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OSA REVIEW: Cathrine Brun, OxArch Resilience Lecture

Sometimes it takes someone that is not an architect to simplify and successfully communicate the basic needs that architecture should cover. Professor Cathrine Brun, a geographer and an ethnographer or - even better - a humanitarian, managed to do that in her lecture Collaboration in Crises. Geography meets Architecture in Shelter Work for the OxArch.

Credit: Professor Cathrine Brun


“A disaster zone where everything is lost offers the perfect opportunity for us

to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is.”

- Toyo Ito


Focusing on her work in Sri Lanka, where she, as a geographer, collaborated with architects in order to re-create the community after the civil war and the 2004 tsunami, Professor Cathrine Brun opened the lecture by highlight the differences between shelter(ing), house(ing) and home(making). Sheltering was the first – transitional - step that was necessary to be taken after the disaster. But, according to Professor Brun, even at that stage there was a need for those people to feel at home in order to shape their communities and their everyday lives during this period, fighting the feeling of displacement.

She emphasised the last point in particular by demonstrating the importance of community maintenance and participation in the construction of the new village (the housing stage). Central to her argument were the maintenance of the community and the opportunity to make things better than they were prior to the disaster. The plans of the new houses aimed to achieve the re-creation of community where people would be able to choose their neighbours and restore their everyday life.

Credit: Professor Cathrine Brun

Focusing on the role of geo-architecture as the means to bring the material and the social together, Professor Cathrine Brun introduced the meanings of macro- and micro-scale context in relation to crisis cases. The result of this collaboration between geographers and architects and their thoughtful planning has proven to be successful – as Professor Brun described it herself, even though the location of the new village was at a big distance from their former social life, the locals accepted the area that had been built for them and began to establish a new society.


"Locals would not accept the houses they were given as homes

because they did not participate in the construction of them."


Professor Cathrine Brun then referred to the case of Georgia, where, once again, her collaboration with architectural practices aimed to re-create society after the country’s independence. This case study clearly revealed the importance of homemaking for displaced people.

The transitional accommodation of people in that case had the shape of temporary housing and collective shelter (hosted in hospitals and student dorms, for example). During their stay in their temporary accommodation, the displaced people made significant efforts in creating communities. As a result, when they were asked to be moved again to temporary blocks/houses, a great number of them refused to do so as they considered that a new displacement from the place they had already established as “home” for the transitional period.

Kutaisi, Georgia, in 2003 (left) and in 2010 (right)

Credit: Professor Cathrine Brun

What is also impressive is that – as presented in the lecture – people who moved to the blocks tried to make those places their homes, too, by creating gardens and building extensions of the house that they were given. In this case success was achieved through the construction of small and simple blocks that would meet the housing needs while also being modifiable.


“Should we talk about humanitarian architects

or should we talk about architects working in humanitarianism?”

“Who are the actual clients?”


Professor Cathrine Brun established fundamental facts that architecture and geography should consider together, shaping humanitarian practice in crisis projects. Relating this back to context, she emphasised that, in order for architecture to be considered humanitarian, the architects should be aware of its macro- and micro-scale. She made it clear that in order for architects and geographers to be characterised as facilitators in crises, above all, they need to forget for a while that their client is a government. In terms of homemaking and community, their actual clients are the displaced people that seek their help.

Credit: Professor Cathrine Brun

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