Can data-banks on post-disaster architectural projects and urban planning be really useful ?

11th Architecture & Behaviour Colloquium
April, 20-21, 2005, Monte Verità, Ascona, Switzerland 

1. Setting.

The two day meeting with a small group of invited participants was an open discussion about the opportunity of developing the Architecture & Behaviour Journal Archives into a data-bank on post-disaster architectural projects and urban planning.

Kaj Noschis, former Editor of the Journal exposed how the Archives of Architecture & Behaviour (from 1981 to 1995) will soon be available on the internet for free access and downloading of all articles published in the journal. Although the Journal has ceased publication, annual Architecture & Behaviour Colloquiums at Monte Verita continue to be organised and  have in recent years on several occasions brought together researchers involved in architectural and planning  projects on post-disaster interventions. The 2004 Architecture & Behaviour Colloquium on Planning issues in post-war Kabul was a case in point. It raised, among other issues, the question of how to make data from other similar and previous architectural and planning operations available for work in Kabul and elsewhere in a format that would be immediately accessible and useful. Noschis explained how, following the  2004 Architecture & Behaviour Colloquium, discussions with colleagues at the Federal Institute of Technology  and at other research institutions had nurtured the idea of a meeting where colleagues with practical and theoretical experience on such themes could meet and evaluate the need of  a data-bank generally devoted to post-disaster architectural projects and urban planning experiences. This would be an addendum or a new development to the Architecture & Behaviour Archives.

2. Viewpoints.

A view from the field, presented by Eberhard Knapp (responsible for supervising projects financed by Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, Frankfurt,  in South-East Asia, Afghanistan Pakistan and some African countries) and with written comments forwarded beforehand by other colleagues ( Mihir Bhatt (DMI, India) and Veikko Vasko (HUT, Finland)).

A view on the structure and  use of data-banks, presented by Peter Gotsch (responsible for the  Lab for Planning in a Global Context (GLORA), University of Karlsruhe ) and with suggestions forwarded by Babar Mumtaz (UCL, London ).

A survey and critical presentation of existing data-banks presented by Kaj Noschis with reasons for not and for establishing another data source.

A frank confrontation of these perspectives developed into an intensive discussion that in a first phase seemed to bring together arguments for not adding “yet another” web-site to those already existing, despite that none of them seems specifically devoted  to post-disaster architectural projects and urban planning. ( A list of such existing web-sites was distributed to the participants, discussed in some detail and can be sent upon request to all interested parties).

3. A needed data-source: Learning from failures.

Followed a discussion of several concrete examples where the urgency by donors to take action had brought about unworthy built solutions in emergency situations. Talk was about “failures”. “Failure” is here understood as a realisation that has not been adopted by its intended users or that has been completely deviated from its originally intended use. (It might still be presented as a success by the donor, whereas in other instances a “success” for the users might turn out to be a “failure” for its donor, so even these questions require further  examination). From here emerged the theme of   Learning from failures . This kind of information while certainly useful and important does not seem to be so easily accessible.  There are obvious reasons for this, for instance organisations depending on donors cannot  tell about failures without risking complications precisely with their donors.  Yet most organisations have experienced failures (from their own point of view and from that of the recipients) and try to avoid repeating them, whereas other actors not familiar with such failures risk repeating them just for lack of information.

Now, many major players (NGOs and other humanitarian organisations) are under any circumstance evaluating their projects at least for their own future use.  It could prove convenient  for getting more generally useful evaluations to out-source these  to a “neutral” organisation – for instance an academic institution or similar that could offer guarantees as to the quality of such work. Architecture & Behaviour could, for example, become such an instance.

In order to move further on this issue several steps appeared as necessary:

– defining appropriate evaluation criteria. (Several of the colleagues originally conveyed to the Monte Verita meeting have extensive experience in this field through their academic research and consultative work and could provide decisive input in this respect);

– definition of what is a failure (e.g. for whom, in what time-frame, as opposed to success).

– avoiding the establishment of a black-list of organisations that have notoriously “failed” their project in particular circumstances, as no organisation would like to cooperate on such a task ;

– looking for a frame that would involve the donor-organisations themselves in the project evaluation work. This is a way to avoid the “black-list” and to look for “shared ground and concern” for this work. Yet, the evaluation itself has to remain independent from particular interests, although sources and data must be checked and verified;

– finding a presentation format that would be easily accessible on the internet and thus useful for all players (e.g. summarising the essentials, a visual access to plans and drawings, search through selected criteria);

– clearly defining the aims of such a data-bank  (e.g. for whom, how, what is to be included/excluded);

– finding a wording that does not sound negative. For instance the word “failure” although immediately understandable might not be adequate, as it seems to stress only the negative.

4.. Next steps.

  1. List names of noteworthy planning and building projects in post-disaster contexts (during the last ten years) with Agencies involved (NGOs and International organisations, Funding Agencies, Local partners).
  2. Establish “record cards” according to specific criteria – in digital format – for every such project/case study.
  3. Make these available on the Internet (Architecture & Behaviour WEB-site with cross-links to other sites) with key-word search engine.

5.. Follow-up

  1. Forward this meeting summary document to all intended participants and integrate into a final document their eventual reactions.
  2. Define a structure for the establishment of the data-bank (e.g. an association, a foundation or other around Architecture & Behaviour, at the Fedral Institute of Technology in Lausanne or elsewhere).
  3. Locate initial funding sources, that is organisations ready to out-source the evaluation of their projects. Establish example cases and a preliminary version of the data-bank itself.
  4. Convey another meeting at Monte Verita or in Lausanne in order to launch the project on a firm basis.

(KN, May10, 2005)