AIF Blog

Architecture of Justice

Jul 11, 2014
CATEGORY: Arts, Health, World


As we humbly gathered two weeks ago at the Aspen Ideas Festival with some of the world’s preeminent thought leaders and changemakers, we were struck by the Aspen Institute's ability to structure its built environment not only to compliment the awe-inspiring natural landscape, but to provide spaces that enable true convening and productive dialogue. Of course as architects we take notice of these spaces and environments, and appreciate their capacity to resonate the Festival’s goals and the Institute’s core ethos, actually improving the participants’ experience and quality of exchange.

We see frequently that such spaces are the exception, and worldwide the rule is more often categorized by architectures of violence—spaces that exacerbate segregation and inequality, or ignore contextual realities that dominate a public perception of what architecture does.

Architecture can be an instrument of violence, evident most recently in the exploitation of imported migrant labor and death of nearly nine hundred workers as construction continues unregulated on the 2022 World Cup stadium in Qatar. Architecture also perpetuates or manifests inequality when ignorant of context, as we’re seeing as imported architectural prototypes are constructed across the African subcontinent, only to burden local stakeholders with buildings that fail after only a few years or infeasible resource demands. Just last year our team visited the Chinese-built Tappita Hospital in Liberia, meant to serve as a flagship hospital but seven hours from the capital and maintenance costs so high that public resources are disproportionately allocated to Tappita while bare bones clinics in neighboring districts have no electricity or water.

Yet the absence of architecture is also violent—as in Haiti, for example, where a lack of building regulation and regulators failed to ensure enforcement of adequate code and construction compliance before the 2010 earthquake, and killed 250,000 people after buildings toppled upon them. In 2013, the dangers of hasty construction were laid bare in the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, killing 1,300 and revealing the deregulatory pressures of the global supply chain. These architectures are prolific, and they are powerful.

But architecture can also do immense good and we should call on it to do so. As William Morris, father of the Arts and Crafts movement said, “Nothing should be made by labor degrading to the makers.” Beauty, to Morris, was not the finished object alone, but creating an equitable process through which a building could be realized. Great architecture was made through social justice, not in spite of it. Architecture can in fact promote equity and improve lives.

In Rwanda, we’ve seen the process of architecture actually become a process of community healing in the wake of genocide. Over 4,000 future beneficiaries worked with us to build the Butaro Hospital with the Rwandan Ministry of Health and Partners In Health, a facility that has become a source of pride and security for the region. Today the hospital is more oasis than shelter for the sick; it’s landscaped gardens and views of the natural landscape serve a broader notion of healing for the community. In fact, the first Saturday of every month, Umuganda, when Rwandans donate their day to community service, people arrive at the facility to help maintain the beautiful landscape and building. Amelie Ntigulirwa, a Rwandan architect, describes this mutual respect perfectly: “People take off their shoes when they step inside the hospital, as if it were their own home. It’s beautiful.”

Architecture can also promote health, from design decisions that reduce the airborne transmission of infectious diseases like MDR TB, to simple, deliberate decisions like ensuring sick patients don’t have to look at other sick patients, but instead can look out a window. Architecture can also work to improve learning in high-need contexts, delivering more space per student, programmatic considerations for play and individual creativity, and ensure dignity and safety through features like gender-separate bathrooms and girl-friendly play spaces. Architecture should do these things, but it should also be beautiful—no matter where you live, spaces should make you feel dignified.

Our team has launched evaluation to understand design’s impact of health and education outcomes, and we constantly explore cross-sector partnerships with local and international stakeholders so we can continue to design better but also hopefully bring architecture to conversations on global development.  We often hear from potential partners that architecture is unaffordable in emerging economies (a question we’re also researching to understand), but as Qatar, Haiti, and Bangladesh tell us, the human and infrastructure consequences of poor architecture are far more costly. As the world’s population balloons and cities across the developing world grapple with urbanization (at their core, issues of space) as well as challenges of service delivery, we must call on architecture to help confront these challenges.

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