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Commentary: One architect's answer to Kobe earthquake may be example for Haiti

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2010 - Former President Bill Clinton was on television last week talking about Haiti, and he emphasized the need for thinking beyond the so-called 72-hour window -- the time frame during which trapped men, women and children have a good shot at being rescued alive. He spoke emphatically of the pressing needs for food, water, medical care and shelter in the days coming on, but he also stressed the need to look forward, well into the future, and to make good decisions about sustainable solutions.

Clinton also betrayed frustration. Through his foundation, he has been at work directing planning efforts and fund-raising activities in hopes of kick-starting Haiti's stalled economy and bringing a measure of financial stability to the troubled nation.

Four hurricanes in 2008 and now this earthquake have complicated that picture enormously, heaping tragedy on the top of existing miseries. Clinton said, however, that rather than throw up one's hands in dismay, the earthquake and its aftermath will be calculated into the cost of his economic advancement project and work will go ahead. Former President George W. Bush has joined him in fund-raising efforts.

Although distribution of food, water and medicine has been chaotic, these necessities are haltingly but gradually making their way through the arteries of the Haitian nation, especially in the capital, Port-au-Prince, which was most devastatingly affected.

Shelter, because it involves larger material resources, and requires at least moderately skilled labor, is a more difficult proposition simply because of scale and complexity.

There have been brilliant solutions, however, and one architect's work in particular needs to be considered quickly if the problem of shelter is to be addressed efficiently.

The Power of Paper

In 2001, the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban gave a lecture at the College of Architecture at Washington University. To say his talk was inspirational does it little justice; it was transformational.

Although Ban is widely known and respected for his breathtakingly original and refined residential and institutional buildings, as well as extraordinary exhibition designs, my devotion to him and his work evolved from that speech. It focused on work he has done applying his art and his deep commitment to humanity to the service of populations devastated by "natural" disasters.

In February 1995, I was in Japan on assignment. The morning after we arrived, we made a circuitous journey on at least four different conveyances from Osaka to Kobe, where the destruction and anguish of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of the previous month were  heartbreakingly evident.

Multi-story buildings were crushed into pancake stacks; tall buildings leaned precariously over busy streets; others were cleaved as if attacked by some mad giant chef. We walked through a neighborhood that was obliterated, destroyed by a fire precipitated by the shaking. What remained were signs indicating where an occupant might be found, and poignant reminders of previous residents: a doll, a teapot, a pair of worn trousers, a vase.

In Port-au-Prince at this moment, similar situations exist all over the city, and because of the relative poverty are even more profound than Kobe. Thousands and thousands of men, women and children are living in the streets in conditions so wretched one actually cannot imagine them.

In 1995, months after the Kobe quake, very little had been done to address the problems of shelter. Shigeru Ban resolved to do something, to bring his skills to bear on the problems of housing, not simply to lament the disaster from an aesthetic and physical remove.

His solution was to employ, with great virtuosity, a material that is very much a part of his heritage and a material he'd used before: paper.

In 1986, Ban was commissioned to design an exhibition of the work of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, whom Ban admires deeply and in whose work he discovered extraordinary resources in both formal and functional terms.

Thrift, keen attention to human scale and human need, delight in simplicity, an understanding of the healing and exultant qualities of beauty -- all apply to the work of both men, whose minds and souls, it seems to me, are in mystical sync.

The Aalto exhibition was designed for the Axis Gallery in Tokyo, and demands for economic restraint and a sense of aesthetic possibility sent Ban to paper as his primary material for the construction of the installation in the gallery. His choice was propitious, and would affect his work from that moment forward.

As noted above, many of the conditions that I saw in Kobe in February still existed in June when Ban came on the scene. Large numbers of residents of the city were still living in shantytowns, in tents and lean-tos. Despair and homelessness were bedfellows.

Ban told the audience in Steinberg Hall in 2001 his solution was to apply paper. He created dwellings that looked like Lincoln log houses with the logs arranged vertically rather than horizontally. In fact, the "logs" are large paper tubes. Foundations were made of sand-filled plastic beer cases. Canvas stretched to form ceilings and roofs.

Not only were the materials simple, but construction also was a relative no-brainer. Anyone given a bit of instruction and a possessing a little muscle could do the work. A process was available to fireproof the paper - which is, in fact, a traditional building material in Japan. Ban brought his sense of color and balance to the buildings, choosing Kirin beer cartons for their yellow shade, a handsome contrast against the rich brown of the cardboard paper tubes.

In addition to the dwellings, Ban also designed a chapel. It was constructed of paper and replaced a popular Kobe church destroyed by fire after the earthquake. The central interior was a simple but powerfully embracing oval shape, which was enclosed by a rectangular paper-tube building. While comely by day, it glowed at night with all the disarming beauty of the light that glows inside a Japanese paper lantern.

The church, he said, provided shelter of an ineffable sort -- spiritual and emotional shelter that was an important complement to the warmth, security and protection provided by the paper dwellings.

Ban's genius was translated efficiently to providing shelter for refugees from the genocide in Rwanda. He has designed buildings for disaster relief at earthquake sites in Turkey and India. All the while, he has been in demand to design buildings for well-heeled clients. One suspects, however, his heart is with those who suffer. He said as much in his talk at Washington U.

Washington University Architecture College dean Bruce Lindsey said, "I think Shigeru Ban shows that architects can make a difference technically but also spiritually and emotionally. One of the first things that needs to happen after a disaster is to provide a sense of safety and security, and to rebuild community," he said.

"The physical way in which we demonstrate connections with each other is with shelter, created in a community."

Lessons from new Orleans

Architect Derek Hoeferlin, a senior lecturer in the architecture college, has spent plenty of time in working on projects with students here and on site in Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

He has dedicated considerable energy on projects designed to mitigate the effects of disasters such as Katrina and Port-au-Prince, which, by the way, he refuses to blunt with the term "natural."

Sometimes the work is disarmingly modest -- a chicken coop he and his students designed, for example, a building meant to survive a hurricane and to help to sustain the chicken-farmer's wherewithal.

He ponders ways to respond appropriately and effectively to cataclysms such as Katrina and the earthquake.

"It is a very complicated thing to think about," he said, and his thoughts are not corralled in architecture. He believes that retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore was right when he said, in the case of New Orleans, "Only the military can do what needs doing now." And what the military can do now in Haiti is to address the problems of hunger and thirst and to restore order, all on President Clinton's must-do-immediately list.

When some efficiencies are established in those regards, then architecture is obliged to insert itself. In Haiti, given the scope and the severity of the devastation, one hopes that the work of Shigeru Ban will be considered as a model for remediation.

But there must be much more careful consideration of the long term and rebuilding. Hoeferlin said when he started working in New Orleans, 20 or so universities sent teams down and their teachers were champing at the bit to Do Something, efforts that Hoeferlin called, with audible disdain, the ambulance-chaser approach or tenure-track approach. Out of the 20 or so schools involved originally only a few dug in for the long term -- Washington U. among them. Genuine rebuilding, genuine disaster relief, relief that takes root and is sustained, takes years, he said.

"You build up a network of relationships," he said. "You build confidence and trust by working with groups long term. And it is important to engage other disciplines, engineers for example."

Hoeferlin said what must happen in New Orleans is to figure out the enormous problems related to water management. No sustainable rebuilding of the region can happen unless water management is understood rationally. In Haiti, the problem is bad buildings, buildings so poorly built of such flimsy materials they beg to be knocked down by high winds or shaking ground.

And that is why Hoeferlin said "natural" cannot be applied to disasters such as Katrina and Port au Prince.

"They aren't really," he said, "they're man-made -- water in New Orleans, bad buildings in Haiti. We need in our work to be advocates for the thousands who have died."

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