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Japan Earthquake and Tsunami – Questions of Design and Environment

March 15, 2011

As I write this, thousands of people have died in Japan. Thousands still remain unaccounted for. Aftershocks continue. And the threat of a nuclear reactor meltdown is very real. It is a hard time to think about other issues. But I believe that we need to confront some things head on. So I write this, with humility, and acknowledgment that very real suffering is going on right now.

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan late last week further confirmed the relative frailty of humans when confronted by powerful natural phenomena or human-made processes that we don’t quite fully control.

Coming close on the heels of previous natural disasters – earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile, and Haiti, floods in Pakistan and Australia, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 – the ongoing catastrophe in Japan brings a particular point into sharp focus. The human toll of such natural events are both mitigated and exacerbated by human constructions, physical and otherwise. In the Chile and Haiti earthquakes, the dramatic difference in the human toll of the disasters was largely ascribed to the economic and institutional health of each place. In Chile, sound building codes and construction standards kept casualties to a minimum. In Haiti the clear lack of such codes and standards was immediately obvious. The social and political basis – including the racist and imperialist histories – for such economic and institutional conditions has been well documented. And I will leave those alone for now.

In New Orleans in 2005 we in the US witnessed firsthand the complicity of architecture, planning, and politics in the impact of disasters. Where one builds, what one builds, and how we plan or don’t plan for imminent weather events in an era of climate change dramatically determines the way such events play out. Hurricane Katrina was, in effect, allowed to become a historic event, one in which too many people died, too many displaced, the geography and politics of a city changed possibly forever. It’s momentousness was due to one human cause that is not much in contention: that an increasingly warm climate contributed to the strength of the hurricane as it passed through the gulf; and two that are not in contention at all: that the massive flooding occurred because of inadequate planning for predictable disaster scenarios in the levee system; and that further human catastrophe was allowed to happen because of inadequate evacuation plans and post-disaster aid.

My point is that there is a very real connection between the “disaster” quotient of natural events and the kinds of spaces we plan and build. People die because buildings fall down, because levees fail.

In Japan, news stories immediately told accounts of how the country’s stringent building and engineering codes saved perhaps thousands of lives during one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded. Videos taken by office workers showed skyscrapers swaying very disconcertingly but still safely.

On architecture blogs some wondered how the Sendai Mediatheque, designed by architect Toyo Ito with a particularly innovative structural system of irregular trussed tubes, had fared, being so close to the epicenter of the quake. While some commentors suggested that it was crass to think of buildings at a time of human crisis, the exchange also brings to mind the fact that we now live in a time when the wellbeing and safety of human beings are necessarily and intimately tied up with the built and natural environments in which we live. This includes, prominently, the buildings in which we spend the vast majority of our time. The Mediatheque performed amazingly well.

Still, even as we give a silent, respectful cheer for institutional and engineering prowess, one aspect of the Japan disaster still looms large and unchecked. The explosions at three nuclear reactors, and ongoing struggle to retain control of their otherworldly power, remind us of further human frailties. We have been living for 66 years now in a world in which astounding technological advancement allows humans to destroy ourselves, quickly, effectively, in particularly odious fashion. It is beyond ironic, and simply tragic, that Japan now faces a new nuclear event, being the only country that has ever been subjected to nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power is probably the most vivid, the most immediate, example of how a brilliant unlocking of nature presents us with choices that have far larger consequences. Our slow(er) changing of global climate is another.

Earthquakes like the one off Japan’s coast, and other ge0logical and climate phenomena, will always occur. We should at least recognize that our actions are contributing to accelerated bad weather events. And we can take steps to live with these events better: a healthy respect for nature; appreciation for good design, smart engineering, and appropriate local regulations; attention to social and economic health of places that are threatened by natural phenomena. And, ultimately, having critical responses to current environmental issues and rethinking how we balance the threats to human life and culture against ever larger appetites for energy and resources.

The following organizations and examples illustrate just a few ways that design of both built and natural environments directly confronts imminent disasters:

Article 25, a nonprofit dedicated to post-disaster shelters

Architecture for Humanity, bringing professional design services to places they are most critically needed

Shigeru Ban, an architect who has crafted a practice of innovative responses to challenging local conditions

Floating Gardens in Bangladesh

On the Water: Palisade Bay, a research initiative to imagine “soft infrastructures,” and Rising Currents, an exhibition at MOMA, two recent projects based on sea level rise projections in New York City harbor

University of Virginia landscape architecture professor Kristina Hill researches ecological design strategies to mediate climate change and sea level rise

Japan has been one of the largest donors of international disaster aid. It’s a good time to give something back. The following are well-known organizations collecting donations for humanitarian aid and reconstruction:

Doctors Without Borders (not collecting donations specifically for Japan effort, but working from general donations)



Architecture for Humanity

Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund

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