Learning by doing in Japan

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    dealing with disaster

    will galloway
    Jun 11, '11 2:35 AM EST

    This is a first stab at making a school blog using the firm profile system.  Cheers to Paul for letting me try it out.  Fingers crossed...

    Recently a well-known disaster response organizer let me know that right now no one outside of Japan is interested in the earthquake, the tsunami, nor the nuclear disaster that hit the country last March.  No matter that those items literally filled the news cycle of the whole planet for a week or two not so long ago.  On reflection, it isn’t all that surprising.  Such is the nature of the human attention span in the age of CNN, FOX and Al Jazeera.  And hey, we all understand that the willy of Wiener is pretty compelling stuff .

    But for us, even here in Tokyo, which is on the edge of most of those events, the disasters are still pretty fresh. Sure the TV is back to its famous inanity.  We can watch shows where venturous souls are asked to lie down in some variation of a tank full of lobsters again, which is surely a sign of something (don’t ask me what).  And the news is definitely less scary, apart from the revelations about nuclear shenanigans and misinformation.  But the disaster is still amongst us, and the recovery is part of our daily lives.  We can’t help but be aware that the story is not going to be over for some time.

    Actually, the time between now and March 11 has been nothing short of surreal.  Things are definitely better for a lot of people, but the weirdness lingers and it is impossible to avoid wondering if normal is ever coming back.  I mean, when we are still worried that the drinking water is radioactive and friends are updating their facebook status with comments about how much radiation they measured on their clothes, normalcy feels just a bit distant.

    There is also the underlying fear that there will not be enough electricity to run the city once summer hits and all us sweaty urbanites hit the switch on the air conditioners.  In preparation for the possibility of rolling blackouts the lights are already dimmed or shut off in most businesses and offices; the escalators that take us down and up from the subway tunnels are running only at peak times; and we are reminded to shut off our TVs at night and otherwise be careful with how we use the electricity.

    To be honest, that is pretty easy stuff to do.  We were lucky to be on the edge of a massive disaster and not in the center. For the people who lived through the tsunami close up the story is much more painful.  Nearly half a million people lost their homes, and at least 15000 lost their lives.  And it is becoming more clear by the day that Fukushima is not getting better.  The people who were lucky enough to avoid damage from the earthquake and the tsunami are looking at their homes and know they can’t stay their anymore because of the radiation.  How many will be forced to move is not yet clear but it seems like entire towns and villages will need to move at some point if they haven’t already.

    The school year began about a month late this year. Rolling black outs meant there was no power for at least a few hours every day, and the buses were not running either (no gasoline) so the school was kind of stranded.  The distance between being a first world advanced civilisation and a bunch of people sitting in the dark turns out to be pretty short.  So we started the school year a bit late, and the power is back and so are the cars and buses, and it all feels more or less normal again.  But some things can’t help but linger.

    This year the graduate studio is taught by myself, Yasushi Ikeda, and Fumiko Maki.  We have 15 students, which is a perfect size in my opinion, a great place to work in (I’ll introduce the school in another post), and a campus structure that supports action not just academics (more on this in a later post too).  Which is all pretty cool.  Originally we were going to devote studio time to examine housing typologies, but that didn’t seem quite right after... well, all of the stuff I described above.  Instead we are looking at how architecture might be used to answer some of the problems that inevitably come up after a disaster.  Some of them are predictable and some, at least for me, are not.

    After we decided on the topic for the term it was pretty clear that we could not just give the students a design project to carry out.  That would miss the point entirely.  So instead of a program and a site we asked them to look to the news, to visit the disaster areas, or just to think about the effect of the disaster on the country as a whole and to find their own program and their own projects that they would spend the term on.  The first month has already gone by.  Students have done a really amazing job and are pursuing a wide range of issues.  Some are involved with disaster relief in other ways at the school as well.  Shigeru Ban was teaching here until recently so a few are working with him on his efforts, while others are involved with a larger project called SFC 3.11 that involves a dozen or more professors and their students.  So there is a much larger framework that forms a hidden backdrop to their studio project that is really amazing to see.  Usually studio courses are pretty self-contained.  In this case the edges are frayed in interesting ways.

    So, students are looking at emergency housing, post-traumatic stress disorder, accommodating the dead (mass burials in a country that does not believe in burial at all), preparing Tokyo for the next power outage (metro tokyo has a population of 30 million people - on the night of march 11 a lot of them were not able to go home because the trains were stopped and there was nowhere to go) and for the next earthquake (again with 30 million people, where do the emergency shelters go?) , dealing with the massive amounts of wreckage, relocating the displaced, rebuilding economies.  Some of the projects are architecture, some are planning, some are product design, and some are landscape architecture.  Which makes things very interesting and I hope will be a good experience not only for the students but for all of us.  Since we are also involved with tackling the problems on the ground, particularly in Kessenuma hopefully some of what we learn from the studio can be applied in the real world and make a real difference.

    We are coming up to the end of the first phase of the studio and next week students will present their work in some kind of polished form.  Mr. Maki will be joining us for that and so I will introduce the student work more properly after that.  In the meantime, if I can find the time I will try to introduce the school a bit and give some idea about what we are up to at Keio University.  Do check in from time to time and leave comments if this system allows them.  You are of course also free to drop me a line by e-mail.

    I'll leave you with a few images taken by Erez Golani Solomon on a trip he took a few weeks ago to help clean up after the disaster.


    • teodorico

      In 1999 in Venezuela we had a natural disaster  that cost 30.000 human lives (an avalanche). Nothing in comparison with the recent losses in Japan due to the Tsunami. But for us, that was a great tragedy that marked some of us forever.

      In Universidad Metropolitana (UNIMET), in Caracas we dedicated some courses trying to give an answer to dealing with disasters and we created a department of urban design that worked hard, by official order of the government, in solutions to the towns that were devastated by the enormous avalanche.  Unfortunately, there was no political will to follow ahead.

      Anyway, there is a book about the experience: Grauer, Oscar (ed); Redevelopment of el Litoral Central, Venezuela. Universidad Metropolitana with the collaboration of Harvard University. Caracas 2001.

      In the other hand, some of us had had dedicated to reseach in this subject after that experience. Here is the link to my doctoral thesis in urbanisme at UPC (Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña) about recomposition of devasteted cities:

      Maybe it could help in some way.

      [email protected]

      Jun 14, 11 2:30 am  · 

      "Recently a well-known disaster response organizer let me know that right now no one outside of Japan is interested in the earthquake, the tsunami, nor the nuclear disaster that hit the country last March.  No matter that those items literally filled the news cycle of the whole planet for a week or two not so long ago.  On reflection, it isn’t all that surprising.  Such is the nature of the human attention span in the age of CNN, FOX and Al Jazeera.  And hey, we all understand that the willy of Wiener is pretty compelling stuff ."

      I have been a bit shocked by the general lack of interest in the Japan situation.  From my perspective, the nuclear situation is without a doubt the biggest story of the year (if not decade and maybe even century).  In a world of rising population and consumption, to see humanity possibly need to take a step backwards technologically is pretty stunning.  I remember cringing a few years ago when the Concorde stopped flying and put an end to the supersonic age of jet travel but the idea of giving up on nuclear power also is quite stunning (and humbling).  Germany is already waving the white flag and other countries will also be making difficult decisions regarding nuclear power.

      Anyhow, one of the reasons that I have been poking around archinect with more frequency recently is because I suspected that it might be one of the better sources for digging up nuggets on the ongoing situation in Japan.  And for whatever it's worth, I'll share a couple of off-the-beaten-path sources that I have found occasionally helpful:

      The Automatic Earth blog (which normally focuses on global financial/political issues) has occasionally sprung a tangent in which they examine the crisis at Fukushima specifically, as well as general state of nuclear power.  Although I hesitate to call the tone pessimistic, reading thei take does tend to feel like stepping into a cold shower.  For example:


      Monocle has always had a long fascination with all things Nippon so I have also found some their content helpful (although they do seem a little too cheery at times given the gravity of the situation).  

      • Japan - building for the future (18 May 2011) was a recent Monocle podcast that featured architects (some famous) as Japan works to recover & renew. 
      • Also, the Monocle Weekly podcasts have talked about Japan numerous times.  If you dig through the archives the past couple of months you'll find info on Japanese branding, culture and business, as well as first-hand perspectives from some of the gaijin.  Perhaps most insightful is the discussion on the state of global news coverage and the fact that many global media companies had significantly downgraded their Japanese bureaux in recent years in favor of other Asian cities where they have perceived that "the story" had migrated to.

      Although it may seem that much of the world doesn't really care, some of us are doing our best to dig up whatever information we can find on the state of things in Japan (even if it takes a little work).  I'm eagerly looking forward to the postings of this new blog and any insights that they might provide regarding Japan.

      Thank you for taking the time to write and publish this.  Best of luck, yo! 





      Jun 14, 11 11:15 am  · 

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About this Blog

keio university's architecture program is probably the best kept secret in the country. Hidden away on a campus an hour from tokyo the curriculum is wide open and connected to a campus-wide project aimed at community-driven innovation. students of economics can take courses in architecture and vice versa but we all are expected to take part in real projects somewhere in the world. there are a few starchitects on the faculty but mostly we are hoping to make a difference.

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