Edutopia News 24th September 2008 – Building on Disaster: Architects Around the World Respond to Crises

Building on Disaster: Architects Around the World Respond to Crises. Where the going is tough, Architecture for Humanity gets schools going again. by Richard Rapaport.

People are ready for architecture to be more than signature buildings.” Former journalist and Architecture for Humanity cofounder Kate Stohr is showing off AFH’s South of Market headquarters in San Francisco, which, mirroring the organization itself, are large yet spare.
AFH was founded in 1999 by Stohr and her partner, Cameron Sinclair, and its first home was a cubicle in Gensler & Company’s New York City office, where Sinclair was employed at the time. In the decade since, AFH has grown into one of the world’s largest virtual architectural firms, many of whose clients live without clean water, sufficient sanitation, adequate food, or access to education, and who may be recovering from natural and human-made disasters.
It is in the latter category that AFH’s world-girdling Internet work has made it a highly visible design-industry responder to the recovery needs of displaced victims, whether they’re in Sri Lanka or Shreveport, Louisiana. Operating via the Web, AFH sponsors competitions, workshops, and educational forums and partners with aid organizations to, Sinclair says, “create opportunities for architects from around the world to quickly respond to crises.”
AFH recently announced its 2009 Open Architecture Challenge, which involves rethinking and redesigning the portable, modular classrooms in which more than six million American schoolchildren spend their academic days. Stohr believes that these trailer classrooms, haphazardly sited on blacktop playgrounds and often less temporary than advertised, are not only a demoralizing place to learn, they are often manufactured using toxic materials.
In 2006, Sinclair and Stohr published Design Like You Give a Damn, their fierce, wildly imaginative plea for humanitarian-based architecture. Where else, for example, could you find plans for a combined health clinic/soccer center, serving as both the home of its area’s first women’s soccer league and as an HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment center?
It is the confluence of water, sanitation, and schools that weighs most heavily on the mind of Sinclair, who is more likely working on project sites in India, Sri Lanka, or Nepal than hanging out at AFH headquarters. Sinclair, back from his latest Asian trip, makes clear that educational facilities need to be at the heart of the AFH program, because, “if we create schoolhouses that are places where kids have access to fresh water and sanitation, you can fight disease and see school attendance rocket upward.” In his design universe, he says, it is axiomatic that “sometimes an EcoSan toilet is more important than a blackboard.”
Creating or rebuilding schools that function as the center of communities under stress is critical, according to London-based AFH architect Susi Jane Platt, “because they are the first point of contact critical to making life normal as quickly as possible.” Schools, often the largest structures in a village or town, can function as educational and child-care facilities by day, and act as a community center and meeting place for villagers at night. Sinclair mentions one AFH school/library project in Tamil Nadu, India, that so energized the community that residents decided to add a stage for theater performances. “They did it without our knowledge,” Sinclair says, clearly not displeased with the outcome, “and it was great.”
AFH does not view refugee and disaster relief as ends in themselves. Rather, according to Platt, intelligent reconstruction “can be a catalyst for long-term economic, health care, social, and educational improvement.” The last element is particularly relevant. “Without education,” Platt says, “development is only a dream.”
From the Wreckage
AFH’s relief efforts began with the 1999 Kosovo crisis. As the Balkan winter approached, and hundreds of thousands of refugees returned from exile to bombed-out towns and villages, it was clear, according to Stohr, that “what was needed was not temporary shelter, but transitional structures.” These buildings, AFH theorized, could enable Kosovars to live as normally as possible during the actual rebuilding of homes, towns, and lives.
Equally clear was the fact that by themselves, Sinclair and Stohr could not make a dent. Schooled on the Internet, however, they understood the Web’s power as humanitarian amplifier. Internet-based appeals quickly garnered funds and caught the attention of organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and celebrities including Bianca Jagger. An AFH-sponsored Kosovo design competition attracted more attention.
AFH found itself inundated by more than 200 design proposals from teams in thirty countries. These included several proposals from Serbia, the aggressor in Kosovo, from which the teams of designers took pains to disassociate themselves.
Since the Kosovar War, AFH has grown into a force for refocusing design energy toward the vast, architecturally deprived majority of the world’s population. These are the refugees and slum and village dwellers referred to in architect Samuel Mockbee’s therapeutic prescription that “everybody wants the same thing. . . not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul.”
One of AFH’s signature projects, done in cooperation with Relief International, is the design and construction of seven “emergency and transitional schools” in Sri Lanka’s 2004 tsunami-devastated Ampara District. When it began, the AFH team was less interested in form than function. “These were generic designs for temporary schools,” Platt says about buildings she considers “not architecturally valuable.” Value however, exists in the eyes of the numerous beholders. These included Cameron Sinclair, who, when he visited, was delighted that — in AFH fashion — the specified roof tiles had been replaced by less-expensive, quieter-in-the-rain, locally procured, and woven coconut leaves. “God is in the details,” Sinclair says about the confluence of design and utility. “In every building, we try to develop architectural solutions in keeping with the needs of that community and with how they define beauty.”
To match Sinclair and Stohr’s belief in “the connection between good design and human dignity,” AFH has increasingly morphed into an online repository and creative engine for all kinds of give-a-damn civic-design innovations. The group is working with Advanced Micro Devices on an Open Architectural Challenge called 50×15, the goal of which is to design low-cost, sustainable technology facilities through which to provide Internet access to 50 percent of the world’s population by 2015.
In every case, Stohr says, “the challenge is to create innovative educational spaces that are healthier, environmentally kinder, and learning friendly.”
Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.
This article was also published in the August/September 2008 issue of Edutopia magazine.

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