The Japanese earthquake and tsunami have reminded us that the environment is core to contemporary architecture. The pity is, we needed reminding

In 1986 I helped design a new children’s hospital in California, a few miles from the San Andreas earthquake fault. Sitting safe at my desk, the experience was fun: doodling quake-resisting systems, checking them by hand calculation.

Then the hospital was built, 300 sick children moved in and I came back to the UK. Out of sight, out of mind, until 17 October 1989, when at 5:04pm a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck San Francisco. The quake only lasted about 15 seconds, but it hit the hospital square on. Down came 2km of the nearby two-level Cypress Street Viaduct in Oakland and 42 people died.

So of course, when the 1989 quake struck, my first thought was whether my engineering design was good enough. Had the children’s hospital stood up to the test of the quake? Or had I made an engineering mistake, in which case the chickens would have come home to roost big-time, and the hospital would have collapsed.

Of course I had never met the 300 children but nevertheless they had unwittingly placed their lives in my hands. I am not overstating this responsibility. It was a massive reality check and gave me and my jolly doodles no place to hide. It was just a matter of the life and death of sick children, that’s all.

Achingly ironic therefore that the anti-quake system I used in California was originally invented by structural engineers in Japan, and the results of their ingenuity helped me protect the lives of those Californian kids and many more. Once again in Japan this month, the buildings those engineers designed stood firm against the shocks, this time in Sendai and Tokyo.

Once more, their skill saved thousands. Said quickly, that doesn’t sound much, but their understanding served their countrymen very well in their two minutes of need. So it is terrible that with one more ghastly act in Japan, nature by-passed even that understanding, by-passed even those ingenious men and women, because this time whole towns were washed away by the tidal wave that followed.

There are, of course, technological solutions even to a tsunami and they are relatively simple: build a reinforced earth mound high above the flood, and make sure there are enough such refuges for everyone to use in a hurry. Maybe the landscape would look like the surface of a golf ball but at least you’d live. With a decent early warning system, a source of fresh water, shelter and access to food and medicine, most lives could be saved. If we understand this, we could live. If we trust to luck, or choose to ignore, we may not.

What does this have to do with us? Well, a few days before Japan’s tragedy, I sat on a panel at Ecobuild when the director of a famous architectural firm made the astonishing announcement that they had a separate group to deal with “non-architectural things” such as engineering, energy and the environment. She didn’t add earthquakes and tsunamis, but they are just extreme examples of all the things she shunted off into the architectural sidelines.

This is dodo-esque. It reminded me of lecturers at the London architectural school who said I “shouldn’t talk about the environment to architectural students because they have too many other things to think about”. If the environment is not core to contemporary architecture I don’t know what is.

At Ecobuild I was ashamed to hear that leading architect speak as if a relationship to the natural world was somehow beneath her. Bless Sunand Prasad who jumped straight in from stage right to challenge. After a verbal tussle it was diplomatically agreed that, of course, it was all the fault of our education. From which I would suggest that re-education should begin right at the very top, with some of our household architectural names.

When in 1828 Thomas Tredgold said that my job as a civil engineer was “the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man”, he couldn’t have had in mind the horrific gut-churning power of the Japanese tsunami. Any reasonable person might ask how anyone could ever survive such a devastating expression of the power of nature, let alone “direct” it?

In my darker moments I think how dare we even try, because the task is too great, the power of nature just too huge when it is ranged against us. Then I think of the children surviving through even my juvenile efforts in their Californian hospital, and think that it’s got to be worth the attempt. Let’s hope that by learning from the Japanese catastrophe, we develop an insight into the education we need. An education in tune with nature’s forces and not separate from them.

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering