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FINDING A SILVER LINING

The aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami was worse than many could have imagined. But could a small ray of light emerge from the crisis? Ed Dorrell looks at what architects are doing to help and goes on a search for positives

The front page of last Thursday's Independent speculated that out of the misery of the Asian tsunami disaster a new world order might rise - one where countries, especially those in the rich West, would work together to alleviate poverty and suffering around the globe.

This controversial article pointed enthusiastically to the unprecedented and largely spontaneous fund-raising effort that has been seen throughout the world. It suggested that lessons had been learned that could be used to ease suffering, not just in the immediate aftermath of the horrific events of Boxing Day but also the gaping differences in wealth and development on a more generic global scale.

While this article was largely panned as overly optimistic, it correctly pointed out that never before have the peoples and communities around the world responded so quickly with hard cash. One of these groups has been the international architectural community, which, like so many others, has reacted with unprecedented speed to the emergency.

However, the world of architecture, it is fair to say, has a slightly different agenda to most other groups around the world. Not only do most architects look at the disaster and immediately reach into their pockets for any spare cash, they also look long-term at the need for sustainable development.

Without wishing to sound uncharitable, this is a link back to the Independent's optimistic stance. Could it be that there is a small silver lining to one of the biggest clouds to have loomed over the world in more than a generation? Could it be that the massive wave that horrifically washed away so many lives could also have wiped away the aging and largely worthless infrastructures in many of these desperately poor countries? Could this be an opportunity to rebuild these areas as an exemplar of sustainable and affordable development on a scale never before imagined?

But before we get carried away, a few words on the fund-raising effort. The most sensational effort has been that of the New York-based group Architecture for Humanity (AFH), which within hours of news of the disaster breaking announced that it would raise £10,000 towards the reconstruction effort.

Within three days this target had gone up, first to £50,000 and then to £100,000. There seems to be no obvious upper limit. On Boxing Day itself, AFH said it was aiming to help out in just part of one of the many towns in the affected area - now it is discussing rebuilding the entire infrastructures of several towns in the Far East. Who knows what this initiative - calling itself Project Re: Build - might end up achieving if the cash continues to flow in at the speed seen in the past two weeks.

Architects Without Borders (AWB) is another non-governmental and voluntary organisation that has moved quickly to respond to the crisis. It is completely unstaffed and yet its website is already looking to raise money and mobilise architects to get involved with responding to the disaster.

A search for skills Both AWB and AFH are keen to see architects worldwide offering their skills to the rebuild effort on a pro bono basis. As yet it is unclear how this work will be utilised, but it is a statement of the blindingly obvious that if architects are used in the forthcoming years, while the affected regions get back on their feet, the outcome is likely to be a significant improvement on what has gone before.

And closer to home comes the work of our very own RIBA. Perhaps more realistically, the institute is setting out concisely a series of measures that British-based practitioners can adopt if they feel the urge to help out. For example, it is urging practices to offer their staff an opportunity to give in a tax-efficient manner to the disaster emergency committee through the practice payroll, and the institute is providing guidance as to how this can be done. RIBA staff have already been offered the chance to donate one day's salary in this way.

The institute will also be working with organisations such as the Building Research Establishment and the Construction Industry Council to ensure that future built development is better designed to resist natural disasters of this kind. And practices with a particular expertise in disaster recovery and reconstruction, or with specific experience of designing buildings in the affected area, have been asked to contact the RIBA so that they can put aid agencies and government departments in touch.

Keith Snook, the institute's director of research and development, also hit upon the bigger picture. 'The most important word we have jotted down is 'education' in big capital letters, ' he says. 'Admittedly, we're not sure exactly what it means yet and what it is we'll be doing, but we recognise that in the aftermath rebuilding will be extremely important and it needs to be done right. One of the most important messages is that good things might come out of this if standards are raised. For example, in infrastructure terms there is now a blank canvas on which to work. Design with a hefty capital 'D' is what is now needed, ' Snook adds.

AFH director Cameron Sinclair is in full agreement. The New York-based Londoner has been at the forefront of fund-raising for design to play a key role in sustainable development for several years now and is committed to playing a large part in the rebuild effort. He is determined that the eyes of the world must be focused on what might be achieved as the coasts of Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia are rebuilt.

But there is probably little that a one-man band can do. What is certain is that architects around the globe must mirror the new sense of international collaboration and ensure that the world remains focused on the 'silver lining' as well as the short-term emergency effort. It is just a shame that, as yet, the International Union of Architects' website has not even mentioned the word tsunami.

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