Nowadays, when we talk about architecture, we tend to highlight its power to create new realities, to transform the urban surrounding through the poetic conception of space, using its language as a tool to create a better version of the city and the present we live in. However, the reach of architecture goes further than that, for its reason exceeds the problem of beauty and prosaic motives, serving as an answer to the world’s needs, and responding resiliently. To make the present a better time and the world a better place is why we need humanitarian architecture.
Sometimes we fail to see that architecture is a consequence of social, political, economic contexts, a complex set of variables that interact in intricate webs that net the problems of social, urban life in a determined culture and time. In the world of communication, there is something that has been set very clear: there is no escaping the reality we live in, and there is no need to emphasize the complexity of the times that run.
Humanitarian Architecture is a Step Closer to Equity
Modernity has gifted us with new technologies, innovations, and brilliant minds that allow the unimaginable to materialize into reality. But as Michael Murphy said, “Why is it that the best architects, the greatest architecture, all beautiful, and visionary, and innovative is so rare and serves so few?” (M. Murphy, 2016)
Humanitarian architecture is an opportunity to go back to the essential role of our discipline: architecture for people. It sets the field to improve people’s lives that, for different reasons, had their most basic human rights deprived. From natural disasters, refugee camps, discrimination to segregation, restrictions to education, health care, resources, and shelter affected millions of people worldwide. Where the resources and expertise are scarce, innovative, sustainable design can really make a difference in people’s lives. (C. Sinclair, 2006)
Architecture, if implemented correctly, can be a game-changer for a brighter future, transforming more than the physical environment. We can build renewed perspectives and possibilities for a city where progress, equity, and community are no longer out of reach through architecture. Architecture is not just about solutions, but about raising awareness. (C. Sinclair, 2006)
We can conceive a community where people can develop, grow, and value themselves in better conditions. When well-being and the idea of resilience make up the heart of a project, even the smallest operations can change social realities.
Women’s Opportunity Center – Rwanda, Africa
Embedded in a fertile valley in Kayonza, an hour away from Rwanda’s capital, a project seeks to bring about “economic opportunity, rebuild social infrastructure, and restore African heritage” (Divisare, 2013) by giving women an opportunity for a better, free lifestyle. Women are the heart of the community, dedicating their lives to provide resources for daily survival by farming, fetching water, and wood.
Working alongside Women For Women International, the creation of the Women’s Opportunity Center intended to serve more than 300 women by designing in search of a new sense of community attending to social and cultural organizations. The design of these circular pavilions strives to echo Rwanda’s vernacular architecture from their indigenous traditions, inspired by the “historic King’s Palace.”
The bricks for this construction were made by the community members using the site’s resources and adapting local technologies to fit the required needs. The pattern given by the placing of bricks serves not only as a beautiful facade that enlightens the area and provides a count of the thought design project but is a sustainable measure for passive cooling and solar shading while maintaining a sense of privacy. (Divisare, 2013)
Further from providing shelter, this complex allows women to learn economic skills in terms of marketing and production, enabling them to become more independent and revalue their daily work in farming and the making and selling of manufactured goods. By working synergically with local companies, the community strives for sustainable, low-cost self-maintenance, involving dwellers in preserving this space that they can call their own.
Humanitarian Architecture Can Make Societies Heal
Designing requires a conscious mind and strong convictions. The architectural language is powerful, and like poetry, it can reach inside us and create real emotions and physical responses. By paying attention to the surroundings, its land, climatic conditions, resources, and, most importantly, its community, design can improve people’s living standards and grant them what they need for a healthier lifestyle.
The key is to work alongside the community, listen to their concerns, and find a solution designed only for them.
This project designed by MAAS Design Group sought to change the course of health treatments in Buttaro. The decision-making in the design process relied on the analysis of the present problems in the actual reality of this community: If hallways are making patients sicker, what if we could design a hospital that flips the hallways on the outside, and makes people walk in the exterior? If mechanical systems rarely work, what if we could design a hospital that could breathe through natural ventilation and meanwhile reduce its environmental footprint? (M. Murphy, 2016)
These project decisions led to a sustainable project, built and designed in collaboration with the community, relying on their techniques and technologies. They excavated the site through a system called “Ubudehe,” translating to “community works for the community,” and built the stoned walls by carving them manually to fit perfectly. Together, they created the marvelous, resilient hospital that helped heal many people.
However, the healing process did not end in physical treatment. This bringing together the community as a working force to achieve something for themselves and their well-being 15 years after the Rwanda genocide began to heal the painful memory of this society. As Murphy said, they used the process of building to heal, not just for those who were sick, but for the entire community as a whole. (M. Murphy, 2016)
Every country has its cultural baggage, open wounds that scar the tissue of their cities and their history. In this context, humanitarian architecture can be therapeutic: the correct words, the right idea, and the resilient approach can help heal the history of pain and injustices, bringing peace to dwellers, like a white canvas for them to paint their new present and future.
Humanitarian Architecture Makes Us Grow as Professionals
Humanitarian architecture may change not only the community but oneself. To experience the privilege of working and interacting with different cultures, each of them with their own beliefs, techniques, and knowledge, teaches us something no architecture school, no book, or lecture could ever teach. It changes our view of the world by experiencing the injustices and painful realities of those undermined in the flesh.
The architect’s role is to design for people, serve them resiliently, working amongst locals that come with their technologies, methods, and knowledge hoping, as architects do, for a better reality for themselves.
Humanitarian Architecture as an Interdisciplinary Field
It is essential to understand the importance of interdisciplinary work. To interact and assess our work with experts from health, sociology, geologist, engineers experts in their fields will prevent us from failing in the core of our endeavor, that is to design a renewed reality for a brighter future. Architecture is only the beginning of a process, the milestone from which the community will begin a growth journey; it’s the columns of a new social structure.
So, why should we advocate humanitarian architecture? The reasons are endless, but to synthesize, we should practice humanitarian architecture because there is nothing more important than to help each other, empathize with different cultures, and learn from them. We need to practice humanitarian architecture because we can help relieve the injustices and save the distances between us; we can make the world a better place. So let’s make it.
Murphy, M. (2016). Architecture that’s Built to Heal.
Sinclair, C. (2006). My Wish: a call for open-source architecture.