Critic’s Notebook: Rethinking memorials in aftermath of Japan tsunami

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“You are about to see something strange and very memorable,” architect Yoshihiro Horii told me as we were driving near the waterfront in Ishinomaki, a city of 160,000 people in northeastern Japan that was heavily damaged by the earthquake and tsunami last March 11.

As his wife, a fellow architect named Shoko Fukuya, steered the car over the crest of a hill, we caught a glimpse of what he was talking about: a giant red metal cylinder, 35 feet high and dramatically mangled by the force of the tsunami, sitting right in the median, with traffic zooming by on both sides.

The three of us parked the car and climbed out to inspect this odd piece of apocalyptic detritus, which the tsunami carried nearly 1,000 feet from Ishinomaki’s port. It turned out to be a fish-oil tank that used to stand outside the offices of Kinoya, a seafood processing company. Painted years ago to resemble a can of whale meat, it was once a popular backdrop for photos by visitors to the company.


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In its crumpled form and new location, the tank — which locals simply call “the big can” — has become the object of intense curiosity in this part of Japan, which is struggling to recover from the disaster. It may also suggest an inventive way for Japan to think about the process of designing memorials and monuments to the estimated 19,000 people killed.

The central government in Tokyo is likely to commission a national March 11 memorial; Arahama Beach, a badly flooded coastal section of Sendai, the only large city in the region, is sometimes mentioned as a potential site. Whoever is chosen to design it will be able to draw on a rich legacy of memorials in Japanese architecture, which includes Kenzo Tange’s spare reinforced-concrete 1955 monument to nuclear destruction in Hiroshima.

But the sheer scope of the 2011 disaster and the diversity of the cities and villages it ravaged means that a single monument may not be sufficient, or appropriate. And the aesthetic force of the can suggests that officials should consider pairing any official monument with a network of smaller, or less formal, found memorials.

PHOTOS: Scenes of disaster

As we stood gaping at the giant can, Horii said that a group of artists has circulated a petition asking the city government of Ishinomaki to preserve it and keep it where it is. Clearly if it is turned into a permanent monument the city will have to devise a better way for visitors to reach it; parking quickly and dashing across two lanes of traffic, as we did, doesn’t exactly put one in a reflective and contemplative mood.


But after writing about the hugely complicated process of creating a memorial at the World Trade Center site, at the Oklahoma City federal building and elsewhere — to say nothing of the controversy now swirling over Frank Gehry’s plans for a Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial just off the Mall in Washington, D.C. — it seems to me there’s something to be said for any effort to re-imagine this eternally fraught corner of design practice.

Especially in the U.S., memorial design stands at an awkward and uncertain moment. Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial has become a punching bag in the press, with classically minded architects as well as members of Eisenhower’s family criticizing it for what they see as an insufficiently somber attitude toward both architectural and presidential history. A congressional subcommittee plans to hold a hearing on the memorial next week.

The National September 11 Memorial by Michael Arad and Peter Walker at the World Trade Center, which opened in September, has been a staggeringly expensive undertaking whatever you make of its design. The memorial and adjacent museum, set to open next year, will cost a combined $700 million, with operating costs adding an additional $60 million to $100 million each year. Entering the complex means navigating a series of security checkpoints more thorough than the ones you find in many airports.

Then there is the recently completed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. A collaboration between Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin and ROMA Design Group, it not only took a King quote out of context — requiring it to be re-carved — but seems to draw its design inspiration from the most bloated, inflexible sort of Socialist Realism.

By contrast, the mangled red can in Ishinomaki eludes both bombast and easy readings. The way it manages to suggest two very different scales simultaneously — the quotidian scale of the supermarket shelf and the stunning strength of the tsunami — gives it some Pop art shadings and makes it even more artistically meaningful than, say, the twisted steel beams from the World Trade Center that will go on display at the Sept. 11 museum.

And other candidates for found memorials, it turns out, exist all over the Tohoku region of northeast Japan. In Onagawa, three separate buildings lie hauntingly on their sides in a part of the city otherwise left bare by the tsunami. The largest of the three, a four-story building wrenched from its foundations by the storm surge and dumped 10 yards or so from its concrete foundation, could make a powerful statement about the way the disaster has thoroughly upended life in this part of Japan.


To be effective, these found monuments will have to be framed in the right way, with signage and landscaping taking on a bigger burden than they do in a typical memorial. There is also a risk that once set officially apart from their contexts the objects may lose some of their strange and surprising visual power.

But given how overpriced and underwhelming so many traditional memorials have turned out to be in recent years, that may be a risk worth taking.