In pursuit of normality: The remedial power of architecture in the wake of disaster in Japan

Japanese architectural practice MoNo have created two artworks in memory of those affected by the devastating Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami that struck Japan in March last year. The architects Fumiaki Nagashima and Mami Nagashima Maruoka exhibited the work at two sites already of local significance, respectively a historical residence and a shrine, imbuing them with further gravity through their connection with this unparalleled natural disaster.

‘Snow Tree and Snow City’ was designed for a Christmas art exhibition at the close of 2011 to signify the end of this year of ‘profound sorrow’ for Japan, the architects explain. It is set within the historical Yagishita family residence in Yokohama city; a family who flourished in the copper-iron trade in the late nineteenth-century Meiji era. The architects transformed one of the traditional rooms into a ‘Western Style zone’ for this Christmas exhibition, and themed their work on Yokohama as it would have been when this residence was originally built – cloaked in snow. With sunlight reflecting from its pure white surfaces during the day and LEDs diffusing a warm orange glow across the miniature city by night, this is a place of purity and quiet contemplation.

MoNo’s ‘Shining Tree in a Sacred Place’ is another illuminated installation built as part of the Akari Art Exhibition programme, within a city-wide event in Kusatsu. Receiving over 30,000 visitors, the programme was held in historic shrines and temples throughout the city, which was historically an appointed area for inns in the Edo period (1603-1868), due to its being at an important junction of two main roads, Tokaido and Nkasendo. It is within this auspicious city, at the Oshioi Shrine, that MoNo created an illuminated pathway of flickering candles and towering, fabricated Shining Trees, ‘the symbols of our destination’, with the intention of both commemorating the lives that were lost and signalling hope and optimism for the future.

The multitude of creative charitable projects that were formed in the wake of this tragedy reiterates the well-known capacity for architecture and design collaborations to not only physically, but psychologically rebuild a community. The apex of this remedial process might be seen at the Venice Biennale 2012, in which the curator of the Japan Pavilion, renowned architect Toyo Ito, will focus on ‘Architecture in the Wake of Disaster’. With his modest ‘Home-For-All’ project, Ito implores architects worldwide to remember architecture’s raison d’être – not least, as a function of primitive instinct which human survival and progression depends upon. The curator’s vision for Japan’s future resonates in the abundance of smaller projects by architects such as MoNo; not to focus on superficial innovations for the sake of design, but to establish, brick by brick, a new state of normality and an adjusted sense of enquiry into the purpose of architecture.

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