It can take just one powerful disaster—natural or manmade—to flatten an entire city or town. In the Great Fire of 1666, a spark set London ablaze for four days, burning down 13,000 houses, 84 churches, and part of the London Bridge. Much more recently, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that washed away the homes of 230,000 people and caused $300 billion in damages. Then in 2015, earthquakes in Nepal destroyed nearly 900,000 houses, along with 900 facilities and 8,300 schools by the government’s count.
But amid each tragedy, there is an opportunity: a blank slate, for architects to reflect on and rebuild an entire community. “A disaster zone where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is,” Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate Toyo Ito said in a statement.
Ito’s work is currently featured in “Creation from Catastrophe,” an exhibit organized by the Royal Institute of British Architecture in London. It showcases the ways in which architects have responded to disasters over the past three centuries—from the five different plans to rebuild London after the Great Fire to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s latest effort to create housing for Nepal’s earthquake survivors using rubble and recycled cardboard.
Some examples are more altruistic than others. The exhibit highlights the work of Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first known woman architect, who has focused for the majority of her career on building sustainable shelters for the poor in the aftermath of catastrophes. It also features images of the highrises that sprung up shortly after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. (One particular photo, according to The Guardian, illustrates the crass opportunism of Chicago real estate agent William D. Kerfoot, who put up a wood shack for sale on land that was still smoking.)
The exhibit, which runs through April, considers the potential of a city that rises from ruins—particularly in terms of the evolving role of architects in disaster recovery. “Fifteen years ago, when I first started, humanitarian work was much more concentrated around working in camps and focused on emergency distributions of good and materials, and not so much about a recovery or reconstruction process,” says Brett Moore, an architect who isn’t involved with the exhibit but who acted as the shelter, infrastructure, and reconstruction advisor to the Christian humanitarian aid group World Vision International over the past four years.
When Moore, now a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University of Design, was working in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, there was still a heavy emphasis on creating and distributing temporary shelters. It was months before his team began looking at how to help locals rebuild their towns. Now, he says, it’s more about starting the reconstruction process as soon as possible. “Last year in Nepal, immediately after the disaster, we were looking at how to use local people and local materials,” he tells CityLab. “[We were] also looking at design and the way the construction industry works in Nepal—how people build, who holds the knowledge, where the materials come from, what are the costs involved—within the first week.”
But it’s not only about constructing sturdier buildings; for some countries, it might be more important to build foot bridges and community centers to allow access to markets and basic services. “Architects have to be kind of a facilitator and get involved in broad issues and bring all the stakeholders together,” Moore tells CityLab. “You have to start with a good, strong, multi-sector approach that looks at housing, transport, education, and health infrastructure.” That often means working with the community to understand what the biggest risks and needs are, and what the social dynamics are—surrounding land use, for example.
Even within a given country, architects have to recognize that the needs of communities differ widely. Take, for example, the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan swept through in 2013. “It wasn't just a typhoon damage,” says Moore. “It was much more nuanced than that.” People on the coast had to recover from water damage, while those inland faced risks dealing with extreme winds. Then there were those who lived in poor urban areas, who experienced a whole different set of problems from having completely lost their homes.
Yet, there is one goal that architects try to achieve regardless of the location or type of disaster: “What you want is a participatory process where people are skilled and empowered to be able to take on the bulk on reconstruction themselves,” he says. “[That means] giving them training and job opportunities so that it isn't so much of an externally provided process, but something that comes from within.”