Elizabeth Chu Richter
Photography: Carl Bower Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA

In 1934, a major earthquake struck Nepal. The 8.4-magnitude event (stronger than this past April’s 7.8) wreaked havoc throughout the region. The loss of life is estimated to have been between 10,000 and 12,000.

Among the differences between the disasters, two stand out. Eighty years ago, the people of Nepal were isolated and news of the event did not reach the wider world very quickly at all; and relief from the outside world took months. Contrast that with the news cycle a few months ago when, within minutes, images of the damage and first-person accounts were flashed around the world, even while the ground was still shaking. In a matter of hours, relief agencies sprang into action.

This is the borderless world in which we live, and the events that affect the fewest number of individuals can get the attention of the greatest number of people. Which brings me to another important difference, one that speaks directly to our role as architects: The earthquake in Nepal is a reminder that structures—more than restless tectonic plates—kill people. Whereas our ability to predict when these plates are about to slide is still in its infancy, our knowledge about how to design resiliency is nuanced, varied, and quite mature. As architects, we have a responsibility and a desire to share that knowledge.

As we urbanize, it is imperative to learn from each other, with the goal of developing up-to-date codes and standards. But how we share this knowledge is as important as the knowledge itself. We cannot simply barge in, uninvited. We have to be mindful of local customs and protocols; we are guests, not superheroes. Moreover, even though natural disasters do not respect borders, we still need to work with and through international bodies that represent the world’s architects.

What will effective action look like? First and foremost, it will be our role in designing temporary shelters that speak to human dignity. While this need is being met, we must work in partnership with affiliated and allied design organizations, both on the ground and internationally, to press for and participate in the research that will lead to greater resiliency in both new and existing, often historic, structures. These steps suggest that a commitment to resiliency as a priority must be long-term. Headlines are fleeting but rebuilding takes years. As disasters move out of a week’s or month’s news cycle, we must remain focused.