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Voices on: Architecture and Displacement
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Voices on: Architecture and Displacement
In the first installation of a series of opinion pieces pulling together voices from the school and our Practice Network to explore urgent issues in architecture, we reflect on the humanitarian crisis of displacement and how architects can better respond to the needs of refugees and forced migrants. We hear from Robert Mull, Iulia Cistelecan, and Dermot Reynolds.
Robert Mull: ‘It is time to look harder, to be more empathetic’
The Global Free Unit, an educational network I lead, hosts long-term, live project classrooms where students, volunteers and local stakeholders work together to improve the wellbeing of displaced people whilst providing routes into employment and training. Be it in Lesvos in 2015, the Calais Jungle in 2016, the south coast of England in 2018, Izmir in 2021, northern Sweden in 2021 or Bosnia in 2022 – most of the places we have worked in, architects have been largely absent. If they did get involved it was to try to tidy places up, to codify them and use them as a vehicle for incongruous formal experiments. The notorious IKEA flatpack refugee shelter was the epitome of this. It was hot and noisy and feared by refugees, yet applauded by the design community.
Since 2015, our work has tried to counter this by prioritising the identity of displaced people over utility and mere problem solving. This means looking hard at the mechanisms which displaced people use to maintain their identity, dignity and wellbeing while in transit, while integrating into host communities, and when and if they can return home. We work to use subtle cultural, spatial and material strategies to make architecture for the displaced that is more dignified and culturally responsive than the standard NGO response.
The reward is that the harder you look, the more you find. From the extraordinary Blue House built in Calais by the artist Alpha Diagne which we showed at the South Bank in 2016, through to the use of pattern in the Syrian farm camps around Izmir where we are now working – design is everywhere, and is far richer than anything we can conceive in the abstract. Similarly, the environmental, spatial and material strategies deployed by the displaced in temporary settings often give access to permanent strategies that are sustainable, scalable and culturally rooted. We also look hard at the digital spaces and places displaced people make and how these can inform their analogue environments.
Currently we are building on the roof of the Tiafi community centre in Izmir, Turkey. Tiafi supports 5000 Syrians trapped in Izmir after the 2016 EU-Turkey deal. The families, mainly led by women, live in appalling conditions and are exploited by private landlords. Our rooftop “crown” project provides educational, therapy and sports spaces and a productive garden. We are now developing a network of projects for displaced people across Izmir and the farm camps that surround the city, creating a supportive urbanism that counters the increasing hostility towards refugees in Turkey. We are also talking with colleagues at the Kharkiv School of Architecture in Ukraine as part of the Ro3kVit initiative to develop ways in which participatory and co-design for and with IDPs (Internally Displaced People) can inform long-term reconstruction.
Displacement is one of the greatest challenges facing global society. It is increasingly the case that we have all experienced a degree of displacement as a result of Covid-19 and through the effects of climate change. So, it is time to look harder, to be more empathetic and find ways better ways of exercising our individual and professional duty of care with greater humility and cultural sensitivity.
Robert Mull, a trustee of the LSA, is professor of architecture and design at the University of Brighton, and leads the Global Free Unit. If you would like to take part in one the Global Free Unit’s classrooms or workshops, or host a live project, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Iulia Cistelecan: ‘Together we can design for good’
We are now living through the largest wave of human displacement worldwide. According to the most recent UN statistics, at the end of 2020, 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced globally, including 26.4 million refugees of whom almost half are children. Camps prescribed into stateless cities and settlements dictated “temporary”, “provisional” and “in-between” host entire generations banned from their future. But life still happens in-between walls, shelters and borders. The refugee camps of today are becoming permanent at a rapid pace and can no longer be considered temporary settlements.
Similar to other industries of our neoliberal society, the vast majority of today’s architectural practices work for profit and not for social impact. They focus on business as usual in a world of crisis, promote privatisation of public goods over social and environmental cohesion, and ultimately fail to design for the ones who are most in need. But, as architect and author John Cary has said: “If good design is only for the privileged few, what is it good for?”
Winning the 2020 Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship gave me the opportunity to approach a humanitarian issue through design. My awarded project Life Between Shelters – delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and started in January 2022 – allowed me to travel and learn on the ground about the relationship between displacement and architecture. After spending the last three months working and documenting the living conditions of displaced communities in Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan and the urban slums of Izmir in Turkey, I am now learning the challenging lesson of “architecture without architects” from the Palestinian refugees of Mar Elias camp.
Approaching the topic of displacement from a design perspective is frequently questioned, as the solution might not always be found in a building. But as one of my greatest inspirations and architect Diébédo Francis Kéré states: “Architecture is more than just building. It is a way of improving the quality of people’s lives.”
The humanitarian and ecological crisis the world is currently experiencing is demanding a new approach – starting from an individual’s daily routine to collective activities and consequently to the practice and education of architecture and design. Design for Good, which I established, is a collaborative architecture and activism organisation seeking design solutions to humanitarian issues by firstly, giving voice and citizenship to the ones it serves; secondly, investing dignity in the context it operates; and thirdly, enhancing the identity of a place. The new approach promotes design as a collaborative tool for social and environmental cohesion and advocates for humanitarian justice by elevating architecture to the forefront of human rights. I call on designers, architecture practices and institutions to join me – and together design for good.
Iulia Cistelecan is an LSA alumna and founder of Design for Good
Dermot Reynolds: ‘Architects must find more ways to offer our core skills’
Design concepts for emergency structures or refugee camp masterplanning have been well explored through research, competition, and debate, but this creative effort often doesn’t go beyond the concept boards. As such, architects must find more ways to offer our core skills to deliver practical support for refugees.
Beyond the architectural NGO route, our own experience at AHMM of investigating opportunities abroad is challenging – finding that without a physical presence or a detailed understanding of what is happening on the ground in these areas, it is difficult to gain meaningful traction to offer our skills. Locally, we have found more opportunities to support projects, including with the Islington-based New Art Studio providing art therapy for refugees, as well as with Migrateful Cookery School.
Our Migrateful Kitchen project (2021) transformed a former classroom space in Islington into a new cookery school and venue for Migrateful, a charity delivering classes led by refugees, asylum seekers and migrants struggling to integrate and access employment. Migrateful’s approach is to teach refugees how to run group cooking classes which in turn generates revenues for both the teachers and the charity. The cooking classes have three important components: the telling of the teacher’s story, the celebration and cooking of food from their native country, and the coming together of the teacher and participants to eat the food they have prepared.
The school has been designed with a mix of fixed and reconfigurable elements – from traditional kitchen facilities to mobile cooking stations. The focal point of the classroom is the large fixed kitchen workbench where workshop leaders can demonstrate the dishes. In front of this fixed bench, 12 bespoke cooking stations (including two adjustable and wheelchair accessible stations) allow workshop attendees to cook along with tutors. A key part of the brief was to create a space where all attendees can sit together with the tutors at the end of the lesson to enjoy the food they have prepared. A new glazed door brings much-needed daylight to the space and creates a new private entrance and a street presence for Migrateful.
The approach to materials within the space has been to create a simple plywood palette highlighted by tiled zones that celebrate cooking and eating. The tiling patterns are inspired by traditional rugs of eastern and African origin. An uplifting element of the project was the level of generosity from local developers, designers, suppliers, and builders to become involved and contribute.
The appetite to support refugee needs is there, but the opportunities for individual practices to contribute to real projects in crisis zones unfortunately seem rather limited; thus, we must reflect first on closer to home and how we welcome and assist refugees in this country.
Dermot Reynolds is an Associate at AHMM, a Member Plus of the LSA Practice Network
Image credits, top to bottom: Robert Mull, Iulia Cistelecan, Rob Parrish