Architect Hitoshi Abe

Internationally acclaimed architect and educator explains why one can’t really prepare for the kind of devastation that his native Sendai, Japan encountered.

Born and raised in Sendai, Japan—which bore the brunt of the country's recent and devastating earthquake and tsunami—Dr. Hitoshi Abe is considered among the most important architects of the current Japanese generation. He's also a leader in education, beginning at the city's Tohoku Institute of Technology and continuing in L.A., where he chairs UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design and directs the school's Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. In addition, he helms his own international architectural design firm, Atelier Hitoshi Abe.


Tavis: Hitoshi Abe is a native of Sendai, Japan who now serves as the chair of UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Among his many notable projects is the work he’s doing in conjunction with Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Professor Abe, nice to have you on this program.
Professor Hitoshi Abe: Thank you.
Tavis: Let me start by asking about your family. I know that you are the eighth generation of your family born and raised in Sendai, one of the hardest-hit cities in Japan, given this earthquake and tsunami. So tell me about your family, first of all, and how they’re doing.
Abe: They’re doing fine, luckily. Actually, I was so worried, because they are living in the area called Wakabayashi. It was so close to the area badly hit, and also I couldn’t reach them for two days because the phone wasn’t working and so on. So basically, I was freaking out worrying about my parents, and luckily two days after I could reach through my brother’s cell phone and he told me that they’re fine and that was a really big relief.
Tavis: Yeah, I can imagine.
Abe: Yes.
Tavis: As an architect – first of all, your first concern, obviously, is for your family. But as an architect who has built buildings back in your – designed buildings –
Abe: Yes, a lot.
Tavis: – a lot of buildings back in your native country and in this region where you grew up, when you see the damage wrought by this earthquake, 9.0, this earthquake and this tsunami, as an architect surveying the damage, you think what?
Abe: Again, nobody builds a building for this kind of earthquake. This is an earthquake which might happen once in a millennium. Luckily, actually, I have so many buildings built around that area and my office is still there, and I found out that many of my buildings are fine. Maybe they have some minor damages.
I have to say that that area was well-prepared for the earthquake. They even have this anti-earthquake structure, they have also early earthquake notifying system and so on, but still, you can’t really, really be prepared for this kind of devastation.
Tsunami, since we have so many earthquake, we have a kind of sense that the tsunami is about this size, it’s maybe about one meter. But this one went over, like, what, 15 to 20 meters, and you can’t really build a building, especially houses, prepared for this. It’s going to be way too expensive.
So again, this went beyond the imagination of anybody, and probably it is almost very difficult to prepare the building against such kind of a strong, strong earthquake.
Tavis: For those buildings that you constructed that did survive, and to your point earlier, many of the buildings that you constructed – designed, I should say; you didn’t construct them – designed in this region of Japan, many of them suffered minor damage, but they’re still standing. To what do you attribute that, that they’re still standing?
Abe: One thing, I have to say that I’ve been just lucky to have a building in much safer area. If you look at Sendai, most of the city area is sitting on the old area, so that the ancient people knew where the safe place is, with a very strong underground condition.
Luckily, most of my buildings are standing there. There’s only one building sitting by the coast area, which were also luckily a little bit protected by the configuration of the bay, so that it didn’t get hit by the wave. But otherwise, if I did the house in the area with severe damage by tsunami, there’s no way that I could design something against that.
Tavis: With all that said, it is true, though, that this could have been so much worse, and it’s always hard to remember that and to focus in on that when you look and survey the damage that was done. Yet it could have been so much worse, yes?
Abe: Yes, because again, Sendai is known for these earthquakes, and we are predicting every 30 years there’s kind of a big one. So I remember when I was in high school there was a quite big one which actually required to change the architectural code for the earthquake in Japan. So it was quite big, but not this big.
So I have to say that the area was well prepared for, again, the way you build a building, also the way to notify people so they put the sensor along the coastline so they could notify the hit of the earthquake before, like 30 seconds before it hits, so that people knew that the earthquake is coming and how big it will be.
But still, it couldn’t help everybody. Still, also it helped so many people which could have been lost otherwise.
Tavis: I’ve done a lot of work for this show and for PBS, the network, relative to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, so the houses that you have been behind designing with Brad Pitt in the Lower Ninth Ward, I’ve spent time in those houses and done interviews and talked to people who now live there, et cetera. So I’ve seen the work that you do.
I raise Katrina because we learned a lot about the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What is it that the nation, that the world, is learning about the people of Japan after this earthquake and tsunami?
Abe: Actually, I’m sure you’ve seen how people are behaving under this crisis, and it’s kind of I’m so proud that the people are dealing with this disaster. People are really helping each other.
What happened was that the large system totally destroyed so that you can’t buy stuff in a large supermarket because they are so much relying on the large distribution system. But pop and mom store, you know the small stores?
Tavis: Mom and pop, yeah, I know them well.
Abe: Mom and pop stores, they are the ones who are distributing food to everybody because they are run by one person who has energy to look for the goods. Those small systems are working, and also some people with lots of rice giving their food to somebody else, and they are supporting each other. So the smaller system of the community is really, really helping to survive during this difficult time.
Tavis: How concerned are you – I know this is not your area of expertise; nor is it mine, but you have to be concerned, although we’re hearing now that it’s starting to stabilize, that is to say these nuclear plants. But as a native of Japan, what do you make of –
Abe: Right. That’s a big concern to me too. I talked to my friends there and my parents there about this, and right now what they’re doing is trying not to think about it, because it’s just too much to think. Also, they know that if they freak out about this, that will do more damages.
So again, they know how to kind of let it go and survive as much as they can, so I think right now what we can do best, at least if we are in those circumstances, not to think, and I hope that something really good happens to save that problem. Meanwhile, they are really, really trying to focus on the issue in front of them – food, water and gas to survive.
Tavis: Finally, when you’re this far away from your family in a disaster like this, you feel what? You feel hopeless, you feel thankful that they’re alive, you feel –
Abe: I feel guilty.
Tavis: You feel guilty.
Abe: I feel really guilty because my heart is there. I can feel the pain. But also, I cannot help them directly. Then I’m here talking about it, but still, I’m not there. I feel so guilty that I’m not there being with them, and I’m trying to actually do something I can do here, raising voice and trying to organize people to think about the reconstruction of the area. But still, I feel guilty.
Tavis: Well, that’s where your expertise comes in, though – you’ve got people thinking and talking about reconstruction of the area, so there’s a role for each of us to play and this is where you come in.
Abe: Right.
Tavis: Now it’s time for you to go to work.
Abe: I hope so.
Tavis: I’m going to let you do that, Professor Hitoshi Abe of UCLA.
Abe: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to have you on the program, all the best to you and to your family.
Abe: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Thanks for coming and talking about it.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm