Tōhoku Japan 2011 | by Sören Grünert [part I]

Tōhoku Japan 2011 | by Sören Grünert
Tōhoku Japan 2011 | by Sören Grünert

In August 2011, architect Sören Grünert spend one month in Tōhoku, Japan, as part of the relief efforts in the aftermath of the devastating March 11 eartquake and tsunami. After getting in touch with Archi+Aid, he was involved with work, along with local architects and communities, on a masterplan for Shishiori. For MovingCities he filed a double report. Part one: arrival in Tōhoku and the confrontation with a collapsed city.
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You can bet that when Japan enters in any conversation, the topic nowadays quickly turns to Fukushima, nuclear power, meltdowns, radiation and the fear for a future unknown. Now half a year has passed since on March 11 2011 Tōhoku earthquake (or the Great East Japan Earthquake) hit Japan and its ripple-effect can still be felt. It is a part of our collective memory, despite being almost a singular moment in time. But few is known about the consequences of it for the field of architecture, urbanism and daily life in the affected areas.

The fact that one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world could be hit so hard has underscored a growing skepticism towards technology and conjured up apocalyptical nuclear scenarios. I can’t help but wonder if we have forgotten the staggering count of 20,000 dead and missing and 125,000 destroyed and damaged houses by the earthquake and tsunami. Japan faces tremendous challenges as it strives to recover from the disaster, and it continues to need all the help it can get.

Japan map | source: about.com
Japan map | source: about.com

August 2nd

On the ferry a large LCD screen flickers the usual tourist photos of Kobe – my city of destination and, strangely enough, also a city known for its earthquake, one of the most devastating ever to hit Japan. On January 17, 1995, an earthquake hit Kobe. More than 5,500 people were killed and over 26,000 injured. I have come here for a month to support the ongoing recovery effort, and as the ferry cuts across Osaka bay in the early morning sun, I still don‘t have a clear idea of what to expect. Back in Europe, I got in contact with Archi+Aid [pdf alert!], a platform coordinating the volunteer effort to rebuild the Tohoku region, located in the northeastern portion of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. With over two-hundred architects and urban planners, the list of Archi+Aid‘s supporting members reads like the who-is-who of Japanese architecture [Sejima, Ito, Abe, Kuma, Yamamoto].

Shishiori before Tohoku earthquake | source: 311 Marugoto Archives
Shishiori before Tohoku earthquake | source: 311 Marugoto Archives

Shishiori in August 2011 | by Sören Grünert [click to enlarge]
Shishiori in August 2011 | by Sören Grünert [click to enlarge]

Cameron Sinclair‘s Architecture for Humanity is also involved, fundraising for specific building projects in the Tohoku area. All Japanese universities are associated with the project and participate in workshops and summer camps. They are collaborating on a project that collects personal stories from people in the Tohoku region and translates these into a giant model. The area is subdivided into pixels, each measuring five-hundred by five-hundred meters, one by one meter on a scale of 1:500. The pixels are showing the pre-tsunami condition of the area, rendered in white foam. The former residents are invited to talk about their emotions and memories and project these onto the model by painting their houses and place that where precious to them. They also add notes describing their thoughts. With two thousand pixels, students and professors will build a model roughly the size of half a football field and show it in a traveling exhibition.

TSUKIHASHI Osamu from Kobe University, one of the associated professors, invited me to work with him on a masterplan for Shishiori, a part of Kesennuma city in the northern Miyagi prefecture. While working there with his students were approached by the locals, who, as a self-contained community within the city, didn‘t want to rely on planning authorities to come up with a scheme.

August 7nd

Five days after my arrival, I visited Kesennuma for the first time. In tourist folders and all types of websites, the landscape is oftentimes compared to the Norwegian fjords: mountain ridges interlock with the sea like the fingers of two clasping hands. Since 311, the scenery and the tourists are gone. A small hill by the harbor commands a great view over the city, or what used to be a city. It looks like a Dogville stage set combined with a Pollock painting out of rubble. The city is erased, gone, re-arranged, scattered, washed away. Of the few houses remaining, none are inhabitable. Tilted, shifted and collapsed walls are all that’s left of the wooden structures that survived the earthquake.

The city’s defense system, a 3.75m seawall, was no match for a wave three times as high: big ships are still stranded in the middle of the city. A cynic would be able to draw comparison with a view on the Baikal-lake, a realist only able to see the damage and destruction that has been done. Burnt-out shells of cars are tossed around, eaten up by a devastating fire that followed the flood. Big fuel tanks anchored outside the harbor have collapsed, oil floated into the city caught fire and burned for three days. Water didn‘t retreat for several hours, leaving the soil wet and unstable below ground water level, destroying the city‘s streets and sewage system. Half a year has passed since the disaster, but the great human and material loss is still visible in the remains of the devastated city.

Tohoku Japan2011 | by Sören Grünert [click to enlarge]
Tohoku Japan2011 | by Sören Grünert [click to enlarge]

Before the tsunami struck, one thousand families lived in Kesennuma. Today some of the streets have been temporarily fixed and police guards’ direct traffic away from the constant going of trucks loaded with rubble. As the area is large [around 60 hectare], I am told that the clean-up effort has taken longer here than in any other city.

Following our site visit, our team has a meeting, in the municipal headquarters, with three members of the reconstruction advisory board of Shishiori. The hallways are covered with black and white photographs reminding us of what the city looked like. A group of students has set up a temporary studio. They work on the models and are responsible for preparing the workshops with the locals. They have received a lot of positive feedback and the local response to the model has been incredible as the project is actively helping people to cope with and work through memories of the event.

Most of the meeting is spent listening to the elders. After a concise summary and an internal discussion, we all have a clearer idea of how and where to start. I start working with my knees hurting after a two-hour meeting sitting on the floor of a traditionally decorated Japanese room. It is a minor inconvenience in the light of what is around me.

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Pictures and words by  Sören Grünert | Tohoku Japan, August 2011

Sören Grünert (aka Soeren Gruenert) Dipl.Ing.Arch. Soeren is a Senior Architect at Bjarke Ingels Group – BIG, and lives in between Copenhagen, New York and Berlin.

 relevant links:
Archi+Aid
Architecture for Humanity
Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Rebuilding



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