Architects Can Be Leaders

History is witness to the many ups and downs we go through in our lifetime. Wars, terrorism, natural disasters, accidents, etc. have always been part of the society. These devastating natural or human acts, although disastrous, bring the affected people together. The inevitability of rebuilding communities follows. That’s when architects are needed the most.

Not very far behind security and medical professionals, architects are the leaders that make a positive difference in the society through rebuilding or uniting efforts. Although architecture can at times be a cut-throat profession with architects competing to win the limited amount of paid work available, at the time of disasters these same architects can be seen working hand-in-hand in all parts of the world doing pro-bono work to serve the people. Those are the citizen architects that are truly fulfilling the oath they took when they first got their license, and those are the true stewards of the built environment.

Architecture can have a powerful impact in the aftermath of a tragedy. Whether in the form of a memorial, or a healthcare or security facility, or any public service building, architecture begins to serve those in mourning or rehabilitation. A single building can have the strength to drive the rebuilding of communities and cities around it. A single building can turn the economy around and bring work to a city. A single building can invite tourism into a city, and a single building can survive through the ages and live to tell its tale a century later. Multiply this impact with the number of architects living in a city and the number of buildings each architect is designing, and the value of architects begins to surface.

But does getting an architect’s license make one a leader? Simply because someone is an architect in a project team doesn’t make one a leader, especially in the collaborative team environment we live in today. Going to an 8-5 job and occasionally getting CE credits doesn’t make one a leader. Making a positive impact in the community through architectural or non-architectural service makes one a leader.

It is during the times of turmoil when we are reminded of what purpose we serve in the society as architects. Are we in this profession for winning awards for aesthetically pleasing projects? Are we in this profession to win accolades for our service to the profession? Or are we in this profession because we want to help people in a way that gives them the strength to face the challenges of daily life? If we could just remember the oath we all took as architects and make it second nature, all of us are not far from becoming citizen architects. Being an architect doesn’t automatically make one a leader, but architects can be leaders.

At the Crossroads

I was appalled to read about one of the projects nominated for 2012 RIBA Silver Medal. The project that won the 2012 Rawat Award for Best Graduate Design Project. The project that at its core is the opposite of what the human actions should be. It is a thesis project by Jack Murno, a 2012 graduate of University of Westminster in London. Built with bricks made of blood and sand, the proposal is a brick-making community in Siwa, Egypt. The positive spin to the thesis is that the blood being used for the bricks is a byproduct from slaughtered cows, hence the reuse of a waste resource. What horror for architects to stoop to this level! I see a direct correlation between the waste blood and the high levels of methane generated at slaughter houses. (I won’t get into the increased potential for diseases from eating meat.) It begs the question, what is our responsibility as architects? Architects are regarded among the leaders for the sustainability of the planet. Does our work start and stop at buildings? Why are we talking about what to do with waste blood or methane? Why are we not talking about why so many cows are being artificially mass-reproduced and then mass-slaughtered? Should architects be setting an example from our lifestyles that go beyond designing buildings?

Proposal for a brick-making community in Siwa, Egypt

A professor once told me that while talking about project sites I shouldn’t use the phrase “natural landscape”. He said that everything we see around us has been touched by humans. The correct phrase is existing landscape, not natural landscape. On similar grounds, should we use the phrase “natural disasters”? I reckon we should call them man-made disasters instead. Hurricane Sandy… Sick of the news coverage much? Are you still debating whether climate change is real? Do you think your actions are so minor that they are a drop in the ocean? If you are not feeling responsible for Sandy, you are still living in a dream world. You are the cause for natural disasters. Together we are all the cause for them.

Photographs of the deserted NYC subway system before Hurricane Sandy hit may seem rather serene. The aftermath coverage is jaw dropping. There are multiple lessons to be learnt from Sandy that have been covered widely. RMI published a treatise on smart grid vis-à-vis distributed power.  It may seem trivial, but Fast Company featured a cell phone charger for disasters. Story about a few student volunteers got featured that reached out to old or disabled people stuck in buildings without power, food and medicine immediately after the hurricane struck and before the Red Cross could do anything. Good news is that NYC saw a big upswing on the number of bicyclists on the roads. We’ve got to do something about that traffic! Camaraderie was witnessed top to bottom where people and corporations opened doors to help each other. People are working hard to rebuild the systems, bring order to the chaos. However, they say that prevention is better than cure. Could we have prevented Hurricane Sandy? Maybe not. But maybe it would not have been so severe had we not been living in an age of record number and catastrophic levels of disasters. Had the climate change not soared to these heights. Had we built smarter from the very beginning.

 Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Some people shun all discussion about climate change either because they think it is God’s will, or because they think that they are being forced to feel guilty over something they didn’t do. They say it is a tactic employed by politicians simply to control the masses. When a pigeon sees an approaching predator cat it closes its eyes thinking that now that it can’t see the cat, the cat won’t see it either. People are pigeons and the cat is the climate change. And in our case, the pigeons created the cat.

Disasters are coming; we should expect more of them at increasing levels in the future. Root cause, Climate Change. The issue is neither religious nor political. It is Common Sense. What will you do to prevent the next disaster? You are at the crossroads, which path would you choose? Acceptance of the consequences, worship when all fails, war against climate change, or elopement to the high-ticket underground caves? Choose carefully, because this is more serious than the Presidential Election. Failure is guaranteed, the disaster will strike regardless of your choice. But it may not be as devastating if you act now.

Architects’ Responsibility in Disasters

Is it just me or has there been too much about natural calamities in the news lately? Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, fires, and now a volcanic eruption! All superstitions aside, what’s going on? Scientists and religious people have various opinions and are projecting increasing number of incidents in future. Although we can’t do anything to prevent these disasters, there are steps we can take to help the people that are struck by them. What is the responsibility of our profession towards such disasters?

Google ‘refugee housing’ and you’ll find numerous results for architectural solutions proposed or implemented, ranging from sand bag walls to shipping container houses. There are also enormous complaints about such solutions. We can either sit back and laugh at the debates, or take action. The question is –‘timing’. WHEN we take action may be more important than WHAT action we take. Scientists have created a long list of all the possible places that these disasters may occur in future. Unfortunately they can’t predict exactly when the disasters will take place. We can narrow down the WHERE; we don’t know the WHEN. Why should we wait for the WHEN? Let’s figure out the WHAT first! What do we do as architects? We need to plan for disasters beforehand instead of being reactive each time.

Last year the number of people living in urban areas crossed the line of rural area world population for the first time. The highest degree of life loss will occur in major cities when nature strikes. Most of these cities will be along the coast. Our own region sits on a fault line and when the earthquake hits, loss of life may be enormous. The competitive business life may lead us towards the rush for clients. But we play a major role in the survival and deaths of those hit by disasters. The highest life loss is a result of bad architecture and construction. When we think of refugee camps, think of the separated families, of a person who lost a limb, a lady who is pregnant, a blind person, a crying child… They are people just like us lost in the hustle and bustle. Other than food and water, they need immediate SHELTER.

The architectural solution should be quick to install, easy to transport, durable, flexible, humane, and adaptable to the region. The layout should create a livable community with shared facilities as well as individual privacy. Needless to say, the structures should be environment friendly and regenerative with net zero energy and water use. Aesthetics should not be negated just because these are temporary structures. Think of the structures that are built for the Olympics. How much thought goes in those! If we can respect the recreation needs, we certainly need to respect the shelter needs. Many of us have more time at hand than before. Why not put our heads together and design for the next disaster now, before we scramble to find another shipping container!

I took the liberty of sharing my opinion. Now it’s your turn to share your creative solutions. If you didn’t participate in the COD Ideas competition, make sure to check the winning solutions in June!