A 6.2 magnitude earthquake devastated several villages - Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata and Pescara del Tronto - in the centre of Italy in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The focus of the quake was shallow (2.5 miles underground) and, as a consequence, the destruction was greater, with a death toll that has been quickly rising in the last 24 hours. The quake was felt in an ample area that went from Emilia Romagna to Campania, and conjured up in the mind of many people the terrible ghost of the L'Aquila earthquake. Saving the survivors remains the priority in these situations, but the rebuilding process that follows in these situations is a vital issue.
A few months ago an exhibition entitled "Creation From Catastrophe" at London's Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) tackled this problem, reminding visitors that it is an immense challenge to reconstruct cities devastated by earthquakes, tsunamis or fires. At the same time, the reconstruction represents the chance to right the wrongs of the past and create better structures.
A disaster such as an earthquake should make us realise how fragile life is, while at the same time inspire new building solutions. Japan's most influential architectural movement - Metabolism - emerged for example after WWII when the country faced its greatest post-disaster planning and reconstruction challenge.
Metabolism conceived cities as living and ever-evolving entities, and environmental disasters prompted architects to come up with structures that could withstand earthquakes and tsunamis and allowed human beings to live with nature rather than fight it. Metabolism's proposals for Hiroshima, Tokyo and Ise Bay in Japan as well as Skopje, in Macedonia, were all featured in the RIBA exhibition.
As a whole the exhibition at RIBA showed ten case studies in four continents, highlighting how architects reimagined cities and societies. The event opened with Christopher Wren's reconfiguration of London after the Great Fire of 1666, with historic projects visualising a masterplan.
Further case studies included the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (that was followed by fires and a tsunami); the great fire of Chicago in 1871; the major earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Chile in 2010; floods in Pakistan and Nigeria (2010 and 2012); the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 with the resulting tsunami that caused the release of radioactive materials; the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey (2012).
There are definitely many lessons to be learnt from natural disasters: Alejandro Aravena and his architectural practice ELEMENTAL worked for example in Chile with the citizens and local government in a community-based approach, but also the Homes-for-All initiative in Japan was the result of a collaboration of a group of architects - Toyo Ito, Riken Yamamoto, Hiroshi Naito, Kengo Kuma and Kazuyo Sejima - with the earthquake survivors.
Their project moved from one main aim - gifting a home to all the people who lost theirs during the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake - but it soon turned into a discovery process and an opportunity to ponder a bit about the future of society and architecture.
For this project the architects worked with the locals to recreate a sense of community and created models of houses (the various steps of the project were showcased at the Japan Pavilion at the 13th Venice International Architecture Biennale and won it the Golden Lion for Best National Participation) that featured different elements, extensions, balconies and spaces ideal to gather and congregate.
Toyo Ito, Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto, and Akihisa Hirata designed for the occasion a vertical structure that resembled a grove and that was partially inspired by the floats on display in an annual festival known as Kenka Tanabata, with nineteen cedar logs wrapped around the building creating a number of balconies on varying levels.
In most of the projects included in the "Creation From Catastrophe" event at RIBA, architects became educators, community facilitators, activists and builders that planned for disasters and extreme situations.
Italy is in mourning at the moment for the victims of this latest earthquake, but inspiration for the next phase should maybe come from these projects and from Toyo Ito's words: "A disaster zone where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is."
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