How can a natural disaster such as the tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 help to define the essence of architecture? That’s the question the Japanese pavilion exhibition in Venice was posing in its Golden Lion-winning project Architecture: Possible here? Home-For-All.
On the morning of 26 November 2011, a group of Tokyo-based architects set out from the Shinkansen station in Ichinoseki by bus. Their destination was the city of Rikuzentakata at the heart of the area devastated by the tsunami almost nine months earlier. There was a chill in the air and the first snow had fallen, giving the surrounding hills a light dusting of white.
“I could almost not feel anything when we arrived and saw this place,” says architect Akihisa Hirata, describing the feeling of powerlessness on encountering this part of Japan he had never visited before. “All I knew was that I had to do something but was not sure of what.” A 535 sq/km area, stretching over six prefectures on Japan’s northern coastline and once a rural fishing community made up of 263 fishing ports, was now devastated along with 62 cities and towns further inland – some completely swept away with the tsunami. The remaining buildings were shattered by the earthquake or ruined by the water carried inland and standing as deep as 2m in places.
There were three other architects on the bus with Hirata: Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto and Toyo Ito, along with the renowned photographer and Rikuzentakata native Naoya Hatakeyama and representatives for the Japan Foundation who is supporting the project. The architects were already acquainted with one another, but this was the first time they had been tasked with working together. The objective had been set out a month earlier in the offices of Toyo Ito in Tokyo, when he asked the three younger architects, branded as “emerging” by Ito, to collaborate on the next stage of the Home-For-All project.
Ito had established the project six months earlier with a more established generation of Japanese architects: Kengo Kuma, Kazuyo Sejima, Riken Yamamoto, and Hiroshi Naito. The projects were created under the name of KISYN-no-kai (the name KISYN association is constructed from the first letter of the architects’ surnames), but each of the first five Home-For-All houses to be built across the affected area were designed individually, one per architecture studio. This time around the project was to build one structure, with the ideas of three architects and the local community embedded within it.
Home-For-All isn’t a home in the traditional sense. It has a “home-ness” in regard to scale and the division of rooms, but it isn’t inhabited. Instead, it functions as an informal meeting point for the community. Ito describes it as “an attempt to provide places where those who’ve lost their homes in the tsunami can meet and enjoy a little breathing space”. The temporary housing erected for those made homeless after the disaster provides little in terms of individuality or even comfort, so the Home-For-All spaces focus on bringing people together, serving as important nodes in a society that has little else in terms of public space. The function becomes that of rebuilding the community spiritually while the restoration of the physical infrastructure is yet to start.
On that first day in Rikuzentakata, the group visited several housing sites. They were startled by the reality of people’s lives there, and the quotidian atmosphere that had started settling in: potted plants decorated the window sills and orange persimmon fruits were hanging from the eaves of the temporary dwellings, drying for the winter. The communities had erected tents to use as communal spaces, the atmosphere was jovial and people were sharing their stories. As the cold winds blew across the now devastated planes, the visiting group sheltered in one of the tents, sharing a drink with the people living there and experiencing first-hand the importance of such a meeting place.
The first visit was unsettling for the three architects, causing them to consider their own roles in the project. “It was about participating in it and it didn’t feel suitable to express our own individuality in such a site, we didn’t want to create something normal for us,” says Hirata. Over 200 models were made in the process of deciding on the suitability of the design. The architects met once a week for almost four months, most often in Ito’s office, even if he wasn’t always there. There are pictures from this time in the leaflet that accompanies the Japanese pavilion exhibition, and in one particular image the three architects look exasperated, fed up, everyone staring stubbornly in front of them – except for Hirata, who shoots Fujimoto a sideways glance.
“It was a very intense period for all of us,” remembers Hirata. “We sometimes passed the models between each other, to develop each others’ ideas, but this wasn’t very successful.” The photos are captured by Hatakeyama, who has photographed his hometown of Rikuzentakata repeatedly since the tsunami. He lost his mother and his childhood home in the disaster, and these images have an urgency and realism that his other work as a photographer doesn’t. “These images are very different for him,” says Hirata. “He was in the same situation like us, somewhere in-between individual expression and the situation which is happening from the interaction with this area.”
It wasn’t until another visit, in January, that the process of designing the Home-For-All became easier. The leader of this community, Mikiko Sugawara, took the group to a site that the locals thought would be a suitable location. It was situated at the edge of the flat land washed away by the tsunami, just where the raised ground stopped the wave. Having this physical space to work with helped in the next stage of the project. “The house shouldn’t be complicated or too designed,” says Hirata, recalling the thinking behind the design process. “It should be simple and powerful but at the same it should be very symbolic, celebrating the geography of the site.”
The last visit before the opening of the Japanese pavilion in Venice was in early August. The structure that has now appeared is built from salt-damaged cedar trees that grow in the area. It resembles a watch tower, a final outpost overlooking the vast, flat land that holds the memories of so many people. When the building is completed at the end of October it will contain a series of interwoven indoor and outdoor spaces that will suit all seasons – heated by a stove in winter and ventilated by open windows letting in the breeze in summer. The architects are not yet sure what the community will make of it. They have shared their plans and models but are not convinced that they can visualise the final outcome. But the portrait taken of the participants from this last visit has an air of optimism about it. “This was a very happy time for all of us,” says Hirata, looking at the picture.
As well as setting out on a journey to create another Home-For-All, Ito intended the project to also question the idea of architecture. “Since the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its originality,” says Ito in his introduction to the exhibition. “As a result, the most primal themes – why a building is made and for whom – have been forgotten. A disaster zone where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is.” However, from the many reiterations of the Home-For-All, from the tents erected by the communities to Sejima’s elegantly undulating structure or Ito’s quintessential house shape, what is really questioned here is the concept of home.
Alongside the other winning exhibit at the Venice architecture biennale, Torre David/Gran Horizonte, the installation presents alternative ways of looking at this idea. While a home is normally built to house a family associated by blood, in an area where the family unit has been shattered with the loss of tens of thousands of lives the community becomes the closest resemblance to the idea of family. So the Home-For-All is a home-like shelter used by family-like units, healing a community that is preparing itself for rebuilding, both physically and spiritually.