Groundswell: Guerilla Architecture in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, which recently closed at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, was a modest exhibition about a catastrophic event. Organized by the MAK’s director Kimberli Meyer, with input from Hitoshi Abe, the show documented several architectural answers to a seemingly impossible question: How might architecture—fragile, temporal, and arbitrary in the face of a 40-foot-high tsunami—offer, if not a solution, guidance to rebuild devastated communities?
The earthquake struck off the coast of Tohoku on March 8, 2011, and triggered a tsunami that caused the failure of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Three and a half years later, western cultural memory recalls the terrifying radioactive implications of Fukushima, not the 20,000 people who died and the 470,000 who lost their homes. Groundswell, then, had the added task of reawakening public perception of that loss.
Part of that work was to evoke recognition and empathy in the viewers who came to Schindler’s North Kings Road house. Wall text in the entry foyer highlighted Los Angeles’ own precarious geology. It read, “Seismically active Japan and California lie on opposite sides of the Pacific Plate, connected by the same ocean.” Indeed, last month LA Mayor Eric Garcetti presented the document Resilience by Design, a report of the Mayoral Seismic Safety Task Force, calling out the city’s vulnerability to a similar disaster.
Groundswell featured artists and architects involved with ArchiAid, a network of designers, partnered with Architecture for Humanity, focused on supporting reconstruction and building alliances between local universities in the disaster-struck region. The curatorial team explained that projects on view ran counter to the muscular solutions proposed by the Japanese government, such as a huge sea wall to block future tsunamis.
Thematic titles to each room of the Schindler House—Architecture as Grief Work, Architecture as Process, Architecture as Cultural Move, Architecture as Not Torture—guided the visitor through a select series of works that, although nuanced, came off as a little thin, given both the sensitivity of the framing and the enormity of the topic. For instance, that last title, heavy in its implications, was the heading for a series of housing projects by architects Hitoshi Abe, Manabu Chiba, and Riken Yamamoto. The designs were lovely iterations of Japanese house typologies updated with flexible and public spaces, yet they came off as somewhat generic schematic exercises, not revelatory counter positions.
Architecture as Grief Work was the strongest and most evocative of the four rooms. It contained photographs by Hiroyasu Yamauchi of Kesennuma in the weeks after the tsunami and a model recreation of the fallen city. The model, the product of a workshop conducted by the Lost Homes Project Committee and Osamu Tsukihashi Laboratory at Kobe University, was filled with little flags, each representing a memory of one of the inhabitants. A selection of translated texts recalled the horrors of the event, the missing, and, in some cases, the urban histories such as signs of past tsunami susceptibility, that were ignored by city leadership and developers leading to increased damage and deaths.
Susan Sontag famously wrote, “To collect photographs is to collect the world.” And in Yamauchi’s small-scale documentary compositions, the fragility of the global quotidian came rushing in: a car wedged high between a fence and a telephone pole, a fishing boat in the middle of the street. Translations of the photographer’s notes accompanied each image. Most were straightforward records of the conditions, but one stood out: March 29, 2011, Situation at Shishiori district, Hama-cho, Kesennuma City. “While walking in the tsunami disaster site, my brain stops as I face the scenes and images of the abnormalities,” he wrote. “For a brief second a strangely infantile thought comes upon my mind and I cannot think logically. I feel like this is a trick by a giant. In fact, the absolutely messed up scene continues endlessly.”
In other rooms, the framing of participatory projects such as ArchiAid’s Pattern Book for Reconstruction Planning or the Ishinomaki Bicycle Tour as “Guerrilla Architecture” is tricky. The terminology suggests an oppositional, tactical, or covert intervention, whereas the pattern book grew out of a series of community-based workshops, and the bike tour was a way to raise awareness of a remote region and promote tourism.
Gallery text drew parallels between these community-based projects and the art world’s equivalent, social practice. But there’s a catch: How to make visible these participatory processes? This question gives many curators pause. Current attempts at wrangling include the exhibition Uneven Growth, Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, now on view at MoMA, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy. While social practice considers the process part of the work, architectural analogues are difficult to represent. Although Groundswellleans toward neat end products like booklets, photographs, design proposals, it is at its most successful when it allows community voices—narratives of reflection and resilience—to come forward.