British ‘Architects Journal‘ (AJ) asked me to comment on the recent earthquake and tsunami. I took the opportunity to write the following reaction to the events of March 11, 2011…
Later this month, we were due to commence construction of our first new-build residential project, a timber beach house on the Pacific side of the Chiba Peninsula directly west of Tokyo. The site is a mere 250 meters from the shoreline, but 200km south of the badly affected Tohoku region. The area was threatened, but thankfully not inundated by the tsunami. Nonetheless, the disaster has given us and our clients pause for thought. During the design phase we identified earthquakes as well as typhoons as inevitable risks (the latter necessitating sturdy sliding timber shutters to conceal the home’s glazed facade). But how can you design against a tsunami the likes of which wreaked scenes of such total and utter devastation?
Clearly, the Japanese are highly prepared for earthquakes. All buildings include a generous factor of safety. Even simple timber houses require ample cross bracing and steel ties to reinforce connections. Structural calculations (rather than aesthetic character) are the main emphasis of Japan’s building legislation and licensed architects are required to have a more detailed structural knowledge than their UK counterparts.
The country has also built a sophisticated seismic detection system, instantly triggering trains to stop, warnings interrupting television programs, alarms on our mobile phones (mine has been going off yet again as I write). We can usually take action well before the tremors arrive. After two years, frequent earthquakes have become (until now) a fairly mundane, albeit menacing, part of our daily lives.
Although much of Japan’s coastline is heavily fortified by breakwaters and high sea walls, these robust civil engineering precautions were easily breached by a far larger than predicted influx of displaced seawater. Japan and the rest of the world is shocked by the unanticipated scale and totality of the devastation left in the tsunami’s wake. If, despite enormous public investment, a modern nation like Japan cannot guarantee protection for its population and critical infrastructure from the dreaded tsunami, is it possible at all? Does one rebuild assuming that such a catastrophic event can only happen once in a lifetime? Or should we abandon building near the sea altogether and seek higher ground? These are not easy questions to answer at the moment.
Writing four days after the largest earthquake to ever hit Japan a clearer picture is emerging. Structural precautions doubtlessly saved countless lives. But this is only part of the story. The Japanese prepare for this eventuality their whole lives. Students are drilled to take cover under desks, families keep survival kits packed and ready, and each town tests its public address / evacuation system daily. When disaster strikes (as it did before in Kobe) looting and disorder are virtually nonexistent and queues wait quietly and patiently outside shops and banks. The Japanese pull together to face of a common struggle and buckle-down in perseverance.
There is even a common Japanese word, ‘gaman’, to describe this spirit of stoic resilience. In the wake of war, natural disaster, and financial crises, Japan has and will continue to fight back. It is not only the extreme structural integrity of the buildings here that resists disaster. The integrity of Japan’s social fabric refuses to be torn asunder in times of crisis like this. It is truly an honor to live and work in Japan. We look forward to contributing to the rebuilding effort in any way we can.
Please help. Donate to the Red Cross relief effort here
Architect’s Journal | Architects in Japan React to Tsunami