When George Kurumado showed recent photographs of downtown Sendai to the audience at the Center for Architecture in New York I almost gasped. Three months ago such photos would have elicited yawns. Scenes of people going about their business, cars moving along streets, and modern buildings standing tall rarely attract much attention. Except these were of a major city just 80 miles from the epicenter of a 9.0 earthquake and were snapped just two months after the disaster hit. I was astounded by the city's ability to look pretty darn normal 60 days after one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history had struck nearby. Certainly, Japan is still feeling great pain with more than 14,000 people killed, 13,000 people missing, and 130,000 made homeless by the earthquake and tsunami that hit on March 11. And a noxious cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over part of the country after the partial meltdowns of several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Kurumado, an architect who is the general manager of the building design department at Takenaka Corporation in Tokyo, explained that most buildings in Sendai performed well during the earthquake, in large part due to changes in Japan's seismic codes after the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 caused great damage in Kobe. Thanks to the lessons learned from the 1995 disaster, most buildings in Sendai rode out the recent quake with little or no primary structural damage. Most of the damage they did incur was due to secondary elements such as suspended ceilings, lights, shelves, and furniture moving or falling. In previous earthquakes, no one noticed such problems because evidence of them was usually buried in the rubble of buildings that collapsed or experienced major failures.
On the same panel, Mutsuro Sasaki — the great structural engineer who worked with Toyo Ito on the Sendai Mediatheque — talked about that building and how it weathered the disaster. He admitted that when he first learned of the earthquake, he worried about people in the building and couldn't sleep until he learned that no one was hurt. The building performed as designed with ductile bolts that connect the structure to the foundation absorbing most of the forces. The primary structure remained intact, as did the building's iconic glass envelope. The damage that was incurred was to suspended ceilings and secondary elements. Today, the building is open to the public, except for its seventh (top) floor.
The panel, which was organized by Motoko Shoboji and Noushin Ehsan for the AIA's Global Dialogues Committee, was moderated by Toru Hasegawa of Columbia University and included responses from architect Paul Katz of KPF, engineer Leslie Robertson, architect Rafael Viñoly, and myself.