Earthquake moment: Shigeru Ban and the North Eastern Japanese tsunami

There's an added poignancy to Shigeru Ban's emergency work in the aftermath of the 2011 North Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami. A year after initially talking with Ban for Fourth Door Review's two-part feature, in a short phone interview the architect spoke of the work he and his colleagues have been doing in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster to have struck their home country.

Even those hardened by long exposure to regions devastated by natural disasters have come away from the Great North Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 11th in a state of shock, saying that its scale and challenge was unlike anything they had experienced before. It is not surprising then that Shigeru Ban was as stunned, when he visited the Tōhoku region of his native country, by what was left in the tsunami's lethal wake. "It was the worst situation I've ever seen," he says quietly, in a phone interview conversation in May 2011, explaining that he is making visits twice a month to the stricken region. Three months on, the number who lost their lives is approaching 25,000 - over 15,400 dead, and a further 8,000 unaccounted for. Those who survived are in continuing need: of the 300,000 who were displaced by the tsunami, 90,000 people of all ages are living mainly in 2,400 temporary shelters. There is also the physical damage. Almost 46,000 buildings were destroyed and 144,000 damaged. By mid June, in the three prefectures most affected - Iwate,Miyagi and Fukushima - only half of the 52,000 temporary homes required have been completed, a significant segment of the Government's commitment of 75,000 temporary homes, promised by autumn, but stalled amidst political fighting, bureaucratic

tangles and the difficulty of finding actual space to build. "They won't be ready," says Ban, "that number isn't possible." There is also the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, adding another stressful layer to the already calamitous situation, with people who lived within the current 20 mile exclusion zone also needing housing. And there are human dimension decisions: whether to build on or close to where the evacuees live where there is scarcely any free level land, or further away than evacuees want to move. Sanitation is a huge problem: water and other pollution. 11 hospitals were destroyed, over three hundred damaged, and there are the 25 million tonnes of rubble waiting to be cleared. More significant is the psychological trauma for the 100,000 people living in temporary accommodation, having lost everything, doing very little except watching TV, which itself constantly re-runs traumatic imagery from the disaster. One report from a doctor working for the humanitarian charity, Plan International, says this is making it hard for many people in the devastated region, many of whom have lost loved ones - in a country with the highest number of cameras and camera-enabled mobile phones - to begin the journey of recovery, immersed as they are in a seemingly continuous 24/7 showing of disaster images.

It is in this clearly challenging and charged situation on which the Ban offices have been working intensively, using their extensive emergency architectural design knowledge and experience to deliver practical, economic and speedy support, with the Tokyo office at the forefront of the effort. Ban was not in his native country when the tsunami struck but what became quickly clear to him was that any sustained effort would require a phased effort.

The first phase has been the design of a simple partition system to meet the overwhelming immediate need to provide a small measure of privacy for the thousands of evacuees who have been moved into temporary shelter (schools, sports and public halls, and community centres) Ban and his Voluntary Architecture Network (VAN) co-workers had already worked on earlier versions of the partition systems for earthquake hit regions in 2004 and 2005. Paper Partition System 4 is, as its description suggests, the fourth iteration of the design, this latest version enabling the large emergency halls and centres to be divided up so that individual families get marked out spaces in which they carry out the beginnings of the daily pattern of living, washing, eating, talking, and sleeping as well as, perhaps, finding spaces for their thoughts and their inner lives. The pictures on the website show the situation both before and after the simple cardboard tube partitions have been applied. When I talked with Ban 1,100 had been constructed, the number increasing on a daily basis. His team of experienced co-workers are principally his old grad students - VAN volunteers, with co-ordination coming from Tokyo office. Usually Ban has approached architecture schools within geographic proximity to natural disasters. This time it has been considerably more complicated, there being no architecture school in Sendai, North Eastern Tōhoku's largest city.

Last year Ban and his VAN co-workers began what's described on the website as the second phase: longer term, albeit temporary, housing to accommodate the many traumatised evacuees. There is not enough space within the disaster zone's 500 square kilometres, so that although single storey buildings have been started, lack of flat level land on the wreckage-strewn flood plain has meant the official emergency plan has been to move those staying in emergency accommodation into longer term temporary housing currently under construction, both close to and also quite some distance from, the catastrophe. For many families, and particularly elderly people, this is almost another layer of tragedy, losing their homes and then being moved from the area they have lived in all their lives. Ban points out another consequence: "If people move from their towns, they lose all their skills for rebuilding the towns."

The Ban team’s solution for getting higher numbers living on small stretches of buildable land, is actually a re-working of the Nomadic Museum concept, applied to the emergency multi-storey container buildings. The 20 foot containers are proposed as layered, placed on top of each other and in chequerboard fashion, up to three storeys. The spaces between containers are left open for living and dining areas. The typical Government dimensions are 30 sq metres. “We can make these as permanent homes. There is going to be the need as the Government is only building temporary homes, unless they accept other, including this, solutions.” In November 2011, months after the phone conversation the first of the temporary container homes were opened.

Ban talks about working with a village which became well known for all its buildings having been completely washed away. “We are working with the prefecture, and have become very close to the town, and they have accepted the idea of the two storey high rise.” But in the main it has, you sense, been hard going, getting local politicians and officials interested in the approach has not been easy.

There has been talk since the tsunami of how after the protection wall and buildings crumbled in the tsunami’s path, will need a complete rethink in building design, for architects, engineers and planners. “They were expecting a tsunami no higher than 10 metres and it was 17.5 metres. The concrete buildings collapsed like dominos. I’ve never seen that – that the power of tsunami, and the mud could totally destroy…. There will need to be new regulations.” In some of the towns, destruction has been partial and less severe, although Ban gives a word of caution: “some houses have not been destroyed, and it seems their situation is better, but it might be worse in five years.”

As it is, the rebuilding of the whole area is already thought to need a decade of long hard work. When we talk there has been some good news: ”I won a good competition,” he says, adding that the win is helping him and his team to continue the emergency work. I am sure he would do it anyway: “I have no choice,” says Ban, “and as long as donations are coming in we can continue.”


45,700 buildings were destroyed and 144,300 were damaged by the quake and tsunami. The damaged buildings included 29,500 structures in Miyagi Prefecture, 12,500 in Iwate Prefecture and 2,400 in Fukushima Prefecture.[173] Three hundred hospitals with 20 beds or more in Tōhoku were damaged by the disaster, with 11 being completely destroyed.[174] The earthquake and tsunami created an estimated 25 million tons of rubble and debris in Japan.