November 15, 2013 6:52 pm

How architects are helping Japanese communities after the tsunami

The Home for All scheme, led by Toyo Ito, seeks to build communal structures that cater to residents’ social life

Crouching down to look at the shore in Kesennuma, I can see that this is a very different kind of beach. Its surface is a dense collage of the remains of homes, an entire domestic landscape flattened into an abstract plane: tiny fragments of ceramic plates and cups, roof tiles, television aerials, bathroom suites, splinters of structure and shards of glassware. All around the beachfront, mechanical diggers are creating strange mounds, truncated pyramids of earth which are to be the base of a rebuilt city, elevated above sea level.

This fishing port in northeast Japan was devastated by the earthquake, and tsunami which struck the country on March 11 2011. Houses were torn from their foundations and floated away beside trawlers swept half a mile inland. The fuel leaking from drifting ships and cars caught fire and resulted in a blaze which engulfed the city for four days. About 2,000 people died or are still missing.

Despite the loss of their homes, friends, family members and livelihoods, the surviving 70,000 or so citizens of Kesennuma decided to stay. Most of them had known only fishing and they had nowhere else to go. The displaced are now living in temporary housing: basic, prefabricated units with minimal accommodation, waiting for apartment blocks or houses to be built on those slowly emerging plateaux. They might, I can’t help thinking, be here some time yet – but in conditions those more recently displaced by the devastation wrought by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines can only envy.

I am in Kesennuma for the inauguration of a little concrete shelter on the beachfront in which a small group of residents have dressed up to enact a fishing scene, clubbing fake, stuffed tunas over the head and chanting. The wives, dressed in bright kimonos, fillet fish as they wait for their husbands to return from sea. Of course, this is wish fulfilment: for the past two years, many of the wives have been waiting on this beach in vain for their husbands to come home. This unassuming building is the first gesture towards recreating a semblance of city life, a shelter for the community which is as poetically symbolic as it is purely practical.

The shelter is the latest creation of an extraordinary project called Home for All. This is not about creating homes for individuals but a home for communities, a shelter for residents’ social life that the destruction of the city, the port and its infrastructure has denied them.

Home for All was founded not by local or national government, charities or NGOs, but by architects. The names behind it are among the biggest in Japanese design. Led by Toyo Ito, winner of the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize, a group of architects travelled to the worst-hit areas only a few days after the tsunami struck. Together they planned a series of buildings – each costing about Y10m ($100,800) – which are now being constructed across the affected region.

Yang Zhao and Kazuyo Sejima survey the reconstruction work in Kesennuma©Suzuki Hisao

Yang Zhao and Kazuyo Sejima survey the reconstruction work in Kesennuma

“The Home for All project is like a basic, idealistic way of building,” Ito says over coffee in one of the new buildings on Miyato Island, where we had come to look at some of the desolate landscapes. “It has meaning because everybody is involved. Modern architecture has abandoned local history and customs, the way people use buildings and all this should be incorporated into the way architects work.”

Ito is flanked by Kazuyo Sejima, arguably Japan’s most successful architectural export, and young Chinese architect Yang Zhao, whom Sejima has been mentoring under Rolex’s Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and to whom she entrusted this particular building. To see these architects in this shelter, under the eaves of which displaced people sit and chat, laugh and drink tea, is a genuine surprise.

Architecture in recent years has become very starry. It has been commodified into global brands in which architects act like fashion designers or celebrities gracing cities with their presence and demanding star treatment. Ito and Sejima (along with Sou Fujimoto) were rightly lauded in London recently for their Serpentine Pavilions, each a little masterpiece.

Higashi Matsushima Children’s Home for All + Temporary houses. Project designed by Toyo Ito + Maki Ohnishi. A narrow alley between temporary houses©Suzuki Hisao

On Miyato Island, things are decidedly unstarry. Ito is in his shirt sleeves chatting to community elders; Sejima helps pour the drinks. “There have been disputes about everything,” says Ito, “but my staff all said they never realised building could be such fun.”

The low-budget Home for All project raises two pertinent questions for contemporary housing and for architecture as a whole. The first is the question of communal space. The atomisation of contemporary housing – in which the house has become a cipher for all our desires; an asset, a container for consumption, a symbol of wealth – has left no room for public space. Nothing has appeared to replace the town square, the temple or the market square. This small series of interventions proposes that architecture can provide a shelter to revive a sense of communal life.

“Each community has its own demands,” says Sejima. Indeed, Yang Zhao’s building is aimed at the requirements of this fishing community. “We initially proposed something in the temporary housing area,” he says, “but then we realised that the fishermen needed a space next to the sea – this was their centre, a place full of memories before the tsunami. The wives would wait for their husbands to return [with the catch] and they would use the shelter as a marketplace.”

The building itself is elemental and beautiful. Four concrete planes support a simple pitched roof, the way a child would draw a shelter. The interior is mostly open, with seating and a glazed internal area where people can take shelter from the wind. “We spoke to people about what they wanted – they wanted open space, a roof but no façade,” says Yang. Some of the local fishermen have even less glamorous requests: one tells me he likes the building but thinks it needs “more toilets”. Here, says Yang, grinning, “people are not used to the idea of the creative architect.”

This leads us to the second question. Does the involvement of star architects (or any architects at all) add anything to these communities? The Japanese pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012 addressed this in its searching title “Architecture. Possible Here?” The answer, it appears, is yes.

I’ve never been as much appreciated by a client in 40 years of working as I have been here

- Toyo Ito

The first Home for All to be completed was in Rikuzentakata, a nearby coastal city also destroyed by the tsunami. Designed by Ito, Sou Fujimoto, Kumiko Inui and Akihisa Hirata, it features a jumble of logs rising skyward and sheltering a small, white building centred around an iron stove. The timber is the detritus of the floods which destroyed the pine forests around the town, so it is bonded to place both by a history of shared disaster and by provenance. The building looks a bit like a treehouse, a series of levels or platforms which becomes a viewing tower from which to survey the damage – and, today, the reconstruction.

Local resident Mikiko Sugawara emerged as a community leader and the de facto client for the building. “On that day,” she says, “I lost my mother, my sister and good friends. My eldest son was a fireman and he was washed away by the tsunami three times, yet he survived.” She was living in a gymnasium with 1,200 others who had all lost everything. “I decided to stay because I was so grateful my son had survived. I felt I needed to help.” And how had the building helped? “So many people here were depressed – they wanted only to die. But since coming here, where they drink tea and coffee together, able to talk to younger people and even foreigners, they’ve started to want to live again.”

“Architects tend to build for themselves but not for locals,” says Ito. “Reputation means nothing here. This was the perfect time for architects to understand the demands of real life. I’ve never been as much appreciated by a client in 40 years of working as I have been here.”

Along the coast, the project at Higashimatsushima is very different again. Here, in the middle of temporary housing (which resembles a well-ordered trailer park), is a curious cluster of little structures. A tall timber-shingled pyramidal tower, a little shelter and what looks like a giant galvanised helmet. The latter turns out to be a tiny domed stage used for performances for children and story reading. The buildings are on wheels and can be moved around the settlement – at Christmas the stage will be stuffed full of toys and presents.

Then there is the delightful structure in Miyato Island, a simple elliptical roof over an intimate community room which then overhangs it to create a covered terrace, completely full of cheerful elderly locals when I visit.

And there are others, all well-used, all bringing moments of architectural intelligence, surprise and the possibilities of togetherness to still-flattened wastelands. These little buildings, says Sou Fujimoto, “represent the beginnings of society, of a social architecture. This is the critical, essential moment when society requires architecture. Architecture should not be a big system, it should be something that connects people.” Sejima agrees: “Maybe we need to go back to the basics of public architecture.”

I wonder if these structures, so successful in the aftermath of disaster, could become an example for other developments. These buildings have reinterpreted the home as something communal rather than merely private and they have successfully created a new kind of architecture, reconstructing not only space but community.

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Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent. He visited the Home for All buildings as a guest of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative

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