Graeme Bristol: When Architecture Violates Human Rights

CAHR works with designers to protect human rights across the globe.

When people think architecture, they think of building spaces or developing sites for human use. Over the years, this concept has expanded to include social activism. In the U.S., for example, there is Architecture for Humanity, Project Row Houses, and Make It Right. These groups address issues of poverty, displacement, and housing. Human Rights, however, extends beyond creating spaces for the economically disadvantaged or the impoverished. In fact, as Graeme Bristol of the Centre for Architecture & Human Rights (CAHR) argues, development projects are responsible for displacing 105 million people around the world, more than disaster-, conflict-, and persecution-based displacements combined. Indeed, in this case, Human Rights are defined as freedom from development, rather than the freedom to pursue architectural development. The problems lie in the model for non-profit organizations and NGO’s. One is that many of these organizations have predetermined agendas that dictate their interventions. Part of this is driven by the funding cycle. Donors are not always inspired by the creation of t-shirts or pig farms. Yet a school designed by a famous architect attracts new and loyal donors. But this emphasis on building ignores development-induced displacement and results in projects that are disconnected from the needs of local populations. Unneeded buildings waste resources, time, money, and labor.

Graeme Bristol, Founder & Executive Director, CAHR

Graeme Bristol is the founder and executive director of the NGO CAHR or the Centre for Architecture and Human Rights based in Canada. He also teaches at the School of Architecture and Design (SoA+D) at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in Bangkok, Thailand. His background—educational, teaching, and professional—spans a wide range of disciplines and experiences that share a common thread: He is dedicated to promoting social justice. For example, his education includes training in literature and philosophy, two degrees in architecture, and one in law. He has combined this with his personal experiences to practice a unique type of architecture. Bristol began by concentrating on people with extreme environmental sensitivities. From there, he moved to working for the government of Papua New Guinea establishing new schools, and then to practicing as well as teaching students in a “rights-based” approach to development. As he says, “I entered architecture school with the thought that architecture was philosophy made concrete.” It is a philosophy enacted through practice, teaching, and activism that addresses the needs of those who are frequently unheard or overlooked.

More from Metropolis

Sherin Wing:  What are the constructs that inform your work at CAHR?

Graeme Bristol: The term “development-induced displacement” is taken from the World Bank, a common euphemism for forced eviction resulting from any form of development – dams, expressways, gentrification, and beautification. Architecture – I define this rather broadly as the whole of the built environment. This includes the work of engineers and planners as well as architects. In writing about “architecture” and “human rights” I have often had people remark that I’m not really talking about architecture specifically but about broad issues of development. While that’s true I prefer to use the word “architecture” rather than “development”, first, because it raises the question, “What the hell does architecture have to do with human rights?” This is how I have heard that expressed most often. And second, because the term “development” is far too broad and ambiguous.


Student analysis of needs and materials for school

Image courtesy of Graeme Bristol/CAHR

When the UN uses the term development, they often mean development in education or public health policy. I’m talking about the development of the built environment, so rather than say “the development of the built environment and human rights”, I find it much more evocative to put it simply as “architecture and human rights”. When I am asked about this, I have the opportunity to give my five-minute summary of the connection between architecture and human rights. In other words, the term itself is a conversation opener rather than a conversation closer. Much of our popular understanding of human rights has come from such organizations as Amnesty International (founded 1961) and Human Rights Watch (founded in 1978). Their work began with high profile advocacy for civil rights. This tended to eclipse the economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights which were in the last third of the  (UDHR). CAHR began with a focus on the ESC rights, initially with housing and expanding from there. This was supported mainly by the expansion of the 1968 Civil Rights Act in the US  which in 1988 to included discrimination based on disability along with race and religion as a violation of civil rights. For architects, designing for people with disabilities was (and still is) only seen as an issue of building codes. However, the building codes themselves, by including such provisions, are a means by which those civil rights are protected. Architectural Intervention: These alternative forms of intervention have been going on for quite some time. I learned about these alternatives from John Turner (Freedom To Build, 1972) and from Hassan Fathy (Architecture for the Poor, 1973). In the 60s there was the Architect’s Renewal Committee of Harlem (ARCH) and the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED). These expanded throughout the 60s as students were building on the civil rights movement and the free speech movement, looking for much more direct means of engagement between theory and practice (“What good is all this talk? We need action!”). They saw an erosion of authority and the “rule of experts”.[1] It wasn’t just protest they took to the streets; it was “action research”. These forms of intervention built on the work of Turner, Fathy, and others who had gone before. The Association for Community Design, along with similar organizations in other countries, keeps this work going amongst its members. As part of that tradition, CAHR has been making a modest addition by tying this work more specifically to human rights.


The Portable School

Image courtesy Graeme Bristol/CAHR

SW:  How can designers learn more about Human Rights issues?

GB: There is an abiding resistance by designers to broach the issue of human rights. I think it is seen as the domain of lawyers and organizations like Amnesty International. Historically, human rights are civil and political rights – voting, participation in government, prohibitions on arbitrary arrest, torture and slavery, the right to privacy, and others listed in the first 21 articles of the UDHR. The lay public, designers included, in the West are much less aware of the last third of the UDHR (articles 21 to 27) which cover economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights. It is here that architecture can be much more effective than it is currently. The incentive for learning more about human rights issues, in my experience, is based on fear more than curiosity. One of the stories I often tell when I am speaking at architecture conferences concerns Avalon Chrystie Place in New York. The designers and developers were successfully sued by the U. S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan in 2008 for not making the building sufficiently accessible to wheelchairs. This was not an infraction of the NYC building codes. It was an infraction of the standards set by the national Fair Housing Act. In other words, it was seen as discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. The fines and restitution the architects and developer had to pay were a direct result of them not being aware of the relationship between human rights and design. It is easy to get blind-sided by the law when you remain ignorant of it. This helps to get the attention of architects – another area of exposure to liability! This can be an incentive to learn more about the relationship between human rights law and architecture.


Study of Bamboo Weaving Patterns

Image courtesy Graeme Bristol/CAHR

SW:  How can designers intervene in Human Rights issues locally?

GB: Wherever you go it is possible to find ways to engage in promoting and protecting rights. You don’t have to travel to remote areas of the world. Every city, every village has its share of human rights problems, many of which will require design to ameliorate those inadequate conditions. The intervention of design and designers in protecting and promoting human rights is not a matter of geography; it is a matter of awareness – the ability to see the connections and act upon them. A number of years ago, I was in Manila for a HIC conference. While there, we were talking to a group of Filipino architecture students who had been doing some work in the slums of Manila. I asked one of the students what motivated them to take this direction in their architectural studies.  She said, “What else can we do?  These conditions are in front of us every day.  We can’t just walk by and do nothing.” This is a very basic ethical principle. For most of us in the West, we can choose. We don’t have to walk by it every day. Those are areas of town from which we can easily stay away. We can, in other words, ignore it if we wish.  We can also engage if we wish. It’s not that far away – a few miles, a few blocks. It has to do with an engaged citizenship.

SW:  How does CAHR educate designers?

GB: For professionals, CAHR is engaged in doing Continuing Professional Development courses on various aspects of that relationship. For students, there is the development of the proposed Community Design program at KMUTT.  I’ve been working on that since I arrived at KMUTT in 1998.  There are courses as well as a regular studio. Finally there are the future designers – grade school children and high school children.  This CAHR program – ‘Kids and Architecture’ has been done a few times now but I am hoping we can formalize this with the School of Architecture at KMUTT so it can be offered every summer by volunteer architecture students.


CAHR Education Chart

Image courtesy Graeme Bristol/CAHR

SW:  What are the most pressing Human Rights issues in developed nations?

GB: I’m not sure I really want to make the distinction between developed nations and the rest of the world. Issues of human rights in developed countries are really very little different from those anywhere else. How different are the gated communities we design in California from those we design in Jakarta or Bangkok? Architects and planners are enthusiastic participants in creating exclusionary environments everywhere. In the developed world we have some form of social safety net that, in lesser developed countries has far more holes in it, if it exists at all. For example, there are more protections for workers in the West and child labor is much more restricted. Nevertheless, reading John Bowe’s 2007 book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, leaves one with the strong impression that slavery in developed nations is still going strong with migrant labor[2]. With that social safety net and, certainly in Europe with the ECHR, the improved infrastructure of law and enforcement provides more protection. So abuses of rights in developed nations may be better hidden by superficial baubles but one doesn’t have to travel too far in any city in the developed world to find them. The more aware we are of those rights, the easier it is to see where and how they are being abused. We hardly need to leave our own homes to discover that. Torture, slavery, and death are all too commonplace for workers. That would include construction workers. As a profession, we have some influence and leverage over the construction site and should be demanding far better protections, especially in situations where there will be a component of undocumented workers. And we are often working in a global environment. Human Rights Watch has issued a report about Saadiyat Island and the work going on under the supervision of such architectural luminaries as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Jean Nouvel where migrant labor is, as a matter of course, being abused on construction sites. So much so that last year a group of artists based out of New York staged a boycott of the Guggenheim because of labor practices on the new Guggenheim museum being designed by Frank Gehry. Neither the UIA nor the AIA ever raised their collective eyebrows at this much less issued a report condemning such practices. This was left to Human Rights Watch and a group of artists. Conditions are now improving for these workers but the architectural profession remained silent. It brings to mind a comment made at the 1968 AIA convention. In addressing the annual convention, Whitney Young, Jr., then executive director of the Urban League, presented the assembled professionals with a challenge. As the keynote speaker, he stood up to the assembled architects and said: “. . . you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this does not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.” While the ghettoes of New Jersey, Detroit, Watts, and other cities across the United States were being set aflame, Mr. Young seemed to be suggesting to the architects of America that their silence on these social issues of the urban environment was, or should be, a source of some shame for professionals. We can do better.

Sherin Wing writes on social issues as well as topics in architecture, urbanism, and design. She is a frequent contributor to ArchDaily, Architect Magazine and other publications. She is also co-author of The Real Architect’s Handbook. She received her PhD from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter at @xiaying [1] See, for example, Illich, Disabling Professions. [2] See also, Gulf Coast Slaves, about the post-Katrina recovery.  A lot of this had to do with building and planning.  For more on that, see Bullard & Wright (eds.), Race, Place and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina.

Recent Projects