big disaster architecture

When a natural disaster happens somewhere in the world, it does not take long for Shigeru Ban’s inbox to light up. So he was not surprised when, soon after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake ravaged Nepal on April 25, he received a flood of messages from people both known to him and strange: NGOs, investors, tourists and Nepalese students in Tokyo, where he is based. One message, from an architect in Kathmandu, stuck out above all. “I’ve been digging temples in search of dead bodies, carried dead bodies to hospitals,” the last sentence read, “but I would like to make a more meaningful contribution.” Ban read this and decided he would go.

During the 1960s and 1970s, young architects tackled the social issues of the day through community-planning projects and affordable housing developments. At some point, though, public-interest design became passé. Graduates became preoccupied with the design of grand buildings. Funding for humanitarian projects is difficult to acquire and architects pursuing philanthropic causes came to seem naive or idealistic.

In 2014 that perception shifted when Ban received the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award in architecture. At 58, he has built his share of monuments — the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France is one. But the Pritzker was for his work in areas devastated by natural or man-made disasters, projects such as the Paper Shelter in Haiti and the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand. By combining local materials with his signature recycled cardboard tubes, his architecture provides shelter to those who have suffered tremendous loss, while also being low-cost, well designed and beautiful.

“Architects [usually work] for privileged people to make visible their money and power with monumental buildings,” Ban says. “Compared to doctors or lawyers and other professionals who work for people with problems, our job generally lacks a contribution to society.” Architects, he thinks, have as great a responsibility to people in disaster-prone regions as other professionals. It is not earthquakes themselves that kill people but the buildings that collapse on top of them.

The April earthquake, and a subsequent tremor that struck on May 12, killed more than 8,000 people in Nepal and displaced three million. In the following weeks, people fleeing their devastated homes poured into makeshift camps in Kathmandu. More than 7,000 settled in tents donated by aid agencies on a plot next to the five-star Hyatt Regency in the city’s north-east.

When I visited the camp in September, Mangali Tamang, 28, had been living there for several months. Since the earthquake had destroyed the 50 or so buildings that constituted her village, she left for Kathmandu with her family. “When the earthquake was coming, I felt like we would all die,” she says. “It feels safe here. The village is very dangerous, there are landslides.”

According to Nepal’s planning commission, earthquake reconstructionwill take five years to complete at a cost of $6.7bn. In June, at the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction, foreign governments and aid bodies pledged a total of $4.1bn to assist in the recovery. At the conference the prime minister at the time, Sushil Koirala, said the government would “leave no stone unturned in ensuring that the support reaches the intended beneficiaries”.

Six months later, the government is yet to spend any of the pledged money, and official reconstruction activities are in limbo. (Local and international NGOs have been providing some relief, building temporary shelters out of bamboo and corrugated iron.) Building codes for new construction have been slow to be published, creating mounting frustration for groups hoping to start building before winter sets in.

Tamang invites me into her tent — a blue and white tarpaulin canopy supported by bamboo poles. There is no electricity; the family cooks on a gas stove. A ragged plastic bag containing four toothbrushes is pinned to the wall. I am shooed into what looks like a small black armchair as half a dozen family members settle on the floor. Where did they get the chair? The whole tent laughs. “A dirty place,” Tamang says, smiling. I realise it is a faux-leather office chair with the wheels hacked off. “Nepalese people are resourceful, eh?”

In the grounds of the Hyatt, a 15-minute walk from the camp, alone in a clearing and out of sight of the main hotel, sits Ban’s Nepal prototype — a one-storey red-brick building with a timber frame and a thatched roof.

Ban has experimented with recycled paper tubes as a material for building since 1986. The tubes are stronger than expected and straightforward to manufacture in almost any country, even one reeling from disaster. They have become a mainstay of his projects; in his Nepalese buildings paper tubes will form the trusses of the roofs.

In each post-disaster situation, Ban says, “the appropriate solution is different”. In Nepal he studied the houses that had survived, noting that many had wooden frames embedded in their walls. “It’s important to respect the vernacular traditional housing,” he says. Ban’s prototype walls, made from modular timber frames which were tested in Japan for seismic resistance, are filled with bricks salvaged from rubble.

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005 it damaged more than a million housing units. In New Orleans, the storm and subsequent flooding damaged 134,000 homes. In the decade since the hurricane, in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, a remarkable experiment in post-disaster design has unfolded.

The Lower Ninth is the site of Hollywood actor Brad Pitt’s Make it Right project. The initiative aims to complete nearly 200 homes designed by some of the world’s foremost architects — Frank Gehry, David Adjaye and the Pritzker Prize-winning firm Morphosis, among others — in the spot worst hit by the storm to “turn tragedy into victory”, as the actor has put it. Residents can customise their houses, for instance deciding how high above the ground they want them to be. Most have chosen to build on stilts as high as possible — they expect the floods to come again.

Disasters are not as distant as they once were. Social media, live blogs and globalised 24-hour news streams mean that people can follow events in real time. As the 2011 tsunami ripped through Sendai in Japan, viewers watched live as a dirty soup of broken buildings and bodies crept through fields and over houses, engulfing speeding vehicles as they failed to get away.

This immediacy, says Cameron Sinclair, founder of Small Works, a design firm specialising in humanitarian projects, is driving a “new wave of humanitarian design”. Sinclair wrote his thesis at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture on housing for New York’s homeless. It meant figuring out a way to “mobilise and engage communities that were often overlooked, which is exactly the same as working in refugee camps”, he says.

The number of people displaced by war, conflict or persecution reached a record high of nearly 60m in 2014, according to the UN refugee agency. The basic structure of Jordan’s fourth biggest “city”, the Zaatari refugee camp, was constructed in nine days. Today, about 80,000 Syrian refugees live within its five-mile circumference, and though residents live in tents, little about it feels impermanent. On a commercial thoroughfare nicknamed the “Champs-Elysées” is a shop that rents out wedding dresses.

Refugee shelters are improving. Ikea, together with Better Shelter, has been working on a design for a flat-pack shelter with solar panels, built-in lights and an aluminium-laced textile roof sheet that reflects the sun in the day and traps the heat inside at night. At 17.5 sq metres, the shelters are twice as large as traditional refugee tents.

Still, the lack of planning in most camps appals. Services are unevenly distributed across the vast expanse of the Zaatari camp — out of 12 districts, only three have schools. Earlier this year, Small Works completed a school for 120 children in Zaatari for €30,000. Syrian refugees built it in two weeks without electricity or water and with no prior construction experience. Sinclair is an advocate of owner-driven reconstruction as a means to stimulate local economies. Of the Ikea shelters, he says: “Should we be airdropping shelters from developed countries into areas desperately in need of jobs?”

Architects have a place in refugee camps because “having a broad thinker about problems is vital”, says Sinclair. During the construction of the school, the team realised that the roof was strong enough for a second storey, so they built a roof garden. “It’s these design elements that you can add without financial cost which have a huge social benefit.”

Architects working in post-disaster environments benefit the afflicted. But post-disaster work benefits architecture, too. Worldwide there are about one million people working in the profession, Sinclair notes, but there is a finite amount of high-end work.

“There are only so many museums that you can build,” he says. “I think it’s not just about social responsibility. It’s about how we can expand our practice and become more relevant.”


Link to the FT online