As human beings, we have certain needs key to our growth and survival. The need for food and water is closely followed by the need for shelter. Architecture has been pivotal to the rise of civilizations and the societies we live in. Dating back to the caves, the shelter has been a concept ingrained into us, a pre-requisite, irrespective of age, gender, race, or creed. Not everyone, however, is privileged to have the resources and access to architecture and design, even at the most fundamental level. All over the world, people have learned to live, adapt, and thrive under the most trying circumstances. Makeshift houses with tarpaulin roofs, barely keeping out the wind and the rain, grow steadily in number, engulfing chunks of towns and cities. Rough, jagged, endless rows of structures, in violation of not just a dozen building regulations but sometimes even basic human rights. A home, a supposed haven or a school, a place of learning, are out of reach to millions of people. Every year, thousands of people are victims of natural disasters, economic crises and wars, left homeless and helpless. Who do they have looking out for them?
Humanitarian architecture is what stands at the threshold of the profession, linking entire societies to a better life. It could mean design intervention for disaster relief or urban housing solutions for underprivileged communities. It could mean simply providing a facelift for old, abandoned buildings or shady parts of town, to revive community development. As long as the problems remain endless, so do the solutions.
The huge disparity of wealth and the unequal distribution of resources and money have resulted in interesting but highly morbid urban landscapes. On one hand, we see fantastic mansions, multi-million-dollar pieces of luxury real estate, while on the other lie poorly ventilated, dinghy shanties, fighting for space and air. Mumbai’s Antilia- billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s personal residence, is a great example of such a divide. Said to be the world’s most expensive private home, the 27-storey tower has stunning views, not only of the city and coastline but also of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, home to over a million people. 60,000 square feet house a single family in a city where the average living space per resident is a mere 8 square meters. It is quite ironic that a profession responsible for catering to one of the most basic human needs, to the masses, is so economically out of reach to so many. Herein the cracks begin to show, revealing the darker truths of the field- of wealth, power, influence, and reputation.
Although the allure of financial progress and the chance to establish yourself is high, the need to respond to such a primordial call is higher. Humanitarian architecture is a way to really impact urbanscapes and global architecture. By closely working with local communities at a grassroots level, single-sided designing is replaced by a participatory approach. This not only enhances the architect’s understanding of local materials, techniques, and culture but also allows the local community to be a part of the building process. It is a great opportunity to address problems at its root, while allowing the victims to do something about it, breaking a cycle of helplessness and equipping them with the correct tools.
For years, architects like Alejandro Aravena, Shigeru Banu, Kirtee Shah, and Julia King have carved out their names in the niche of humanitarian architecture, joining the ranks of many others.
Santa Elena de Piedritas; Hikado Marketplace; Kitakami “We are one” market; Baan Nong Bua school; Lycee Schorge secondary school- Just a handful among scores of examples.
It is, however, not a responsibility or opportunity limited just to seasoned, practicing architects. The Germany’s University of Kaiserslautern saw its architecture students go out on a limb to make a change. Their design of a wooden community center for one of Mannheim’s refugee camps attempts to instill a sense of security and community among its residents. The center, with its characteristic lattice screen façade, took 3 months to build and employed local building companies and a team of refugees to do so. Not only did the proposal break the stereotype barriers of bareboned refugee facilities, but it also provided its inhabitants with the opportunity to participate in the construction, equipping them with practical skills and a sense of purpose. As aspiring architects, the students questioned the purpose and rationality of established norms and set out to challenge them. With so little control in their hands, these refugees were given the chance to be a part of building and shaping a part of their future, no matter how temporary. In this case, the design was not just smart but sensitive, empathetic, taking care not only of architecture but also of its users.
This empathy though can be double-edged. If not careful, even the noblest of intentions can come across as a mere publicity stunt, without fully performing its intended functions. Spanish duo Selgascano’s pavilion-school design is potentially one of those, walking the wire. The project was initiated by Dutch photographer Iwan Baan and saw a collaboration of Selgascano with studio Helloeverything and Abdul Fatah Adam, to transform the school in Kenya’s Kibera slum. Shipped from Copenhagen, made of chipboard, polycarbonate plastic sheets, and scaffolding, and assembled on-site, it is a definite improvement from its predecessor, brighter, and better ventilated.
However, by designing and shipping it from abroad, the architects not only robbed local businesses the opportunity to participate but also missed a few key local, cultural, and user features. As critic Phineas Harper notes, the school lacks thermal and acoustical insulation and is hard to clean and maintain. It is almost impossible to lock up and has been victim to several break-ins. If subjected to building regulations, it would probably not pass any. The design gets away with such issues by becoming a focal point for crowdfunding and fundraising, providing economic hope and mental growth to the community. When faced with designing for disadvantaged communities, proposals shouldn’t merely be an improvement of their current situations but must strive to set high standards. One should design as if for a society of privilege, not for one with no better option.
With so many fine details to keep track of, in an age of abundant resources, choosing the correct ones is essential. The market is oversaturated, inundated with what sometimes seems like irrelevant information. Despite this, forums and websites like Shelter Global, ARCHIVE Global, Design Corps, and Journeyman International serve as sources of reliable information for those seeking guidance on the subject. Non-profit organizations such as Architects Sans Frontiers (Architects without borders), Habitat for Humanity, Building Trust International, and Architecture for Humanity give architects and engineers the opportunity to first-hand experience global architectural crises and how to deal with them. Firms like Elemental, Catapult, MASS design, among others, offer architects a choice to make a career out of it- a career out of serving humanity, everything architecture should stand for.