Art History

Esra Ackan, Right to Heal: Human Rights, Reparations, and the Future of Memorials

What is the role of the designed environment in the responses to conflicts and disasters, and in the much-needed debates of accountability, reckoning with the past, and transitional justice?

What is the role of the designed environment both in the opportunistic responses to conflicts and disasters, and in the much-needed debates of accountability, reckoning with the past, and transitional justice? In this lecture, scholar and author Esra Akcan explores the concept of right to heal and architecture’s role within, by defining a healing space as one where political and ecological harms are confronted, and accountability and reparations are instituted. She raises the question of harm and healing after human rights violations in the past, and the right-to-truth. 

Ever since the concept of human rights crystallized with the eighteenth-century people’s revolutions around the world, it has implicitly become a reference point in discussions about space. Despite challenges from skeptics and authors with different moral philosophical convictions, the concept of human rights continues to be relevant today for commitments to rectify injustice and ensure equality, or political actions to protect human dignity, enable participatory democracy and foster reparatory justice. By following social movements against enforced disappearance and exemplifying transitional justice processes in Turkey, Argentina, South Africa and elsewhere, Akcan will define architecture’s role in healing societies after intense upheavals and internal conflicts. She will discuss the residues of historical wounds today and healing spaces by contrasting the state-led monuments to the practice of architects, civil society organizations and victim families who struggle toward healing with memorials.


Esra Akcan is the Michael A. McCarthy Professor of Architectural Theory in the Department of Architecture, and the Resident Director in the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University. Her research on modern and contemporary architecture and urbanism foregrounds the intertwined histories of Europe, West Asia and East Africa, and offers new ways to understand architecture’s role in global, social and environmental justice. She has written extensively on critical and postcolonial theory, racism, immigration, architectural photography, translation, neoliberalism, and global history. Her books include Landfill Istanbul: Twelve Scenarios for a Global City (124/3, 2004); Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey and the Modern House (Duke University Press, 2012); Turkey: Modern Architectures in History (Reaktion/Chicago University Press, 2012, with Sibel Bozdoğan); Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA-1984/87 (Birkhäuser/De Gruyter Academic Press, 2018); Abolish Human Bans: Intertwined Histories of Architecture (CCA, 2022). Currently, she is editing Migration and Discrimination (with Iftikhar Dadi) and writing Right-to-Heal: Architecture in Transitions After Conflicts and Disasters

This lecture is supported by the James A.D. Cox endowment.