Building and disaster.

After getting to know the story of the earthquake in northern Japan this year, which has especially affected the city of Sendai, many of us quickly think what could have happened with the notable Media Library built by Toyo Ito a few years ago. Particularly, the performance of its structural innovations which seemed to be against any seismic-design building orthodoxy. In response to an ocassional visitor to the construction site (and via Youtube), we could notice (though very partially) the excellent performance of this innovating building against such a terrible earthquake, thus recalling the success of Frank Lloyd Wright with its also innovating –for its time period- Imperial Hotel in Tokyo against the 1923 earthquake.

Many people also remembered how construction sites with no technology innovation collapsed as a response to much more mild events, especially those occurred in our environment in the last years (particularly the collapse at the Beara discotheque and the building under construction in Villa Urquiza, both with a balance of many casualties and hurt people.) And the first feeling is the indignation for what is assumed as negligence by builders –who are supposed to be speculating to increase their profits- and responsible officers –who are supposed to be speculating on the lack of control and briberies-. Although these assumptions are justified –there is the negligent search for saving in building costs by builders and also the complicity of certain officers in letting this happen-, I would like to focus on an issue which shows how a conservative culture allows many of these disasters to happen.

And the best example to analyze is the Villa Urquiza event. Here the excavation carried out to build the foundations and basement of a new building caused the collapse of a boundary gym, leaving several hurt people and 3 casualties. This led to general indignation oriented to new construction sites: each and every new construction site should be stopped –according to this view-, as that was the problem focus. All the construction sites would be the result of unscrupulous speculators who should be stopped immediately. And only a few –among those who previouly ignored the answer- has wondered the right question: ¿has the building industry found out the manner to build under level 0 without damaging neighbors? Should the answer be affirmative, is the reason why this technology is not used the mere speculation? Even though many people will be surprised, the correct answer is that there is a technology ensuring total safety for this type of excavations, which is not used because it is not permitted as per the codings of our city. Apart from its existence, its nature is economic. Therefore, no builder would deny using it under that ground: the cost-benefit equation (implemented in any step of all industries) is highly favorable to its use. Then why is it not permitted? The politicians’ grounds (and all parties representing the city are joined as regards this) is the invasion caused to the neighbors of the construction site at issue (as it consists of an anchoring system inserted under the ground of the neighbors of the construction site, without any further consequences other than the operation remaining anchoring.) To make it worse, these grounds are fake, as the Civil Code allows for the invasion to the neighbors from any element necessary for the construction of a work (the use of scaffolding to paint a dividing wall is the most visible case of these rules.) And while it is suspected that enacting laws favoring real-property developers (and that is the reason why neither the Executive Branch nor the Legislative Branch issue these rules in this respect), I believe there is a profound denial to any technological innovation int he Rules field. And that is the main difference with the Japan case.

The building industry has a particularity if compared to other industries. While in other industries the development of prototypes allows to carry out all trials and tests which shall ensure the proper operation of products, in building such development is (except for very limited cases) impossible: each construction site is only the prototype of itself. In fact, if a prototype allows not only rehearsing all economy and security measures but also issuing the approvals which shall favor their subsequent massive consumption, in building the rules shall focus on procedures. And our coding is, in this regard, taxative. That is, it sets forth how things shall be done, not which their outcome shall be. Therefore, upon any technological change favoring the economy and security of construction sites (in fact, the increase in security results in the economic benefit in sites), certifications which are highly difficult to be granted shall be obtained –they are only obtained upon a total agreement of the industry and their professional associations- and in this case this unanimity is not even enough. While in other countries the rules demand for outcomes and thus any innovating professional may come out with their ideas and test the outcomes in order to use them at their sites (the case of the Shigeru Ban cardboard sites is pretty much clear in this respect), thus causing all others to be subsequently benefited both from innovation and statutory change. This comment shall not be understood as if the problem lies on Argentine people, as many others intend to make us believe. The last earthquake in Japan reminded us, apart from the Sendai checking, the case of the Fukushima nuclear power station: the Japanese may be as much corrupt and negligent as we are.

It is necessary to understand –and know to accept- the cultural changes demanded from all participants in a society who seek to be benefited from the innovations all of them pretend to accept. Nobody seems to claim for a set-back in certain innovations –in spite of the evident troubles many of them cause-. We are dealing with issues caused in human memory by Google and nobody asks for its prohibition or stops resorting to it. Or the recurring news about the probability of carcinogenic effects of mobile phones. The result: Nobody stops using them. The true problem is that our legal culture causes us to be delayed. It is evident in many fields (and again not only here; in fact, in many areas, we have been placed among the pioneering ones), but in building this means lives. And our legal culture causes us to be delayed because what makes us be delayed is our society.

Not many of us share the opinion that anything that favors development –in all its manners- favors security. A comparison of the outcome of the last earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Japan proves it. There are no natural disasters; there are catastrophic outcome as a result of natural events. The difference –especially between the two extremes of comparison, Haiti and Japan- is also related to a set-back return. According to this view, if we lived in small houses in small urbanizations, we would be exempted from many problems. Haiti is the clear test that it is not like that. And this is not only a technological problem, it is a cultural problem.

Youtube. Visit first Toyo Ito 1/3 The Sendai Media Center- Toyo Ito 2/3 The Sendai Media Center- Toyo Ito 3/3 The Sendai Media Center to know the site and then 2011.3.11 Earthquake Japan to see the operation during the earthquake.