After the Turkey-Syria Earthquakes, Rethinking Design on Shaky Ground

Photo of a man walking in a middle of collapsed buildings with a face mask on.

A man walks past collapsed buildings in Antakya, southern Turkey on February 20, 2023. Photo by Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images.

While the recovery is still unfolding and the damage is tallied, all signs suggest that the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria will go down as one of the most severe natural disasters in the early 21st century. Turkey’s death toll has already passed 50,000—rare for a country that is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), especially since its seismic risk was well known beforehand. In addition to technical and regulatory failures in the building industry that the earthquakes have made viscerally evident, a broad range of political and business practices are implicated. As an architect and scholar whose work focuses on earthquakes and the broader design problem of risk, resilience, and reconstruction, I can attest that amid such mass tragedies, it is difficult but essential to find a balance between the overwhelming empathy that the individual circumstances of each disaster evoke and a rational outlook on the broader cadence and patterns of crisis and rebuilding. Borrowing a Tolstoyan sentiment, earthquakes are much the same everywhere, but each disaster is tragic in its own way.

Writing from my office in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a famously non-seismic context where the age-old building practice of putting a brick on top of another brick has worked without issue for almost 400 years—I am well aware of the cultural difference and geographic distance, and that water afar quenches no fire. Nevertheless, I offer a few thoughts for those like me, who are distant but concerned, to contemplate and perhaps draw lessons from. Some will be directly related to earthquakes and the reconstruction that follows, while others might be relevant to adjacent fields and the broader question of how to think and build on shaky ground.

An often cited aphorism about earthquakes is that people are not injured by the ground shaking, but by buildings collapsing. This straightforward observation is a stronger indictment than it may initially seem, once one understands that the technical problem of building in earthquake regions is relatively well resolved in the contemporary world, akin to polio or famine. Today, with advice from a typical engineer and working well within the technical capacity of most construction teams, it is possible to build directly on top of a fault line and be relatively confident that the inhabitants would survive an earthquake, even if the building itself sustains some damage.

It is misguided, therefore, to think about earthquakes as a purely technical problem. A survey of building cultures across seismic regions reveals that architects and designers have come up with different design options and strategies at various scales of environmental design—from furniture to buildings and urban plans—that combine technical and structural know-how with several kinds of social and cultural understandings. Just as societies once viewed earthquakes as supernatural phenomena requiring divine intervention, and then as natural phenomena requiring scientific study and adaptation, today we understand that the disasters caused by earthquakes are in part, if not primarily, social disasters requiring design solutions. An earthquake simply reveals latent vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by the geological phenomenon.

In Turkey and Syria as elsewhere, the poor and vulnerable are subject to an outsize share of suffering because they were allocated, implicitly or explicitly, a larger share of the risk of disaster. We see similar dynamics play out in more familiar locales in the United States, with the correlation between housing prices and seismic risk in California’s Bay Area determining to a great extent the outcome of the next big earthquake, whenever it may strike. The social nature of earthquake disasters, however, also means they are a catalyst for change. In many building cultures, earthquakes and natural disasters are seen as a test of a government’s effectiveness and mandate. The first emperor of China, Yu, was seated in 2070 BCE as a result of his effectiveness in curbing disastrous flooding, while the European Age of Enlightenment was in part sparked by the Catholic Church’s inability to explain the large toll among pious congregations when the Lisbon Earthquake struck during mass on the morning of All Saints’ Day in 1755. Earthquakes are a reality test, revealing previously invisible fault lines in the ground and in society, and therefore are a potential agent for change.

A curious but immensely generative aspect of my work with earthquake architecture is that there are distinct and diverse—even opposing—approaches to the persistent problem of building in seismic regions, many of which may be useful in similar situations. Timber experts point out the unique advantages of its flexibility, while concrete specialists advocate for its irreplaceable solidity. Urbanists foreground the need to pool and manage risk efficiently, while disurbanists stoically adhere to the foolproof approach of dispersing risk by spreading it out. These different approaches prove to be effective in their own context, even if they appear contradictory.

In earthquake architecture and reconstruction, breakthroughs in the last decade have been driven by what until recently has been this under-recognized diversity of approaches and its inclusion in design education and practice. For example, earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand in the last two decades have resulted in a degree of devastation that contrasts with the relative progress that Indonesia and western China have made in terms of earthquake preparedness, challenging assumptions about how technical expertise flows from “advanced” to “developing” regions. Emerging now is a broadened understanding of strategies for dealing with risk and building resilience, which frequently results in retroactive validation of vernacular approaches, and a recognition of the value of having a wide repertoire of technical solutions and diverse ways of thinking about the problem.

As our understanding of seismic architecture expands beyond any imperative for a single correct approach, a more useful way to think about the diversity of options and strategies for seismic architecture is to conceive of them in terms of design schemas, or frameworks, through which a designer approaches a particular issue or question. What should be shared among designers working in response to earthquakes and natural disasters is not the same technical solution, to be applied uniformly across different regions of the world. Instead, what should be communicated is a sense of the design schema. Indeed, the ability to see and understand the utility of different kinds of design innovation will be key to navigating new scales of risk and uncertainty associated with climate change and the Anthropocene era, and especially future disasters that will strike as a consequence. Instead of focusing on design thinking as a single innovative way of thinking, the examination of building in seismic regions demonstrates how different design schemas can coexist and be complementary, together offering a meta-diversity of approaches consisting of not only different solutions, but also different ways of thinking about the problem.