Are Architects the Last People Needed for Reconstruction?

by Melissa García Lamarca

Stimulated by the article published in the UK newspaper The Guardian titled 'Architects are often the last people needed in disaster reconstruction' by David Sanderson, several alumni and myself, pulled together by our former MSc Course Director, crafted a collective reflection on the issues raised therein. We want to share this on Polis to hear your thoughts and insights on the role of architecture in post-disaster reconstruction.

In an article titled ‘Architects are often the last people needed in disaster reconstruction’ (3 March 2010), David Sanderson recognises the need to “build back what can’t be seen as much as what can” in post-disaster recovery processes. Much of what he says is justified to some degree. Strangely enough, however, his claim does not acknowledge that the modus of practice in architecture in developing countries and especially in disaster situations has evolved on a similar path to that of humanitarian work. In fact, it seems that Sanderson does not recognise that architecture has significant power to reconstruct social networks, raise solidarity, empower communities and encourage partnerships. Moreover, as he deems architecture to be “marginal at best” in cases of relative certainty, the critical relationship between built environment, social networks and the ability for action in general is dismissed.

The literature on architecture, disasters and the role of participation in the building process is expansive. As with general humanitarian work, it has become widely accepted that turnkey projects are not the answer and that communities need to be enabled and empowered. Within the architecture process, engaging local people in the design and construction phases has become central to good practice, and rightfully so – the discourse that instigated this new mode of practice has evolved in parallel to broader dialogues regarding work in development. While it is true that many architects continue to work towards deliverables, the same can be said about humanitarian workers. The problem does not lie in architectural education alone but rather in the broader institutional structure that defines who gets development funding and who doesn’t. As accountability gets shifted towards funding agencies/agents instead of the community itself, humanitarian workers, whether an architect, social worker, or otherwise, often have to present the outcome of their work in a way which can be empirically calculated and qualified. Stating that architects are “taught to focus on the product (a building), whereas humanitarian practitioners major on the process (involving people)” not only oversimplifies the difference between branches of architecture and architectural education, but it also denies the fact that many NGOs and international agencies continue to work within a conventional top-down bureaucratic model.

Furthermore, the work of Architecture for Humanity for example – although often focussing on ‘one-off’ projects rather than large-scale disaster recovery processes – shows how research and development and in this case, profiled public relations, can play a role in promoting the livelihoods of disaster-striken communities while lowering their vulnerability in regards to environmental stresses. As Steve Rose ('Haiti and the demands for disaster-zone architecture', 14 February 2010) points out, the architect’s tool box can allow for the creation of buildings that make the best of difficult circumstances, where limited resources exist. Architects (and engineers) also have the expert knowledge to ensure that buildings stand and endure pressure from natural environmental elements. And as Rose points out, this can be achieved at a low-cost, especially when the professional services come free of charge as is the case with the surplus of architects within AFH’s Open Architecture Network. Bottom line is, in the case of a complex disaster, a built environment background is a necessity when 'engineering' and coordinating certain reconstruction projects. Indeed, alongside required levels of expertise lay a fundamental need for professionals who understand 'community' and have a priority in recognising 'people first'.

At a more general level, architects are producers and planners of space. Whether focusing on cities, villages, camps or other settlements, architects possess a strong understanding of how to structure the human habitat. Sanderson avoids the idea that space serves a fundamental importance as an envelope for all the 'processes' of which he speaks. The 'separate' strata of economic, cultural, political, social, and physical elements of the city are in fact integrated textures, and if architects are marginalised, then a resultant disconnect between the buildings and the wider functioning of the urban system is likely to occur.

The intensity of a disaster and the limited window of opportunity that immediately follows it must be addressed from multiple angles concurrently to re-construct the livelihood and spatial networks of an affected area. Architects should understand the connections between the societal processes of living in a city and their spatial manifestations. Writing off the spatial element as something separate and unrelated severely limits the transformative potential of reconstruction and rehabilitation in the post-disaster context.
To expand the conscious goals of architecture, the practitioner must also challenge the rationality designed to realise this end. Thus, the creation of humanitarian and activist architecture is not simply a matter of offering services to new clients, but one of shifting conceptual and policy focus in response to the structural evolution of contemporary society, thus calling for a broader definition of architectural limits and non-conventional domains of action. Such activities can lead us towards a renewed sense of critical anthropocentric post-disaster practice. If we have lost this passion in architectural thought and protocol, then shame on us.

Dr. Camillo Boano is Director of the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development at the Development Planning Unit, University College London and Melissa Garcia Lamarca, William Hunter, Benjamin Leclair-Paquet and Andrew Wade are ex-students in the Development Planning Unit, University College London.

Credits: Image collage of post-disaster reconstruction sites by Dr. Camillo Boano. Two diagrams (illustrating reconstruction forces and enabling mechanisms) created by Dr. Camillo Boano.


  1. Fantastic post! I'm glad your collaborations are ongoing. I wrote something on "Housing Post-Disasters" based on a documentation trip to Orissa in India:

  2. I am surprised that members of the DPU are not praising Sandersons article!!

    Having worked in this very sector (previously for one of the architectural charities mentioned and now for an organisation supporting our BE adapt and mitigate Climate Change), I really would question whether "architecture has significant power to reconstruct social networks, raise solidarity, empower communities and encourage partnerships" and would love to hear more evidence supporting this claim.

    Yes CAP/CPP is essential to any project, but this should be occurring and stimulated from local communities, not from international disaster tourists on a two week holiday. Often forgotten is that without true local knowledge of vernacular, climate and culture, designing is pointless. Focus should surely be on improving local capacity and knowledge to build back better themselves through education and training?

    I find it odd, that in the context of development theory, this author advocates rather than points out the major flaw with providing foreign free expertise and resources (not to mention the negative cost-benefit ratio both in economic and environmental perspectives).

    I also find the referral of IDP's or the extreemly poor as "new clients" and the suggestion that they live in a "contemporary society" painfull.

    It is a romantic idea that architects have a life-saving role. And if we do have a place, it is to increase knowledge and understanding in resiliance - be it technically through seismic, flood mitigated or passiv design. But more importantly (and not once mentioned by this author or Sanderson), the importance of climatge change adaptation and the built environments role globally to reduce GHG emissions and support rather than hinder our natural ecosystems (buildings equate to over 40% of our GHG's).

    What if one of these "professionals who understand 'community' and have a priority in recognising 'people first'" came to the conclusion that (if the people really do come first then) I really better bugger-off. Would they??

  3. Thanks anonymous for having read our post and for your contributions to an open and complex debate that at present is very much at the centre of both practical and academic thinking, although far from solving anything.

    You are right in asking for concrete examples of architecture projects that reconstruct social networks, raise solidarity, empower communities and encourage partnerships. There are few to our knowledge, for example Uplink’s work in Aceh; FORUT, Practical Action and some IFRC projects in Sri Lanka; Hunnarshala in Gujarat and Indonesia as well as some SEEDS experiences in India and in Aceh. In a non-disaster situation it is impossible to not mention Elemental’s work in Chile. All of them have, in one degree or another, been able to challenge the conventional paradigm of ‘delivery’ of course with limits.

    We absolutely agree with the need for a base in local knowledge of vernacular, climate and culture, and to improve local capacity and knowledge so people living in affected areas are able to build back better themselves, not creating dependency on foreigners or 'experts'. Indeed the statement "engaging local people in the design and construction phases has become central to good practice" is exactly in this line. We must however recognise that reality is more complex, with serious tensions between the immediate need for building back (reconstruction and results) vs. a longer-term vision (development and process) - an issue connecting to your next point.

    There was a complete misreading if you understood we were advocating 'top-down' development, as this is absolutely not the case. Rather in the context of Sanderson's article we pointed out that all practitioners (humanitarian workers, architects etc.) involved in post-disaster reconstruction are stuck in the same results-based model that demands deliverables, where the process of getting these deliverables is not necessarily valued (despite official discourses of 'participatory development' etc.). We certainly think this results-based development model has enormous problems; getting into its flaws requires an entire other article (or indeed a book) alone. But on the other side completely dismissing the potential of architecture as discipline, criticising and challenging its practice, is as well not very useful.

    The way that the term 'new clients' and 'contemporary society' was understood was taken out of context of the phrase. Unfortunately the reality for most architects (along with many others) is to have a professional-client relationship. We believe that this dichotomy must be broken, that this mind-frame must shift and evolve as per the needs of contemporary society - where the latter means understanding and working with diversity, complexity and multiplicity.

    It is indeed a romantic idea that architects have a life-saving role, and agreed, a critical role of professionals working in the built environment is to increase knowledge and especially capacities of a community to adapt and respond to change - its resilience. Integrating concepts of appropriate development, climate change adaptation, GHG reduction and so forth are definitely important elements here.

    In summary, we recognise that much of what Sanderson says about architects is justified to some degree, yet in essence are calling for a total shift of the 'professional' approach, towards one of critical anthropocentric post-disaster practice. We also acknowledge the great work David is doing in contributing to that shift, personally and institutionally. We did just want to not dismiss the discipline of architecture in its totality but are calling for a re-engagement of architecture with social practice. It requires a fundamental change in the traditional identity and approach of architects - meaning that if they understand the complexity of community and have an attitude of 'people first', if the context and situation deemed it, they would shift their role – which might indeed mean buggering-off.


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