The violence of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that shook Japan on March 11th was shocking enough, but what followed was almost unimaginable. Thirty minutes after the quake, a massive tsunami swept through the northeastern Tohoku region with waves up to 120 feet high. Entire towns were crushed and swept away. By the time the water receded, tens of thousands of people were dead and half a million left homeless.
It was Japan’s worst disaster since World War II, but this is a country familiar with nature’s wrath, and not long after the quake, Japan’s designers sprung into action with plans to help deal with the catastrophe. Their attitude was summed up by architect Shigeru Ban. “We don’t need innovative ideas,” he told the New York Times. “We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly.”
Ban speaks from experience. For years, he has been used paper tubes as a material in his buildings. When an earthquake devastated the western Japanese city of Kobe in 1995, he put the technique to use in building emergency shelters with beer crate foundations and paper tube walls. He has done the same thing for earthquake survivors in Haiti, Turkey and China. He has even built a paper tube concert hall in the earthquake ravaged Italian town of L’Aquila, whose opening was marked in April by a performance of Japanese musicians with an Italian orchestra.
This time, Ban focused on building partitions for earthquake survivors living in emergency shelters. With a frame made of paper tubes and walls of white canvas, the partitions create flexible rooms that offer privacy, which becomes increasingly important as the wait for temporary government housing drags on for months. “People are evacuated to locations under a big roof, such as gymnasiums,” said Ban. “For the first few days, it’s okay, but then people suffer because there’s no privacy between families.”
Shigeru Ban’s paper-tube dividers being installed in a shelter
Making life easier for survivors was the most urgent goal in the weeks following the earthquake. Only a few days after the disaster struck, the Tokyo-based conceptual designer Nosigner launched the Olive Project, an online wiki where designers can offer survivors advice on how to recycle commonly-available materials into useful objects.
“Since the Internet and mobile networks were still working, we started to share ideas like how to make dishes out of [plastic] bottles, or how to use bicycle tubes as rubber bands,” says Nosigner. One particularly innovative idea was to transform a ubiquitous construction pylon into an oven by filling it with aluminum foil and leaving it in the sun. “Within thirty minutes, it becomes boiling hot inside” — particularly useful in the freezing days following the quake, says Nosigner.
In a way, the Olive Project is an extension of Nosigner’s overall design practice, which often makes use of discarded objects, like biodegradable planters made from egg shells. (His pseudonym, which he insists on using rather than his real name, is meant as an antonym to “design.”) “I want to help ordinary people realize that they can also design things,” he says. “For them, these things are just trash, but with some ideas, they can become useful. You can help with money, you can help with muscle and you can help with knowledge. This is helping with knowledge.”
Some designers are already focused on the recovery process, which they hope will ignite a discussion on how to build towns and cities that are more environmentally sustainable than those that were destroyed. After the earthquake, questions were raised about the reliance of many towns on massive seawalls, which failed during the tsunami. The food security of Tokyo and other large cities was jeopardized when their transport links to farms were severed by the earthquake.
“It’s a big challenge,” says Teruo Kurosaki, founder of the Tokyo Designers’ Block festival, owner of several design labels and one of Japan’s most influential designers. “Nobody has money. All the banks are gone, all the farmland is useless. We have to listen to the voice of nature and restart green development.”
Kurosaki, along with a group of other designers, recently launched a community centre for earthquake survivors that he hopes can serve as a platform for new reconstruction ideas. “We took abandoned farmland that was salted by the tsunami, so nothing can grow there now, and we restored the old farmhouse,” he says. “Now we are using recycled materials to build a kitchen, a community centre, a movie theatre, a library. We’re asking architects to design emergency housing that we can demonstrate outside. Everything is solar powered.”
The effort is not limited to industrial designers and architects. A month after the earthquake, Pecha Kucha Night, the design show-and-tell founded in Tokyo eight years ago, organized a global event called Inspire Japan. Hundreds of designers around the world shared inspirational projects and ideas that could help Japan; in the process, they raised tens of thousands of dollars that will be donated to Architecture for Humanity, a non-profit group that builds public facilities in areas hit by disaster.
Luis Mendo, founder of the design group GOOD Inc., is putting together a book based on the best ideas shared during the global Pecha Kucha Night. He is also donating the proceeds from Tokyo Report, a hand-drawn map and guide he made while living in the city, to disaster relief.
“Each of us can help in one way or the other,” he says. “I wished I was a sportive kind of guy and could go help build houses and schools but I am afraid I would be more of an obstacle than a help. For me, as a Japan lover, I feel I must do something for the country that has given me so much. The only thing I can do is design and draw.”
This story was first published in the June/July edition of Surface Asia, a new art, architecture, design and culture magazine. Surface Asia can be found in design bookshops across Southeast Asia.
Tags: Artists, Design, Disaster, Japan