How architecture can help redefine the refugee crisis

Editor’s Note: In April 2016, Glenn Lowry, long-time director of New York’s world-renowned Museum of Modern Art, joined CNN Style as guest editor. He commissioned a series of powerful stories on the theme of migration.

Sean Anderson is associate curator within the Department of Architecture and Design of MoMA New York.

CNN  — 

Today, between 59 and 67.2 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons are trapped in a state of temporary permanence.

Shouldered by hope and the unknown, individuals and families continue to find their way across states under siege, multiple borders, and into makeshift processing centers and camps. They often reach the edges of one continent or landmass in preparation for another journey. And there, they wait. Sometimes they’re imprisoned; more often they’re exposed to the elements and police actions.

Such passages, across treacherous seas and landscapes, are haunted by a dream of permanence, of shelter.

Architecture for security

Security has been defined as a global issue of increasing magnitude and complexity. From a need to establish safety to the desire for economic well-being, security has become a defining factor of contemporary architecture and the human condition.

Politicians, urban planners, environmentalists, terrorist groups and lawmakers have all used the issue of security to justify their actions and work.

While nations are being redefined by the unannounced arrival of millions, the effects of forced displacement continue to evolve through risk and violence in the name of security. It is troubling to see attempts at slowing down or preventing these arrivals through coercion, punishment. We are thus witness to competing interests when it comes to the definition of the refugee as human.

Architecture plays a fundamental role in redefining contemporary ethical agendas. Around the world, architects and designers are grappling with ideas to move beyond a conventional understanding of building to calculate how an individual’s mobility may also help bring about security.

We might call this an architecture of displacement. Here, scenes of flimsy boats filled with individuals, or a country’s border marked by a fences and guns should not be regarded as challenges to surpass or ignore, but as opportunities to reassess how and why we respond to the circulation of people today.

There has been relatively little discussion as to how architecture engages with and responds to global refugee emergencies. Through art, architecture and design, we may begin to be be able to identify effective ways in which to visualize ourselves as citizens.

New modes of infrastructure

Due to prolonged war or climatic changes, forced displacement continues to shift the prerogatives of architects and institutions. Integrating rigorous designs for shelter with our thinking about the built environment is not insurmountable.

Mediterranean migration now accounts for the greatest number of deaths of individuals in transit. These have also become a predominant mode by which European Union members and others determine local responses to promote radical ideas about shelter. From the occupation of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin to the reuse of unoccupied buildings throughout the Netherlands and Germany, new modes of innovative infrastructure at all scales are needed to establish foundations for persons that desire integration into the same societies that consider them as foreign, as other.

Borders as punishment

"Climbing" from the Recuerdos series by Rael San Fratello

Before one reaches a camp, however, a line that is crossed. The same line that indicates a border is also an intense reminder of both invisible and visible forces. The border creates an inside and an outside. An us and them.

Geographers describe how “border thinking” establishes the ways in which we isolate ourselves. While we may easily speak across the world through global communication and logistics networks, the same is not true for how countries assert their control of territory.

As individuals continue to pass through borders, fixed boundaries no longer have the same meaning. The border as line, as body of water, no longer is as much an impediment as it is a frame of reference. Borders may be addressed as one model of punitive architecture that is matched by the expansion of refugee camps and immigration detention facilities throughout the world.

The projective works of architects such as Estudio Teddy Cruz and Rael San Fratello have longed surveyed the Mexico-USA “barrier” as a complex site for the questioning of its utility and economy.

Our system of walls in the southern United States has become a much-maligned symbol of mistrust and fear. Similarly, the artist Tiffany Chung depicts similar trajectories within drawings and sculptures that elucidate both historical and contemporary conditions of movement and escape.

Ensuring effective responses to the architecture of displacement must be found between those gestures that ensure safety through shelter as well as the continued openness of our borders to strengthen our humanitarian obligations for each other.

The less of two evils

As countries progressively build and reinforce fences, walls, and laws that fix their limits, individuals and families are caught between the impossibility of returning to a semblance of home, while living in sites in which their humanity is questioned and often erased.

Typically at these peripheries, makeshift zones in the woods and fields adjacent to transport corridors emerge from the detritus of our castoffs: advertising hoardings, plastic sheeting, cartoon-emblazoned cardboard. The Dutch photographer Henk Wildschut has been documenting such impromptu settlements in Calais, France with startling images that speak to the resiliency of peoples. Despite the ongoing threat of eviction and further displacement, citizens from many nations have created their own transient villages and rituals of building in what is often pejoratively termed “The Jungle.”

Shelter, in these degraded locations, offers little to no protection. Yet, it is better than turning around.

A sustainable future?

If we observe the evolution of refugee camps such as al-Za’atari in Jordan, Dollo Ado in Ethiopia, or the three camps that comprise Dadaab in Northern Kenya – inescapable grids of tents, tarpaulins, and containers – they do not, at first, represent the emergence of an increasingly connected citizenry.

The average length of stay for refugees in such camps is currently 17 years.

"The Migration Series, Panel 60: And the migrants kept coming" (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence

Dadaab, for instance, has been in existence for 25 years, yet is barely recognized by the government of Kenya and other African nations including Somalia, from which most of its occupants are fleeing. By being classified as impermanent, and, sustained by external international organizations and governments – including the United States – Dadaab cannot become a city with self-sustaining laws, functional systems and protections, despite a population that hovers around 250,000.

Migratory transits thus compel the need to revisit the core ideas which underlay our narratives of religion, race and gender.

Do designs for temporary shelter, such as that jointly-designed by the IKEA Foundation, the UNHCR and Better Shelter, provide a sustainable future?

What makes a city?

If we imagine one’s escape to a refugee camp as fragmentary, provisional and incomplete, the camp must be transformed not only in design but also in its role as a catalyst for promoting the humanity of those living within its barbed-wired walls.

In these evolving territories, temporary shelters stretch to the horizon. Ill-equipped markets and clinics need more resources, while non-governmental organizations crowd outside to assist those inside. Each of these systems represent the emergence of a new global arena that demands us to ask what makes a city and, consequently, what makes a country.

We might also observe how to improve the circumstances of those individuals caught within the confines of those refugee camps and detention centers that continue to emerge among conflict zones. Can architecture begin to remedy these places of indeterminate waiting?

The test of compassion

Architecture has the capacity to lessen the trauma inflicted by displacement. Refugee encampments and detention centers should no longer act as zones of exclusion, ignored by both governments and public conversation. By critically observing self-made designs that are being developed by the inhabitants of camps, it is possible to consider alternatives for designing and building self-sufficiency without resorting to violence.

While countries like Australia continue to enforce immigration policies that deter and deny access to asylum seekers and refugees, since 2001, they have also maintained unchecked offshore detention centers on the Pacific islands of Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and Nauru for indefinite detention.

The country employs these inaccessible places in parallel with the continent’s legal removal called “excision” from the map as a means of denying ethical responsibilities toward the powerless.

Calls for renewed scrutiny on how the design and maintenance of such centers mediates the rights of individuals still abound and insist that architects, landscape designers, and planners pay close attention.

Are human rights at odds with the same structures that we use to define our cultures, our nations? Further, how are the rights of refugees determined when placed into the hands of the public?

Interactive online platforms such as Refugee Republic by the Dutch designers Submarine Channel and the ongoing project, The List by Banu Cennetoğlu seek to visualize that which we do not know while also providing the visual elements that may secure future stabilities for shelter.