“Start where you can,” was the motto of the Afghan-born architect Nabeel Hamdi, who was one of the pioneers of humanitarian architecture in the 1960s. Since then, many communities around the world have been through wars and natural disasters.
Typically built in harsh environments with scarce resources, examples of humanitarian architecture often act as catalysts to provide shelter, education, health and wellbeing to communities.
Years ago, when I said architects should get involved in humanitarian issues, people laughed at me. Design isn’t only about aesthetics, it’s about problem-solving and we have a planet plagued with problems.Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architects for Humanity
Since the 1960s, many architects have been using their skills to address devastating and urgent problems. The five following examples of humanitarian architecture exemplify how buildings and design lift communities in need up in a dignified, practical, and aesthetically pleasing way.
An Innovative Refugee Center in Germany
The war that broke out in Syria in 2011 displaced more than 6 million people; half a million of which sought asylum in Germany. At least 12,000 of them settled in a camp outside the Southwestern German city of Mannheim.
Working with 25 refugees, 18 architecture students from the University of Kaiserslautern built a latticed-wood refugee center within this camp.
“[The refugees] are well provided with the bare essentials but the immediate area is quite desolate and lacking of quality common spaces,” said the student architects. The stunning wooden complex with cross-laminated timber walls and shadow plays now meets some of this need.
A Children’s Cancer Center in Rwanda
The curing rate for childhood cancer now exceeds 80 percent in some advanced economies; but it was 10 percent in the 1960s. However, lack of access to adequate health facilities can mean that there’re global asymmetries: More than 80 percent of children with cancer in poorer countries die following a cancer diagnosis.
Nevertheless, state-of-art health facilities like Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence in Rwanda are ready to rewrite this narrative and address the “global cancer divide”.
A Culturally Sensitive Orphanage in Iran
In addition to addressing some pressing needs, good examples of humanitarian architecture must be culturally sensitive to maximize its impact.
Tehran-based ZAV Architects, in collaboration with the non-profit Habitat for Orphan Girls, achieved exactly that with a recently finished residential center for vulnerable girls.
The orphanage was a 2018 winner of the Architectural House Awards. Through closeable balconies and inwards-curving roofs, it provides a safe and homely environment for girls between seven and 16 to learn, play, and thrive.
A Cardboard Cathedral in New Zealand
In 2011, a violent earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand’s second big city, taking 181 lives. The disaster also devastated the city center, destroying many of the historical buildings such as the iconic Christchurch cathedral.
To replenish the city’s spirits and meet the need for a place of public gathering and worship, Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect famous for his work with paper, swiftly built the Cardboard Cathedral.
The result is stunning yet straightforward: The a-frame structure from 98 equally sized cardboard tubes and eight steel shipping containers now serves the public until a permanent structure is in place.
Zones for Peace in Venezuela
Venezuela is one of South America’s most urbanized countries. However, in recent years, the country has been engulfed in an economic and political crisis, which caused a surge in urban violence.
The local architecture firm PICO Estudio’s project, Espacios de Paz (Spaces for Peace) established five safe zones within some of Venezuela’s most troubled neighborhoods.
The humanitarian architecture project, which was a winner of the Architecture Sans Frontiere’s Award in 2015, already brought drastic changes to the five urban settlements where it’s spread.