By WAKATO ONISHI / Senior Staff Writer
After many buildings collapsed and huge waves swallowed whole towns in tsunami generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake, many architects, fueled by a sense of crisis and a strong sense of responsibility, entered the disaster-struck areas to help with the rebuilding efforts.
Seventy-year-old architect Toyo Ito saw a grand building of his own design damaged in the disaster.
He has since built an assembly facility in a provisionary housing area in Sendai. He is also proposing a new style of collective housing for disaster-struck Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.
Through his experience and work since March 11, 2011, Ito is in the process of re-examining the impact that architecture can make on peoples’ lives.
On that terrible day, huge shocks rocked Sendai Mediatheque, a civic building in Sendai that was designed by Ito and opened in 2001. The complex suffered damage when part of the ceiling collapsed.
Immediately after the earthquake, well-known architects, including Riken Yamamoto, Kengo Kuma, Hiroshi Naito, Kazuyo Sejima, together with Ito formed a group to help northeastern Japan–to re-examine the disaster and take action. The group took its name, “Kisyn no Kai,” from the first letters of the family names of the members. It shares the same pronunciation as that for a combination of kanji which stand for “returning to the heart.”
At a December symposium, Yamamoto and Ito noted that what may be missing in today’s architecture is a notion for creating public space.
“Students believe that ‘public’ means local governments,” Yamamoto said at the symposium.
Ito agreed: “In a society where economy comes first, it is extremely difficult to bring up public nature and communality. When the earthquake hit and the trains stopped, the people were all forced to walk the streets and seek shelter. That sparked a sense of fellowship. The point is how to draw out that subconscious communal feeling.”
The architects also discussed the specifics of public nature and communality, to define the concepts.
“(It is about) how to connect with the local community,” Yamamoto said. “Children have their own temporary community, while seniors have their own community. How can we reflect that in architecture?”
Sejima proposed that “public space could be defined as a place where people of all relationships are given the opportunity to express and exchange their ideas and expertise.”
Ito entered Sendai on April 1, 2011. Upon witnessing the scope of damage, he set out to take immediate action. For a temporary housing area in Miyagino Ward, Sendai, Ito designed the “Minna no Ie” (House for Everyone). The house has a simple gabled roof and serves as a cozy welcoming space where disaster survivors can get together. In Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, Ito acts as consultant for the city’s reconstruction projects.
“There was this idea that if we drew a line and called it a coastal levee, the town inside was safe,” Ito said. “That concept got blown away. We were doing the same thing with modern architecture–dividing rooms by function, drawing lines separating the inside and the outside.
“For some time, I had been thinking about blurring the line that divides architecture into inside and outside. I was seeking a relationship with the townscape, a connection with nature. Now is the time for me to actually implement that philosophy and develop it.”
Ito first made a name for himself as an architect in the 1970s. At that time the world of architecture and design in Japan was extremely introverted, according to Ito. He was no exception, as Ito continued to design homes to fulfill internal spaces. In the 1980s, he changed direction and sought lightness in existence, airy like the wind.
For him, the biggest change came thereafter, when he designed the Sendai Mediatheque. The cultural complex that stands in the heart of Sendai is covered in glass. The bold eye-catching design combined with good management attracted many casual visitors who just dropped in for fun. It became the perfect showcase demonstrating how civic buildings–that tend to be become exclusive, closed spaces–could be opened up.
Ito’s “Minna no Ie” in Sendai has no special features. It is a simple structure where anyone can stop by to warm up, visit with one another and have some tea. One of the housing complexes that Ito is proposing in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, is located on a slope facing high ground. The design allows people to come and go through the garden. It is also equipped with a common area for residents.
“It was a senior citizen who told me how nice it was to be in the evacuation center because they all took their meals together,” Ito said. “That got me thinking how I might be able to express the ‘everyone together’ style of living.”
The housing project is also an attempt to incorporate the sea and the proximity to the former residential area, flat lands where people used to live. According to Ito, “the (Kamaishi) city officials are very enthusiastic.”
The Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture was completed in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, last summer. Here too, sketches of “Minna no Ie” received from children and architects all over the world are on display.
For whom does the architect build? For what does the architect build? These are the questions that Ito has been tackling in recent years.
To address this issue, in spring 2011 Ito opened an “architecture school” for children.
“We need to create architecture that makes people proud of their city–produce something that can serve as a model for regional towns and cities. I want to see this through–to see if we can break away from personal expression that has continued to shape architecture in modern times, and move forward.”
Ito will serve as commissioner of the Japanese pavilion for the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world’s largest architecture exhibition that will open this summer. In Venice, too, the “Minna no Ie” concept will be the central focus. Images of a new “House for Everyone” that will be constructed in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, through the collaborative effort of young architects will be on display. It will be a grand occasion to present to the world, the “House for Everyone” concept that was developed after the March 11 disaster.
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An exhibition that introduces the activities of architects in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, including the “House for Everyone” project, will be on display at the temporary building of the Department of Architecture and Building Science, Graduate School of Engineering, Tohoku University, in Katahira, Aoba Ward, Sendai.