Ugly phoenix rises from Kobe's ashes

Earthquake anniversary: Lack of vision and the might of big business have thwarted attempts to build a city for the people
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"By the summer, after the dust had settled," says Hiroaki Kimura, the architect, "some of us began to think that, after all the suffering, this was an opportunity to create something really new and special. People made drawings and models and presented them to the city. No interest. Frustration. This was a great chance, and we lost it."

People in Mr Kimura's profession learned a lot from the Kobe earthquake, one year ago this morning, but the starkest lesson of all was that nobody pays much attention to architects. The practical lessons of the 6,300 deaths - 85 per cent of them from collapsing buildings and the fires that tore through them - will never be forgotten.

The traditional wooden Japanese houses, for instance, with heavy tiled roofs which crushed and then trapped their inhabitants, have become unthinkable since 17 January 1995, as designers concentrate on light, flexible structures with basements which, as the engineering post-mortems show, were surprisingly effective at absorbing shock.

But the imaginative visions of the architects were ignored. Even the designs of an internationally famous name like Tadao Ando cut no ice with the city engineers, whose "Phoenix Plan" to reconstruct the 215,000 buildings rendered uninhabitable by the quake, plays depressingly safe. "Just more high-rises," says Mr Hiroaki. "No vision, or idea of the future, just the same old thing."

There are persuasive arguments for caution in rebuilding Kobe, the strongest of which is lack of money. Total damage from the quake totals $99bn (pounds 64bn); after subsidies from central government, the city is still hovering dangerously close to insolvency. Even with architects such as Mr Hiroaki offering their services free, few people were in the mood for the dreams of fancy architects.

But recent months have seen a growing view that there is more to post- quake Kobe than lack of imagination. Critics of the local government see a conspiracy theory - to recreate the city in the image desired by bureaucrats and big business.

Since the mid-1960s the city has gained a reputation as Kobe Inc, aggressively drawing in investment with a series of bold restructuring plans that have all but wiped out the old 19th-century port. A famous scheme to "move the mountain to the sea" came to a triumphant conclusion with the completion of Port Island - a purpose-built city, constructed on millions of tons of rock ferried out into the bay. The only space left for new development was the old residential neighbourhoods in Kobe itself. "There is no doubt that the city has capitalised on the disaster to achieve what it had not been able to do before because of stiff resistance," said this week's Asahi Evening News: "City officials simply dug out the old blueprints, dusted them off and made some modifications to add the big high-rises."

Japan's construction industry is notorious for its close relationship with politicians and bureaucrats on one side and, on the other, the crime syndicates who mobilise its workers. The contracts being handed out by the local government represent the juiciest political honey pot since the post-war reconstruction. "The new Kobe," says Hiroaki Kimura, "will be a city built by men looking at maps on tables, and men in helicopters looking from the sky. You can't design a happy city like that: you've got to start on the ground, where the life is."