Architecture and Community

Learning from the Tohoku Earthquake

Friday evening I attended a talk at the Japan Society by architect/author Geeta Mehta and architect Edward Suzuki. Their topic was contemporary architecture in Japan. But during a Q&A session after the slide show, discussion turned to the recent Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the role of architecture in the recovery process. Later that evening the same topic came up during a dinner conversation with Japanese friends Takao and Mieko.

As with the Katrina aftermath in our country, manufactured housing has been produced for Tohoku refugees; and as in the Katrina case, the temporary housing has been a disaster itself. Mieko, who works for the United Nations, remarked that there have been a reported 8,000 deaths among refugees who moved from the crowded gymnasia and similar shelters into the isolation of manufactured housing. Her sense is that the fatalities can be at least partly blamed on the lack of community in these non-places of identical houses lined in rows.

Mieko also reported that authorities are trying to address this isolation through the simple expedient of adding a bench and a small planter just outside each of the housing units. In her words, the planters force residents away from their television screens to water their tiny gardens, giving occasions for the accidental contact that is one of the most basic generators of community.

Drawing from the same understanding, but extending the scale of the response, Edward Suzuki is working to create a more deliberate community-generating approach to disaster housing for “the next time.” In partnership Daiwa Corporation, a manufacturer of housing, he is developing a design that will both require an input of local labor to construct and permit a degree of local customization in the components. (The project is based on a previous collaboration known as “Eddi’s House.”) The intention is to bring jobs, including the secondary jobs of vendors to the construction workers, in order to begin establishing new connections and networks of communication among the residents even in a temporary, ad hoc effort.

It’s hopeful news arising out of the dismal series of disasters of recent, worldwide history.

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