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Post-traumatic Urbanism edited by Helen Castle and After Crisis: Contemporary Architectural Conditions chaired by Dr. Josep Lluis Mateo

What can architects do to help people live with the effects of natural disaster?

Recent months have witnessed scenes of devastation that suggest escalating levels of political and climatic instability around the world. The AR has reported on events surrounding Japan’s offshore earthquake and tsunami (AR April 2011), and floods in Queensland and Rio de Janeiro (AR February 2011) that, despite being almost 15,000km apart, were both caused by the same weather cycle, La Niña. Yet although architects often feel compelled to use their skills to help people to live with the effects of war and natural disasters, what can they actually contribute?

Helen Castle poses this question in her editorial for a special issue of Architectural Design, entitled ‘Post-Traumatic Urbanism’, suggesting that case-by-case consideration must prevail when measuring what role architects can play. When introducing the many responses, typically initiated by wealthy schools of architecture and cutting-edge practices, Castle concludes by asking: ‘Can architects only ever have the best interests of the greater population in mind with a clear understanding that human tragedy is not inevitably architectural opportunity?’

In counterpoint, Jayne Merkel and Craig Whitaker argue in their excellent essay that in these extreme situations, ‘international architectural talent and expertise are irrelevant, even undesirable’. Challenging the book’s main theme sharpens its appeal, balancing well-intended theory with on-the-ground reportage, and providing cases of evidence both to those whose natural reaction is to jump on a plane and to offer help, and to those who question the validity of volunteer intervention.

By contrast, ‘After Crisis’ from ETH Zürich’s Architectural Papers is more abstract, tackling economic instability and its impact on ideologies that relate to craftsmanship, materiality and the provision of social space. The bursting of the financial bubble is perceived as a catalyst for new attitudes to architecture, with contributions from Richard Sennett on the craftsman’s role in the ‘post-Fordist, post-globalised world’ and Rem Koolhaas on Dubai.

The publication includes a series of projects that, as Josep Lluís Mateo observes, are ‘based on the local, manual, material, personal, emotional, direct, probably small, graspable in marked opposition to recent paradigms that stress the grand, the global and the generic as fundamental conditions of the project’. For instance, it features Wang Shu’s delightful Tiles Garden, the Chinese contribution to the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale. Amid the fall-out from the intensifying effects of ecological stress, both books offer thought-provoking reading.

Post-traumatic Urbanism, Architectural Design. Vol 80. No 5. September 2010. Edited by Helen Castle

After Crisis: Contemporary Architectural Conditions, Architectural Papers V. ETH Zürich. 2010. Chaired by Prof. Dr Josep Lluís Mateo

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