Sunday, April 3, 2011

Disaster in Japan: An Update from AIA Japan President Hisaya Sugiyama

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd, via Wikimedia Commons)

The following is only a brief excerpt of a much longer report recently submitted by AIA Japan president Hisaya Sugiyama wherein he compiles the best information available to him about the magnitude of the devastation wrought by the Sendai earthquake and the events in its aftermath. Hisaya’s words undoubtedly reflect the feelings of many in Japan who have been stunned, overwhelmed, and struggling to find ways to help those suffering in the Tohoku region. He knows his profession must respond, but how can it best do so? Hisaya is confident that question will be answered as a resilient Japan recovers and rebuilds.

On behalf of AIA Japan, Hisaya expressed gratitude for the sincere and immediate expression of support and camaraderie from his colleagues around the globe. He knows he is a part of a compassionate professional community that extends well beyond the shores of Japan.

Here is just part of what Hisaya shared with us:

An enormous number of lives were lost. There are many people still missing two weeks after the devastation occurred and are presumed dead.(1) Several coastal communities were literally wiped off the map. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and some lead nomadic lives between shelters, not even knowing where they are going next. However, the people of the region and the rest of the country have already shown the resolve to overcome all the difficulty and somehow find meaning in this tragic turn of events.

To pay tribute to the victims and to find the right path for the rest of the population of Japan, we need to get to work and do many things right. No more petty skirmishes between political parties. No more indecisions about how to deal with the dwindling pension reserves and snowballing healthcare costs. No more turf wars between ministries sacrificing quality of services to the populace. This series of events and the hardships Japan is experiencing in the aftermath should be a blessing in disguise, a warning against further procrastination, an ultimatum telling us that we have no longer have the luxury to dillydally in addressing the problems we face.

On the ground, the recovery of corpses still continues, along with the removal of debris and mechanical drainage of sea water remaining in areas that sank lower than those surrounding. In Miyagi Prefecture, the estimated volume of debris is said to be as much as 23 times the typical annual amount of waste disposal of the region. The cost as well as what to do with all that debris is a big issue. (They still try to separate materials manually for possible recycling, but inclusion of sea water complicates the process, and as to radiation tainted materials, there is not even a guideline for handling.)

Also hampering the process is the issue of ownership. Thousands of cars tossed around by tsunamis can be traced back to the owners at least on paper, but there are so many of them, and finding the ownership does not mean being able to contact the owners. Even house debris has shifted around; in most cases the owner of the structure and whatever found inside is different from the owner of the land on which they were found. The government finally issued a decree allowing for removal and disposal of vehicles and structures that are obviously non-functional. (Workers are still trying to safe-keep personal items, such as photo albums, in case the owners come back to retrieve them.)

Fishing boats pose an issue one notch more complicated. While the ownership can be identified sooner than cars, their bulk is much bigger. They require much bigger equipment, and in many cases they cannot be removed without damaging or taking down a building or two nearby. The national government decided to pay for removal of house and car debris, but somehow the removal of ships is said to be the responsibility of individual insurers.

In terms of architecture and urban planning, this could be a great opportunity to rebuild communities in the most desirable fashion; in a sense, a utopian opportunity. An optimum built environment suitable for new lifestyles that are ecologically sound, symbiotic with natural forces, based on a new paradigm in economic growth represented by knowledge-based industries in addition to the traditional piscatorial, agricultural, and manufacturing industries.

These will all depend on the vision of the leadership, whoever might take that role at all levels in all fields. It remains to be seen whether there will be a centrally concerted effort to produce a grand master plan for the Tohoku Region or if each township will employ architects and planners and hurry to implement a hodgepodge of rebuilding projects.

Japan Institute of Architects, of which I am a member of the international committee without being a JIA member, has mobilized some members in the region to help municipalities in the initial assessment of building damages; i.e., safety, repair needed, unfit for occupancy, etc. While the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, The Japanese Geotechnical Society, and the City Planning Institute of Japan have issued a joint communiqué, JIA has not made any public announcement.

I have been using all my imagination to figure out what an architect can do in an emergency situation like this. For example, we see in news coverage how selflessly some people are working as rescue workers, doctors, nurses, mental health counselors, truck drivers, city hall employees, journalists, construction workers, police, and military. Unfortunately, what we do as architects does not seem to be so urgently needed in the confusing reality of affected areas.

However, when the rebuilding starts in a few months time, architects should provide leadership and creativity in master planning of old and new communities; propose extra safety measures in buildings of different types, and promote economical and eco-friendly solutions. This may indeed be a good opportunity to really promote green architecture.

Even for temporary housing projects, for which economy and speed tend to take precedence over all other issues, architects can intervene in the planning process to give something extra for the comfort of future residents, such as a plaza to foster neighborhood communication, small spaces for meetings, thoughtful site planning for maximum privacy between units and separation of pedestrian and vehicular access, etc.

Architects have to work with professional groups like JIA and AIA to have our presence noticed and our expertise appreciated. Our profession, at least in industrialized countries, is there to give an added value to the built environment. It is important to remain concerned and actively engaged in order to offer our expertise especially when the harsh reality of the conditions of the affected tends to highlight the bare minimum and overshadow that little extra which would make lives much more livable in a long run.

AIA Japan Chapter is a very small chapter with very little resources. We may not be able to do much as another group vis-à-vis the disaster. But at least we can try to identify and convey the issues we are facing, and provide opportunities for discussions for professional awareness of and possible solutions to such problems through our upcoming Northwest Pacific Region / COD conference in Japan in November.(2)

Hisaya Sugiyama, AIA
President AIA Japan
March 30th, 2011 in Tokyo

(1) 11,232 people were confirmed dead as of March 30. Of this number 8,799 were identified (and 8,412 were taken back by their families). 16,361 are reported missing. 174,367 people are presently living in 2,065 temporary shelters.

(2) Click the link to learn more about how the Sendai earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear event are impacting planning for the conference.

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