Sendai, Japan 2012
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Infrastructural Indifference
Instructor: Jason Payne, UCLA

There are two ways to escape a tsunami: the first is to just run away as fast as you can, and the second is to find higher ground. After the 9.0 earthquake ripped open the ocean floor off the coast of Japan on March 11th 2011 at 2:46pm, the residents of Sendai only had minutes to decide before the wave would breach the shoreline.

In an effort to reduce the damage of the next tsunami -a consequence of its imminence - the Sendai City Earthquake Disaster Reconstruction plan has proposed a vision which isolates infrastructural systems into discrete modalities of damage reduction: break-water walls on the shore line, flood control canals, evacuation towers, paths, and hills. The hills become of particular interest to architecture as they are multivalent and saturated with formal potentialities within the context of the flat landscape of Sendai.

As distended deviations from a level surface, the hills actively produce a dialectic relationship which compares the ‘natural’ with the ‘artificial’ - a dialectic that has had many inquiries and examinations throughout history.

For example, immediately after the end of World War II, the Allies initiated plans to demolish a Nazi military college and research institute - designed by Albert Speer - inTeufelsberg, Berlin. As it proved too difficult to fully dismantle, the Allies decided that it would be easier to bury it with rubble and plant a forest on the surface.1 This grave, known as “Devil’s Mountain”, exudes a haunting and spectral aura, one that Walter Benjamin may have found to be dubious in his discussion of aura:

"The concept of aura which was proposed above with reference to historical objects may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural ones." (Benjamin) 2

One would assume that the illustration of Benjamin’s conception of aura could be read through falsely natural objects such as Devil’s Mountain.

Another example, perhaps even more consequential to the production of form, is the work of an avant-garde painter by the name of Grant Wood. Many of his paintings, such as Young Corn in 1931, provoke a sense of an amplified bucolic - a form of abstraction which distorts reality. His depictions of Midwestern landscapes are imbued with swollen and turgid hills that are exaggerations of natural forms, which oscillate between readings that are natural and simultaneously unnatural - perhaps artificial.

This project for the tragically flattened coast of Sendai, proposes a composed collection of rubble filled bags that become asserted as hills with exaggerated and amplified features; features which are unsettling as much as they are themselves unsettled. Contrary to conventional gabion rock cages - which are rigid cubic objects - the bags are soft figures which settle and contort into odd and unnatural positions.

The hills are proposed in conjunction with a field of evacuation towers, which are weighted objects, that the hills settle into, over and around. The resulting wrinkles on the surface of the hills index the force of the collision between forms which become pathways, hiking trails and evacuation paths.

While in the event of a tsunami, the evacuation towers lose their currency as such, because the highest ground is actually the hills; which stand at 55m high. The towers become functionless follys that are consumed by waves of rubble. To evacuate, the inhabitants of the city of Sendai would flee to the top of the hill.

As infrastructure, the proposed hills and towers therefore move away from pure function and can be misread through aesthetic qualities. Through the constant misreadings of forms - natural vs unnatural, functional vs aesthetic, legibile vs illegible - the project eludes perceivable definitions of function and allows for an optimistic aestheticization of infrastructure, rather than succumb to pure utility.