Landscape architecture in Japan

The post-tsunami rebuilding of rural Japan highlights the increasing importance of landscape architecture as a discipline that bridges holistic environmental thinking with urban and architectural design.

It is hard to imagine Japan as anything but a nation of extremes. Financially, the world’s richest country, yet peculiarly also the greatest in debt; culturally, the most sophisticated in technology and design, yet one which continues to leverage off thousands of years of history; and environmentally, host to the most fragile of landscapes – with frequent earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis – and yet home to some of the most lively and resilient of communities.

The March 2011 earthquake and consequential tsunamis has become a critical reminder to the nation of its environmental fragility. Then-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Ken described it as “the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan” since the aftermath of World War Two. Its consequences continue to cause the Japanese great anxiety about contemporary attitudes to city urbanism as well as their relationship with nature.

While Tokyo emerged relatively unscathed from the natural disaster, many rural towns of Japan’s Tohoku region were destroyed, taking the lives of more than 15,000 residents and with devastating long-term consequences for its communities.

I recently attended a landscape architecture research and design workshop in both rural Shibitachi and (not-so-rural) Tokyo earlier in July, in conjunction with RMIT University Melbourne and Tokyo University. Through research and community meetings, this inter-disciplinary studio attempts to formulate urban design strategies for the Shibitachi township, recognising the many socio-political, environmental and economic constraints affecting its present condition.

Certainly, more traditional architectural approaches to rebuilding are useful, but at a more holistic level this landscape architecture studio encourages thinking that contextualises wider design parameters. It emphasises such factors as the local economy, its reliance on aquaculture and farming, its ageing population, its changing environmental conditions – fluctuating coastline, topography, climate, and ecology – as well as the coammunity’s social dynamic given the devastation caused by the 2011 tsunamis, and also from a much more prolonged trend of youth leaving the countryside for life in Tokyo.

Strangely, it seems Japanese authorities are interrogating very few of these ideas. In terms of rebuilding, governmental response has primarily been to invest in 10m-high concrete walls along the Japanese coastline, with little consideration of community wellbeing beyond fortification. The town I spent most time in, Shibitachi, experienced a 16m-high surge of water, which no wall could reasonably defend. More to the point, I wonder what psychological effect would be created by walling off a rural community from the waterfront – the very source of their aquaculture economy and the most celebrated aspect of their township?

At the same time, many architecture schools – from Southern Japan to Harvard – have volunteered design proposals for the community, but many of these have failed to hit the mark. This is a studio that seeks to create intelligent design solutions beyond outlandish sculptural speculation. It renders visible the importance of collaborative teamwork; that architects, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers and policy makers need to cooperate and work together with their communities in order to strategise sustainable methods for community rebuilding, in this case made all the more urgent due to the recent natural disasters. It illustrates that a purely infrastructural approach to design fails to cater for the psychological and cultural needs of a community, and it is in this territory that I think landscape architecture and architecture has much to contribute.

Adelaide is well positioned in this respect, with an established culture of landscape architecture and a school at Adelaide University, which simultaneously integrates this with Architecture and Urban Design programs. As a point in case, the 2012 Sir James Irwin President’s Medal – which I think is perhaps the most prestigious architecture prize in South Australia – was recently awarded to the late Kevin Taylor of landscape architecture office Taylor Cullity Lethlean, highlighting a deep respect for this discipline within the Adelaide design arena.

With our own environmental challenges here in Adelaide, particularly with regard to water and bushfire management, I think there is great room for an increased presence of landscape architecture in the state. As an aspiring designer, I really look forward to being able to collaborate with these professionals, whether it is for projects here in Australia or as far away as Japan.

Danny Brookes is the president of SONA Australia.

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