In the post-disaster context, if emergency relief operators belong to the ‘giving a man a fish’ school of thought, and planners and policy makers follow a ‘teaching a man to fish’ approach, then architecture is the bridge between the two. Foucault argues that “technology must be social before it is technical” (Foucault, 2003), and, indeed, the experience of aid agencies has proven that best solutions often lie within the existing community. Rather than quietly waiting for commissions from clients or government authorities, architects, Bell argues, can “play an active role in responding to the social challenges we face in the world” (Bell 2008, 15). Architects naturally lend themselves to being community facilitators within post-disaster contexts, or as “skilled understanders enabling people to work out their problems” (Ward 1996, 17). Architects have a social responsibility to reach out and proactively seek solutions in communities. With resources becoming increasingly scarce, there is a pressing need to build back better at every opportunity, with one critical element in mind: the humanity.

When more than half of the world’s population live in cities, designing for the disenfranchised is an ethical double-edged sword: its proponents call it Architecture for Humanity, while skeptics call it New Imperialism. The history of humanitarian aid is littered with socially inappropriate housing solutions and cookie-cutter approaches to post-disaster reconstruction. Despite efforts to the contrary, opportunities to “build back better” get lost amongst perceived difficulties of providing housing beyond the bare minimum. By presupposing design as the first signal of human intention (McDonough, 1993), this research paper asks: what is the ethical position of the architect in humanitarian endeavours?

The research draws on the architectural discourse from across the humanities – sociology, anthropology, planning, politics, and development studies –to argue that socially responsible design is an essential element of humanitarian aid. A transdisciplinary approach—which combines interdisciplinarity with a participatory approach—promises a sustainable alternative to the conventional model characterised by authoritarian, top-down measures. Specifically, in exploring the ethical role of the architect in humanitarian endeavours, the research: 1) expands the architectural pedagogy by identifying architectural and design opportunities in the humanitarian aid sector, 2) reconciles the challenges of humanitarian design practice through interdisciplinary research, 3) analyses some of the assumptions held by aid agencies about the perceived complexities and resources involved in housing beyond shelter.

This paper seeks to raise questions about the ethics of designing in a complex society marred by disasters. In doing so, this paper begins to unravel some of the apparently mysterious delays and frustrations recurrent in post-disaster reconstruction, and identifies gaps in both skills and knowledge that the architectural profession could seek to bridge. The architectural profession needs a social paradigm shift in the way architects practice design, so that instead of being reactive, architects can become intelligently proactive.


Bell, B., & Wakeford, K. eds. Expanding Architecture : design as activism, (New York: Metropolis Books, 2008).

Burgess, P. G, The Role of the Architect in Society, (Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie-Mellon University, 1983).

Foucault, Michel, Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76, (London: Penguin, 2003).

McDonough, W, Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things: Centennial Sermon on the 100th Anniversary of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, (New York City, 1993).

Ward, Colin, Talking to Architects: Ten Lectures, (London: Freedom Press, 1996).


One thought on “Redefining Architecture for Humanity: A Bite-sized Introduction

  1. Interestingly put… I think we need to also emphasise how to train architects for practical implementation.. cos we may write n theoretically exlpain a lot bt there is nothing as gud as practical/on site work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s