Gkoliomyti / Towards a Non-neoliberal design paradigm

Towards a Non-neoliberal design paradigm ISHINOMAKI 2.0 – a network of grassroots community building

Author: Anastasia Gkoliomyti, University of Athens; Tokyo Institute of Technology

Supervisor: Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Tokyo Institute of Technology

Research stage: initial doctoral stage

Category: Paper


The research focuses on community-driven guerilla interventions and architectural responses to the disaster that occurred in Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake in the Tohoku region, otherwise known at the Triple Disaster or 3.11. The purpose of this approach is to generate new theories and frameworks for conceptualizing and representing design, its scope and to instigate a direction for educational reform that begins to separate from neoliberal market prerogatives. The first part of the research formulates a critique of the neoliberal project, commenting on previous design’s limited scope and failure to include a bigger picture of worldly processes that do not only entail growth and value engineering, but also worldly broken-ness1. The second part of the research explores architectural practices that took place in Ishinomaki, a city in the Tohoku region of Japan that suffered a massive blow in the triple disaster.

Methodologically, the research follows Joan Tronto2, and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s3 call to pivot from Latourian matters of concern4 to matters of care, giving foreground stage to the largely overlooked dimension of community-led repair as a distinct mode of commoning and a way of designing a new operating framework in the urban realm. In 2017, Professor of Geography at Memorial University Josh Lebowski, associate Professors Max Liboiron, Arn Keeling and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Calgary, Charles Mather started deliberating on the potential notion of a spatial consideration of repair, using the term “Repairscapes”5. Positioning maintenance and repair into the design thinking realm after being directly inspired by Steven J. Jackson’s “Re-thinking Repair”6, they draw the extension of Jackson's statement from STS into geography and spatial anthropology7. Building on that gesture, the research is pondering on design implications for repair.

The projects are selected for their focus on maintenance and repair and are articulated to establish a design methodology of repair, while reframing disaster as an opportunity for new non-neoliberal networks to emerge. These networks can be networks of production of architecture, community networks and relations between the city and the countryside. By commenting on such occurrences this research is attempting to elucidate architecture’s broader design response-abilities that supersede the architectural object and can encompass ways in which architects can orchestrate design in a Harawayian “sympoietic care”8 ethos.9 It is informed by the case of ISHINOMAKI 2.0, the grassroots movement that emerged directly following the disaster of 2011 and its activity in three different projects, namely: 1. Ishinomaki IRORI, 2. Ishinomaki Bookshelf, and 3. Recovery Bar. The methodology of the research consists of interviews, literature review as well as ethnographic and visual observations to support the analysis.

Part A. Reevaluating the Architectural Project: Post-disaster community design in Japan

Design practices’ inherent forward looking has been chronically sidetracked in the 20th century, diminishing speculation within architectural design thinking.10 As architectural researcher Ana Jeinić posits, from socio-material pressures that arose following the criticism of the Fordist model to the unsustainability of carbon driven industries, speculation skepticism kept growing as dystopian visions in the 1960s and 70s became prominent, bringing stagnancy in architectural imagination. That trend kept intensifying with the neoliberal turn that led to design thinking catering to market-oriented reforms.

Design studios that ought to be the space where speculative ideas about contemporary urban issues could be explored, ended up “giving free-market ideology a physical form”11. That is what Jeinić describes as the “neoliberal project”. Some aspects of neo-liberal design include value engineering through contract limitations, standardization protocols, public-private partnerships all of which make business the most important factor in construction – this is where the design outcome’s fate is out of the hands of architects. All the above have led to what Daniel Davis calls professional “disintermediation”.12

It seems that architecture primarily sits in the realm of abstraction. There is rarely a moment of impact with the real world, and that is the malaise of the neoliberal architectural project. Most of current stakeholders within the profession and academia assume that the industry is strong enough to be led from within, not identifying the external forces that have made architectural decision making irrelevant. In this context, architectural education’s paradigm is outdated as long as it keeps perpetuating typical patronage relationships of architect and client, rather than exploring the organic formation of design responses to “real world needs”. (fig. 1)

Following series upon series of natural and man-made disaster that the 21st century has witnessed, the ongoing global pandemic has made clear the “fragility of forms of life against others”, the rigidity of our systems, the crashing of our markets, and the failure of architecture to be relevant in the reordering of our world. The question now is, how to “re-entangle” architectural design? When existing structures collapse following disaster, design itself is establishing a new structure to operate within it. Design as real-world response is always in a process of organically re-inventing itself to cater to the needs of the world. New knowledge is produced about the world through the act of designing and captured in a timely fashion by design-based research. Disaster can become an opportunity for “non-neoliberal projects” to emerge where the direction of institutions is led by design-based research and not vice versa.

Part B. Towards a Non-neoliberal design paradigm:
ISHINOMAKI 2.0 – a network for grassroots community building

I. Ishinomaki Bookshelf

ISHINOMAKI2.0 is a general incorporated association based in the city center of Ishinomaki, having as its mission statement to transform the town to “the most interesting town on earth” (Personal communication with Katsu Kuniyoshi, January 2022). Following the disaster, the organizing members of ISHINOMAKI 2.0 together with Ippokoten Hon Sentai, an organization that has been delivering books to book lovers in the affected areas collaborated to create Ishinomaki Machi no Hondana" a joint project to provide a community book-reading space. The project started in July 2012 where there were events to collect books from people who had nowhere to store them anymore, as their houses had been destroyed, or from people that were not severely affected and wanted to volunteer their belongings for the sake of those worse off.

For two days "Ishinomaki Book Aid - One Box Used Book Market" and "play bookstore" were two events where individuals would bring a cardboard box of books. (fig. 2) At the closing symposium of those two events, an idea was born to set up a "community space with books" in the city center. In July 2013, and with the support of "hope & home", a reconstruction support project by eight housing magazines, a self-building workshop led by Satoru Hatakeyama and a plastering workshop led by Shuhei Hasado were held, and the project was completed with the participation of staff, local residents, and people from outside the prefecture (fig. 2, 3). The Ishinomaki Town Bookshelf is now open every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. It is a space where anyone can browse freely and borrow books to read at home. The library has a collection of approximately 2,000 books, including used books as well as new books available for purchase.

II. IRORI (Interaction Room Of Revitalization and Innovation)

Established in December 2011, IRORI Ishinomaki was transformed and renovated by the local community from a garage damaged by the tsunami (fig. 5) to an open shared office (fig. 6,7). In 2016, IRORI underwent further refurbishment and a large scale face-lift to become a multi-purpose cultural facility with a coffee stand and a working space. From a classroom to a movie theatre, to a social laboratory, IRORI can be used for a wide range of purposes. It is a flat and timeless platform for people of different walks of life, from within or from outside, to gather, connect and inspire each other. IRORI serves as the town’s lobby, playing an active role in networking the local community with visitors, and a symbol of community volunteering after the tragedy of 2011.

III. Recovery Bar

A previously operating dining bar ended up suffering damages, being flooded to the ceiling. (fig. 8) In a matter of 3 days following the disaster the space was renovated with the cooperation of "Ishinomaki Laboratory" to create a new space for both local and foreign volunteers to gather to exchange information. The walls are covered with pictures of the master's thoughts and feelings, creating a unique place for exchange. The bar characteristically operates on a "one-day owner system" where anyone can become a shopkeeper, and it is also used as a place for PR.
It has become a one-of-a-kind place where customers from all over the world come to meet the charming daily masters who have various backgrounds. The Ishinomaki area has connected with many people through various opportunities, including the Recovery Bar. Sketches completed on the train on the way from Tokyo to Ishinomaki were used by local volunteers (fig. 9) and designers from far and wide used impact drivers and paint to complete the work. With the attitude of using everything that could be used at that time, even screws from washed-up road signs the bar was completed in a spirit of solidarity (fig. 10) and turned on its light in an otherwise destroyed dark street.


Part of understanding how the world breaks down comes from understanding how the world is connected. On-going, budding speculation has as its counterpart broken-world thinking, bringing with it the corresponding design research for such a world. In this context, repair is emerging as a necessary design thinking skill. By focusing on architectural responses to disaster in Japan, following the Tohoku Triple Disaster of 3.11, design thinking that departs from real worldliness and brokenness was explored to show design’s extended response-ability towards mutual assistance and solidarity. Through repair practices, communities can reinvent, appropriate, and create urban commons by stitching together previously broken private and/ or public resources, creating porous spaces that take on the effort to reimagine the city that has been destroyed.13 The creation of unauthorized paths through the volunteer activities of relief14 in the Tohoku area challenged established notions of design and revealed the limitations of design thinking to include all aspects of the world we live in, and particularly the processes in which the world breaks down and is stitched back together.

As a result of the above positioning, the research pointed to an expansion of the architect’s agency in our broken world to bring forth an extension of “scope of design” to include “repair design” for “worldly ongoingness”15. Citizen-led repair initiatives in Ishinomaki that collectively created new relationships ephemerally or permanently in the urban realm re-established the configuration of existing production, consumption, and discarding networks differently than previously instructed by the neoliberal model. As existing neoliberal approaches do not put emphasis on potential disastrous events, when such occurrences take place there exists an opportunity for alternative networks to emerge to fill up the gaps of the neoliberal model. These alternative networks can be argued to be operating in a ‘sympoietic care’ spirit as seen in Tohoku’s guerilla initiatives.

Professional, Institutional and Design Dis-entanglement with the Real World

Figure 1: Professional, Institutional and Design Dis-entanglement with the Real World

July 2012 - Ishinomaki Book Aid - One Box Used Book Market Event (courtesy of Kuniyoshi Katsu – Katsu Studio)

Figure 2: July 2012 - Ishinomaki Book Aid - One Box Used Book Market Event (courtesy of Kuniyoshi Katsu – Katsu Studio)

Community Building with local organizations and residents during a building workshop event (courtesy of Kuniyoshi Katsu – Katsu Studio)

Figure 3: Community Building with local organizations and residents during a building workshop event (courtesy of Kuniyoshi Katsu – Katsu Studio)

Community Building with local organizations and residents during a building workshop event (courtesy of Kuniyoshi Katsu – Katsu Studio)

Figure 4: Community Building with local organizations and residents during a building workshop event (courtesy of Kuniyoshi Katsu – Katsu Studio)

Garage damaged by the Earthquake and Tsunami (courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

Figure 5: Garage damaged by the Earthquake and Tsunami (courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

Design of IRORI (courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

Figure 6: Design of IRORI (courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

IRORI (courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

Figure 7: IRORI (courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

 Destroyed Dining Bar, Ishinomaki, March 2011(courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

Figure 8: Destroyed Dining Bar, Ishinomaki, March 2011(courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

Sketch on the train from Tokyo to Ishinomaki – Keiji Ashizawa (Source: https://colocal.jp/topics/life...)

Figure 9: Sketch on the train from Tokyo to Ishinomaki – Keiji Ashizawa (Source: https://colocal.jp/topics/life...)

Community DIY – Recovery Bar, Ishinomaki (courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

Figure 10: Community DIY – Recovery Bar, Ishinomaki (courtesy Kuniyoshi Katsu, Katsu Studio)

  1. “Pedagogies for a Broken World | JAE Journal of Architectural Education,” accessed March 14, 2022, http://www.jaeonline.org/pages....

    “For broken-world theorists such as Steven J. Jackson, Shannon Mattern, and Achille Mbembe, breakdowns reveal the real limits and fragility of the world. Such bold and raw recognition of the fragility of and prospects for the world—firmly situated within a specific historical moment—is fundamental for the necessary adjustment, reframing, and fixing of it. Indeed, seeing the world for what it is enables recasting our characterization of it: from “broken” into “unfinished,” from narratives of progress to tactics of resistance and care. Architecture serves as not just the stage for such breakdowns but, at times, as the very means through which social ideals and their challenges are constructed and disseminated.”
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  6. Steven Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Media Technologies (MIT Press, 2014), 221–39.
  7. Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care,” Places Journal, no. 2018 (2018): 1–31.
  8. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble : Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Experimental Futures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 37.
  9. Anastasia Gkoliomyti and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, “[Post-Disaster ‘ Memoryscapes ’ ] 1 POST-DISASTER ‘ MEMORYSCAPES ’ : ARCHITECTURAL MEDIUMS AS PRACTICES OF CARE,” no. October (2021): 1–14.
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  14. Andreas Petrossiants, “The Art of Mutual Aid,” Net Worth, 2001, 159–96.
  15. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble : Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Introduction.