Cambridge University

Ax:son Johnson Centre for the Study of Classical Architecture

CONFERENCE: Post-Disaster Reconstruction

Screenshot 2024-04-03 at 12.05.34 PM

Post-Disaster Reconstruction:
The Presence of Past Disasters

Monday 20 – Tuesday 21 may 2024

downing college, cambridge

Co-organised with INTBAU


Natural and human-caused disasters are, by their nature, unpredictable. Disasters are also all necessarily unique, because of how they differently affect people and place based on local, national, and regional pre- and post-disaster contexts. Regardless of temporal and geographic remove, there is a presence to past disasters. We can feel the panic of a pandemic; we can smell the smoke from a sprawling urban fire; and we can imagine the loss of identity attendant to a much-loved building or place being destroyed by an earthquake or a war.

Post-disaster reconstruction around the world has consistently highlighted both the strengths and shortcomings of design and planning. Over time, disasters have elicited varied responses, ranging from repeating past mistakes to pragmatic approaches seeking to balance change and continuity, as well as utopian visions aimed at starting anew.

The impact of decisions taken within days of a disaster can be felt for years. Conversely, the meticulous process of consultation, assessment, planning, and design integral to successful reconstruction efforts may miss critical windows of opportunity due to prolonged development timelines. This dynamic often underscores a tension between top-down approaches led by government and the international community, and grassroots efforts driven by affected communities seeking to rebuild using familiar and trusted building practices.

Many architects, developers, and international NGOs see these as ‘blank canvas’ opportunities to work at a large scale, without regard for the local vernacular either of building or of living patterns. Repeatedly, following disasters, we have witnessed the strength and resilience drawn from local materials, knowledge, and urban form. Post-disaster reconstruction remains an area where traditional building, architecture, and urbanism play crucial roles, contributing to a process of rebuilding that learns from and even enhances what has been lost.

Join INTBAU and the CSCA as we explore the complexities of post-disaster reconstruction by examining the historical precedent for recovering, rehabilitating, and rebuilding after catastrophic events. This two-day conference will explore, in detail, how cultures have reacted to destruction in the aftermath of terrible circumstances. Speakers will investigate how natural and human-caused disasters have shaped and continue to shape how we respond to critical changes in our built environment and, ultimately, will seek to locate new parallels between types of disasters through a series of chronologically and geographically diverse case studies. Papers are organised in four distinct sessions according to the four classical elements – fire, water, earth, and air –– with the additional critical human element: conflict.

The newly rebuilt Manila Cathedral in spring 1880
The old bell tower after the earthquake of 20 July 1880 © Francisco van Camp


Day 1 – Monday, 20 May

11:30 – Registration and welcome coffee in the Grace Howard Room, Downing College

12:30 – Buffet lunch

13:30 – Session 1: EARTH

Chair: Mark Wilson Jones (RIBA Traditional Architecture Group)

  • The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Walter Rossa (Universidade de Coimbra)
  • The Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, Miho Mazereeuw (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • Successive Earthquakes in Old Manila, Greg Bankoff (Ateneo de Manila University)

Chaired discussion

15:00 Coffee break

15:45 – Session 2: WAR

Chair: Matthew Hardy (INTBAU)

  • The Mongol Conquest, Katie Campbell (University of Cambridge)
  • Post-World War II Dresden, Mark Jarzombek (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • Beirut and the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Gruia Badescu (University of Konstanz)

Chaired discussion

16:45 – Comfort break

17:00 – KEYNOTE: Nick Bullock (University of Cambridge)

Rebuilding Europe after World War II: The Case of France

Professor Bullock is an expert in 20th-century architecture, particularly in post-war landscapes. Among his distinguished works on post-World War II architecture are: Modernising Post-war France: Architecture and Urbanism during Les Trente Glorieuses (Routledge, 2023), and Building the Post-War World (Routledge, 2002) 

Chaired discussion

18:00 – Reception in the Grace Howard RoomBeirut

'One of the tasks' following the Blitz in London © Imperial War Museum
'One of the projects' following the Blitz in London © Imperial War Museum

Day 2 – Tuesday, 21 May 

9:30 – SESSION 4: WATER & AIR 

Chair: Ann-Marie Akehurst (SAHGB)

  • Influenza Pandemic in Bombay City, 1919-1935, Mrunmayee Satam (BITS Law School)
  • Havana-Bermuda Hurricane of 1926, Joseph Hartman (University of Missouri, Kansas City)
  • Floods in Bath in the 20th century, Ioanna Stamataki (University of Greenwich)

Chaired discussion

11:30 – Coffee break

12:00 – SESSION 3: FIRE

Chair: Elizabeth Deans (CSCA, University of Cambridge)

  • The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Carl Smith (Northwestern University)
  • The Second Great Fire of London, 1940, Danielle Hewitt (University College of London)
  • The Eldfell Eruption of 1973, Kristjana Adalgeirsdottir (Aalto University)

Chaired discussion

13:00 – Buffet lunch

14:00 – KEYNOTE: Mohammad Gharipour (University of Maryland)

The Urban Fabric after Covid-19

Professor Gharipour is an ACSA Distinguished Professor and professor and director of the Architecture Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. He has published prolifically on Islamic architecture, social housing, and the impact of health on the urban environment. His most recent publications include Health and Architecture, ed. (Bloomsbury, 2021), Persian Gardens and Pavilions: Reflections in History, Poetry and the Arts (I.B. Tauris, 2020) and Salutogenic Urbanism: Public Health in the Early Modern City in Europe, ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023).   

Chaired discussion

15:00 – Tea and cake

The Great Fire of Chicago from West Side © Library of Congress
The Great Fire of Chicago from West Side © Library of Congress
Clouds of conflagration caused by Great Kanto earthquake. Published by Tokyo City.
Clouds of conflagration caused by Great Kanto earthquake. Published by Tokyo City.


The cost to attend this event includes entry, coffee, tea, buffet lunch, and champagne reception over both days. 

Student attendee £10

General attendee £35

This event has been generously subsidised by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.

Practical Information


If you are staying overnight in Cambridge and require hotel accommodation, there are two hotels nearby: the Regency Guesthouse, an independent boutique hotel and the University Arms, a luxury hotel located directly across Regent Street from Downing College. There is also the Ibis Hotel at the Cambridge Rail Station, which is about a 15-minute walk to Downing College. Please kindly note that the conference is not holding rooms for attendees.


If you are planning on arriving in Cambridge by car, there are public parking facilities available in Cambridge. Click here for more information. Please note that unless you are a member of Downing College, no parking is available on site. 


This conference has been co-organised with INTBAU.