Q&A: Hitoshi Abe on design lessons from the Great East Japan earthquake

Award-winning architect and UCLA professor Hitoshi Abe discusses the innovation and design insights he's gleaned a year after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated his native Japan.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

For award-winning architect Hitoshi Abe, a native of Sendai, Japan, the one-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit his hometown and devastated his birth country is a heart-wrenching event.

But it is not one without hope. Abe, who chairs the department of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, aims to glean valuable design and cultural learnings from the tragic events. His goal is to educate everyday citizens around the world today, as well as future generations on how to better cope with large-scale natural disasters.

One inspiring way that he has worked to inform general audiences around the United States on the magnitude of the destruction in Japan last year is by guest-curating the traveling exhibition "Moving Forward: Life After the Great East Japan Earthquake," which is now on view at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. It opened on March 4 and is on view through April 15, and features haunting large-scale photographs taken immediately after the disaster (originally published in the newspaper The Kahuko Shimpo), as well as videos and texts.

I reached out to Abe, who beyond heading UCLA's architecture department, still operates his architecture firm Atelier Hitoshi Abe and directs the Paul and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Study, also at UCLA. I asked him what he learned in the earthquake's aftermath, in terms of how design can be better deployed in response to disasters--as well as his observations on the resilience and creativity of everyday Japanese people as they engage in the long-term struggle to recover. Here's our exchange:

SmartPlanet: The devastating events of March 2011 prompted Japanese architects, engineers, and designers -- and those around the world -- to rethink how to react to damage from earthquakes and tsunamis. In the last year, what have you learned and observed in this area of design?

Hitoshi Abe: I have learned that modern technology has really helped to expand the current environment we live in. For example, the man-made structures on the coastline like the fishing villages and the ports themselves are the cornerstone of numerous industries of the Tohoku region. Without these structures, it would be difficult to sustain those industries. However, I also learned that there are limitations, and we should not be overly confident about these modern systems.

It has become extremely clear that we have to "negotiate" with nature, and we need to set the right boundary between nature and any man-made environments. Furthermore, these boundaries must be more flexible. In other words, we should not try to work against nature, but what we need to do is create a new type of community and urban design that will make the area more disaster resilient.

Of course, it's not efficient to make every structure tsunami-proof because it's not economically feasible. But what we can do to minimize future damage is to understand these boundaries -- there needs to be certain areas where man-made structures should not be built and areas where the structures are more resilient to natural disasters. An investment into these types of structures is crucial. But in order to make this truly work, we need to be creative and figure out where this interesting, flexible boundary is, so when disaster strikes again, these structurally resilient buildings will be safe and the tsunami will have a natural path where it can come through.

The photos from "Moving Forward" show everyday citizens acting as rescuers, in essence "designing" solutions for transporting people or coping with devastation after a natural disaster. How have these photos inspired you as a designer?

What I realized is that most people in this day are extremely dependent on large systems to sustain our daily lives. These large systems include anything from the government, food supply, police, hospitals, etc. When such a large disaster strikes, the entire infrastructure is affected, or worse, it comes to a complete halt. This has happened in the Tohoku area. The large system could not sustain the new environment, and it became very fragmented. The system that had made all our lives more efficient no longer worked.

The TV reports and news have shown that many Japanese people had to wait in very long lines to get gasoline, food, and shelter, but what was so memorable was how they kept their composure and maintained order in a system that has failed them. From this, a new order has been born with new laws that made the people look to each other for help and support -- a new sense of order has emerged among the individuals from within, not by a force from outside of them.

This type of informal network naturally emerged in the case of the Tohoku disaster. For example, the large supermarkets could not restock their items for as long as two weeks while the local, smaller-scale shops were able to replenish their inventory because they did not rely on the "system." The smaller shops were the ones who were able to continue to provide food for the community. Even Twitter played a huge role -- during the disaster, it was difficult to find information. It was hard for individuals to find out if any shops were open for business. With a car, the journey to the store can be about 15 minutes, but without a car, it could take over an hour. Basically, if the store was closed, you would have just lost two hours of your day trying to get there. People were able to use the local network of people through Twitter to share information that the large infrastructures were unable to provide. It really helped the day to day lives of many people.

What is inspiring is that the people adapted to this new community of individuals and created their own network -- a community and network that is more resilient and flexible to this type of event. It's also more democratic. It is interesting because it clearly shows that there is a different way modern society [operates, compared to] the older society that has been enforced by large systems.

Why is it so important for architects and designers to share what they have learned, good and bad, in terms of disaster response and relief, in addition to raising funds?

Architects and designers fundamentally believe that design is a positive action; with the ambition being to improve the functional and experiential qualities of objects, spaces, communities, systems, etc.  Because of this, many designers and architects were compelled to help with fundraising and reconstruction efforts, in a collective effort to try and improve the quality of people's lives that were affected by the disaster.It is absolutely essential that the design community shares their collective knowledge of "best practices," and post-disaster design studies and fundraising, in order to create a working knowledge base that will hopefully be able to streamline the process and procedure by which communities effected by  disaster can begin to recover.

Have you been traveling to Japan since the 2011 quake, and can you offer a first-hand account of how architects and designers are rebuilding communities?

At this moment the reconstruction efforts are largely being initiated by the government and driven by civil engineering.  As far as I know there aren't any architects involved in the large reconstruction plans and a consequence of this is that all the reconstruction is very fragmented and lacking an overall vision. Arch+Aid, a network of more than 270 architects supporting the reconstruction efforts, was established to try and give cohesion to these efforts. The organization is working on creating a pool of creative talent that will supply interdisciplinary expertise and gathering documentation and knowledge for future generations.

The show has traveled around the U.S., and is returning to L.A. How has the show served as an effective vehicle for inspiring people within and outside of the design community to take action and contribute to Japan's recovery?

As we approach the one year mark of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, the memory of it, outside of Japan, is fading. Unless you are really involved, it becomes easy to forget. However, it's important to continue to show the devastation of the disaster and to show how people are still trying to do their best to recover. It's important to share this with the people of the United States so they can continue to support and remember. It's important that the American people remember how the U.S. troops came to help the Japanese in their time of need and how extremely impactful the outpouring of support from the U.S. was. The Japanese people will be forever grateful for this.

All of this is extremely important because it is a message to us that disaster could strike anywhere, especially in areas like Los Angeles. And the best way to minimize the impact of future disasters is to be reminded of and learn how to deal with the difficult times and reconstruction so that future generations will be aware and more prepared. No one should have to experience such tragedy, but through these tragedies, we can teach others the importance of remembering and being prepared for the worst.

The exhibition has been well-received by the different communities across the United States. Many different organizations have been reaching out to us asking if they can help spread the word and share the different images you will see at the show. I hope this exhibition will stimulate interest among the American people and through these people, a difference can be made.

On March 10, UCLA will host a symposium that will discuss learnings from the earthquake and tsunami, moderated by Hitoshi Abe. The list of speakers include Hideya Terashima, Editor for The Kahoku Shimpo; Malka Older, specialist in disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness for Save the Children; Toshio Hirano, Senior Manager for JEN (Japan Emergency NGO); Masashige Motoe, associate professor at the department of Architecture and Building Science at Tohoku University and director general of Archi-Aid; Junko Mabuchi, East Japan Program Officer, Adventist Development and Relief Agency; and Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, who recently traveled to Japan.)

Images: portrait of Hitoshi Abe, courtesy UCLA; all images are on view in "Moving Forward" at The Fowler Museum at UCLA and appear courtesy of The Kahoku Shimpo newspaper.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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