Reimagining Architecture in Post-3.11 Japan

Japanese architects stand outside society and criticize it, so says Toyo Ito, an award-winning Japanese architect who says he’s learning to be less critical. Ito described his professional evolution and the ways in which architecture is redefining itself in post-3.11 Japan at a lecture at Japan Society on Monday night.

Sporting a Beatles haircut and white-rimmed glasses that make him seem more youthful than his 71 years, Ito discussed his role as advisor to several reconstruction projects in the Tohoku region of Northeastern Japan.

Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, Ito surveyed the destruction and met with local residents and city planners, discussing how to move forward with rebuilding. Unfortunately, Ito’s ideas for new housing clashed with the local governments’ vision – that’s the criticism part – but the architect has forged ahead with plans that integrate the wishes of the residents.

Ito is of the opinion that in Japan most reconstruction projects are between civil engineers and municipal government, leaving Japanese architects feeling disrespected. But 3.11, with its vast destruction and need for massive rebuilding efforts, changed Ito’s idea of the role of architecture. Energized and impressed by the passion and resolve of local residents, Ito says he made three rules:

  • Don’t criticize. A difficult rule to follow, Ito admits, but he’s determined to let his own designs do the talking.
  • Begin with something I can do today. Even if it’s something small, Ito wants to accomplish a task each day.
  • Surpass individuality.

To accomplish the third rule, Ito created Kishin-no-kai, an association that brings together other architects, university students, and volunteers to plan housing and community centers for 3.11 survivors.

Toyo Ito, architecture, Japan Society, NYC, 3.11, Miyagi, Rikuzentakata, Japan recovery
Japanese architect Toyo Ito

After interviewing elderly people in relief centers in Tohno, Ito concluded that they weren’t interested in moving into temporary housing because they dreaded living in the “egalitarian and homogenous” one-story row houses the government built. Instead, Ito says, they preferred to bond with nature and the community. Ito decided the first priority is to provide a communal space where residents can gather, communicate, and collaborate; a place, Ito says, where residents can envision a future for their city.

Ito dubbed the projects of the Kishin-no-kai “Minna no Ie,” or “Home for All,” and he gave the audience two examples: A finished project in Miyagino-ku and a venture in Rikuzentakata, which is currently under construction.

With funding from Kumamoto Prefecture, Ito and his team attached a community center to the temporary housing. Volunteer students constructed the furniture, and local residents planted a flower garden outside. After opening in October of last year, the community center has become a vibrant place where temporary housing residents gather for meals, conversation, and other constructive activities.

As curator of the Japan Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, Ito assembled a team and submitted the Rikuzentakata project, which began construction in July. The project, which contains repurposed cedar that was ruined by the tsunami, received the Golden Lion.

Because of 3.11, Ito says we must rethink what architecture means and for whom it’s intended. As a result, Ito says, what was once called “reconstruction projects” should be called “reconsideration projects.” In the end Ito realizes architecture isn’t about fancy buildings made of glass and steel. Rather, the purpose of architecture is “to create forms of gathering spaces for people.”