Monday, March 10, 2014

An "After 3.11" Coda

After I posted my report on the "After 3.11" symposium at Berkeley CED, I received a note from Berkeley Professor Dana Buntrock, convener of the event. It's a comment on what I wrote, which I post here:

I don't believe that Hitoshi Abe and I were talking about self-aggrandizement at all. What many architects  have discovered in Tohoku (and what Mary Comerio also pointed out in her excellent opening) is that you need government or private funds to rebuild. In the absence of money, architects have struggled to discover what other means they have to help. As I pointed out, these architects are also tapping into every source of outside funding they can find to build the modest buildings they can: LVMH, Japan Society, even people like me. They have also traveled to Tohoku on their own money, depleting the resources of already struggling small firms.
In the case of Toyo Ito's Golden Lion, he exhibited Tohoku to get more attention for the small rebuilding efforts his group was doing. After all, the first biennale after the Kobe quake also addressed its impact. The Golden Lion, received for both the earlier work by Isozaki and the later work by Ito, reflected the work's  emotional impact. But Isozaki did not get creamed like Ito; Kobe had governmental support and rebuilding was progressing. If we criticize Ito for being less effectual, we are killing the messenger.

As Abe pointed out, making large topographic maps of lost cities gave many people an opportunity to at least celebrate the places they knew and loved. I have learned of the importance of representation, which was clearly out of step with many people's initial needs and thus seemed callous. But the atomic bomb dome in Hiroshima is an important reminder of unseen dangers around us; Chiho Ochiai and George Kurumado both pointed out that more modest stone markers reminded many to build above the waterline of past tsunami.

What disasters like 3.11 make us aware of is that the values and skills that serve us well in prosperous times--winning awards, getting in magazines--are of limited use in a situation like we see in Northern Japan today. It has challenged caring Japanese professionals to take on new skills, like public workshops and advocacy, fund-raising, and incorporating energy conservation. These were not normative or desired in the recent past. In adapting these skills to new conditions, architects may make mistakes--but the international networks and access to funds have played an important role for many. The road to learning how to reach these funds and not self-aggrandize or be overly abstract has been a bumpy one.

For years, people criticized Shigeru Ban for his modest impact in, say, Kobe decades ago. It took him a very long time and many failures to arrive at the point where his group could rapidly construct 200 very livable "apartments" in Onagawa within months of the 2011 earthquake. What many have learned only recently is that architects need a different skill set to be effective after a crisis, and that the time after a crisis is the worst time to try to develop these skills. That's the more important take-away, and one we in the Bay area should not take lightly, should we, too, be damned to learn it the hard way.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

3.1.11 Symposium @ CED

Refugees of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
On 8 March 2014, I attended a symposium at Berkeley CED, "After 3.11," convened by Berkeley Professor Dana Buntrock, that drew speakers from Japan and California. It's been almost three years since this appalling event, and the focus was on its lessons and implications.

Kyoto University's Norio Maki compared the Kobe and Tohoku earthquakes. They  were similar in terms of loss of life, but the Tohoku earthquake affected a coastline comparable to the one that stretches from SF to LA. The Tohoku earthquake zone has a much lower density than Kobe, with a declining population. The tsunami destroyed its fishing economy, also. His colleague Chiho Ochiai, a sociologist, studied a coastal village there that did better than most because its residents had a collective memory of previous tsunamis in the 1890s and 1930s.

UCLA's Hitoshi Abe
UCLA Professor Hitoshi Abe and Buntrock criticized some architects' post-3.11 efforts, arguing that it was a weak, sometimes self-aggrandizing response. (This was my interpretation, based on Abe and others' noting Toyo Ito's Golden Lion award for projects in the earthquake zone, implying a degree or self-promotion. Buntrock commented later - I posted it separately - that her and Abe's point was that collective, government-backed action is needed to get sufficient traction in the wake of a disaster. She absolves architects like Ito of self-aggrandizement, saying their efforts involved much self-sacrifice. He brought it to the Biennale, she adds, to draw attention to the plight of the people of Tohoku, as Isozaki had before him regarding Kobe.) 

Abe and Makoto Shin Watanabe of Hosei University discussed Archi-Aid, a group that helps local governments plan reconstruction and also proposes larger redevelopment projects. Archi-Aid can be seen as an attempt to address the weaknesses of architects' individual, uncoordinated actions.) Abe showed a traveling exhibit, developed by an Archi-Aid participant, with topographic models of towns and villages destroyed or damaged by the tsunami. They prompted people to contribute their detailed memories of specific places. 

Hosei University's Makoto Shin Watanabe
Watanabe showed some prototype housing Archi-Aid designed that paid careful attention to energy performance. Masayuki Mae of the University of Tokyo contrasted these initiatives with the temporary housing favored by the government, showing how poorly it performed thermally. Showing examples by Isozaki and Sejima, he said that new, stonger energy regulations will make it impossible for Japanese architects to ignore thermal performance. Berkeley's Susan Ubbelohde, who helped define the performance standard for Archi-Aid's prototype housing, noted how California has managed to lead the energy conversation in the US since the oil shock of the mid-1970s.

Kazuhiro Kasai of Tokyo Institute of Technology and David Mar of Tipping Mar in Berkeley discussed earthquake retrofitting in Japan and California, with Kasai showing small dampers, suitable for residential remodeling, and Mar describing a FEMA initiative (and online analytical tool) to address California's massive soft-story problem in older buildings. Kasai and Berkeley's Verna Terzic also discussed the relative merits of different seismic reinforcement schemes, with base isolation (BI-OCBF and BI-IMRF) doing especially well in minimizing the cost of getting a building back into operation after a seismic event.

In his wrap-up talk, George Kurumado of Takenaka, one of the Japan's largest construction companies, talked about the human and political issues around disaster preparation, including the tendency to ignore known risks because their implications are considered too costly or politically impossible. He argued for extending seismic regulations from their focus on life safety to a broader focus on resilience, nothing that the ability to come back from a disaster is crucial to business and provides a strong argument for higher building performance.

Toyo Ito and collaborators in front of a small post-3.11 project.
Just as an earthquake exposes the weaknesses of the built environment, an event like 3.11 shows in high relief the weaknesses of those responsible for immediate disaster relief and subsequent recovery. As Abe noted, a huge burden for planning the reconstruction fell on local government. This created a workload for which they were unprepared in terms of manpower and expertise. Archi-Aid sought to fill the gap, but its efforts were hobbled by other factors, including local-government resistance to spending money to achieve higher building performance. Clearly, it's not just government involvement that's needed, but the ability to see - as Rahm Emanuel famously said - that a crisis is too good an opportunity to waste.

Kurumado noted that the decision to provide a relatively low sea wall and berm around the Fukushima nuclear reactor meant that everyone else took that pattern as the standard, although it was set to a medium-risk earthquake and tsunami, not a higher-risk one that would be an issue for such a critical facility. Locating the generators in the basement was the other fatal flaw - worse, as it turns out, than the sea wall-and-berm problem.

Kurumado's comment about ignoring the obvious applies right here at home, I thought. My own house is two blocks from the Hayward Fault, overdue for another event. (The last was in the 1860s.) We joke about playing "beat the clock," but in fact the Japanese pocket damper that Professor Kasai showed got my attention, as it could bring some affordable new tech into the retrofit picture. 

As a public policy issue, 3.11 also raises the usual questions about society's willingness to prevent rather than rebuild. America loves its disasters. (Mar made a comparison between the "known factors" for high seismic damage and those leading to a heart attack.) Like the wellness movement, the current push for resilience - which sees seismic safety, energy performance, and social and business recovery as aspects of the same goal - may finally get some official muscle and cash behind it. That could led finally to the kind of preventive measures that would make sense in earthquake countries like California and Japan.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Diary: 2 March 2014

The Pantheon-influenced Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson and restored and renovated (after a fire) by Stanford White, and the Lawn, the original heart of the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, visited on 22 February 2014.

On 19 February, I flew east to attend a family wedding in Richmond and then briefly visit Charlottesville, where I toured Monticello and then stopped to see Jefferson's remarkable "opening move" at the University of Virginia. I realize it's heretical to say so, but the interior of Monticello is better than the house itself. From outside, it feels like two different buildings joined together. The thrust-out octagon and porch have a sort of dog's-head quality from the lawn. Although it looks large in the photo, it's small in relation to the lawn, lacking the grandeur of the Virginia mansions built by his contemporaries. Inside, however, its virtues are manifest, especially in Jefferson's own quarters, essentially an apartment within the house. (Unfortunately, I couldn't photograph the interior.) 

Monticello. Jefferson's apartment occupies this part of the house. The extensive basement level is visible under the terrace. The conservatory also opens onto it. The house is most impressive, to me, viewed from this direction.
I had seen Monticello as an undergraduate, but had little memory of it. The front hall is a wunderkammer of mostly American artifacts, many of them given to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark, whose expedition Jefferson (as US President) underwrote. The scale of the place is brought home by the absence of a grand staircase. Concerned about heating it, Jefferson opted for a compact plan with two small, enclosed stairwells that run from the basement to the third floor. There are also dumbwaiters, as the kitchen is below the house. (That level services the house unobtrusively, an idea that repeats itself at the University of Virginia, along with other motifs.)

View from the Rotunda of the colonnades bordering the lawn at the University of Virginia.
The Jefferson-designed centerpiece of the University of Virginia campus consists of a rectangular two-level lawn anchored by the Pantheon-like Rotunda and fronted by one-story colonnades interrupted by two-story commons buildings. Behind the colonnades are small student rooms. Paths extend away from this central assemblage, each defined by serpentine walls that enclose the gardens of the two-story residences that parallel it as a series. (I'm making guesses here about the use, except the student rooms behind the collonade, of which I looked into two.) Everything is still in use. It feels like a piece of pre-Haussmann Paris ended up as the heart of an English residential college. Jefferson had the foresight to locate it at the highest point of the campus, removed from the sprawl that surrounds it now at a respectful distance.

A milk company's building off Broad Street in downtown Richmond, VA.
We spent two days in Richmond, but sightseeing was limited. We stayed at The Jefferson, a truly grand hotel. The wedding ceremony took place at the Catholic cathedral, a short walk across nearby Monroe Park. A colleague who lives there offered a tour, which I hope to take up on another visit. He told me over drinks that Patrick Henry made his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech at a local church, and that many of the more obvious signs of its days as the Confederate capital, like the equestrian statues of Confederate generals, reflect late 19th-century nostalgia.

My nephew and his bride's first dance as a married couple.
Weddings remind me of the powerful grip that families have. They also have an oracular quality: one looks for auspicious signs, like a break in the weather, and evidence of enthusiasm among the different parties. In this case, the weather turned summery, though bracketed by winter. And when the Monsignor made his man-and-wife pronouncement, the bride expressed her happiness. That warm affection carried through the evening, as knots of old friends gathered to talk and reminisce, and the newly married couple's cohort partied on.