As a professional or a student in the field, we very quickly make our definition of architecture. Whatever our definition of architecture, we can make one for humanitarian architecture by associating to it the particularity of mitigating the consequences of a tragedy or particularly difficult situations. These could be natural disasters, war, population exodus or other problems that give rise to an emergency. Contrary to what is generally thought, it is very diversified and is not limited to temporary shelters. Depending on the problem to be addressed, it can also offer training or permanent construction. With rapid urbanization, emergencies are becoming more and more numerous and complex. When solutions to such problems are developed by non-architects, they usually have many limitations and create new problems.
It is therefore very important as an architect to take this path. Here are the reasons why.
1. Committing to communities in need
From the very beginning of architecture, this profession has been considered as a profession for a particular category of people and in the service of a particular class of people. Since then, things have evolved, from the architect for kings in the beginning to the architect for all today, passing through multiple stages. Despite this evolution, the architect remains today mainly at the service of privileged people. In such a context, opting for humanitarian architecture means contributing to the democratization of access to architecture for all. If, like many, you have been pushed towards architectural studies by the conviction that it can help improve people’s lives, then now is certainly the time to get involved.
2. Proximity to the “human”
If you’ve been working in an architectural firm for a while, you’ll certainly have noticed that more and more clients are turning out to be abstract corporate entities rather than real human beings. As Shigeru Ban himself says, architects are increasingly employed to construct buildings and monuments to the glory of rich people or entities. Having the desire to exhibit their wealth and luxury, they call upon architects to materialize them. If you are not fully satisfied, it is certainly time to move on. Humanitarian architecture usually uses a participatory process and involves the local community throughout the creative process.
3. Discover a great diversity of contexts
In general, the need for humanitarian service is international. No matter the continent, no matter the region or the country, some people need help for better living conditions concerning a particular situation. In many cases, these needs are related to the living environment and therefore appeal to the particular case of humanitarian architecture. Thus, if you want to travel and be nourished by different cultural, social and political contexts rather than being more static as in the case of the current practice of the profession, humanitarian architecture is certainly the option for you.
4. Experimenting with multiple cultures
There are a lot of good things about travelling, but the main thing is that you get to experience many cultures. Culture is what makes a community special. Being exposed to a new culture is an opportunity to discover new things, people and ways of doing things and to make new connections. The best solutions are often local or at least integrate local knowledge and know-how. Therefore, by intervening in a new context, one learns about local knowledge and know-how.
5. A vast field of innovation
The humanitarian field generally responds to situations of great difficulties. Whether they are natural disasters or man-made phenomena, they generate very complex situations where means are very limited. A lot of factors that are quite accessible in current projects become pure fantasy in these situations. These include sites with favourable conditions, financial means and material resources. The human means than becoming the main available resource, we very quickly leave the conventional lines and swim against the tide. This is the door to enormous opportunities for experimentation and innovation.
6. Exploit your creativity in new ways
The opportunities for innovation and experimentation offered by these highly constraining situations help to ensure that our creative spark is constantly lit. Since problems have to be solved both on a minute-by-minute basis and a large scale, we are very quickly called upon to develop ingenious solutions. The humanitarian as one of the major areas of innovation in architecture thus offers many possibilities. One can note the experimentation of new techniques, shapes, materials or even new ways of using or reusing those we encounter every day.
7. Experimenting with new techniques and forms
It is true that when we do humanitarian work, aesthetic concerns come second. We are not looking for luxury, but the comfort of life remains paramount. Thus, you are mistaken if you think that humanitarian architecture is related to tents that are quickly deployed directly after a disaster. Rather, it is about reconstruction. And not only that of the infrastructure, but also and above all that of the community. Exchanges with populations often give rise to new forms and techniques. A project like the one proposed by Elemental in the reconstruction of the city of Constitución in Chile after the 2010 Tsunami is an example of this. The designers exploited nature to protect the community from possible disasters through mitigation. Likewise, their concept of a half house developed through several projects has had a strong impact and a significant change. This shows that such situations lead to thinking differently.
8. Experimenting with new materials
Further still, the innovative spirit of humanitarian architecture also pushes us to explore new paths in terms of materials. Architecture is made of ideas and materialized into a form, but this petrification is precisely through the use of materials. Architecture has undergone great revolutions with the discovery of certain materials that we today consider commonplace. These include concrete, steel and reinforced concrete. However, the field of humanitarian work sees the experimentation and use of materials as highly probable. As common materials are not always accessible, it is necessary to go off the beaten track. Among these materials that often leave us perplexed are the famous cardboard tubes of the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. There are also very often new ways of using local natural materials or reusing resources that would serve no purpose.
9. Experimenting with alternative ways of using or reusing common materials
In cases where new resources cannot allow for reconstruction, creativity will guide us towards other solutions. We have the opportunity to explore other ways of using what we have to optimize it or to give a second life to certain materials, protecting the planet at the same time. Wood, plastic and glass among many other materials are often reused or adapted for new uses. The Hikado Marketplace project by Architecture For Humanity is a good illustration of this. Wood and shingles recovered from the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 were used to build a covered terrace.
10. Constantly renewing ourselves
Given this diversity of contexts and situations encountered in the practice of humanitarian architecture, it is difficult to fall into the routine as is often the case in a somewhat more common practice of the architectural profession. The conditions of the environment, the resources available, the populations, or the multidisciplinary team you will be working with, these are all reasons why we are very far from a standardized architecture often promoted by our increasingly industrial society. You can’t just parachute a solution from one context to another. The best solutions are often local and contextual, so we are constantly being called upon to recreate, and that’s good for us.