturing the social bonds that form the glue through which to rebuild their shattered communities. This simple idea aims to address the absence of suitable collective spaces among the official provisions of temporary housing facilities for those rendered homeless by the disaster. The reductive, mechanically replicated dwellings of the temporary housing facilities – Toyo Ito likens them to “empty shells” – embody an egalitarian calculus of suffering in which the household is the only relevant unit of account, and measures out its response accordingly.

 Small in size and modest in scope, offering only about 30 square metres of interior area, the Home-for-All nonetheless aims to provide the surplus modicum of generosity that is the precondition for the formation of any collective entity, and though investing this in a tangible and physical place, form the heart of a revitalised community and its receptacle of aspirations for the future.

The project is a signature initiative to emerge from the KISYN-no-kai, a grouping of some of the most celebrated and prominent architects of their generation (and, more importantly, a gathering of friends) that was established a few weeks after the disaster. The name KISYN is made up of the initials of the member’s surnames, comprising Kengo Kuma, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Riken Yamamoto and Hiroshi Naito, and has a resonance with the Japanese word kishin, which roughly means “return to essentials”. The informality and conviviality of the group is its strength according to Kuma, who as a professor at the University of Tokyo was already included in an official team of experts to research the disaster and develop responses. “But this was not enough,” says Kuma, “as this was a very academic group, focussed on research, with not enough action. We wanted to do concrete projects, and do them quickly.” Despite uncertainty about how to begin and in what direction to proceed, KISYN disseminated their message through conferences, the Internet and personal networks, and were gradually able to gather attention and ideas, then sponsors and, most crucially, the community partners with whom to realise concrete interventions. In summer 2011, in addition to asking each of the KISYN members to propose a Home-for-All, Toyo Ito extended the call for ideas to other Japanese architects, architecture students, elementary school students and an extensive list of wellknown architects around the world, including such acclaimed figures as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. The result is a fascinating snapshot of the contemporary architectural imagination when confronted by the simplest, most primitive, and yet most profound of architectural problems: the creation of a dwelling that shelters a community.

Domus 957, April 2012

The diverse trajectories of this imagination range from the poetic to the pragmatic, and in the case of Gehry and Hadid, constitute little more than notations of their established formal reflexes. But many responses grasped the larger concern behind Ito’s prompt: its posing anew the questions of the “primitive hut” and “public space”, and yoking them together in a single project. The resulting proposals offered suggestions and strategies for platforms, roofs, embracing enclosures, hearths, shared tables and encounters with nature; the elementary vocabulary of spaces and settings for gathering and shelter.

Many of these elements can be seen in the five original proposals produced by the KISYN members, and which are currently in varying degrees of progress or completion. Hiroshi Naito’s proposal as yet remains unbuilt; Toyo Ito’s is already complete and occupied; the projects of SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa) and Riken Yamamoto are underway on concrete sites; while that of Kengo Kuma is a developed system that remains in search of sponsors for financing and implementation. Kuma’s Home-for-All makes use of an idea that he previously developed for a demountable housing system for use in emergency housing situations, called the Water Branch House. This modular system of stackable plastic water tanks is formed so as to interlock and create stable walls and roofs. The tank units are made with PET, a cheap recycled plastic that is biodegradable. The water in the tanks provides structural ballast, thermal mass and an emergency source of drinking water. In common with Kuma’s work elsewhere, the project combines aspects of advanced technological civilisation, such as high-tech materials and mass-production techniques, with simple assembly methods and a sense of pattern and tectonics associated with traditional construction.

Riken Yamamoto’s project, located in Kamaishi city in Iwate Prefecture, emphasises the sheltering roof as a symbol of community and beacon for gathering, marrying the traditional devices of the umbrella and the lantern. The original sketch showed a luminous droplet-like volume akin to a Noguchi paper lantern; in its realised version the form has become geometrically and structurally regular, with a circular plan covered by a high roof of a translucent fabric, stretched over a steel subframe and suspended umbrella-like from a single central pillar. The steel superstructure frees the ground plane for lightweight partitions simply built from plywood for the kitchen and toilet elements, and transparent vinyl curtains for weather protection.

Domus 957, April 2012

Sejima’s proposal, realised as a SANAA project, located in a temporary housing facility overlooking the picturesque landscapes of Higashi-Matsushima near Sendai, also works with the motif of an overarching roof as the archetypal emblem of collective space. An inverted elliptical bowl in metal supported on thin poles 60 millimetres in diameter, the structure is similar in conception to a pavilion for relaxation and outlook on the island of Inujima in the Seto Inland Sea, where Sejima has been working on a long-term project to transform a declining village into an open-air artwork. A small rectangular enclosure under the roof accommodates a sink, a stove, a table and some chairs, the minimum equipment for gathering. The roof provides a hat for the collective body and a table forms its platform – enough, Sejima says, to “change the sense of values, to restore hope”. Toyo Ito’s Home-for-All, located in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, was the first to be completed but is the least prepossessing architecturally. Ito secured early sponsorship from various groups in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu, at the other end of the country, through his role as the commissioner of the Kumamoto Artpolis. A simple single-storey timber building with a standard gabled roof, constructed using traditional techniques by local carpenters, there is little here that aims at architectural drama or spatial refinement.

Yet the stories of and within this building are told with warm smiles and intense joy. Toyo Ito recounts his meetings and meals with the residents as some of the happiest of his career. Barely five months old, yet filled with pot plants and paintings, the building is clearly well-loved already. When I visited, one resident, Hirayama-san, told me about his own experiences, first of the pleasures of the building process, and later, as he relaxed, of the terror of the disaster, as the tsunami overtook his family’s fleeing vehicle and tossed it like flotsam hundreds of metres across rice fields only a short walk from where we sat. I could see that through this act – the retelling of his story to a foreign stranger, surrounded by the warmth of the stove and the fragrance of the timber – Hirayama was gradually healing himself of the trauma. 

As a receptacle for stories such as Hirayama’s, this modest building is fulfilling its role as the seed of a reconstructed sense of community, and for Toyo Ito, its role as a vehicle to return architecture to its original condition – as a vessel for the social. In these Home-for-All projects it is possible to find the perennial ideal of a prototypical public space, one not imposed from on high by authority, but one woven directly with the threads spun from the collective conversations of its users. In this process the architect is not the state master planner or all-knowing expert, the model that underpinned Japan’s postwar reconstruction; nor the romantic bearer of heroic visions, the image that fired the energies of the Metabolists during the high-growth years of the 1960s. Reconstruction at the present juncture demands, in Sejima’s words, “an attitude of respect, both for people and for nature”. The architect of reconstruction today becomes a spinner and weaver, drawing out the threads that bind people into groups, groups into communities, and communities into landscapes, painstakingly fashioning these into comfortable and comforting shelters for all.

Domus 969, May 2013

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