Fire! In the darkness of London, a fire broke out just after midnight on Sunday 2nd September 1666 in a bakery in Pudding Lane. With the medieval jumble of streets of closely-packed timber-framed buildings and a strong wind blowing from the east, the fire quickly spread to neighbouring buildings and then to adjacent streets and, within four days, the entire medieval city of London had been destroyed – 13,200 houses, 87 churches, the great cathedral of St Paul’s and other civic buildings. An estimated 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants were homeless. While the King was keen to replan the City in a more modern way, proposals by Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Valentine Knight, Richard Newcourt and others came to nothing – property disputes, finance and the desire for speed meant that rebuilding followed the same street pattern as before, but in brick and stone.
Nearly a century later, on Saturday 1st November 1755, a tremendous earthquake shook Lisbon in Portugal and, together with the resulting fires and tsunamis, destroyed virtually the entire city including the Royal Ribeira Palace along with its historic library and art collection, the royal archives, the palace and library of the Marquis de Lourical and many churches and hospitals, with an immense death toll.
In contrast to London, the King and Prime Minister took the brave decision to completely rebuild and, in less than a year, the debris was cleared ready for the construction of a new city of elegant squares, wide avenues and streets and rectilinear building plots. Scientists and engineers developed Pombaline principles for seismically-protected buildings and Lisbon’s new Pombaline Lower Town (Baixa Pombalina) rose from the ashes.
Another century, another continent, another fire! Almost a repeat of London – another Sunday (October 8th 1871 and another small fire, this time staring in a small barn belonging to the O’Leary family in Chicago, which quickly spread to adjacent timber-frame buildings, exacerbated by the common use of tar on roofs and sidewalks and to the drought conditions at the time. Three days later, 17,500 buildings had been destroyed and 100,000 residents were homeless. The same lessons about building in stone and brick were learnt and Chicago rebuilt itself to become the premier commercial city of North America.
It seems a frequent occurrence that cities and towns are destroyed whether by war, such as in Hiroshima in Japan or Aleppo in Syria, or by nature as with this week’s earthquake in Taiwan. How do architects assist to create new communities for the future? The exhibition “Creation from Catastrophe” at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London shows examples of architects working imaginatively in the aftermath of disaster, assisting communities to build new resilience for the next disaster, whether through building design or through the use of ecology as part of flood management, often adapting traditional techniques that modern developments all too often seem to have ignored.
Toyo Ito, Kumino Inul, Sou Fujimoto and Akihisa Hirate’s “Home for All” for Rikuzentakata City in Japan was designed in conjunction with local people and built with cypress trees damaged in the tsunami to create a building on the hillside from which the community could watch their city being reborn, Shigeru Ban Architects and Voluntary Architects’ Network use salvaged material to make new earthquake-proof structures in Napal which can be built by local people with a roof of thatch and specially-designed trusses made from cardboard tubes, with echos of the wood lattice framework of the Pombalino cage developed in Lisbon 250 years ago to redistribute the forces from earthquakes, and Yasmeen Lari is working in Pakistan where she employs architecture students to build homes and pass on their skills to local communities, using traditional adobe mud walls and bamboo structures. Through this, Lari has provided more than 45,000 relief structures including several women’s centres, literacy centre and free schools, designed to be more resistant to future flooding.
Buildings may not be the only answer. OMA’s proposals for rebuilding Hokoken in New Jersey, USA, flooded after Hurricane Sandy, included an area of parkland to soak up excess water and create natural basins, reinforcing the important role that ecology can play in addition to building design and engineering, while Elemental worked with the local community in the city of Constitution in Chile on proposals which include new forests around the city and a housing programme which part-builds houses, allowing the residents to complete them themselves when they have the money to do so.
There is, however, a question hanging at the end, which is summarised in Arata Isokazi’s “Re-ruined Hiroshima Project” showing a modern ruined megastructure in Hiroshima. As he says “Whenever you draw up a project plan with the intention of it being realised you have to accept that it will eventually be annihilated.” The imagination and creativity of architects and engineers are needed before inevitable disasters occur, as well as afterwards.