Articles

Rethinking Architecture After Catastrophe

Makoko Floating School, Lagos, Nigeria by NLE (c) NLÉ
NLÉ, Makoko Floating School in Lagos, Nigeria (© NLÉ, all images courtesy Royal Institute of British Architects)

Last April, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake ripped through Nepal, leading to a death toll of nearly 9,000 people in the country and displacing over 450,000. In an effort to provide emergency housing for victims, architect Shigeru Ban designed a series of low-cost structures out of cardboard tubes and rubble from destroyed buildings, providing the homeless with easy-to-assemble yet sturdy shelters. A model home from Ban’s Nepal Project is just one of the many objects on view at the Royal Institute of British Architects that illustrates how architects have rebuilt communities devastated from natural and human-induced disasters. From London’s Great Fire of 1666 to the Nepal earthquake, Creation from Catastrophe focuses on a number of the world’s most destructive events, exploring the designs that emerged in their aftermath through architectural maquettes, drawings, photographs, and videos.

Post Chicago fire, high rise - Reliance Building by Atwood, Burnham & Co, North State Street, Chicago 1890-95 (c) RIBA Collections
Atwood, Burnham & Co., “Reliance Building” (1890-95) on North State Street in Chicago (©RIBA Collections) (click to enlarge)

Many of these events wiped out large areas, requiring a complete rebuilding. The 1666 fire, for instance, started in one bakery and spread through London for four days, not only claiming lives but also destroying 13,200 houses and 87 churches. The exhibition features a number of original alternative proposals to rebuild London by a number of architects, including Sir Christopher Wren.

Wren, inspired by the layouts of Paris, envisioned wide avenues radiating from piazzas to replace narrow streets as a way to prevent any future fires from spreading quickly. His plans were never fully realized for lack of funding but stand as early examples of city redesign on a massive scale. Similarly, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which the show also spotlights through original late 19th century photographs, decimated thousands of buildings, leading to a construction boom. Many high-rise structures sprung up, such as the Reliance Building that had a steel frame and terra cotta exterior — a good precaution against further fires. Also featured are cityscaping proposals following a more recent disaster: 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, after which the US Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a competition for architects and engineers to rebuild affected areas while considering the possibilities of future flooding.

Most of the projects shared in Creation from Catastrophe focus on looking ahead and anticipating problems rather than simply replacing destroyed infrastructure. Largely from the 21st century, these designs share a serious concern for our environment, having emerged from natural disasters but with their makers fully aware of the effects of climate change and rapid urbanization. In 2010, after Pakistan witnessed severe flooding, for instance, architect Yasmeen Lari designed a low-cost and low carbon footprint flood shelter that locals could easily learn to replicate with step-by-step instructions. Made from mud and bamboo, her design for KaravanRoof relies on easily available materials, like Ban’s shelters for Nepal. In the same vein, architectural firm NLÈ designed floating structures following the devastating 2012 floods in Nigeria. The Makoko Floating School — realized in March 2013 — and designs for the Lagos Water Communities Project both consider rising sea levels and increased rainfall levels while aiming to accommodate the needs of a growing population.

These ideas are also mostly collaborative as opposed to top-down creations, with many architects communicating with and receiving insight from those who will actually be using their designs. As the frequency of natural disasters seems to increase, Creation from Catastrophe illustrates how architects are increasingly thinking about design in terms of a community’s specific needs. It gives much deserved attention to an important type of architecture: structures built because they are needed rather than simply standing as physical monuments to individual vision.

Sir Christopher Wren's Plan for Rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666 (c) RIBA Collections
Sir Christopher Wren, “A Plan for Rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666” (© RIBA Collections)
Court House at Dearborn and Randolph, 1871 (c) Chicago History Museum
What remained of the Court House at Dearborn and Randolph, in 1871 after the Great Fire (© Chicago History Museum)
Jules Guerin's painting of Burnham and Bennett's Plan for post-fire Chicago, 1909 (c) Art Institute of Chicago
Jules Guerin, painting of Burnham and Bennett’s Plan for post-fire Chicago (1909) (© Art Institute of Chicago)
Isozaki, Arata
Arata Isozaki, “Re-ruined Hiroshima” (1968) (©MoMA)
Women's Centre, Darya Khan, Pakistan, designed by Yasmeen Lari (c) Heritage Foundation of Pakistan
Yasmeen Lari, Women’s Center in Darya Khan, Pakistan (©Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)
Design for water communities, Lagos, Nigeria by NLÉ (c) NLÉ
NLÉ, design for water communities in Lagos, Nigeria (© NLÉ)
Ideas for rebuilding Hoboken, New Jersey after Hurrican Sandy - copyright OMA
OMA, ideas for rebuilding Hoboken, New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy (© OMA)
Housing for 2015 Nepal earthquake victims by architect Shigeru Ban (c) Shigeru Ban_ Voluntary Architects' Network
Shigeru Ban, housing for 2015 Nepal earthquake victims (© Shigeru Ban/Voluntary Architects’ Network)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: A model for post earthquake community centre in Japan by Toyo Ito, Kumiko Inui, Sou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirata features in Creation from Catastrophe, a new free public exhibition in the RIBA Architecture Gallery at RIBA on January 26, 2016 in London, England. The exhibition opens on the 27th January and explores how cities have been reimagined after disasters, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA))
A model for a post-earthquake community center in Japan (Photo by Tristan Fewings)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: A general view from Creation from Catastrophe, a new free public exhibition in the RIBA Architecture Gallery at RIBA on January 26, 2016 in London, England. The exhibition opens on the 27th January and explores how cities have been reimagined after disasters, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA))
Exhibition view of ‘Creation from Catastrophe’ at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Photo by Tristan Fewings)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: A model of a Lisbon Pombalina anti-seismic structure features in Creation from Catastrophe, a new free public exhibition in the RIBA Architecture Gallery at RIBA on January 26, 2016 in London, England. The exhibition opens on the 27th January and explores how cities have been reimagined after disasters, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA))
Exhibition view of ‘Creation from Catastrophe’ at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Photo by Tristan Fewings)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: A general view from Creation from Catastrophe, a new free public exhibition in the RIBA Architecture Gallery at RIBA on January 26, 2016 in London, England. The exhibition opens on the 27th January and explores how cities have been reimagined after disasters, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA))
Exhibition view of ‘Creation from Catastrophe’ at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Photo by Tristan Fewings)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: A general view from Creation from Catastrophe, a new free public exhibition in the RIBA Architecture Gallery at RIBA on January 26, 2016 in London, England. The exhibition opens on the 27th January and explores how cities have been reimagined after disasters, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA))
Exhibition view of ‘Creation from Catastrophe’ at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Photo by Tristan Fewings)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: Jules Guerin's watercolours of designs for Chicago after the fire of 1871 feature in Creation from Catastrophe, a new free public exhibition in the RIBA Architecture Gallery at RIBA on January 26, 2016 in London, England. The exhibition opens on the 27th January and explores how cities have been reimagined after disasters, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA))
Exhibition view of ‘Creation from Catastrophe’ at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Photo by Tristan Fewings)

Creation from Catastrophe: How Architecture Rebuilds Communities continues at RIBA (66 Portland Place, London, UK) through April 24.

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