Humanitarian Design

Please post your reading response for Kate Stohr’s “100 Years of Humanitarian Design” due Oct 31, 24 hours before class, here by replying.   Thanks!


5 thoughts on “Humanitarian Design

  1. During the 20thcentury, the world has been challenged with various events from natural to manmade disasters. People leaving in wealthy or poor countries have been killed or displaced leaving them in vulnerable conditions. In its catalogue Design Like you Give a Damn, Architecture for Humanities has identified that one in seven people lives in a slum or refugee camp, and more than three billion people-nearly half the world’s population-do not have access to clean water or adequate sanitation. In the “100 years of humanitarian design” chapter, author Kate Stohr charts that from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the recent events in Japan, we have experienced various trends in humanitarian projects. Projects of early modernist housing, to government-sponsored shelter of post-World War II and more recently by Rural Studio (Samuel Mockbee) among others, have successfully empowered, and unified communities in the long-term.

    Closer to us, in Montréal, the public housing project Habitations Jeanne-Mance built in the 50’s, was the first “American style, low-income housing development in the province of Quebec and the only urban renewal project to be endorsed and financed at the municipal, provincial and federal levels”. This post-war project in the same vein as many other high-rise public housing towers, was conceived without architects or participation of the population. It makes reference to architectural qualities promoted by Le Corbusier suggesting that “the new inhabitants of Les Habitations would be leaving unhealthy living conditions in favor of “modern, clean apartments, where the air and the sun will enter in abundance.”” Looking back a few decades ago in the post-war period, the project was seen as successful by the city and its inhabitants. Today, it is seen as a failure for a myriad of reasons and is now at the heart of many debates that raise the question if it should be demolished or revitalized.

    Designers and architects have faced various challenges to develop and settle a model of practice. Rather than convincing populations to change their behavior and habits for the good, they created a more participatory approach that “promotes a continual exchange of information between the players in the project”. Participatory design implies that “the practitioner works with community members to continually reassess their needs and collaboratively design methods to address them.” But, following the 2010 earthquake in Haïti or the 2011 tsunami disaster in Japan, architects faced the problem of being implicated in the process of reconstruction. When asking experts on emergency practice if architects do have a role in post-disaster reconstruction, they often reply “marginal”. For instance, official reconstruction plans by the Japanese government didn’t involve even mention architects to be part of the process. Most of the time, governments are not aware of what architects can provide for the benefit of reconstruction. Despite their informal role, architects took the initiative of working directly with the communities, proposing strategies for housing projects, infrastructures… Few recent examples include Atelier Bow-Wow’s Itakura Core House with ArchiAid, a non-profit organization created by architects that aims to help revive the battered coastal region. Designed for residents of a fishing village Momonoura who were wary of returning to live by the sea, the Itakura Core House was built at minimum cost using local resources and labor. Wood was allowed to be taken from a forest next to the reconstruction site and fishermen were involved in the crafting and construction of their own house. The structure can be extended to eventually become a multi-family dwelling or even the core building of a village. As a conclusion, Kate Stohr raise the question “will the 21st century be remembered as the golden era of socially conscious design?” We can surely be positive about the future but it will also depend on the will of architects and designers to be more innovative and see beyond the actual framework.

    Josiane Crampé

  2. The issues expressed in Stohr’s article echo many of the issues we have studied in previous topics in the course – that of the role of the architect, and the ways in which the user interacts in the design process.

    Stohr describes several scenarios where the design of refugee camps and social housing has failed. These are often the result of poor government policy and the blind ambitions of an architect or designer, and highlight the negative aspects that arise from the disconnection between the architectural profession and its users. The American social housing complexes of the postwar era speak to this divide – the very grand imposition of a universal, utopian view upon the helpless population of poor and underprivileged citizens. As discussed in Lipsitz’s article from a few weeks ago, concerning the spatialization of race, these grand housing complexes were a misunderstanding on a colossal level. As racism allowed the white, privileged Americans to move to the suburbs, the minorities banded together and formed local communities and support networks to alleviate the squalid conditions they lived in. When these communities were bulldozed and supplanted by a predetermined way of life, manifested in the form of huge apartment blocks, the community aspect was destroyed. The citizens were no longer attached to a specific place that they could call home, and were often separated from the community they had grown so close with. This led to an inherent disrespect, or rather a complete apathy, for the spaces they inhabited, and their living conditions only grew worse. The grand projects of the modernist government policies and their architects ignored the most important aspect of these buildings: their users. This theme carries into temporary housing and disaster relief projects that are built throughout the world; it is not enough to simply provide shelter and services – one must also provide community.

    A very relevant example, closer to home, is that of the Native populations throughout Canada. As their homes were slowly destroyed for grand government projects – highways, hydroelectric dams, mines, and so on – the Natives were relocated to reserves, which were built from scratch, and funded by the government. Often, the residents had little input into the design of their homes and communities. The designers of these new towns and villages worked within their Western frame of view; the houses constructed were typical of single-family, cheaply-built suburban homes, and the town layout followed a basic and regular grid pattern. However, the way of life of many Native communities is based on sharing, openness, community, and an overall social atmosphere. Traditional native villages featured shelters – whatever form they may be – centred around a communal public space, with easy access to the natural resources that were crucial to their survival. Their shelters were often constructed without interior walls or doors, as the concept of openness and intimacy was very important for family and community life. When they were forced into government-built reserves, there was an immediate struggle to adapt to the secluded living conditions presented by the Western, Modernist town-planning model. Simple design elements, such as interior walls, interrupted their everyday life and communication. Thus, the reserves fell into a state of disrepair, due in part to a lack of connection between the residents and their sense of place, and in part by a complete misunderstanding, or just plain ignorance, by the designers regarding the locals’ cultural values. Their communities were destroyed, both physically and psychologically. These conditions continue to this day, as housing provided for the Native populations has failed on a grand scale.

    All of these examples discussed above and in Stohr’s articles point to one simple conclusion: it is not enough to just provide people with shelter – one must also provide people with a community.

  3. The starting point of humanitarian design lays in the 1800s, with the industrial revolution in Europe. Due to a major urban expansion the governments could hardly deal with, workers majorly lived in slums, close to the factories they worked in. Some industrials, concerned about their conditions of living, started to build decent housing, with small garden and better access to drinkable water. The main idea was to prevent epidemics such as cholera from devastating the population by providing a well-ventilated area, light and nature. In France for example, this resulted in small single unit dwellings, sometimes with two floors, often in rows, with a small garden on the back.
    Prefabrication and new materials, such as concrete and steel, then changed the approach of humanitarian design. Using these modern improvements since the beginning of the 1900s, it became possible to build cheaper, faster, and with a smaller footprint. Le Corbusier is, of course, the icon of these architectural changes, even though he did not only focus on humanitarian design. At that time, the new high-rise, modern buildings that were built in Europe were well perceived due to the facilities they provided (central heating, running water, electricity) atalowcost. They became a model for reconstruction after WW2 and, in France, were built until the 1980s as social housings. I think that the biggest failure of that type of humanitarian design lays in the fact that the human scale was not taken into account; housing becomes a “machine to living in” rather than a home. It is designed only to accommodate physical needs. Psychological, social needs are not considered, and more than the notion of home, it is the sense of community that has been torn down.
    There is a lot of similarities between “100 Years of Humanitarian Design” and DeCarlo’s “Architecture Public”. Stohr and DeCarlo both explain the modernist failure with the lack of consideration for the users, and both highlight the importance of a design based on the communication with these same users.Humanitarian design today often involves occidental architects in culturally different countries. Even though the architectural attitude has changed and now takes into account the importance of a contextual and community architecture, failures still occur. The sense of urgency, the economic aspects lead governments and planners to take decisions which are not discussed with the users. With the comparison of Mexico (1985) and Hansin (1995) earthquakes, Stohr highlights several points determining if a humanitarian intervention is successful. The first one is the proximity of temporary shelters with the former inhabitations: the closest they are, the more people will be involved in the rebuilding process and will maintain their social interactions. The second depends on who has to rebuild: does it depend on the government or on private investors? Who is involved in the process and what is their role? The example of Mexico shows the success of a reaction based on the pre-existing solidarity, and on architects and engineers that have a consulting and coordination role, supporting the community rather than imposing their own vision. Even if the resulting product is standardized, to accelerate the reconstruction, it fits the needs of the community since it has been designed by the community.
    What sounds important in Stohr’s analysis is that humanitarian design today is the construction, or reconstruction of housings, but also the maintenance of a pre-existing community, which could eventually be reinforced by the rebuilding process.

  4. Innovative housing and design solutions can come out of designing with scarcity restraints and with developmental funding for the poorest communities. Design Like you Give a Damn provides examples of this innovation, such as the Water Bladder on page 245 designed by Structure Flex. The water bladders provide an efficient way of storing and distributing water, particularly in an emergency for communities. Many innovations have come from designing as a response from emergency or scarcity events in the world.

    In Stohr’s chapter, 100 Years of Humanitarian Design profile’s the rise in emergency, or humanitarian design practice and how it is expressed through aid, mostly from “Developed” countries to the “Developing” countries, moreover, from wealthier communities or through top down institutions to lower income and community groups. In Themes of Scarcity, Goodbun, Till and Iossifova link emergency situations from scarcity of major resources a concern. Questions over who has access and control over world resources such as water, food, material resources and energy, are important when understanding the connections between the need for aid and the practice of giving aid. As Goodbun, Till and Iossifova make the connection between the industry of aid giving and architecture’s role,
    “Our argument is that scarcity, whether conceived of as an actual limit of resources, or as a socially constructed condition of uneven social or global distribution of resources, has been largely absent as a critical concept in recent mainstream Western architectural and design discourse. This is perhaps not surprising: the architectural profession is set up to serve the needs of the global rick. Yet, the emerging conditions of scarcity are rich in possibilities for the design professions and design research.” (12 to 14)

    The role of designers is full of possibilities, however there are main considerations that need to be accounted for in the move to innovative, sustainable and accessible design. Scarcity and the need for humanitarian aid often comes from a long history of colonialism and oppression of countries that often had boundaries created by colonial powers, who were seeking the resources of many countries. This early imbalance set the stage for a legacy of dependence and debt for many countries as they began to gain independence. Often these new countries faced corruption and war, furthering the imbalance to the access of resources.

    As noted by Stohr, there is a long history of giving aid and providing solutions for people in need. Designers can offer great designs, but these designs must be created within the context of those who need the solutions, as Goodbun, Till and Iossifova note that architects and designers often rely on technology. Without involvement of the community members in many of these projects, it is difficult for the community to be able to take ownership over the projects, after the architect and designers leave the community. It is necessarily that designs not only be efficient and use innovative tools, but the technology involved must be able to be repaired by the people who are using it. Recognition must come from designers that their skills must situate themselves within the larger power structure of the aid industry. Where is funding coming from? Where is it going? How will the design help beyond the involvement of the architect? How can community members in need contribute to the design process? An example of the resilient, sustainable and accessible design is highlighted in, “Design like you Give a Damn”, particularly through the 10 x 10 Housing Initiative, where homes are built and can be expanded on by the tenants, who previously faced housing insecurity. The materials used to make the houses are low cost and allow for flexibility, such as the use of sandbags for insulation.

  5. In “100 years of Humanitarian Design” By Jessica Stohr, the emergence of a generation of architects concerned with the implementation of global awareness and social consciousness is highly apparent. In not one but many ways, architecture has attempted to address the crushing need for standard shelter through the power of architecture “to improve human condition”. Rooted in a strong concern with local conditions, humanitarian architecture has sought to re-couple the world’s relief and development with the world of architecture and design; two entities that became divorced when idealism for the machine-age and tecnology-driven utopias did not resonate with aid workers.

    The emergence of interest in community design coupled with the more political roots in civil rights and social justice movements of the late 60s and 70s of America, Community Design Centers appeared on the architectural landscape. These were locations where design professionals, environmental engineers, government agencies and clients together could share, transform, and impact the design. Human interaction and trajectories merged and emerged. Workshops were attends, sites were visited, interviews were conducted. The “human” aspect of “humanitarian” design was emphasized. It is through activities like these that a sense of belonging becomes apparent, as seen in the process of Gallery Park by Pouf! Architecture last week. This new found sense of community instilled with the people a sense of willingness, desire and need to better their built environment. Although the project spoke of an advocacy for heritage and animals, the strength of the project came from the people who were involved.

    What I found surprising in the text is that mobile homes make up 25% of all dwellings in America. What was once conceived as cheap portable housing during the Depression, is now the most common form of unsubsidized affordable housing in America and has become part of the American vernacular. But what happens when everyone is mobile? Does the aspect of community exist or is it a mere ephemeral concept? Is the need to make one’s environment better still present when everyone is just a temporary resident? What happens to the space around it. It makes me question what happens when this sense of belonging is not present. The contrast to Hassan Fathy’s work described in the text is so strong. He created housing so rooted in the culture that is physically and theoretically impossible to detach from its site. However, these mobile homes have no connection to their place. Humanitarian design is so rooted in the intensity of their site-specific locations that I wonder what happens to a shelter and its surroundings when this sense of belonging disappears. The space is a constant flux of coming and going, so how can the place that it occupies ameliorate if no one can really claim responsibility for it.

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