Tōhoku Japan 2011 | by Sören Grünert [part II]

Workshop in Shishiori on September 4th 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 introducing the objective of his trip and providing insight into his first impressions [read part I]; in part II  Sören recalls the experience of participating in the workshop, the discussion with architects and local residents and the work on the area’s masterplan.
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The principle plot and the ingredients for the masterplan are clear. All affected municipalities have to hand in their recovery plans to the federal government in Tokyo by the end of September so to remain eligible for subsidies. The default strategy is to rebuild cities and towns according to their pre-tsunami conditions – filling up ground levels and building roads, sewers and seawalls without any further consideration. While there is definitely some efficiency to this approach, it seems more than questionable. According to seismic models there is a big chance for another earthquake with the same magnitude in the Tohoku region within the next two decades. This could have the same devastating effect and would void all the current reconstruction efforts if there is no reconsideration of defense strategies and urban planning.

A paper from the policy research center of the GRIPS in Tokyo [pdf alert!], addresses a number of critical points in the current disaster relief policy and suggests measures that can help municipalities respond to the devastation faster and more efficiently. One of their suggestions is that decisions regarding a recovery strategy should be made locally and collectively, especially when it comes to tsunami countermeasures.

Students building models in Kesennuma | by Sören Grünert

Archi+Aid presentation at Yokohama Art Triennale | by Sören Grünert

Tohoku Japan2011 | by Sören Grünert [click to enlarge]

The current flood defense strategy dates back to the sixties, and relies primarily on the erection of seawalls five to six meters tall that protect cities in case of a centenary flood. They represent an indisputable promise of safety against high waves, typhoons, and tsunamis. But in reality they failed almost everywhere. A more efficient and holistic flood strategy is advocated by Florian Foerster from Buro Happold: “A part of the lower structure is abandoned during an extreme flood to create an area for water run off and safe evacuation points are always maintained… Try to create an area within the costal zone that can act like a sponge, primarily to break the impact of the flood, which will slow it down and maybe even reduce the amplitude of the wave.“

Structural measures are necessary for the implementation of this strategy: rezoning of the city so to avoid at-risk areas and so to create zones that can be sacrificed in case of danger and disaster. Next to this, there is the need to design structures that can withstand the impact of waves and to design escape routes that are sufficiently dimensioned. The non-structural and non-architectural tactics might be even complimentary, if not more important: that is to remind people to stay alert and not to fall into the lull of safety at any given moment, while educating them into recognizing the signs of a potential disaster.

Workshop in Shishiori on September 4th 2011 | by Sören Grünert

A government program provides support for the relocation of homes to higher ground, but a great deal of residents desire to return as soon as possible back to the city, to their lives before 311, to their friendships, careers and memories. Many lots have been passed down for several generations from family to family. This given informs their reasoning that if they have lived with the threat of annihilation for centuries, they can survive a few more. This isn‘t the first time the city was destroyed and rebuilt. In 1889, a tsunami completely erased the city. But this time it‘s different. People are concerned about the challenges that have to face in the near future. They know that reconstruction won‘t provide the solutions that they are looking for: the fishing industry that formed the area‘s economical backbone has already moved away from Kesennuma.

The city has poor economic prospects. After the triple disaster, the former Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan said, “in the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan.” However, Japan was already in a crisis already before the tsunami hit, making the situation even more delicate not only to discuss but also to act upon. For years, Japanese politicians failed to address its internal economical challenges, its diminishing regional power and the significant changes to the country‘s demographics.

August 11th

Once back in Kobe, we start working on the city‘s recovery plan. We need to address all the issues – so it won‘t be yet another glossy design, but a piece of pragmatic planning for the federal government so it is eligible for funding. In the end, the plan isn‘t much more than a simple zoning diagram gravitating around infrastructure: a new memorial park doubles up as a buffer zone for flooding and a commercial axis connects the existing harbor with new businesses and residences adjacent to the mountainous slopes, where residents can escape to higher ground if and when necessary. In a sort of Aikido move we change the orientation of the city so water is, in case of flooding, directed away from residential houses. A majority of federal subsidies will be allocated to the construction of the park, as well as several cultural and educational facilities that will play an important role in the city‘s economic strategy.

The masterplan is for the government. What the locals need is a vision for their personal futures. As grassroots democracy is not common in the hierarchical society of Japan, the challenge is to put the local concerns on the table. Our design workshops are experiments but fit in the double bridging strategy. On a larger scale, the disaster provides an opportunity for Japan to tackle its future problems head on. The break in the development of the region is an exaggerated and sudden form of the slow decline that was projected to occur over time. It is probably fueled by professional architecture deformation, but in this case I couldn’t stop thinking that shrinking isn‘t necessarily a bad development and in this case, the tabula rasa can become an advantage.

September 4th

The classroom slowly fills with people. About fifty former residents have joined us – mainly gray-haired men exuding an aura of ancient wisdom. Curious, they seize the huge model of Shishiori, the city where they and their families lived until the tsunami destroyed their homes six months ago. For them, not much has changed since 311 – many still live in the schoolhouses, wait for the completion of temporary residences currently being erected in camps all over the city. “Tohoku people usually don‘t talk much, but this time they are very vocal.” Tsukihashi-san tells me. The locals are frustrated because nothing seems to have happened – until now: the workshop is the first in a series that will lay the foundations for the future of their city.

The invitation to all residents to participate in the process is part of the strategy. We didn‘t come as architects and urbanists presenting and defending a masterplan, we came to mediate an inclusive design process, at best, and hopefully producing a vision for their future.

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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:
Tōhoku Japan2011 | by Sören Grünert [part I]

Architecture for Humanity
Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Rebuilding

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