"My heart is there, but my body is in L.A. It's a very strange feeling."
There, to Hitoshi Abe, is Sendai, Japan, where he was born and educated and where he still maintains an office, four years after becoming chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of California at Los Angeles. Since late last week, when an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tremendous tsunami struck northern Japan, Abe has been in a state of suspended animation.
Much of his time has been spent on the phone, learning the fates of friends and relatives. (Everyone close to him, he reports, is OK, including not just his parents, but also the employees of Atelier Hitoshi Abe.) But Abe, who has completed some 30 buildings in and around Sendai—ranging from houses to a structurally expressive 50,000-seat stadium—has yet to learn the fates of many of them. "Right now," he says, "people are trying to survive, so it's hard to get that kind of information."
Abe's studio is intact. "The interior is completely trashed," he says, "but that's OK."
Not so the architecture building at the Tohoku Institute of Technology, where Abe studied (before going on to the Southern California Institute of Architecture) and taught from 1994 to 2007. That building, he says, suffered "fatal damage. You can't even get close to it." The nine-story building was constructed in the 1970s, under less stringent seismic codes than those enacted in the 1990s.
And he knows the fate of Sendai's best-known contemporary building, the Mediatheque, by Toyo Ito. The building—which can be seen swaying interminably in this video—still stands.
But in what could be seen as a metaphor for the scale of human endeavors in the face of nature's much larger plans, the Mediatheque was filled with fragile architectural models, entered by graduate students all over Japan in an annual thesis competition founded by Abe. People were working to save the models, until authorities asked them to stay away. "It's dangerous to be there at the moment," says Abe. "But this is the mentality of the people—to save even architectural models, because they felt they needed to be sent back to the students who created them."
Saving models is one thing; rebuilding cities is another. While Sendai will survive, he says, it's hard to know whether small towns up the coast, which in some cases lost more than half their residents to the tsunami, can ever be rebuilt.
And it's too soon to begin making plans. "The worst part of the disaster is that it's still going," he says. "The aftershocks, and this nuclear threat, and the food shortages—those really worry me."
Abe is talking to people on the ground, trying to figure out the best way for Americans to assist victims of the disaster. With so many offers of help pouring in, he says, "Is it the Red Cross, or some other organization? We can't afford to make a mistake."
He adds: "My feeling is that the worst has not yet come."