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In the fantasy world of reconstruction let’s try calling a spade a spade

The notion of reconstruction is complex and involves careful planning of the stages that will comprise at least immediate emergency solutions and then permanent reconstruction. Planning involves a thorough knowledge of the areas in questions. The staging needs to be conceived in a manner that facilitates a smooth transition from one stage of the process to the next. Unfortunately this is not easy to achieve and as I saw in Managua, Nicaragua almost three decades after the earthquake, inappropriate planning can later prevent the implementation of permanent solutions. For instance, I am referring to one of the many cases in which a “temporary” market solution became a permanent ill conceived feature, which determined most of what later developed around. Reconstruction in some of the poorest regions of the world carries the danger that emergency solutions will become permanent features and we need to be aware of this.

Planning entails the big picture which is tied to cultural, social, economic, political, heritage, geographic and climate aspects. Furthermore, as we have seen in Chile—where large numbers of psychologists, social workers and university students mobilised to the affected areas to support those people traumatised by the disaster—reconstruction also involves careful and long term consideration of the needs of those who were directly affected by the disaster.

The point of this quick outline on reconstruction is to provide the context within which architecture might play a role as part of a much large strategy.

Container solution for Haiti. Image source: Inhabitat

Collapsed infrastructure in Santiago, Chile. Image source: AP Photo/David Lillo

When looking at some of the architectural solutions proposed, I wonder whether these architects have ever experienced or visited and engage with people in need anywhere, including their own countries. If not, have they studied what reconstruction is really about? In view of their own sense of their architectural contributions, the following questions come to mind: Who should decide what is to be done? Are there other reasons behind the apparent altruistic architectural works? Do the people designing for others know the place, the social and economic conditions for which they are designing? Are local citizens and among them their own professionals better positioned to design and decide on the terms of their own reconstruction?
Designers have the power to make things worse as much as better, and are most effective for good when operating within a context prescribed by their abilities and influence. If there was a genuine programme to help Haiti, it would have been initiated years ago, in concert with an organisation with the resources to carry out a focused, effective (and therefore probably small-scale) intervention. It might have saved a few dozen lives. But architects were too busy drawing houses on stilts in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.[2]

These questions emerge once more after having seen too many stylistically focused and at many levels inadequate (design, cultural and cost terms) proposals for the Victorian bushfires reconstruction (Australia) and a similar abysmal number of inapt architectural “solutions” proposed for earthquake affected areas in Haiti and Chile. Note that in this case, the same container solution was suggested for Chile and Haiti (countries diametrically opposed in almost every aspect)—a solution tested earlier with Bosnian refugees.[3]

In the fantasy world of some architects, their misplaced dreams don’t distinguish between different climatic, economic and cultural conditions. People from all different parts of the world, under the spell of these architectural creations, can now look as if strolling along the beach. According to their “global” ignorance, the world is all the same, particularly if referring to countries poorer than their own. Within that conception of a homogeneous world, their creativity (under the banner of ‘sustainability’, by way of getting rid-of some of their own trash) is contributing to the reconstruction process—but is it?

Many of these solutions are insensitive to the population’s needs and of cultural differences, as they depart from the belief that one architectural idea fits all (the not very creative container idea for instance). Many of these solutions are insensitive and “globally” ignorant of the diverse climatic conditions, seismic cultural and economic conditions. For instance, the recycled container would need expensive and robust structural system to lock the containers in place in a seismic region of the world. As claimed by one of the many container emergency solutions designers, these containers may have worked well in Bosnia, but wars and earthquakes are not the same thing.[4]

Have any of these designers ever investigated local building codes and solutions? For instance, here is an article on la “Villa Portales”, a large social housing development built between 1955 y 1967 in Santiago Chile, which suffered no damage after one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. Local solutions such as the "mediaguas", have for many decades served as emergency housing in Chile—these are also sustainable and provide insulation from the very cold winters of Santiago. These 'mediaguas' are minimal and do not display “sexy” rococo or postmodern frills. They do the job while responding to local conditions, using local materials and labour—they are simply temporary emergency housing.

Social housing in Villa Portales, Santiago Chile. Plataforma Arquitectura

Social housing in Villa Portales, Santiago Chile. Plataforma Arquitectura

"Mediaguas", Local emergency housing by Elemental Chile

Much care is given to the positioning of these houses in a layout that resembles a neighbourhood and that can foster conviviality while maintaining the privacy of their occupants. This important work was not prompted by the earthquake. This work is supported by years of experimentation and testing and it represents one of the many examples from which architects willing to engage in reconstruction could learn from.

Image source: RedArquitectura

Ignorance mixed with designers’ arrogance makes for a dangerous mix. Dangerous because the efforts are misplaced, so are the economic resources and worst of all, the perpetuation of ignorance and disregard of the accumulated knowledge of local professionals and the people affected—characteristics that continue to pervade much of these reconstruction efforts.

Let’s “call a spade a spade”. While it is not my intention to upset any of these designers, it is on the other hand important to ‘mature’ as a profession, to step out of this egocentric infantile state and then perhaps we will have a chance to contribute to and with the rest of the world. For now I propose that we interrogate these proposals to understand what is to be done if we are to engage with the real world at all.

Below I have pasted some links that can give the reader a glimpse of the issues here discussed.

Some proposed solutions and proposal discussions:
Green Container International AID
Puerto Rico 'Haha…bitat'
Architectural responses to the Haitian earthquake reveal misplaced motives.
Is Haiti a Laboratory for New Urbanists? What the Country Really Needs Is Old Urbanism | Aerotropoli

Articles on the earthquake in Chile:
• “Why did fewer die in Chile's earthquake than in Haiti's?”. BBC News, 1 March 2010.
• “Un Techo para Chile construirá 30 mil viviendas para damnificados por terremoto”. El Mercurio. 3 March 2010.
• Frank Bajak. “Chile was ready for quake, Haiti wasn’t”. Associated Press (AP), 27 February 2010.
• Sebastian Gray. “Santiago Stands Firm”. New York Times, 2 March 2010.
• “Ministra de Vivienda llama a propietarios a acogerse a Ley de Calidad por daños” (Minister call home owner to find protection for damages to their properties in the ‘Law of Quality’). El Mercurio, 3 March 2010.
• Beatriz Maturana. “Notes on the Earthquake in Chile”. Architects for Peace, 8 March 2010

Author: Beatriz C. Maturana
The author would like to thank and acknowledge colleagues from ReCUA (Caribbean Network of Urbanism and Architecture) for the rigorous and stimulating conversations on many of these topics.


[1] Two days after this article was published, the post published in Inhabitat which this link refers to has been removed. A reference to this post, which includes some images, can still be found here (10.04.10):; now (24.05.10) is back again: here

[2] Baldwin, Ian. "Architectural responses to the Haitian earthquake reveal misplaced motives." Custom Home Online (1 March 2010, originally published in Architectural Review),

[3]+ [4] Since publishing this article, the webpage displaying one of the container solutions which I have referred to, has changed its content ( It now (10.04.10) includes detailed information about the structural system that supports the containers.

* This article was updated on 10.04.2010


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