Biennale 2012: the Japanese Pavilion, "Home-for-All"

By Abbie Gentry

This phrase was painted on one of the walls in the Biennale Architecture 2012 exposition that we were fortunate enough to visit during our stay in Venice last week. This phrase stuck out to me because, despite its simplicity, it is a loaded and thought-provoking statement. What is architecture? What does it mean to be an architect? What are our responsibilities as an architect?

There was one exhibit that contained a section in which you could write on a whiteboard your definition of what it means to be an architect. You then took a picture holding the board and the pictures of the different people holding up their definitions combined to become a collage. One picture stood out to me because it read, “Sociological Spiderman: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’” Though this phrase may have originated from a comic book, it makes the statement no less truthful. Though we may not work in a hospital with people’s lives literally in our hands, as architects, we are still responsible for the welfare of anyone who comes into contact with our designs. Architecture is more than simply insuring that a building will not collapse. We are charged with the task to design structurally sound, economical, sustainable buildings that will fulfill all of the needs of the clients and add beauty to the existing environment. Sometimes, our responsibility extends further. When disaster strikes, it is up to us to provide for the less fortunate and to lend our skills where they are needed. When Japan was struck by a tsunami in March of 2011, a group of architects undertook a project that would turn the suddenly homeless and poverty-stricken people’s lives back around. 

The Japanese Pavilion, “Architecture. Possible here? Home-for-All” allowed people to explore the design process that architects Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirata went through as they designed homes for those who suffered from the tsunami. Moreover, it set the perfect example for what architecture should be. The Commissioner, Toyo Ito, could not have said it better: “Since the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its originality. As a result the most primal themes – why a building is made, and for whom – have been forgotten. A disaster zone where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is.” Architecture is not about building the tallest skyscraper or the fanciest house. Architecture sometimes needs to be concerned with the most basic of needs. 
As you walk through the pavilion, you can view the before and after pictures of the city of Rikuzentakata, the site of the project, which was struck heavily by the tsunami. It displayed the different iterations that the models had undergone until the architects had reached a decision on a final design. None of the designs were glamorous or particularly mind-blowing. However, it was the story that was so salient.

(some of the later models)

They began with a site visit and then began creating sketch models of their initial ideas. After much deliberation and many futile discussions with little advancement concerning a conclusive design strategy, they decided it was time for another site visit. Though the people had been emotionally devastated, physically displaced, and reduced to living in tents set up in temporary housing sites, they still managed to greet the architects with smiles and laughter. The sense of community amongst this burdened group inspired the architects, as did the story of Takata-Matsubara which told how the storm had scavenged the landscape until there was one lone tree left standing while the rest lay about the area, uprooted and useless. These very trees, however, became the starting point and synthesis for the project. Rather than importing materials for vertical structure elements, the cedar logs would more than suffice as columns. Moreover, they would create gathering spaces within the houses that would seem to be floating above the ground.

There is much to be learned from this example set by Toyo Ito and the accompanying architects. They designed specifically and intentionally for the clients by considering the sense of community and congregation that the people desired. By using local timber, the project was closely connected to its surroundings. Furthermore, the strategy was environmentally friendly since it reduced the amount of energy and resources necessary for transportation of building materials. 

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