Terra Forma

disaster, recovery, and aesthetics along a tsunami coast

Terra firma expresses the idealized association of the land with stability and solidity. In reality, landscapes are in constant flux. While tectonic and climatic shifts continually reshape the planet’s surface, human will and artifice have become geological forces in their own right, tirelessly sculpting the land and its boundaries. In this way, it may be more meaningful to speak of the conditions of terra forma, in which land is understood as a place, a space, and a fundamental material of the earth’s own continuous reworking.


In the summer of 2017, I traveled to four different towns on the Sanriku coast of northeastern Japan, an area devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 called by various names: 3.11, the Great East Japan Earthquake, 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami. The earthquake was the most powerful ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful recorded on the planet; in most areas of the coast the tsunami’s height was unprecedented, as was the destruction it caused.


Seven years on, the coastline and its towns are still in the middle of an expansive recovery effort, including a wholesale refashioning of the coastline in hopes of mitigating future disasters. The various approaches that different towns taken by reflect local geographic conditions, but perhaps also divergent visions of resilience and nature-culture relations. In this way, the terraforming of the Sanriku coast might serve as a case study for “possibility aesthetics” within the Anthropocene.


From the Greek aisthanesthai ("to perceive by the senses or by the mind" ), aesthetics is not primarily about a compelling sense of visual order, but moreso a sense of awareness, perception, and relation to one's environment.  What forms of awareness and what perceptions of nature, risk, and recovery does the terraforming of the Sanriku coast manifest? What future imaginary does it represent? 


This project explores the aesthetics of the Sanriku coast by thinking of it as a gardena space of culturally constructed nature as well as naturally constructed culture. The word "garden" derives from the Gothic gard, meaning “enclosure”;  while in Japanese, garden (niwa, 庭 and teien, 庭園) are synonymous with “courtyard” as an outdoor enclosure. Such a spatial arrangement sets off what is culturally tended from the naturally untended, bracketing off intentional design from unintentional happenstance. The Sanriku coast is undergoing an otherworldly (and yet increasingly prevalent) landscape transformation, a kind of  garden-making on a planetary scale that is a gesture of both analogy and identity, of the representational that becomes reality.