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Illustrations by Paige Mehrer

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Architecture Across Borders

One in every 122 people worldwide is displaced. How can architects help without causing harm?

On a brisk April afternoon, children play outside a complex of shipping containers in the far-flung Berlin suburb of Buch. The sun shines a jarring light on the boxy structures that 500 refugees and asylum-seekers call home. Their garish red, blue, and yellow facades contrast with the drab aluminum siding, like a halfhearted attempt to convince passersby that they are fun to live in.


Aisha, a single mother of three from Kosovo, is in good spirits during a weekly women’s meetup. Sitting beside two families of Syrian refugees, she says living in the containers isn’t bad compared to the cramped emergency shelter they called home for the majority of last year.

But is there enough space for her family of four in two 15 square meter boxes? Definitely not, she says, her smile quickly fading. "We do what we can outside. The kids play; I cook in the main kitchen." Kitchens and bathrooms are shared among residents. At her next appointment with social services, she will ask for an apartment, she says. Her family was assigned to live in the containers in Buch, but the cramped space is not what she would have chosen.

"It’s absolutely stigmatizing," says Monika Bergen, a retired lawyer who organizes city excursions for the female residents and their children. "You see these colors and immediately know that the people living there aren’t part of the community." In the city’s rural landscape, largely dotted with single-family homes and low-rise apartment buildings, the steel containers, which were built for refugees, are hard to miss.

In the past year, Germany welcomed—or tried to welcome—one million refugees as Europe experienced the largest movement of people on the continent since World War II. Europe’s newcomers were only a fraction of those around the world who left their homes. Whether fleeing armed conflict or hoping to escape dire poverty, the number of people displaced is at a record high—one in every 122 people worldwide is either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.

In addition to sparking political tension, conflict, and a great deal of compassion, Europe’s refugee "crisis"—as the media has labeled it—has brought some of the world’s most complex systemic challenges straight to the region’s doorstep. It has also spurred a flurry of interest from the architecture and design communities, further highlighting an emerging global movement toward "humanitarian architecture." But while architects feel an increasingly urgent desire to help, their interventions are often controversial—or entirely unwelcome—for the communities they are trying to aid. As the need for new housing grows, how can architects hoping to do humanitarian work intervene without causing harm?


Only 10 percent of homes and civic structures in the so-called Western world are built by architects, and an estimated 860 million people live in slum conditions. Given those numbers, humanitarian architects argue, there are plenty of opportunities to use their planning, problem-solving, and technical skills to assist those who could benefit most from their services but can’t afford to pay for them.

For Esther Charlesworth, a Melbourne, Australia-based architect and academic who wrote a book on humanitarian architecture and launched a degree program in the subject at RMIT in Melbourne, humanitarian architecture is about distributive justice, or, as she states in her book, the desire to "improve the welfare of people in need." The typical architecture education, many would argue, is instead geared toward "high-design" clients. "The field has largely been out of the main discourse when it comes to humanitarian work," says Charlesworth, "but there is a demand for people with kind of strategic spatial skills to get involved in these global questions and systematic problems—from the temporary housing of refugees in Greece to dealing with earthquakes in Ecuador."

Humanitarian architects might assist in temporary disaster relief efforts, like designing and implementing emergency shelters and infrastructure to minimize human suffering in the event of a natural disaster. Or they might come in during the later reconstruction and rehabilitation phase of the disaster, teaching community members techniques to rebuild homes and schools with the goal of returning the area to its pre-disaster state. Many projects fall under the wider "development" umbrella and relate to capacity building or income generation. MASS Design Group, for example, which has offices in Kigali, Rwanda, and Boston, has designed clinics, housing, and schools in sub-Saharan Africa and recently announced a plan to open the African Design Center in Kigali, to fill a growing need for architects on the continent.

"The humanitarian world is opening up more and more to more professionalization and the right kind of training is coming around," says Brett Moore, shelter, reconstruction, and infrastructure advisor for Australian aid organization World Vision International. He feels it’s high time for such a shift. Currently a Loeb fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Moore trained as an architect in Australia and began his career in a Melbourne-based private firm. He quickly learned that his interests were taking him on a different path. The turning point was a reconstruction project in Sri Lanka after the tsunami of 2004, which left 1.7 million homeless and killed over 230,000. His six-month stay turned into five years, as civil war broke out in the country, prompting the need for further assistance. Moore’s role at World Vision takes him from one disaster site to another at a moment’s notice. He works with communities in the immediate post-disaster emergency phase through to the reconstruction period.

Moore is glad to see more aspiring architects entering the field—they are sorely missed. "When I’m in the field I can never really find people who I need," he says. "Most of the people I work with are logisticians and those from health backgrounds. The people dealing with these built environment issues don’t really come from the background you normally would if you were in the developed world."


But possessing a desire to help isn’t synonymous with knowing how to do so in a way that won’t harm vulnerable communities. Solutions aimed at dealing with poverty, social marginalization, climate change, or conflict are by no means straightforward, and often architects don’t have an understanding of the communities they aim to serve.

Charlesworth mentions the post-Hurricane Katrina "Make It Right" housing project undertaken by Brad Pitt’s foundation of the same name. The initiative invited both local and well-known architects, including Thom Mayne, Frank Gehry, and Shigeru Ban, to design economically friendly low-cost housing in New Orleans’s badly damaged Lower Ninth Ward.

Humanitarian Design On Display

The architecture and design community has been shining the spotlight on socially oriented topics through thematic exhibitions. The recent "From Creation to Catastrophe" exhibition at London’s Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) earlier this year focused on post-disaster reconstruction projects, ranging from the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871 that paved the way for the Chicago School to Pakistani architect Yasmin Lari’s successful relief project built after the country’s floods in 2010.

Let’s not forget the Venice Architecture Biennale. This year’s edition has an undeniable humanitarian lean with Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena as curator. His participatory social housing projects, created with his firm ELEMENTAL, helped him win the Silver Lion award at the 2008 event.

According to Aravena, the focus will be on understanding "what design tools are needed to subvert the forces that privilege the individual gain over the collective benefit" and "improve the quality of life while working on the margins, under tough circumstances and facing pressing challenges."

Even New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is jumping on the bandwagon. The museum recently announced that it will open the exhibition "Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter," which will look at how the architecture and design communities have treated modern shelters through the lens of "migration and global refugee emergencies."

"There were architects who literally flew in by helicopter," says Charlesworth. "They had never worked in the area and what happens is the project is over time, over budget, doesn’t meet the kind of cultural aspirations or needs of the community." Indeed, both Mayne’s and Ban’s homes exceeded the $150,000 budget and included features that seemed out of touch with the immediate needs of those in the community—the house designed by Mayne’s firm, for example, could float, but the necessary technology made it too pricey. The most successful was local firm Billes Partners, which told the Washington Post that it had spoken with community members to determine what would most interest them. They wanted familiar designs reminiscent of the area’s historic architecture, with porches and protected areas to park their cars—not high-tech features.

Nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, which has built thousands of affordable houses for low-income families since the 1970s, routinely comes under fire. In April, investigative news platform ProPublica revealed that the organization’s New York City chapter had actually contributed to homelessness. Buildings for a large-scale renovation project were sold to the nonprofit only after longtime low-income residents were forced out—some of them into homeless shelters. It hardly fit with the organization’s motto of creating communities in which "all people have decent affordable places to live."

The refugee crisis in Europe has presented new opportunities for architects to get it right—or wrong. Take the Refugee Challenge proposed by Netherlands-based What Design Can Do. Initiated by Amsterdam-based graphic designer Richard van der Laken and business partner Pepijn Zurburg, this year’s competition calls on "designers, artists, and imaginative trouble-shooters of all disciplines" to propose solutions for what the former describes as the "refugee journey" and arrival in the host country. It’s a "problem too big for governments and NGOs to solve," they say. The competition came out of an annual What Design Can Do conference the pair began several years ago, which aimed to engage the design community in discussions on how the field could have an impact on what he calls "real issues." "If we say that design can have an impact on society, maybe we should step up and make it happen ourselves so we are more of an accelerator in real change," said the designer.

In an interview in May, van der Laken said he hoped to receive at least 200 proposals from all over the world by the submission date. He hoped some would be from refugees with design backgrounds, although the initiative hasn’t announced what it has done to promote this. Winners will receive 10,000 euros, and, potentially, competition partners IKEA Foundation and UNHCR, or other investors, will fund the construction of the winning design.

The competition has come under fire from some who find its "here’s your chance to make a difference" tagline naive and out of touch with the complexity of the challenges refugees face, while unfairly portraying them as victims. The cover photo of the participant "starter kit" features a group of soaked refugees swaddled in emergency blankets looking downright miserable—not exactly an image of empowerment. Nor do the voices of refugees seem to be emphasized in the design process.

While there is no precise recipe for success when it comes to the ideal humanitarian architecture project, socially-minded architects will likely find themselves working with community members and a range of other actors, from politicians to health professionals, on site-specific projects. Architects and designers, after all, are only part of the equation.

"If you look at the developing world, we are insignificant as a culture of architects and designers and engineers," says Amro Sallam, the Minnesota-based director of Architects for Society (AFS), a newly formed group of architecture professionals dedicated to the humanitarian cause. He cites the growing number of the world’s population—around 1.6 billion—who live in substandard housing. "People don’t need architects, they design their own communities and it’s almost like we should learn from them," he adds. "But we can still help."

AFS is one of the newest groups taking on the shelter challenge with gusto. Made up of a collective of international professionals largely working in the corporate realm, the nonprofit’s mission statement is to "enhance the built environment of disadvantaged communities through innovative architecture and design." It echoes the commitments of other humanitarian-oriented groups like Architecture for Humanity, a network of voluntary architects in 60 global chapters that mysteriously folded last year before reopening as Open Architecture Collaborative.

The formation of Sallam’s group was prompted by his work with a colleague on a project in Gaza during Israel’s invasion of the strip in 2006. Working with colleagues, he helped residents come up with creative housing solutions when materials were not allowed into the country. The project was a far cry from his comfortable day job at Swiss-based Herzog & de Meuron, where he spent his free time researching informal settlements and low-income housing. A year ago, Sallam decided to move out of the private sector to head the organization full-time. It was a risky move but one that felt right. Such moves, he says, are becoming increasingly common in the field: "We’re seeing the ills [of] not just the corporate world, but [of] globalization and the free market."

The approach to humanitarian architecture should never be top-down, stresses Sallam. "We aren’t going to tell anyone how to live, we’re just going to brainstorm and do what we do best and give design thinking to their process."

The group’s first project is Hex House. It began with a studio project at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden to create a rapidly deployable shelter for refugees arriving in Europe. Sallam had worked in Jordan and seen firsthand that refugee camps were often not as temporary as the term suggests. "We wanted to create a dignified home, because sometimes people are living in these camps for 20 years or longer," he says. With panels designed to last half a century, Hex House was meant to not only be rapidly deployable, but to be made with inexpensive building materials easily found on the European market, and modifiable, allowing families of various sizes to join rooms as they see fit. It also features off-the-grid components like solar panels and rainwater harvesting capabilities.

The group has resorted to crowdsourcing funds to build a prototype, but Sallam knows it won’t be enough. "Because we’re all new to this public design realm, we have challenges," says Salam. "We’re optimistic because we know this issue is huge, but we haven’t figured out how to get the funding yet."

Meanwhile, a certain budget-friendly Scandinavian company has the funding and is not afraid to use it. IKEA has been making headlines with Better Shelter, created in partnership with Swedish design firm Refugee Housing Unit and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since last fall, 10,000 of the four-walled modular flat pack shelters have been deployed to camps around the world and are now used as homes, clinics, and schools.

Although they may not sound like much, the fact that the 17.5-square-meter shelters can be easily transported and take several hours to assemble is a big improvement on the status quo. The standard issue UN tents house 3.5 million people around the world. Not only do they offer inhabitants little privacy and scant shelter from the elements, they must be replaced every six to 12 months. Better Shelters fit up to five people and feature solar panels and lockable doors, and IKEA claims they last a minimum of three years in harsh weather conditions. The shelters have been largely met with praise. New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn, part of a panel that gave the project an honorary Swedish Design Award in 2014, called the shelters "unusually sensitive."

Interestingly, IKEA is the single largest donor to the UN, as the Christian Science Monitor reported. This marks a shift in UNHCR-private sector relations that’s worth keeping an eye on: private sector actors working in camps for the wrong motive can cause a great deal of damage to some of the world’s most vulnerable. "There’s a lot of money to be made out of disaster," comments Charlesworth. "Although I don’t think that’s IKEA’s motive, time and time again we are presented with the next great idea. It’s great press for them but if the housing can’t leverage a livelihood—if people can’t gain employment through the act of providing it, then I think there’s a problem."

Shelter design, even for emergency shelters, should be a process, not a product—as the seminal book Design After Crisis (1978) by Ian Davis established. The idea of a prefab one-size-fits-all shelter or tent that can work in any situation goes against humanitarian architecture ideals, which call for site-specific responses carried out in partnership with local communities. Yet although this idea has prevailed, the majority of shelters are still flown in to disaster sites and camps around the world.

At the end of the day, Better Shelter might provide a more resilient medium-term solution, "but it isn’t a long-term solution," says Moore. He adds that it is important to remember that permanent and semi-permanent shelters are rarely built, for one very important reason: "Most of the time the host government doesn’t want these people there," he says.

Moore gives the example of the thousands of Somali refugees living in Kenya. "They are provided minimal resources because the government wants them to return to their place of origin as soon as possible," he points out. The Kenyan government recently announced plans to shut down the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, within a year.


The vast majority of the world’s 10.5 million refugees live in cities, not in camps. And back in Berlin, where asylum-seekers from Syria and elsewhere have received refugee status in recent months, many will look for an apartment or room of their own, and many will have trouble finding one.

Like Hamburg, Munich, and many small but highly populated university towns in Germany, the nation’s capital is experiencing a housing shortage. Last year’s arrival of 80,000 asylum-seekers created an additional challenge for the city that sports the unofficial tagline of "poor, but sexy." Despite arriving months ago, many refugees live in the city’s hastily organized temporary shelters, set up in sports halls, schools, and even Hitler’s infamous Templehof airport, which currently houses approximately 2,000 people in three hangars. The city’s plan to erect container "villages" throughout the city is underway, at the cost of 78 million euros.

But many in the city’s architecture community say living in a steel box shouldn’t be the status quo. Instead, they’re proposing solutions that they feel better represent the needs of the city’s new arrivals.

In late April at the city’s Technical University, one of the best for architectural studies, the crowded inner courtyard was abuzz. The evening’s event, called "Dialog Extrem" (extreme dialogue) gathered 40 "experts"—architects, refugee activists, and lawyers—to discuss visions for a new Berlin, one that is welcoming of the city’s newest inhabitants.

One attendee, Berlin resident and University of Hannover architecture professor Peter Haslinger, spoke of a project with colleagues and students, an integrative housing solution that made use of disused spaces in city centers, like car parks and abandoned lots. It would address the country’s urban housing shortage for everyone—refugee or not.

When they began the project two years ago, Haslinger and his team were surprised to find few housing proposals that foresaw the arrival of thousands of refugees as conflict in Syria escalated. "A lot of students designed shelters for catastrophes, but not in Europe," he said. "The only solutions communities had were containers, and we thought ‘ok there must be another way.’ It’s actually a bad solution for cities because it’s expensive and not very far-sighted."

The concept Haslinger and his colleagues champion is similar to the incremental social housing built by Alejandro Aravena’s studio ELEMENTAL, although Haslinger says Germany’s strict building regulations provide a new set of challenges. In Haslinger’s concept, the initial basic structures would cut down on certain costs, using materials like cheaper windows or thinner insulation, with the idea that some higher-quality elements could be added over time as residents became long-term.

The proposed multi-story houses would not only meet the city's budget, but would be a more long-term solution than the concrete modular housing units that are also being built. A concrete structure cannot be easily modified, he points out. "This is why they shouldn’t be built short-sighted, where in a few years we’ll have to tear them down and build something new."

Haslinger’s homes would resemble a "normal town," where buildings would have several apartment sizes and feature retail space on the ground floor. The concept would also make use of an exception to Germany’s strict land use regulations code, which states that only refugee housing—and not other types of housing—can be built on empty space in industrial areas, called Gewerbegebiet in German. For years, many in the architecture community have been pushing for the loosening of these 1950s-era laws, which they say no longer fit the times, as industry has scaled down significantly. The approval to build on these spaces would be a boon to the city’s housing market.

"The living problem at the moment is not just a refugee problem," says the architect. "We need normal housing for everyone." The houses would be home to both refugees and longstanding Berliners of varying income levels and serve as a solution to a much greater housing challenge the country faces.

While Haslinger and his colleagues are busy getting the word out, the city is moving ahead with its container and modular shelter plans.

In the meantime, the number of refugees worldwide is growing, and with it, a need for housing. In times like these, a movement toward humanitarian architecture can’t peak soon enough.

Editor: Sara Polsky
Illustrator: Paige Mehrer

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