Yang Zhao, Rebuilding hope in Japan

Rebuilding hope in Japan

The fishing community in Kesennuma, a small, coastal town in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture now has a community space to replace the one that was swept away in the 2011 tsunami – thanks to Rolex mentor Kayuzo Sejima and her protégé architect Yang Zhao, from China.

Kesennuma’s Home-for-All, part of an initiative launched by Zhao’s mentor, Kazuyo Sejima, Toyo Ito and three other leading Japanese architects, is one of a number of gathering places being constructed along the stretch of Japan’s eastern coastline to aid communities devastated by the tsunami. Zhao’s eye-catching building, which is both highly contemporary and respects many elements of Japanese tradition, has won the approval not only of the local community, but also of the government.

The new construction, which was the focus of Zhao’s mentoring year with Kazuyo Sejima will be used at times as a fish market, as well as a meeting place for locals to gather informally, and possibly as a performance area for artists.

At the official opening on 27 October 2013, about 50 people, including the mayor of Kesennuma, were present to hear Yang Zhao and Kazuyo Sejima describe the origins and development of the project. Several officials expressed their thanks to Rolex for its support. The ceremony was followed by a performance by local dancers in which they mimed launching a fishing boat that had been placed in the Home-for-All. Then rice cakes were thrown to local children in a tradition that is supposed to bring good luck.

“I am very happy with the result,” Zhao said after the ceremony. “The locals are very happy too. I can read from their faces that this is a home to be lived in by all and loved by all.”

Sejima said that she was delighted with the project and especially pleased with her protégé’s interaction with local people during the conception and construction of the building. "It was a very rare relationship with Yang Zhao,” she said of the mentorship. “He was not an employee, not a student, not a friend, but suddenly we had a deep relationship. Without the Rolex Arts Initiative, we would not have met. He is a very nice man. He has his own culture and I feel China has a very long history. He has something to bring.”

Zhao pointed out that his mentor’s guidance had been crucial to the project’s success: “Without her, it would have developed in a completely different trajectory. She pushed me to make a more ambitious project when I came up with something lukewarm. Her remarks on my design helped to add more sophistication into my thinking. She reminded me of problems or potentials that I failed to notice in my design.”

Architecture mentor Kazuyo Sejima with protégé Yang Zhao at the Home-for-All in Kesennuma, Japan. © Suzuki Hisao

Architecture mentor Kazuyo Sejima with protégé Yang Zhao at the Home-for-All in Kesennuma, Japan. © Suzuki Hisao

The Home-for-All was designed in keeping with the wishes of the local community. A shelter-like structure, with a roof-covered area of 117 square metres, the Home-for-All is, for the most part, open to the exterior. There are two rooms that can be enclosed, a 10-square-metre kitchen and 5-square-metre toilets. At the centre is a triangular-shaped hole in the ceiling that allows people to gaze directly at the starry sky, a feature that local people said they particularly appreciated. On the side of the building, a raised floor facing the nearby harbour can be used as an engawa (a space underneath the eaves), an important space for Japanese architecture and daily life.

Situated just 15 metres from the sea, the Home-for-All is built alongside a semi-enclosed harbour with a high embankment, so the Home-for-All is well protected from any future tsunamis.

The Home-for-All will be open to the whole community living around the harbour – which is called Oya. Fifteen locals are joint owners, and will share maintenance costs. “Most of the people who will use the building are fishermen or fishermen’s relatives,” Zhao said. “Some of them lost their homes or family members during the tsunami in 2011 and still live in the cabin-like, temporary row houses provided by the government.”

Zhao said he believed the new space would play an important role in the community. “The seaside area was severely damaged by the tsunami and people are not allowed to rebuild their homes near the sea,” he said. “But to be close to the sea is their lifestyle, therefore a building located at the harbour is very important for the fishermen to spend time together and communicate. They can take a rest, use it as a temporary fish market, boil seaweed, or wives can wait for their husbands while making tea and food. There had been a building located on the same site which performed similar functions, but it was demolished by the tsunami.”

He added that his objective had been “to create a space that is intimate and protective, while being open and welcoming at the same time. Besides fulfilling its programmatic need, I’ve tried to create a sense of optimism and hope in the space. I feel the idea of a Home-for-All contains the quality of a chapel.”

The Home-for-All was completed rapidly. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on 20 July 2013, but construction did not begin until mid-August.

However, Yang Zhao, who has visited Kesennuma eight times, had earlier spent six weeks designing the Home-for-All full time in his office in China. “I also had six meetings with Sejima in Tokyo,” says Zhao, “as well as three meetings with the local people in Kesennuma to discuss the design and get their approval, two meetings with the structural engineer, two weeks on the construction site discussing with the contractor and recording the construction process, and two meetings with the furniture-maker in Tokyo. And, of course, numerous email discussions with my corresponding architect in Japan, Masanori Watase.”

Zhao’s wife, who is a musician, played a Guqin (a Chinese stringed instrument) at the end of the opening ceremony. The couple then stayed at the site for a while after everyone left to take in the atmosphere before starting the return journey to their home in Dali, in south-western China. Asked if he will return to Kesennuma, Zhao replied: “Yes, of course. It would be the happiest thing for me to see how the building performs as part of people’s everyday life.”