Newsletter | May/Jun 2014

Sharing What We Do: Learning from Urban Disasters

by Wendy Bertrand, Alexandra JaYeun Lee, Jean Nilsson

Alexandra JaYeun Lee PhD speaks at AIASF in joint event

OWA and San Francisco AIA Mentorship Committee co-hosted our May 21 event, Learning from Urban Disasters: Rethinking the Role of Architects in the 21st Century, a very successful evening of discussion and presentations led by Alexandra JaYeun Lee, PhD, Visiting Research Scholar, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California Berkeley, and The University of Auckland.

Alex founded the regional chapter of Architecture for Humanity in New Zealand in 2007 and led it for six years, giving her a good window on the world, and she is active in Architecture + Women New Zealand. She and her husband Alexei Dunayev at TranscribeMe, a global tech-start up based in Berkeley, have been living this year in Point Richmond.

Wendy Bertrand, a founding member of OWA, introduced to the approximately 50 attendees, the program and our organization, initiated 40 years ago and having members who connect across a variety of design professions and a wide range of ages and stages in their careers. Wendy described meeting Alex at a UC Berkeley Conference about social factors in architecture in 2011 and how, when she learned that Alex would be in the area, she wanted to bring Alex’s academic work to the attention of OWA. When Wendy mentioned this to Jean Nilsson and learned that Jean was just completing a Gulf Coast hurricane-recovery project, she wanted to include a look at that unique project in the program. The OWA Program coordinators worked to set up this extra May meeting with AIASF’s Mentorship Committee Co-Chair, Daniel Perez, and he gave a pitch for their AIA mentorship program which is open to OWA members.

Wendy launched into the topic by asking all attendees to introduce themselves, emphasizing the value of telling and listening so that one may be able to know and support each other, and she asked people to include their disaster experience, which set the stage for discussion to follow. Several people had been involved in disasters or in recovery work.

Jean prefaced Alex’s presentation with a concise and well-illustrated presentation of her personal account of the disaster recovery housing work she had completed in Galveston, TX following Hurricane Ike in 2008 (article below).

Alex presented her “social disaster architectural research”, including a look at the importance of resilience (often lacking in dense urban places) and the architect's role in disaster situations, especially in translating the social concerns of the people involved. She discussed her research, which she focused on Christchurch, NZ (2011 earthquake), New Orleans, LA and Biloxi, MS (2005 Hurricane Katrina), and Port-au-Prince, Haiti (2010 earthquake).

OWA/AIASF Joint Meeting in May

Alex made connections among a thought-provoking array of disaster issues for architects and other citizens: design equity; top-down vs. bottom-up rebuilding; “Build Back Better”; affordable, sustainable and local priorities; displacement, transitional architecture, temporary housing camps and toxic trailers, corruption and blame; prototypes and competitions; community-led activism, participatory design and volunteers; houses vs homes and real communities; humanitarian design and the role of gender in social resilience.

“Disasters amplify social, environmental, political problems. Disasters are interdisciplinary; it’s everyone’s business; architects are missing,” Alex noted. She referred to Horst Rittel’s concept that design is an activity that is “intended to bring about a situation with specific desired characteristics without creating unforeseen and undesired side and after effects”. Using carefully selected images she illustrated some of the Wicked problems (as a contrast to tame problems that are linear and predictable in nature) that she found in her experience as well as research of eight years. She is currently working on a book that will evolve from her knowledge and concern for the need for architects to participate early and be sensitive to the long term needs resulting from disasters.

While the 6pm start time at the downtown AIASF office proved to be a challenge for many–leading to a late start to the program–the early group enjoyed meeting each other over bountiful handmade sandwiches, farmers market vegetable treats, and drinks provided by OWA. At 8pm, we were required to close down a very active discussion, which a dozen participants continued on the sidewalk in front of the AIA office for another half-hour.

If you missed this wonderful program, AIASF’s recorded version will be available soon on their website. Alex is considering organizing a follow-up smaller group to continue the discussion in the fall. If you are interested please contact her at

View this page in your browser