/ 6 August 2014

Architectural solutions to slums and earthquakes

Japan is regularly hit by powerful earthquakes and has largely adapted its infrastructure to tremors that can cause widespread damage in other
Japan is regularly hit by powerful earthquakes and has largely adapted its infrastructure to tremors that can cause widespread damage in other

Seismic design is not a major theme in local architectural circles, and for good reason: we don’t have many earthquakes. But, in addition to  Tuesday’s 5.5 magnitude quake, there have been some significant incidents in South Africa. A walk through contemporary Tulbagh, a bucolic winelands village nestled beneath the Winterhoek Mountains, now offers few reminders of the devastating 6.5 magnitude earthquake that occurred there in September 1969. 

While earthquake readiness is a marginal topic in local debates, where slum settlements and urban sprawl are hot topics, the 25th world congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA), which is currently taking place in Durban, has seen numerous presentations on the subject. 

On Monday, Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nongovernmental organisation that delivers architectural solutions in disaster and conflict zones, spoke to a capacity audience about earthquake-linked projects in Haiti and Japan. 

In 2011 an underwater earthquake created a huge wave that destroyed urban areas along Japan’s northeastern Tohoku coastline. Sinclair’s organisation despatched volunteers with kits that included tatami mats (traditional Japanese flooring) and kitchen equipment. Sinclair spoke of how providing relief in the aftermath of such events is as much psychological as physical and structural. 

With many Japanese forced into temporary shelters and relying on instant food for sustenance, Sinclair’s organisation, responding to findings on the ground, kitted out a small bakkie with a noodle kitchen. The mobile food stall, modest as it was, provided residents with a source of nourishment and community that became a marker of normalisation in their situation.

‘Do something at home’
Numerous speakers at the triennial congress, which has drawn 4 500 delegates from 96 countries, about 2 000 of them South African, emphasised the value of modest interventions when providing aid in social crises, be it earthquakes or slum settlements. 

“Please go back to your roots and try do something at home, in a small space,” said keynote speaker Diébédo Francis Kéré during a public conversation with local architect Andrew Makin. Born in Burkina Faso but based in Berlin, Kéré founded his architectural practice in 2005 and has worked on numerous small school buildings in his former homeland.

Rahul Mehrotra, a Mumbai architect and professor of urban design and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, similarly argued the value of small-scale interventions in urban environments during his fast-paced presentation, which garnered a standing ovation afterwards. “You can also act [at]the micro-level,” insisted Mehrotra. 

Amongst the projects he discussed were his Mumbai practice’s attempts to create dignified sanitation. That these interventions occasionally fail is important to show, he added, “Sometimes we have to celebrate our failures”.

Slum settlements and post-earthquake habitats are similar in the sense that they both contribute to a lack of basic human dignity. Responding to the crowded living conditions of Japanese quake survivors, forced to live for extended periods in school halls, architect Shigeru Ban came up with a do-it-yourself partition system made of paper tubes and canvas curtains. 

It allowed residents a modicum of privacy in cramped settings similar to those experienced by  Lwandle residents in June, following their eviction from SANRAL-owned land near Strand outside Cape Town. 

Another of Ban’s earthquake-related designs that brought tangible relief to Japanese quake victims was a multi-level housing block made of shipping containers. 

Withstanding a 9.0 magnitude quake
Ban, who participated in the Design Indaba’s 10×10 project, an initiative to get well-known architects to design a low-cost house, is this year’s recipient of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest accolade. Last year’s winner was also a Japanese architect, Toyo Ito.

Ito, who will be speaking at the UIA on Wednesday, was born in Seoul in 1941, albeit to Japanese parents. He came to global prominence with his 2001 library building in Sendai, a city north of Tokyo in the earthquake devastated Tohoku region. The building, which includes four tubular structural elements capable of withstanding an earthquake, survived the 2011 9.0 magnitude quake unscathed.

In a 2013 interview with the London-based magazine Architectural Review, Ito criticised the way in which many architects in his position regarded themselves as exempt from society. “Instead, their work is often a criticism of it. The catastrophe in Tohoku presented an opportunity to overcome this attitude and to engage more directly with society.”

Ito also recognised the need for community amongst quake survivors. His solution: a series of pop-up community centres made from salvaged timber in quake zones. At one such structure in Kamaishi, a coastal town whose $1.5-billion tsunami barrier wall didn’t spare it from destruction, locals now gather in one of Ito’s electrified “Home-for-All” shelters to host recovery meetings.

For local architects and built environment professionals interested in a close-up view of Japan’s Tohoku region, including a visit to the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Tohoku chapter of the Japan Institute of Architects will be hosting a guided visit in November. For details visit www.jia-tohoku.org.