Design Ethics in Disasters

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architecture, ethics, disaster

It always comes to a surprise that ethics still remains an optional discourse for many schools of architecture around the world, just as often as sustainability is caught out to be a token gesture in many design projects today. The topic of ethics is entangled with Socratic contradictions that generate one question after another; and, because it seldom offers tangible, actionable solutions, the topic makes the vast majority of the architectural profession glaze over, or worse, assume that they are already ethical both in their decision-making and conduct.

Photo © Richard Misrach

from his book of post-Katrina graffiti images, Destroy This Memory

My penchant for architectural ethics has led me to spend the past three years at the University of Auckland and the University of California, Berkeley, asking the question, “What is the ethical role of architects in humanitarian endeavors?”—with particular interest in the various roles the design professions play in the context of disasters. The research looks at the ethical roles and attitudes of architects who are currently active in the field in humanitarian endeavors. With more than half of the world’s population now living in cities, the ethics of designing for the disenfranchised is a double-edged sword: the industry proponents call it Architecture for Humanity (via Cameron Sinclair), and its skeptics call it New Imperialism (via David Harvey). However, when the repercussions of any action (and sometimes inaction) involve human lives, the issue becomes even more laden with ethical questions.

Internationally, the humanitarian aid industry is replete with examples of more or less inappropriate solutions to housing and their cookie-cutter approach to post-disaster reconstruction that have become a vicious cycle for many agencies. Opportunities to build back better have often been missed due to pressures of “Time Compression,” inhibiting sustainable recovery.

Having just returned from Bati Byen, the Rebuilding Centre in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I am very optimistic about the role the professionals—architects, planners, urban designers, engineers—could play in facilitating the various agents of recovery (such as local neighborhood groups, the government, other local and global agencies) to build back better. Despite my as-of-yet deficient understanding on how professional ethics, humanitarian ethics, indigenous ethics, and personal ethics are present in the post-disaster context, it is obvious that they sometimes compete, contradict, and complement, yet necessarily coexist with each other. The art of asking the right questions, perhaps, has never been more important for ethics in disasters. It is something to be considered for an increasingly global practice of architects honing their design etiquette for foreign sites.

See previous articles on ethics in architecture on
    Thomas Fisher, “Ethics for Architects: Introductory Comments

Jennifer Pechacek, “Ethics and User Research” . . . and look forward to more in this continuing series.

For a related perspective, see Mark English’s “New Orleans Post-Katrina: Making It Right?” on The Architect’s Take, source of the images below.

architecture, ethics, disaster


Alexandra-Jayeun Lee

Alexandra-Jayeun Lee is a PhD Candidate in Architecture at The University of Auckland and co-founder of Architecture for Humanity Auckland Chapter in New Zealand.

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  1. Pingback: Design Ethics in Disasters « Beyond Architecture for Humanity

  2. avatar

    a real can or worms

    Entire thing was not unexpected as the Corp of Engineers and the Water Guys used to come around Tulane annually in 72/73/74 and give the standard lecture, “if the hurricane comes in just so and the wind blows thisaway then there is going to be a hell of a lot of water here.”

    The normal scene in New Orleans was a hot humid landscaped paradise mixed in with elegant and seedy historic buildings with high ceilings big double hung windows one could walk thru and covered decks and porches and verandas to beat the heat. None of the historical nature of New Orleans is present in the photos of all this new Ninth Ward stuff.

    The scale, spacing, landscaping and street scene are way off and could be anywhere or nowhere. One used to search out the shade of oaks to stand beneath to beat the heat. However besides Chez Helene, the famous black restaurant, I am unfamiliar with the Ninth Ward.

  3. avatar
    Mark English, AIA

    No-one has said it better, in my mind, than Tulane University Geographer and Professor Richard Campanella, in our article on the subject,:

    “I would point out that, well, it’s Brad Pitt’s money. He can do whatever he wants, within the limits of codes and laws– and he broke none of them. He could have spent it on silly hats or jetsetting to Cannes. True, he raised money through his foundation, but to my knowledge, that was all private money as well. So in my view, MIR has a certain level of license to be creative, utopian, innovative, and perhaps a little zany, and may be forgiven if its efforts eventually prove to be inefficient and ineffective. It would be a very different story if this were public money…
    I’ll leave the architectural criticism (stylistically and structurally) to architects and designers, and I’ll leave the civic-engagement criticism to the sociologists. What I, as a geographer, can opine on is the decision to build MIR at that site, precisely in front of the high-velocity breach flooding, on land that is mostly below sea level and adjacent to two risk-inducing manmade navigation canals. This was a bold, high-minded, and morally majestic decision, but a foolish one. It reflects a romanticized notion of the relationship between place and people (culture). It indulges in the tempting (and popular) but problematic presumption that “place makes people,” whereas in fact the opposite is more commonly the case. It attempts to “save” the culture of that neighborhood by rebuilding in that exact spot, as if culture emerges from soil. The truth is that human beings adjust their place all the time. They move to different houses, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and continents incessantly. Most of the pre-Katrina housing stock near the MIR project only dates to the 1920s-1960s; residents moved there from other neighborhoods only a couple of generations ago, at most.
    More troublingly, MIR’s site selection decision reveals a breezy arrogance (note the name “Make It Right”) and a misguided sense of defiance. At whom are they shaking their fists by insisting on making their statement at that unsustainable site? Global warming? Under-engineered levees and floodwalls? Centuries of delta urbanism and their deleterious impact on the landscape? The whole Katrina tragedy?
    Make It Right seems to be more interested in making garbled political statements and basking in the glow of progressive righteousness, than in building a maximum number of reasonably sustainable low-cost houses in a sustainable location. I personally identified over 2000 open parcels of above-sea-level land in the heart of the New Orleans historic district. That’s where MIR should have built. And it is from those neighborhoods that most residents of the Lower Ninth Ward can trace their roots.
    If you build sustainable structures but place them in a geographically unsustainable site, have you really “made it right”?”

  4. avatar
    Tim Culvahouse, FAIA

    Robert Schwartz makes sound points, but he does not address the impact of formal decisions on the creation of community cohesion. Perhaps what is missing in Alexandra-Jayeun Lee’s original article is a concrete example. As editor of this website, I should have thought of that earlier, but the beauty of online discussion is that we can supplement what has come before. Accordingly, I would offer the Make It Right houses in New Orleans as a case study of the tension between the expressive will of the architect and the desires and needs of the inhabitants.

    While it is a near certainty that, functionally, the beneficiaries of the Make It Right program have received sound housing, it is far from certain that they have received houses that will coalesce into a coherent community fabric. (I have written more extensively on this topic at Are the non-rectilinear asymmetries of current fashion compatible with the residents’ express desire to recover their lost neighborhood? Is the diversity of expression generated by the convergence of many high-profile architects compatible with formation of a coherent streetscape?

    Other conjoined questions arise. For example, is the toleration of significant budget overruns in the first constructed iteration of a design, followed by progressive cost reduction in subsequent iterations, the most responsible use of resources? Perhaps it is, perhaps not. More broadly, what is the relationship between the financing of a recovery program and its social economy? Perhaps the individual architect should choose to be more disciplined than the financing framework demands.

    These are questions that fall squarely within the purview of architects.

    Tim Culvahouse, FAIA
    Editor-in-chief, AIA California Council

  5. avatar
    Robert Ira Schwartz AIA

    I am left very confused by the scope of this article. Let me repeat for clarity the original question posed by the author: “What is the ethical role of architects in humanitarian endeavors?”—with particular interest in the various roles the design professions play in the context of disasters.”

    In most instances the short-term collective phased response to humanitarian disasters is consistent;

    (1) establishment of surviving communication networks between first-responders;
    (2) search for and immediate rescue of survivors;
    (3) provision of immediate medical aid;
    (4) transport of survivors to safe collection points;
    (5) provision of emergency medical treatment and evacuation for injured survivors;
    (6) provision of immediate sustaining potable water, food, clothing and shelter for uninjured survivors;
    (7) centralized identification of displaced survivors and, if/when possible, deceased victims;
    (8) relocation of displaced uninjured survivors to secure temporary locations where logistic support can be delivered & distributed.

    None of these above-itemized functions require any special architectural expertise, so the question of architectural ethics in such exingent circumstances is moot.

    Architects, engineers and urban planners may play some very limited useful role during the following reconstruction & recovery period (often years and sometimes decades in duration), but that depends entirely upon the availability of material, labor, financial and other resources (or lack thereof), the political prioritization of responding to public needs and the cultural history of the affected population – all of which are factors over which Architects normally have very little direct control.

    When circumstances do allow, architects can and will be called upon to rebuild disaster-destroyed urban environments in ways superior to the pre-existing improvements (there is a long history of such improvement, as any post-1909 San Franciscan can confirm), but that is a very long-term process and one which does not seem to impart any particular special ethical responsibility for architects as they perform their normal technical roles. As one example, Architects certainly incorporated into their subsequent designs improvements to the Uniform Building Code based upon lessons learned from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, but that was a matter of normal professional practice – it had nothing to do with “ethics”. Similarly, architects in the Gulf Coast now uniformly incorporate recent IBC code upgrades regarding hurricane-resistive design into their work, but that is a professional responsibility and not an issue of applicable “ethics”; they would be professionally negligent were they not to do comply with the code.

    Not all circumstances allow architects to play any meaningful roles in infrastructure recovery. For example; in Haiti the local population will doubtlessly rebuild much of their destroyed physical infrastructure in exactly the same way, using exactly the same materials and familiar technology, that proved so seismically vulnerable & deadly during the recent catastrophic earthquake. The actual adoption-in-practice of modern building codes is unenforceable, as a practical matter, in circumstances where a functioning civil administration simply does not exist. Continued poverty and greed drives the imperative for shoddy construction methods – thus guaranteeing an eventual recapitulation of much the same disaster, with much the same sorry resultant. Actual ownership of the underlying land parcels to be built-upon is often questionable and contested, even when the necessary surveying and plat-recordation exists, and nobody will invest much in performing good-quality construction upon a land parcel that might be peremptorily taken away from them. In such unhappy circumstances any questions concerning “architectural ethics” would seem more than academic and irrelevant.

    A major reason for considering professional ethics is to provide a useful guideline for proper professional behavior when the circumstances at issue are unclear and ambivalent; not when the application of a black-letter code is otherwise clear and certain. As a leading design and construction expert in my corner of the world, I think that there is certainly a valid argument for providing enhanced formal academic training in the subject of professional ethics as they may concern architects in practice, but they are no different when applied to post-disaster circumstances as they would normally apply under non-disaster conditions.

    Robert I. Schwartz AIA
    Architect, General Contractor and Construction Forensic Expert
    Deputy Inspector, California State Office of Emergency Services

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