Hiromi Tabei, our intrepid liaison between Architecture for Humanity headquarters, Students Rebuild and the Japan team, recently recounted her trip to Japan in August. On the one hand, there were the festivals, the design student charrettes, the Mediatheque exhibitions...and a characteristically youthful ambition to keep moving. On the other hand, the frustrations of meeting with community and government representatives have left a very real understanding of the invisible factors impeding a timely restoration of so many people to the familiarity and security of their pre-quake lives.
The Sendai Mediatheque might be the most famous contemporary building in the northern half of Honshu known as Tohoku. The building is–along with its architect Toyo Ito–admired by designers and engineers around the world. A popular local tourist destination, the Mediatheque serves the one million residents of Sendai as a powerful community resource. In it, Ito has employed an innovative and elegant structural system that flows between its six floors of playfully reimagined library space. In August the building was only half open to the public.
The Mediatheque itself suffered only minor damage following last March's earthquake (tsunami flood waters did not reach most of residential Sendai), but at the close of Summer employees couldn't come for their shifts–their domestic lives still being in shambles. Many people working in Sendai lost their homes to the earthquake or the resulting tsunami. At the Mediatheque, and throughout the city, a policy developed to conserve electricity–rolling blackouts threatened the Tohoku region while the damaged Fukushima power plant conducted extensive safety tests. Indoor spaces remained dark and warm through the summer.
Yet these setbacks haven't stopped a modest art exhibition from occupying the Mediatheque's lobby: Minna No Ie, or "Everybody's House," shows drawings from many ranks of Japan's post-tsunami landscape, drawings from local schoolchildren sit beside those of world-renown architects Steven Holl, Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry. Prompted by Ito, the exhibition invited illustrated thoughts on "places for people to share memories" and "houses of hope through difficulty." The exhibition is one small attempt at correcting to an exacerbated situation–offering solace to a region in many ways paralyzed by bureaucratic sluggishness and the sheer volume of work required to simply prepare to rebuild. In an environment like this, small gestures become indispensable for the resolve of the disaster victims. It's a long road ahead.
Sendai Saiwai-cho Center
Across town from the wounded Mediatheque, Hiromi had her first encounter with the complications of devastation, far worse than the Mediatheque's. The 20-year-old Sendai Saiwai-cho Community Center & Youth Center suffered extensively from the earthquake. The roof is caving in. Glass blocks have fallen out and continue to be knocked loose during aftershocks, to shatter on the sidewalk. The Center had flown under the radar of Sendai's City Hall, and thus no inspections have been made or action taken.
During their stay in Sendai, Hiromi and fellow Fellow Kumiko Fujiwara (who in her spare time operates SOAT–Supporting Organization for Artists of Tohoku) saw to raising attention for the Youth Center from the City of Sendai, and pursue repairs. The two ended up leaving their pleas in a questionable status–City Hall was not immediately responsive, and the tour of Tohoku needed to continue.