Dezeen Magazine

Turkey earthquake damage

"Earthquakes don't kill people, bad buildings do"

Architects should play a major role in the recovery after disasters like the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria, but egotistical posturing will not help anyone, writes Cameron Sinclair.

Countless lives have been lost with many more injured and suffering from the tragic disaster that has struck Turkey and northern Syria. While most people see the wrath borne by tectonic rupture, architects, engineers and construction professionals know that earthquakes don't kill people, bad buildings do.

Currently, somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 structures have been damaged or destroyed, many of which could continue to deteriorate with repeated aftershocks possible in the weeks and months ahead.

Well-meaning commitments and plans can be far worse than not responding at all

Entire towns and villages have been decimated and, as I write, valiant volunteers and aid workers are desperately trying to save those still trapped. Some are using bare hands and makeshift inflatable air bladders to lift rubble in an area that already has close to three million refugees displaced by a decade-long war.

In the last 25 years I've been part of dozens of humanitarian responses, engaging building professionals in many projects. From Afghanistan to Haiti, Japan, Syria and the United States, the outpouring of support and desire to help from our profession has always been unwavering.

However, well-meaning commitments and plans can in fact be far worse than not responding at all. When we only commit in the short-term, we raise expectations and create false hope to communities suffering from tragedy. You can do a disservice to the community and, in turn, the profession as a whole. In humanitarian circles, we call this the "Katrina effect", when so many groups came to rebuild the Gulf Coast but left a community with empty promises.

During my career, I've been fortunate enough to work with a lot of building professionals. After the great earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I ended up developing the "rule of four" strategy in responding to disasters. A brief synopsis follows:

In the first four days, the affected region needs immediate relief efforts. In the first four weeks, engineering and building assessment teams are needed to mobilize and evaluate damaged structures. In the first four months, a locally-based architectural response team must work with community leaders, stakeholders, funders and professional and academic institutions to help coordinate reconstruction efforts. And finally – the most important – teams must be funded and commit to at least four years in the rebuilding process.

It's easy to get it wrong, and I write from personal experience. As a passionate design professional in my mid-20s, I led a small team in launching a design competition to build housing for families displaced by the Kosovo conflict. That competition was called Architecture for Humanity. While we built hospitals and schools with funds raised, the number of homes built: zero.

I'm frustrated, angry and distraught at how we allow history to repeat itself

No symposiums, design competitions, conferences or flamboyant design proposals will help a damn soul without actually building solutions. In the face of natural disasters, climate collapse and conflict, the world continues to need dedicated teams working collectively to rebuild civic and economic infrastructure.

Architecture can be a catalyst for change, helping enforce better construction practices and building codes, ensuring funding is distributed to affected communities. But here is the kicker: if you truly want to help, you have to be ready to work when all the funding and interest has disappeared.

After 15 years, I left the organization I helped found and once cared so deeply about. The following decade I worked silently under the guise of others. I found my passion again in partnering with Syrian refugees to develop and build re-deployable structures, advising housing groups in conflict zones, supporting families caught across political borders, tackling gun violence in the US and building health facilities in Ethiopia and Cambodia.

During that time, it was my hope that a global network of building professionals would emerge ready to respond to any humanitarian crisis, beyond the handful of existing organizations. It hasn't.

Certainly "pro bono" architecture exists as part of our industry, but it is not what the majority of the world sees. In mainstream media, we see high-profile architects flying into Ukraine with promises of city building, government agencies handing tens of millions to groups with scant local experience and international institutions sending out condolence tweets whilst ensuring grassroots architectural groups receive scant financial support beyond awards and recognition.

Do I sound like a bitter curmudgeon? I'm sure I've been called worse and frankly don't have the time to care. I'm frustrated, angry and distraught at how we allow history to repeat itself.

The world is ill-prepared for what the next 40 years will bring – and our profession should know better. If you believe in science, you'll know storms and earthquakes are getting worse and more frequent. Resource scarcity will lead to conflict and the continual destruction of our planet for access to what should be a basic human right.

The cradle of civilization needs more than our hope

Should we join marches and protest our realities of the future or work together to invest in creating solutions for the present? Our entire profession needs some serious soul-searching to rekindle the value of what we bring to society. Instead of relying on our institutions beg for a seat at the decision-making table we need to fight for our values and show that, when called upon, we can rise to the occasion by acting as the vessel for a community in recovery and re-emergence.

We are now three days since the earthquake and now is the moment to unify as a profession.

The cradle of civilization needs more than our hope, it needs us to work together to empower talented and dedicated Turkish and Syrian architects in the resilient rebuilding of their communities. Time is not on their side and when we don't step up, do you know what gets built? Tens of thousands of poorly constructed buildings that will be a ticking time bomb for the next disaster.

When it comes to creating safe environments, architects are not just the creators of a brighter future, we are also the cavalry in times of need. If you know you have the opportunity prevent the deaths of tens of thousands, what will you do?

Cameron Sinclair is founder of Worldchanging Institute, an Arizona-based research organisation focused on architectural and design solutions to humanitarian crises. He is currently advising family foundations and NGOs on responding to manmade and natural disasters.

The photo is by VOA.