When prospective tourists consider a vacation to Puerto Rico, they picture silky white beaches that survey sparkling seas. They imagine dancing at lively festivals held against a backdrop of forests and mountains. They see themselves sampling the local coffee before embarking on a leisurely hike. They visualize, in essence, a tropical paradise.

What they don’t picture is the Caño Martin Peña. The canal that runs from San Juan Bay to Laguna San José and Laguna Corozos is flanked on both sides by neglected communities. Lacking formal construction plans and endangered by the gradual narrowing of the channel, this low-lying area has posed a threat to the health of its residents and has become more and more susceptible to flooding over time.

A colorful alley in Puerto Rico
A house in rubble after Hurricane Maria

A boy runs by a house in Puerto Rico

And then, on September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall. Winds up to 155 mph and torrential downpours preyed on the already fragile infrastructure of the community, ripping the roofs off of 1,200 houses and totally destroying over 100 homes. The resulting scene resembled that of a war zone.

Initial relief efforts helped provide temporary aid, and before long, blue FEMA tarps covered many of the roofless buildings. But it was clear that to avoid future catastrophes, to enact lasting change in the region, a long-term solution needed to be implemented. Resilient and reliable infrastructure had to be designed. Renewable energy sources needed to be installed. New housing designs had to be conceived and created. This was more than just rebuilding; it was rethinking.

Since the hurricane hit, architects have been at the forefront of these persistent efforts. To be clear, these aren’t weekend volunteers swooping in to hammer a few nails and pat themselves on the back. Groups like Project Enlace and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are leading by example, working with the local community to redesign more durable living structures and implement solar energy panels. With their combined extensive knowledge and experience, they’re working together to reconstruct a better built environment for the people of the Caño Martin Peña.

To think that this is an isolated instance of architectural aid is simply incorrect.

As travelers, we often think of architecture as an art, the most spectacular buildings being reduced to items of visual intrigue to be checked off of our itineraries. When in Rome, we marvel at the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica. In Singapore, we snap photos of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and I. M. Pei’s the Gateway. What’s a trip to Sydney without an Instagram in front of the Opera House or the Queen Victoria Building? When sites like TripAdvisor list a city’s top “Architectural Buildings” under the subheading “Sights and Landmarks,” it further reinforces this notion that architecture is solely something to be seen, not felt. It ignores the function behind the form.

Architects shape our world — how we see it, how we think about it, how we live in it. They take the basic principles of physics and geometry and apply them to the environment around us, creating a society that is not only beautiful, but that is purposeful and practical as well. Without architects, the basic pillars of community crumble.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t take the time to admire the brilliant architectural works in each location we visit. Visual intrigue is an important element of any design, and it’s important to appreciate the effect it has on the viewer. But we should always recognize that the world of architecture is more than just its greatest hits. When you visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, for instance, remember that architects are responsible not only for the brilliant basilica, but for the roads, walkways, and metro tunnels that got you there in the first place.

A dog sits amid rubble in Puerto Rico
A local in Cano Martin Pena

A beautiful architectural dome in Puerto Rico

As engineers of the built environment, architects exist at the intersection of people and places, and with our planet experiencing an ever-increasing frequency of natural disasters due to climate change, their work is needed now more than ever. As the AIA Disaster Assistance Handbook states, architects are “uniquely positioned to provide a holistic approach to community resilience planning. Natural, social, and building systems are interdependent, and architects are trained to incorporate those system components into their design work.”

The efforts of Project Enlace and the AIA in Puerto Rico represent just one example of this. Whenever disaster strikes, architects unite to rebuild and redesign the affected communities. After an earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Constitucion, Chile, in 2010, the architectural firm Elemental worked with a forestry company and the local government to handle reconstruction and design an incremental housing project. In the years following the 2010 floods in Pakistan that left one-fifth of the country underwater, architect Yasmeen Lari designed low-cost homes that presented a more sustainable alternative to mass-produced shelters. When two earthquakes devastated Nepal in 2015, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and his disaster relief charity, the Voluntary Architects’ Network, designed modular housing structures built from rubble taken from the massive piles of earthquake debris.

A Puerto Rican flag

While those not directly affected by natural catastrophes often get caught up in semi-effective political debates following these events, architects are the ones on the ground, enacting immediate change. And with this new focus on long-term sustainable disaster relief efforts, architects around the globe are developing a safer, more practical built environment for all.

Want to learn more about the power of architecture in society? Visit blueprintforbetter.org. Visit our website to see short films of architects in action, and vote for your favorite.

This piece was produced in partnership with the AIA
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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.