John McAslan+Partners based in London, Manchester, and Edinburgh is no small time operation. Its motto is “Architecture that improves people’s lives.” Its current projects include London’s §450 million King’s Cross Station project grounding the Eurail system, remodeling and transforming the historic centre of the Stanislavky family site in Moscow, a recently completed British Embassy in Algiers, an innovative High School and Library project that is an essential part of Edinburgh’s regenerative Craigmillar masterplan , a §120 million sustainable supercampus for Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as a high quality office and mixed use complex 100 meters from St.Paul’s Cathedral known as 5 Cheapside. Yet McCaslan has just returned from Haiti after assessing how his tithing commitment (10% of pretax profits) can help further his firm’s motto in that beleaguered island.
Interestingly enough, he also seeks to protect the High Victorian heritage of jigsaw Gingerbread Gothic left from a nineteenth century American occupation, a project he had been involved in before the earthquake. “One of my great fears is that some of the damaged historical buildings that survived will be demolished. You can’t be too concerned about the heritage when there are lives to be saved, but I think one needs to hold on to the past.”(Steve Rose, “Haiti and the demands of disaster-zone architecture,” Guardian, 14 February, 2010.)
While his firm’s right hand does the monumental King’s Cross project, its left has been building low tech prototype schools in Malawi for Bill Clinton’s development charity. “Made of local brick and timber, these smart, simple buildings are designed to optimize natural cooling, harvest rainwater and do without electric lighting—perfect for Malawi’s remote villages.” (Steve Rose, op.cit.) He wants to do similar pro bono work in Haiti, and Clinton has already signed him on.
“What’s needed most urgently in Haiti is coordination,” says McAslan.”If there isn’t any, there’s a real danger a lot of effort and good intentions will be lost.” He points to the impending rainy season and the threat of sanitation-related diseases. He reminds us that there were four hurricanes alone in 2008. He concludes,”we need short-term preparedness for the rainy season, and we need a long-term commitment to reconstruction.”
His long term “pro bono” scheme is to involve local young people in his projects. He has also founded a bursary through the Royal Institute of British Architects that involves young architects and engineers in small scale design projects. (See http://www.mcaslin.co.uk.)
But McAslin has by no means a monopoly on this Kate Stohr and Cameron Sinclair, San Francisco based architects cofounders of Architecture for Humanity, had 600 enquiries a day in the week after the disaster. Article 25, the leading UK architectural aid charity, has offers of help from 350 British architects. Both agencies are cautious about complicating the crisis by prematurely appearing on deck.
Ms. Stohr warns, “You don’t go in and talk about building new schools when people are grieving. The first reconstruction doesn’t typically start from six to nine months, and there will be a period of three to five years where we’ll be actively working and need volunteers.” They’re already at work on a second edition of their Bible, ”Design Like You Give a Damn.” Too many celeb incursions could even complicate the tasks ahead. The United Nations assesses that one in seven people live in slum conditions. Their millennium goals include improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2015.
Nonetheless natural and man-made disasters have created a common agenda throughout the world: creating homes, schools, hospitals, and comparable structures needed yesterday, quickly and cheaply. A good model is Article 25’s work in Northern Pakistan. When an earthquake in 2005 destroyed the homes of 3.5 million people, in collaboration with Muslim Aid, Article 25 volunteers began building seismic-resistant homes for people who couldn’t make their own.
Robin Cross, director Article 25’s projects says the new houses look like the old ones made of stone and mud. Except for a small structural frame made of small lengths of timber. They flex until the seismic strains! They are also “nailed” to the turf with concrete plinths with steel straps, thus less likely to slide off the hillside.
Ms. Cross argues: “There is a place for innovation, but it’s often best to adopt the materials and skills found locally. We’ve built about 100 houses there thus far, but we’ve also used each one of them as an exercise in training people. It’s important that when we leave we haven’t just left buildings behind—we’ve also left a community with an increased capacity to rebuild itself.”
Is there no aesthetic dimension to this good natured charity: Stohr says YES! "Aesthetics are terribly important. Imagine you’re a child and you’ve lost everything and lived in tents for five years. That’s half your life. It is actually really important after a disaster to build back beautifully. It brings back a sense of normalcy. When all those beloved landmarks are gone, if you replace them with things that have cultural meaning and aren’t, frankly, beautiful, you’re not rebuilding that community."
As a new generation of tithing professionals hopefully replaces the bloated bonus nuts of casino capitalism, we owe a great new example to Mss. Stohr and Cross and Sinclair and McAslin. Humans can learn together in good times and bad, despite the facile fiscal lies of “unseen Hands”.