Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    On Fukushima

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Mar 12, '11 11:12 PM EST

    Hello, all,

    I'm packing for an impromptu spring break trip to Chicago, to check out Theaster Gates' Dorchester Project and other community-building and earth-reconciling art, architecture, and urban projects that are growing there. It's a happy thing. I'm looking forward to kicking it in Chi-town with this crew--folks who are at once musicians, artists, architects, planners, gardeners, entrepreneurs, neighbors, strangers, classmates, friends. And looking forward to the ways in which I expect the next few days will inspire and challenge me to develop my work and life, in relation to the built environment, to social life, and in a way, to myself.

    At the same time, some part of me is paralyzed by grief over what's happening in Japan. Last year, when the BP oil spill happened--and kept happening, like a slow-motion nightmare--like many people I experienced cognitive dissonance. The images were heartbreaking, and it was clear that an unfathomable level of destruction was playing out. Some of the damage was probably irreparable; parts of ecosystems were dying, a social and economic structure was dying along with it, and we knew that some of these things would not ever come back.

    And yet, my own life was better than ever: I was at Harvard, surrounded by new friends, learning, exploring--and looking forward to a summer of work and travel that would be fun, rewarding, and at least semi-impressive on my resume. I was in a good place, doing work that was good and, in my own small ways, finding ways to do good. Like many people, I experienced the oil spill through images, text, and video, and it never became a material reality for me. Like many people, I read the news, talked it over with my friends, experienced a socially appropriate amount of grief and outrage and doubt, and moved on. I wondered, at the time, if some part of us dies every time we move on like this, or if this is what we need to do in order to keep on living.

    And now, the earthquake, tsunami, and--at the moment--potential nuclear meltdown in Japan. The toll on human life is higher, and more direct than the BP spill, making it even more difficult to wish away as an abstraction or technical problem. That this country that lifted itself up, painfully yet doggedly, from the ruins of the last world war should have to face destruction at this scale--with another of the world's biggest nuclear disasters, to boot--is something that I don't know how to describe. To say that it's unfair misses the point.

    When I was there this past summer, I marveled at the efficiency of their trains; the mind-boggling, yet calibrated density of their cities; the beauty and strangeness of their material life and rituals. I was also welcomed by family members I had never met (or had only met as a young child), and I recognized some part of myself and my upbringing in this country that was at the same time profoundly foreign.

    Since then, and especially over this current semester, Japan has been on my mind. I studied the Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo with my studio team, watched Japanese films at school and with friends, and was enchanted by the first installment of this semester's Japan-centric lecture series (the series is called 'A New Innocence'; the first lecture was delivered by Sou Fujimoto). Our studio team has, deliberately and enthusiastically, been modeling many of our proposals on Japanese urbanism and architecture. For us, Japan has figured as the culture that, despite its problems and injustices, produces sublimity, beauty, and novelty amidst a seemingly simple-minded or stoic loyalty to its own ways. It has been an object of fascination and admiration, and we have sought to learn from it as much as possible.

    Because of all of this in some way, I suppose, I cannot bring myself to think that it would be OK to avoid learning something from this recent disaster. Not learning in the quick sense, but in the sense of an indelible, formative realization or understanding.

    But it will be a long time, I think, before I know what that means.

    I'm not usually one for prayer, but tonight it is impossible for me to not think of these lives on the other side of the world--and of the fate of the Fukushima nuclear power station, which holds so many other things in the balance.

    Thanks for praying, for being there, or for whatever you are doing tonight.



    • David Silvia


      Mar 13, 11 4:18 pm  · 
      Mark Tumiski

      Lian - thanks for the post.

      Your thoughts resonate deeply at a time when most of us are at a loss for words... Having lived in northern Japan myself, it is painful and difficult to watch from the sidelines, and indeed, impossible to describe how unfair it all seems. Japan and its people have a special place in my heart and I can't recall having felt so affected by a faraway calamity as I have felt these last few days.

      That said, I wonder if anyone in this community is aware of efforts to address the crisis of shelter for evacuees and those left homeless by the quake/tsunami/nuclear situation? I would imagine none of the worst-hit areas will be capable of rebuilding for quite some time, but the refugees are going to need more suitable facilities than school gynasiums and community centers in the near and medium-term. I've seen some Japanese government-provided drawings of how to construct crude emergency shelters out of cardboard boxes, but think the design community can do better / have a positive impact here.

      Considering all the wreckage strewn about, there have to be innovative ways to safely salvage and repurpose materials as rainwater collectors, solar stills, cooking aids and shacks/tents. Certainly the pros at the Red Cross and the SDF will be able to supply some of these needs, but it looks like many areas won't be passable for days or weeks... and it's the middle of winter in Tohoku with temperatures forecast to drop below freezing tonight. The electricity outage is yet another problem for the majority of households there that rely on portable electric heaters for warmth...

      Not sure if this is the right forum for this conversation, but let's try and get people who are thinking about these issues connected ASAP.

      -Mark (starting M.Arch program in the fall)

      Mar 14, 11 6:34 pm  · 

      the news and scenes from sendai and other areas are devastating. the power of the earthquake is dumbfounding, but then the power of the water is - to me - even more haunting. an earthquake is so foreign, but we live with the water! i grieve for the whole country.

      all that said, i don't think that you can declare this 'another of the world's biggest nuclear disasters' just yet. i'm hedging, because there may yet be more serious negative repercussions from their current nuclear reactor issues, but - so far - i'm actually pretty amazed at how well the plant has fared.

      it operated the way it was supposed to - shutting down after a huge earthquake. it's problems started with the tsunami. the earthquake at its magnitude + the power of this tsunami has been estimated as a 1-in-100,000 year occurrence. think about that: we usually plan for 100yr floods and storms and, for some things, at maximum 500yr floods and storms. we're at an amazingly rare occurrence when we're talking about a 100,000 yr event.

      so far there's been no meltdown. two explosions which - while not planned or controlled in a way that was as safe as anyone would like -actually worked to help keep the core contained by getting rid of the hydrogen that was buildng up. (maybe a third explosion being reported as i write this.) the minimal amounts of radiation that have been released have been intentional and controlled, estimated at less than one might experience when having an xray or laying in a tanning bed.

      if the core cools as it should, with only this minimal leakage of radiation, and no further casualties, personally my faith in nuclear power's safety has only increased! when you see the level of destruction and the number of lives overturned/lost by this disaster and realize that these reactors' safety protocols really worked?! and then you realize that the three most newsworthy reactors were built over forty years ago - i.e., they've performed this well despite being of the same vintage as the AMC gremlin...

      i may eat my words, but i'm not seeing a nuclear disaster just yet. i'm seeing a potential nuclear success story. [i hope this doesn't seem callous in the morning.]

      Mar 14, 11 8:00 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Mark, Steven--thanks. I hope you are both right--for Mark, that the design community can make a positive contribution to the relief efforts. And for Steven, of course, that things may turn out to be relatively under control. I really don't understand enough about the technologies in play to have an independent opinion on this, but was responding mostly to the New York Times' description of this as "the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl explosion in 1986." Which isn't saying as much as it sounds, I suppose, since no other accident even comes close.

      But anyways.

      Mar 14, 11 10:28 pm  · 

      it looks like things are going to be decided in the next days. the containment is cracked and the spent fuel cells caught on fire releasing large amounts of radiation. apparently spent fuel cells are just put outside. doh!

      Mar 15, 11 2:59 am  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      So, we've gotten some updates from JapanGSD (a student group here) and from a GSD/Harvard Kennedy School/International Green Shield group that is bringing people and resources together.

      There are various efforts to put together volunteer teams, gather supplies, and organize designers to contribute design efforts, but the most immediate and effective way to help at this point is to financially support an organization that is already organized and working on the ground. Google Crisis Response has provided a direct way for us to make contributions to three of the main players: the Japanese Red Cross Society, Unicef, and Save the Children. That link also provides ways of getting and sharing more information.

      Here are a few other links. Some of these also have info for people who want to get involved in a more personal way.

      International Green Shield
      Japanese Red Cross
      Architecture For Humanity
      Shigeru Ban's Voluntary Architects Network

      Mar 16, 11 4:06 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Also this--probably of more interest to the Harvard community than to people attached to other institutions, which have their own efforts underway--but anyways:

      Mar 18, 11 1:27 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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