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Architects in Japan react to tsunami

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Architects in Japan have told the AJ how buildings which managed to survive last Friday’s (11 March) earthquake were simply swept away or gutted by the following tsunami.

Takefumi Kamio of Tokyo-based Studio Duca said: ‘Many buildings withstood the earthquake but not the tsunami.

‘Many reinforced concrete buildings were all right [sic] by earthquake and tsunami, but tsunami smashed all openings of buildings so all contents even dwellers were taken away.
‘The seriously damaged area had been attacked a couple of times by big tsunami in the past, so quite high embankment was built along the coast. But it was useless this time.’

Kamio, who said there was only minor damage to buildings in Tokyo following the earthquake which measured 8.9 on the Richter scale, added: ‘We have to face very basic questions [during rebuilding] about what or how these town should be, after the tsunami washed many homes, family, friends and memories.’

Jane Chan of Jun Mitsui & Associates/Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects Japan, also based in Tokyo said: ‘The horrifying images being broadcast on TV is hard even for us Tokyo people to compute, as everything seems to be back to normal.

‘The buildings our office designed stood up to the test and there has not been any reports of major damages so far, and amazingly the projects we have on site have also survived the incident with no damages and all are back to work as I write this email.’

The death toll in the country has risen to 3,400 and fears remain over the safety of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima power plant.

Hiroaki Hoshino, of Tokyo-based Hoshino Architects, said: ”Architect Shigeru Ban has started a charity to support the earthquake victims staying at the gymnasium. I hope things get better and all we can do at the moment is make a donation to the earthquake victims.’

‘I am sure there are a lot of RIBA registered architects in Japan and it will be helpful if RIBA can support international members like us.’ 

Alastair Townsend, co-founder of Bakoko

The earthquake has been utterly devastating for those in the Tohoku region of Honshu, but here in Tokyo life is beginning to return to normal despite threats of nuclear meltdown, power outages and regular aftershocks.

My wife, Kayoko Ohtsuki, and I moved to Tokyo from London around two years ago to establish our own practice in Tokyo. Later this month, we were due to commence construction of our first new-build residential project - a timber beach house on the Pacific side of the Chiba Peninsula, directly west of Tokyo. The site is a mere 250m from the shoreline, but 200km south of the badly affected Tohoku region.

The area was threatened, but thankfully not inundated by the tsunami.

Nonetheless, the disaster has given us and our clients significant pause for thought. During the design phase we identified earthquakes and typhoons as inevitable risks, the latter necessitating sturdy sliding timber shutters to conceal the home’s glazed facade. But how can you design against a tsunami the likes of which has wreaked scenes of such total and utter devastation?

Clearly, the Japanese are remarkably prepared for earthquakes. All buildings include a generous factor of safety. Even simple timber houses require ample cross bracing and steel ties to reinforce connections. Structural calculations (rather than aesthetic character) are the main emphasis of the building approval system and licensed architects are required to have a more detailed structural knowledge than their UK counterparts.

The country has also built a sophisticated seismic detection system, instantly triggering trains to stop, interrupting television programs, and alerting our mobile phones (mine has been going off yet again as I write). Most of the time, we can take action before the tremors arrive. After two years, frequent earthquakes have become (until now) a fairly mundane part of our daily lives.

Although much of Japan’s coastline is heavily fortified by breakwaters and high sea walls, these robust civil engineering precautions were easily breached by a far larger than predicted influx of displaced seawater. Japan and the rest of the world is shocked by the unanticipated scale and totality of the devastation left in the tsunami’s wake. If, despite enormous public investment, a nation like Japan cannot guarantee protection for its population and critical infrastructure from the dreaded tsunami, is it possible at all? Does one rebuild assuming that such a catastrophic event can only happen once in a lifetime? Or should we abandon building near the sea altogether and seek higher ground? These are not easy questions to answer for the time being.

Writing four days after the largest earthquake to ever hit Japan a clearer picture is emerging. Structural precautions doubtlessly saved countless lives. But this is only part of the story. The Japanese prepare for this eventuality their whole lives. Students are drilled to take cover under desks, families keep survival kits packed and ready, and each town tests its public address / evacuation system daily. When disaster strikes (as it did before in Kobe) looting and disorder are virtually nonexistent and queues wait quietly and patiently outside shops and banks. The Japanese pull together to face of a common struggle and buckle-down in perseverance.

There is even a common Japanese word, ‘gaman’, to describe this spirit of stoic resilience. In the wake of war, natural disaster, and financial crises, Japan has and will continue to fight back. It is not only the extreme structural integrity of the buildings that resist catastrophe, but the integrity of Japan’s social fabric that refuses to be torn asunder in times of crisis like this. It is truly an honour to live and work in Japan. I look forward to contributing to the rebuilding effort in any way we can.

We appeal to fellow UK architects and their practices to come together in a similar spirit of cooperation and to donate whatever they can to the Red Cross and other charities’ relief efforts.


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