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.


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