The earthquake and tsunami in East Japan in 2011, devastated many homes in the northern Tohoku region of Japan. One of the communities affected was a small fishing town on the northern side called Onagawa. The tsunami destroyed the ports and many fishing communities along the coastline as well as multiple residential localities in the town. Following the aftermath of the disaster, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, under the local government, created the Onagawa Container Housing along with a community center and an atelier, in response to the citizen’s needs.
One of the major setbacks in the construction of these container housing in the Onagawa region was the topography. The coastline has very little flat land which leads into a hilly region, therefore leaving very little space for construction. The only area that was available to construct this housing was a baseball field, which was limited in size for individual single-storey buildings. To resolve this, Ban designed nine buildings, each two–to–three stories, stacking marine transportation containers in a checkered pattern. In the limited flat land available, Shigeru Ban’s studio designed 189 multi-storeyed temporary housing for the displaced residents of the Onagawa region.
The design was to quickly and inexpensively construct temporary housing which would cater to all the needs of the people. Ban stacked shipping containers in a checkerboard pattern, creating an open layout for the houses and enabling more light and airflow. The arrangement also allowed for the privacy of the families and the availability of parking space. An added bonus of using shipping containers was the quick assembly of the prefabricated units, therefore cutting construction costs. While normal housing for relocation is created under government guidelines and aims only to solve the time, space, and budget restrictions, Shigeru Ban’s design for the people of Onagawa was created in response to the needs of the people as well. The homes and community spaces designed for them were created such that the people feel at ease with their surroundings and allowed them to return to their routines, even though it was only temporary. After its use as temporary housing, the container structures could also be reassembled later as permanent structures.
Shigeru Ban’s design team planned three types of plans, 6 tsubos, 9 tsubos, and 12 tsubos, depending on the combination of containers (A tsubo is a Japanese unit of area equal to approximately 3.31 sq. metres). The layout of the spaces in these three types was made to accommodate single or couples, families of four, and families with more than four respectively. The alternating checkerboard arrangement, allowed for free-flowing living spaces, with built-in shelves and storage. The children’s room, bath, and toilets were placed in relatively small containers and were arranged in between the containers used for the core living spaces.
Most government-issued homes rarely come with amenities like storage or interiors. But Shigeru Ban decided to incorporate as much homely feel as he could within the budget he was allotted by incorporating shelves in the inhabitable spaces between the containers. The Voluntary Architects Network (VAN) also created built-in furniture such as wall-mounted and floor-standing storage shelves in each unit using the donations they had collected to give the residents a more comfortable life.
The design also aimed to solve one of the main issues faced by such small communities after a disaster ruins their lives – the loss of the vibe and feel of a community. As a solution, the design team incorporated a community space in the design. With the community center, outdoor market cafe, and atelier, the shipping container housing creates an environment where people can see a semblance of normalcy in their life – engage with neighbours, host events, and communal gatherings. More importantly, it allows people to get the social interaction that they crave in the aftermath of a crisis.
The design has a market and a community center in the centre of the site, offering a gathering space for community members. Stores are not located in this neighbourhood, and the people would have to travel far for daily necessities. The market also served as a platform for local vendors to open their shops for their fellow townsmen affected by the tsunami. The market is formed with a ring of containers to provide space for the shops and the central space is covered with a tensile roof for weather protection. The walls of the community center are formed with white shipping containers and are capped with a plywood gable roof. The use of triangular clerestory windows on either side provides ample natural light in the interior space. The atelier was designed as a work and play space for the children. It is made of paper tube columns and beams and has built-in cabinets for storage.
Arup, a design firm of engineers, architects, and technical specialists, assisted architect Shigeru Ban in the structural aspects of the design for the shipping container housing. Resistant frames were arranged in the checkerboard pattern to improve the stability and to help scatter the seismic and wind forces. Hardware used in marine transportation was used to connect each container. Compared to most temporary housing, these container houses were more resilient and also provided higher sound insulation. The structure was also built in such a way that it could be disassembled and transported with ease to reuse in other disaster-stricken areas if needed or even converted into permanent housing. The construction was successfully completed in 14 weeks.
The Onagawa Container Housing Project is an excellent example that shows us how temporary architecture can be responsive to needs and well-planned, while not compromising on cost and aesthetics. Although this project has its own drawbacks such as the lack of landscaping, its chain-linked boundary fence with just a gate at the entry, the lack of seamless transition between roads and pedestrian pavements etc. Irrespective of these imperfections, the project is still one of the most well-designed responses to disaster. This project shows us how a well-designed living space can encourage the growth and development of the town, solely by preserving the sense of community among the people. Through the Onagawa Container Housing Project, Shigeru Ban has shown us how the lack of permanency in a design, in no way makes it unnecessary to create a good design.
Ballard, L., 2018. The Architect’s Role in Disaster Recovery. [ebook] Auburn, pp.36-47. Available at: <https://aydelott.org/aydelott_wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/2018_Lauren_Ballard_AU_web.pdf> [Accessed 21 May 2021]
shigerubanarchitects.com. CONTAINER TEMPORARY HOUSING, ONAGAWA 2011. [online] Available at:<http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com/works/2011_onagawa-container-temporary-housing/index.html> [Accessed 21 May 2021].
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