Mind & Matter


When the Strongest Falls

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A a tsunami-damaged area in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. Image courtesy of The New York Times.


Last week’s massive earthquake in Japan brought profoundly disturbing news. The video sequences of tsunami waves mercilessly bulldozing their way through coastal cities made hurricane Katrina seem a relatively calm event by comparison. At the time of this writing the death toll is unknown, but is estimated to be over 10,000 in the town of Minamisanriku alone.

As the rescue effort intensifies, we are faced with a deeply unsettling reality. Japan is arguably the most prepared nation in the world when it comes to earthquakes and tidal waves. The robust engineering employed pervasively in buildings and infrastructure there, in addition to reliable emergency warning systems and drills, arguably spared many lives. However, no preparations would provide invincible protection against the force of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake—and some preparations can instill a false sense of security, such as the seawalls that failed to protect nuclear power plants constructed nearby.

As John Schwarz speculated in Sunday’s New York Times, other nations with seismically active regions would do well to take note of Japan’s recent megadisaster. Given the increased frequency and gravity of natural catastrophes in a more populated and urbanized world, architects and planners would do well to learn from Japan’s example and expand their knowledge of structures that exhibit increased resilience against natural calamities—acknowledging that, in the end, "nature bats last."




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.