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Japanese Architects Design Special Public Spaces in the Footprint of Disaster

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

Japanese Architects Design Special Public Spaces in the Footprint of Disaster | Living Deep

designing after disaster

Post-disaster architecture is often planned in two major iterations -- immediate response and long-term response. Immediate response results in the design and installation of temporary structures intended to house the displaced while the affected area is rebuilt over time. The long-term architectural response results in the creation of new single-family homes, apartments, public spaces and office buildings. It is during this secondary phase -- which can last decades or bridge centuries -- that most memorial sites are established. These public spaces intended to honor the victims of tragedy must also respond to current needs of the public. Follow below to learn more about how today’s architects strike a balance between memorializing the victims of disaster while creating usable spaces for members of the community. In this article, Living Deep will explore three functional non-museum spaces around the world designed by Japanese architects. These Japanese architects -- from Toyo Ito to Hiroshi Sambuichi -- design special public spaces in the footprint of disaster. In doing so, they hope to honor the victims of war, tragedy and disaster -- all while serving the public and looking towards the future. 

Examples of Post-Disaster Architecture Designed by Japanese Design Teams

Home-for-All by Toyo Ito & Associates and Klein Dytham Architecture

The Team Behind Home-for-All

Japanese Architect Toyo Ito


Born in Seoul, South Korea -- today a hub of innovative design -- Japanese architect Toyo Ito has since received the Pritzker Prize and been featured in numerous museum shows and magazine spreads around the globe. The Pritzker Jury honored Ito in 2013 for his work on the Home-for-All children’s community center, noting “his sense of social responsibility.” In Ito’s biography -- written for his Pritzker Prize page -- the architect explained his involvement in the Home-for-All project, noting that “in the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its originality [but] as a result, the most primal themes—why a building is made and for whom—have been forgotten.” 

Ito noted that disasters may force people to reassess the expectations they place on their surroundings and the definitions they assign to concepts like “home” and “community.” Toyo Ito elaborates, noting “a disaster zone, where everything is lost offers the opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is.” The Home-for-All project -- an amalgamation of small buildings joined by a communal space for gathering -- “calls to the fore the vital question of what form architecture should take in the modern era— calling into question the most primal themes, the very meaning of architecture.”

Toyo Ito’s History of Designing for Disaster


Toyo Ito’s 2001 Sendai Mediatheque library withstood the April 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake that caused an ensuing tsunami and nuclear disaster. Architect Toyo Ito had designed the building to withstand such a disaster and was proud when the library survived a 9.0 magnitude quake. Onlookers from around the world were equally impressed with the durability of Ito’s design. In fact, just after the earthquake in 2012, the building received a Golden Lion Award at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The three disasters displaced a combined half million people and killed close to 20k. According to the World Vision article about the disaster, it resulted in an economic loss for the country of $360 billion. 

According to Robin Pogrebon in the New York Times article “Architectural Iconoclast Wins the Pritzker Prize,” Toyo Ito “has been active in the recovery effort” following the 2011 disaster. Shortly after, he “recruited three young architects to help him develop the concept of Home-for-All, communal space for survivors.” Pogrebon quotes particularly impactful prose from Ito’s recent book Tokyo Ito: Forces of Nature, in which he describes the role of an architect as taking even the smallest opportunities to “‘show a little more humanity, make them a little more beautiful, a little more comfortable.’” 

Klein Dytham architecture


According to their website’s “About” page, Klein Dytham architecture “is a multi-disciplinary design practice known for architecture, interiors, public spaces and installations.” The firm was founded by Italian-born German artist Astrid Klein and UK native architect Mark Dytham in Tokyo, Japan in the early ‘90s -- joined by architect and interior designer Yukinari Hisama several years after -- offering clients around the world a unique multicultural perspective. KDa lists their “representative works” as the Daikanyama T-SITE/Tsutaya Books -- described as a ““library in the woods'' -- and Ginza Place -- a sophisticated commercial development with a bold geometric facade. The firm has received prestigious acclaim from the “American Retail Environment Awards, D&AD Awards, World Architecture Festival Awards, Wallpaper* Design Awards and Design for Asia,” among others. In 2000, Dytham was awarded an MBE “for services to British Design in Japan.”

Both Dytham and Klein serve as regular guest speakers at conferences around the world and lecture and teach courses in the UK, Japan and elsewhere abroad. In the early 2000s, Dytham, Klein and Hisama banded together to create PechaKucha Night -- named by Hisama. The event originally encouraged local Tokyo designers to gather to share their experiences and new work, but the concept has since expanded to include similar events in more than a thousand cities worldwide. Klein worked with Toyo Ito in Japan after she moved there following the completion of her Master’s degree, making KDa’s collaboration with Ito on the Home-for-All project a natural fit. 

The Home-for-All Project

Tribute to Victims and Survivors

According to the Arup brief “Home-for-All for Children in Soma, Fukushima: A house of love for children in the disaster-hit area to gather and play,” the project was intended to “provide a much-needed social setting for local families to gather and raise each other’s spirit.” The “indoor park” -- located in Soma, a city in Fukushima affected by the 2011 earthquake and nuclear crisis -- is covered by a timber lattice roof “resembling a straw hat.” Whimsical carvings of woodland creatures blend into the columns supporting the roof, enamoring children and delighting their parents just as much. The site notes that today, “over 20,000 people use the home each year.”

Designing for the Future while Respecting the Past

Sustainability and durability were both major concerns in the planning phase of this project. According to the Arup site, the design team chose flexible Japanese larch for the roof’s crossing slats. Despite its relative tensile weakness, larch was chosen because it is an indigenous, “readily available building material in the region,” making it more sustainable than materials that would have had to be shipped in from other areas. The flexibility of the larch wood allowed builders to create the canopy on site. As expressed by Klein Dytham architecture on their website, the project was made possible by generous donations “through T-Point Japan, generous individual donations, product and material donations - and all professional work...undertaken pro-bono.” In the end, the structure emerged as a magical, special “safe place where children can play and a community can come together.”


Cardboard Cathedral by Shigeru Ban

Background on the Christ Church Cathedral Site

The original 19th century Anglican Christ Church Cathedral was built over the course of one hundred thirty years in New Zealand at the behest of the Canterbury Association. English Gothic revival architect Sir George Gilbert Scott was chosen to design the cathedral -- the only one planned by Scott in the country. While building began in 1864, the Christ Church Cathedral was not consecrated until 1881 and Scott’s plans were not fully realized until 1904, nearly three decades after the architect’s death. According to the Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Project’s timeline of the site’s construction, later buildings were added in the mid 20th century, with the “north and south vestries” added in the 1960s and the Visitor’s Centre opened by the Queen in 1995. 

Damage Sustained During the Canterbury Earthquakes


Though the Cathedral received structural strengthening -- designed by the firm Holmes Consulting -- in the late 1990s, the site was unprepared for the 2010 - 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, which significantly damaged the building and its artifacts. According to the entry “Christchurch and Canterbury earthquakes” from the ChristChurch City Council Libraries page, “Christchurch and surrounding areas have experienced major earthquakes since a 7.1 magnitude earthquake on 4 September 2010.” From September 2010 to June 2011, the Canterbury Plains and Christchurch regions were both devastated by additional tremors and aftershocks. According to Lorrainne Murray in her article “Christchurch earthquakes of 2010–11” for Britannica, “over the months that followed [the initial quake] it was established that more than 180 people had died” as a result. 

Furthermore -- in addition to the Cathedral -- “10,000 dwellings were deemed to be unsalvageable, and it was expected that they would have to be demolished.” Because the series of quakes had “rendered the land so unstable,” many areas in the region were completely abandoned. By 13 June, writes Murray, “some 50,000 former residents of Christchurch had already moved permanently to other places in New Zealand or to Australia.” For several months, those overseeing the recovery and restoration efforts of the Cathedral were hopeful it could be saved, but according to Murray, “in March 2012 it was announced that because of additional damage it had sustained in the aftershocks, the Anglican cathedral was beyond repair and would be demolished.” 

Future Plans for the Christ Church Cathedral


Thankfully, as explained by the Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Project, many of the artifacts within the Cathedral -- including “70% of the stained-glass windows” -- were removed and safely stored away from the site. Though plans to demolish the Cathedral moved forward with the help of “engineers, a heritage professional and archaeologist,” in 2012, a stay was placed on the demolition pending review. In 2017, the Anglican Synod voted to reinstate and once again bless the Cathedral. The reinstatement of the Cathedral will move forward over the next few years, “using a combination of repair, restoration, reconstruction/rebuild and seismic strengthening.”

About Shigeru Ban


World-renowned as both an innovative designer and a compassionate creator, Shigeru Ban has been celebrated by everyone from the Pritzker Architecture Prize jury to the many victims of disaster he has helped around the world. According to Nikil Saval’s 2019 New York Times profile on Shigeru Ban, the architect has “designed a panoply of private homes, many of them unusual and innovative” throughout his career. Many of Ban’s designs have been commissioned by high-profile clients, befitting of a glossy spread in Architect Magazine or CommArch. These have included both private homes and public buildings like the Centre Pompidou in France and the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado, USA. 

However, since the 1990s, Ban has made a mission out of designing post-disaster shelters for the displaced -- structures which are often temporary, intended to be removed and replaced with permanent buildings later on. Saval writes that in recent years, Ban has indeed become “more famous as a designer of emergency shelters, for people suffering from earthquakes and floods, for people escaping violence and genocide.” Made of his signature cardboard tubing and lattice -- which are low-cost and biodegradable -- these structures offer both hope and home to those who have lost theirs. Most excitingly, writes Saval, “the spirit of his architecture is international” and has inspired a “growing number of students at architecture programs around the world...interested in doing work that ha[s] public benefit.”

Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral


Ban’s Thoughtful Design

According to the ArchDaily article “The Humanitarian Works of Shigeru Ban,” the architect has designed many temporary public spaces for the inhabitants of disaster-torn areas, from elementary schools to concert halls. Shortly after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake inflicted crippling damage on the Christchurch Cathedral which was the symbol of the city,” Ban responded by designing “a new temporary cathedral.” Constructed of paper tubes and containers, the 700-seat Cardboard Cathedral designed by Ban resembles a traditional pitched-roof church. Monika Mroz writes in her article “Cardboard Cathedral By Shigeru Ban” for IGNANT that the structure is expected to stand for 50 years, by the end of which restoration of the original cathedral will hopefully be complete. Given that the area is expected to experience future earthquakes, Ban designed the A-frame church to be “earthquake-proof,” described by experts as “one of the safest buildings in Christchurch.” 

Homage to the Christ Church Cathedral

While perfectly functional, the space is also aesthetically stunning and very much reminiscent of the 19th century cathedral with its “colorful mosaic made of triangular glass etched with images from the original facade.” These stained-glass images recall the collapsed rose window beloved by parishioners. The cardboard tubing lining the pitched roof pays obvious homage to the narrow wooden beams that crossed over the trapezoidal ceiling of the original cathedral’s nave. 


Hiroshima Orizuru Tower Observatory by Hiroshi Sambuichi

The US Nuclear Bombing of Hiroshima, Japan

Before Hiroshima was bombed by the American military and hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were savagely killed, the city was a destination for academics, a hub for transport and trade and a bustling, energetic place. According to the Yale Law School Avalon Project resource page “The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Description of the Cities Before the Bombings,” the city’s population “had reached a peak of over 380,000 earlier in the war but prior to the atomic bombing the population had steadily decreased because of a systematic evacuation ordered by the Japanese government.” When the city was attacked in 1945, “the population was approximately 255,000.” 

The brief notes that bombing resulted in the deaths of so many -- with 80,000 killed immediately and over 140,000 in total -- in part because “there was no marked separation of commercial, industrial, and residential zones [and] 75% of the population was concentrated in the densely built-up area in the center of the city.” Thus, both those at work and home -- adults and children -- were victims of the horrific blast. The total number of deaths is difficult to pin down as -- according to Seren Morris of Newsweek, “tens of thousands of others died in the aftermath of radiation poisoning and their injuries.” Shockingly -- notes the Avalon Project brief -- “the exceptionally strong construction [of some buildings] undoubtedly accounted for the fact that the framework of some of [those] which were fairly close to the center of damage in the city did not collapse.” Despite these few surviving buildings, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima left the once vibrant city “a huge expanse of ruins” and its people forced to rebuild in spite of their collective trauma. 

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial


One such building to survive the bomb was the Genbaku Dome -- or Atomic Bomb Dome. According to the UNESCO World Heritage List entry on the site, the Atomic Bomb Dome “was the only structure left standing in the area where the first atomic bomb exploded on 6 August 1945.” In the decades since, the Atomic Bomb Dome has “been preserved in the same state as immediately after the bombing [as] a stark and powerful symbol of the most destructive force ever created by humankind.” The frozen-in-time landmark “also expresses the hope for world peace and the ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons.” As a World Heritage site, the dome will be thoughtfully and carefully preserved by preservation specialists as needed. 

VisitHiroshima.net’s post “About the Atomic Bomb Dome” notes that the building was in use as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall at the time of the bombing. When the bomb struck, all people inside the building “died instantly and the interior of the building was completely gutted by fire.” Only the steel dome and structure survived. It was around this site that the Hiroshima Peace Memorial -- a plaza and series of buildings including the Cenotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims, the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum -- was planned.

Background on Architect Hiroshi Sambuichi


Born in Yamaguchi in the late 1960s, the Japanese architect has established a long academic history for himself across the country over the last three decades. He studied architecture at the Tokyo University of Science and has worked as a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art and a lecturer at Yamaguchi University. Celebrated across the world as an icon of design, Sambuichi has won the 2011 Architectural Institute of Japan Prize and the 2018 Daylight Award for Architecture, among others.

According to the architect’s Daylight Award for Architecture 2018 bio, “Hiroshi Sambuichi is a master at balancing the relationship between nature and architecture.” He has designed many public spaces throughout his career, including the Cisterns Museum, Naoshima Hall and of course, Orizuru Tower. The founder and principal architect of Sambuichi Architects often draws inspiration from the elements in his designs, seeking to honor the “movement of earth, wind, air, water, and sun.” Sambuichi intends for each of his buildings to interact with the surrounding environment. Quoting the architect, the bio notes “‘architecture is ideal when you look at its form and the moving materials around the site, such as when the wind, water and the sun become visible.’”

Sambuichi’s Hiroshima Orizuru Tower Observatory


In his 2018 article “The Healing Effect of Hiroshi Sambuichi's Architecture in Hiroshima” for Architect Magazine, Blaine Brownell explores Sambuichi’s approach to design and his beautiful tribute to the city. According to Brownell, the physical recovery of Hiroshima has been nothing short of miraculous. Brownell writes that “in the immediate aftermath of the bomb, Manhattan Project physician Harold Jacobsen stated that it would take 70 years for trees and plants to grow again in Hiroshima.” However, just a short while later -- in the Spring that followed -- “life returned to the city,” with cherry blossoms blooming throughout. By the 1970s, the city was “lush” and “green,” though still bearing “the indelible scars of 1945.” Quoting Sambuichi as he recalls his own memories of the city, Brownell writes that “‘the wind, water, and sun were moving very beautifully in this town.’” These qualities, explains Sambuichi, are why “‘Hiroshima became a beautiful city again’” and are also the “fundamental ingredients of architecture.”

For this project, Sambuichi was asked to renovate the observatory that tops the Orizuru Tower in Hiroshima -- one of many buildings on Hiroshima Hill just outside Hiroshima Peace Park. The tower -- whose name refers to the paper cranes of origami -- was originally built in 2016. Its observatory -- the second of which Sambuichi has designed -- sits atop the fourteenth story of the Tower, consisting of “an elevated wooden platform that slopes downward on three sides toward the building perimeter.” Sambuichi redesigned the observatory with local materials like “Japanese cypress and cedar,” which are also those traditionally used in the building of shrines and temples across the nation. The observatory is encircled by a glass railing and transparent mesh. Combined, these elements create a “shaded open-air space” that pulls in “gentle breezes.” In redesigning the deck, Sambuichi leaned heavily on his desire to rid the world of nuclear threats and his respect for the transformative power of nature. 

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