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Small-Scale Design Helped Japan Recover From Big Earthquake

It's a familiar scene at natural disaster sites across the globe: designers and architects installing sleek new shelters meant to make this recovery a little more humane, hospitable, and high design. But what about the aftermath of the aftermath? How does design not only address immediate needs, but serve as a catalyst to rebuild a community months or years later? That big question, and many smaller answers, are the subjects of "Lessons from Recovery: the Great East Japan Earthquake," an exhibit currently on display in the intimate Nippon Club gallery space in Midtown Manhattan. A humble but powerful series of video interviews, photos, and installations provide a look at how tenacity and smart design played a key role in helping a large swath of northern Japan recover from the worst earthquake in the country's long history.

In a nation poised for seismic risk, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami was especially intense, a literal, superlative shock. The magnitude 9.0 quake, categorized as an "undersea megathrust," set off waves that topped 120 feet and caused incredible coastal damage and floods that killed nearly 16,000 Japanese and displaced more than 200,000. A photo of the "miracle pine" of Rikuzentakata offers a potent symbol of the devastation. One of 70,000 trees the city planted to provide a measure of defense against massive waves, it stood alone after the 3.11 quake.

The photo of the miracle pine gives the rest of the exhibit, which examines the region five years after the disaster, added poignancy. The rush to rebuild was a large-scale project that involved private contributions, corporate donations, and help from all levels of government. But the array of innovations and public-private solutions on display suggested that bottom-up ideas can really make the difference. In the images proving region had restored some level of normalcy after a difficult reconstruction process, one of the key facets of design thinking, immediate observation and adjustment, seemed to be a common factor.

Architects and builders played a key role in the rebuilding effort. The exhibit focused on the Home-For-All program established by Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, and Riken Yamamoto, which created community housing for those hit by the earthquake. In a video interview, Ito explains how on-the-ground observations of refugees in temporary shelters, who complained about both a lack of privacy and community, led him and his colleagues to design a series of flexible homes that gave residents their own space amid a larger, group-oriented living arrangement. Designer Kazunari Fujimura had similar observations in a shelter, watching displaced countrymen struggle with a lack of personal space and possessions. In response, he developed a system that turned recycled cardboard into pop-up furniture and room dividers. In a disaster zone filled with shipping pallets and incoming supplies, reusing packaging waste as raw materials seemed particularly clever.

In the face of such a towering disaster, the commercial solutions on display that helped the area get back on its feet were decidedly small scale. A program set up by Sugawara Ltd. helped fisherman lease out the sides of their boats as floating billboard to help rebuild their businesses (and provide companies with a visible way to show support for relief). So far, 173 boats have participated. A combination solar park and hydroponic farm provided a new form of agriculture and educated local schoolchildren on alternative energy (especially important considering the proximity of the Fukushima disaster). Other companies started up hydroponic farms, or sold special chopsticks that benefitted local relief efforts. When disasters strike, a massive response is required, the exhibit suggests. But often smaller actors and nimble ideas can make more of an immediate, and lasting, difference.

Lessons from Recovery: the Great East Japan Earthquake is on display at the Nippon Clun in New York City (145 W. 57th Street) through February 23

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