Unbuilt and rebuilt

Last week I was reading some references for my upcoming book project about Yongding river in western Beijing. One of them is Subnature by David Gissen, in which a number of "man-made" natures, the biological biproducts of urban activitites, are given special focus. In each chapter, Gissen retells the historical and philosophical background of a Subnature; how and in which context it has appeared in historical documents, how it has been used and viewed upon, and finally pairing it with one or a few contemporary projects which explore its architectural potential. The book devides these Subnatures into three categories: Atmospheres (Dankness, smoke, exhaust), Matter (Dust, debris, mud) and Life (weeds, pigeons, crowds).

Featured in the chapter about debris is Arata Isozakis Re-ruined Hiroshima from 1968, a project emerging from a mutual fascination for one the one hand ruins and on the other superstructures. In his collage the wasteland of post-nuclear Hiroshima provides a backdrop for these mysterious structures which, either appear to be constructed from the debris of the destroyed city, or, in a more fantastic interpretation, landed from above like an alien object, ready to redistribute themselves as the raw material for a new city fabric.

Either way, his striking view of this obliterated city seems curiously familiar when confronted with the desolate images inundating us, from the same country albeit further North. I am not someone to romanticize on destruction, especially with the (abstract) knowledge of how many lives were taken out and chronically disrupted by the earthquake and following tsunami. Yet one can't help start to wonder what kind of architectural response could be triggered by this devastating event.


If we conclude that the last decade in Japanese architecture has been characterized by playfulness, lightness and experimentation, it is also important to note that these tendencies to a large extent are restricted to a particular scale; that of single-family semi-detached suburban house. This limitation could of course be attributed to the level of development that Japan has reached, which on a larger scale has been coined the Japanese Economy Stagnation. In other words, large-scale construction is no longer a main component of the economy. Instead, the combination of a refined and well-educated middle-class and rather permitting urban policies have given rise to the continuous stream of meticulous photos of experimental houses reaching the laptops and coffee-table magazines of admiring (if not to say, jealous) architects around the world. Currently, though, we are perhaps not so jealous. The amount of damage done to the Japanese cities in the vicinity of the earthquake and tsunami are not small. Nevertheless, a few days after the earthquake, Japanese stocks were again rising because of the immanent need of reconstruction, which will generate well-needed growth to the economy.

Putting the economic issues aside, I am curious to see if and how our Japanese colleagues will change their practice in the coming years. Finally, an photo of Toyo Ito's Sendai Mediatheque after the earthquake. Badly damaged, it actually looks worse than it is, as the structure is still standing and most of the debris in the image seems to deriving from the suspended ceiling.