I take my home for granted. There, I said it. Chances are you do, too, if your conception of home – like mine – does not include worrying about the daily dangers of a civil war playing out on your doorstep; the mortar shelling that has left your family homeless; or the stability of tent walls too thin too keep out winter’s frigid weather. As millions of refugees around the world lack a safe physical space, one crucial sector has remained both under-involved and underutilized in the scramble to provide such structures: architecture.
While places to live, meet, learn, etc., are still desperately needed in countries not in conflict (particularly for the estimated 100 million homeless worldwide), violence like that seen in Syria creates an acute lack of such space. Architects, engineers, and urban planners – those with the skill set to tend to the “built environment” – should be playing a larger role in aid and peace processes. Architecture can be vital not only for day-to-day survival, but also for advocacy and rebuilding efforts for refugees and post-conflict societies.
Refugees have been garnering attention this winter for the dangers they face in the migration process across Europe, but the challenges of refugees stalled in camps or unofficial dwellings are less likely to make headlines. Over half of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in insecure dwellings, and the situation is similar in Jordan. Aid groups’ small budgets can offer little more than stop-gap measures such as extra blankets, tarps, and heaters; for those with inadequate shelter – even official refugee tents are easily damaged by wind and snow – these may make little difference, if they receive anything at all. In the best of times, these shelters are often without electricity, toilets, and heating.
Certainly aid organizations need more funding to tackle these crises, but this is where architects have a chance to make an impact. Already, IKEA has started manufacturing easy-assemble, flatpack homes that arrive in a box, and a team headed by architect Cameron Sinclair created a shelter called RE:BUILD that can be constructed using gravel and sand. The best detail about these types of homes? They require no previous building experience or special training. Architect Alejandro Aravena suggests investing in permanent structures that residents can complete and use, claiming such buildings can alleviate housing shortages not just during crises, but permanently. Unfortunately, these ideas are expensive: an IKEA house costs three times more than a refugee tent, and while it lasts up to six times longer, the extra cost is hard to justify for agencies already facing budget deficits.
Refugee camps, with an expected duration of seven to seventeen years, also require schools, shops, and other everyday buildings. Their designers must juggle varying landscapes; limited space due to inhospitable host communities or land shortage; and the heightened possibility of rampant disease, violence, and sexual assaults in cramped spaces. New proposals include “alternative landscape frameworks” that encompass gardens, daycares and schools, and recycling mechanisms. One firm even created a movable playground for youth in Lebanese refugee camps when its employees realized the special difficulties of growing up in such an environment. While all of these efforts are laudable, aid groups, urban planners, and architects/engineers must increasingly work together to make affordable, practical solutions a reality.
Within Syria, 8 million displaced people are in overcrowded homes or squatting in abandoned buildings; hospitals have been destroyed; and schools are used as shelters, with little hope of remaining places of learning. When the war ends and society begins to heal, the lack of physical space to do so becomes a hindrance for rebuilding communities and nations. The need for hospitals, schools, and community centers is dire, though often overlooked. Again, those responsible for the built environment need a place at the negotiating table alongside the more common community leaders, aid workers, and military strategists. Creating an environment – literally – for peace may offer hope for sustaining it.
Architecture is not just another force imposed upon refugees and post-conflict communities by outsiders and agencies, but can act as an opportunity for empowerment and advocacy. A band of migrants denied asylum in Amsterdam used historic architecture as a launch pad for self-advocacy. Refugees occupied an iconic church in the city that became known as the “Vluchtkerk” or “flee-church,” prompting greater visibility for their plight. In Chile, the Villa Grimaldi, a former torture center of the Pinochet regime, is now a peace park dedicated to victims’ memories and human rights. Colombia is creating a National Museum of Memory for its citizens to grieve and remember victims of the ongoing conflict.
Architecture has the potential to lessen the dangers for refugees in unstable living conditions, rebuild safer communities after conflict, and even play a role in the healing process. The need for better and more creative solutions in conflict situations could not be more apparent than now, as over four million refugees have fled Syria and Europe faces an influx of migrants with nowhere to house them.
The built environment is not a magic solution that can feed hungry children and prevent violence – but it can act as a salve for neighborhoods too hurt to find a way to thrive and grow; offer hope to people too long denied a home or hospitals or schools; and allow those without a voice to create a space to band together. At the very least, the international community needs to reexamine architecture’s role in humanitarian pursuits.
*Article originally published on The St Andrews Economist*