The Rebuilder

Tuesday, 10 March 2009 11:58 By Gregoire Allix and Grgoire Allix, Le Monde | name.

The Rebuilder
Architect Patrick Coulombel maintains that although architects are not trained to work for the poor, housing people is the core duty of their vocation. (Photo: Architecture and Partners)

    This is the story of a sailor who accidentally entered the field of architecture to become, at age 45, a unique figure in the humanitarian world. Tanned, with drawn features, Patrick Coulombel is returning from Gaza, where the NGO he heads, Emergency Architects, is helping to rebuild after Israeli bombing. On the menu: diagnosis of the buildings, consolidation of possibilities, demolition, reconstruction.

    The organization deployed an identical program in 2007 in the Palestinian Nahr Al-Bared camp in Lebanon. "We're the only NGO in construction in France, and one of the few in the world," the architect proclaims. "Humanitarian aid takes care of vital needs. But afterwards, you have to rehouse people."

    Everything began in Amiens in 2001. Patrick Coulombel opened his architectural office there, a path he chose in the absence of a better idea after a hitchhiking encounter! The young man had been a factory worker, an unskilled worker on construction sites, but his true passion is sailing. "Everything I've learned on a technical level was from building sailboats," he says.

    "Building Fast" and Well

    The violent floods that devastated the Somme that year were to decide his new vocation: humanitarianism. "Three of us created the association at the bistro because we had to do something," he remembers. Since then, his organization has intervened in twenty-two countries during catastrophes or conflicts, to analyze the damage and rebuild homes, schools, infrastructures: after floods in Algeria (2001) and in Bangladesh (2003); earthquakes in Nahrin, Afghanistan (2002), Bam in Iran (2003), Bingol in Turkey (2003); hurricanes in Haïti (2004) and Madagascar (2004); the tsunami in Indonesia and in Sri Lanka (2004).

    "The trick is to build quickly, within two months, but not flimsily," Patrick Coulombel deems. "Emergency architecture mustn't create emergency dwelling. We design buildings appropriate to the local habitat, social usage, and environmental constraints."

    The association has become a recognized foundation of public utility, has opened offices in Australia and Canada and employed 80 people in 2008. The NGO collaborates with the UNHCR to invent durable shelters for refugee camps. In Peru, Timor and Papua New Guinea, it wants to become a development aid actor: "The emergency starts when people live in disgraceful conditions."

    But times are tough and - with a 3 million Euro budget - means are limited. The NGO is not finding collaborators ready to leave on missions. "Architects don't learn to work for the poor. Some colleagues say that what we do isn't architecture. But our core duty is to house people."

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    Translation: Truthout French language editor This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 March 2009 12:31