“This is not something that happens to the other, this is happening now to all of us” - Architects Discuss the Global Refugee Crisis

Refugee camp in Dunkirk, France, 2015 (All pictures by Philip Kleinfeld)

(A version of this article was originally published at the LEAF Architecture Review)

It was a story from his brother who was holidaying on the small Greek Island of Nisyros last Summer that made Greek architect Richard Economakis finally snap. It may not have been Lesbos or Kos — the frontline islands most affected by the refugee crisis — but when a group of bedraggled Syrians stumbled off a rubber dinghy and staggered towards the town’s main square, Economakis realised he had something quite profound in common with them: “There was a doctor, there was an engineer and there was an architect,” he says, recalling what his brother told him. “They were all educated, very polite. What shocked my brother was that these desperate people who had landed on the wrong island were people like us. That was very moving to me. I thought ‘what if it was me’”.

As the thought lingered Economakis, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame, did some digging. He discovered that in 1922, towards the end of the Greco-Turkish War, up to 17,000 Ottoman Greeks had been living as refugees in cities across Syria. “Only so many decades before, people who I might relate to were in the same exact position,” he says, “begging for hospitality because going back to where they came from probably meant certain death. That was the clincher for me. I said okay: what’s being done about this?”

The answer, at least as far as architects and designers are concerned, is not very much. Last year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that 59.5 million people are now forcibly displaced around the world, the highest number since World War Two. Though the vast majority live in developing countries, last summer, an unprecedented number entered Europe, placing a huge amount of pressure on European governments. The lack of adequate shelter, sanitation, food and water for those in transit was obviously not the fault of architects: European states had months, if not years, to prepare for the influx of people. But to many the lack of response from the architecture community has been puzzling.

Part of the problem, Economakis says, is the speed at which things have been changing. As soon as the flow of refugees on the Balkans migration trail, for example, seems predictable, something dramatic tends to happen: Hungary erects a fence, say, or Macedonia pulls up its drawbridge. “What do you do when you don’t know what the situation will be like tomorrow?”, Economakis asks. “That confusion is reflected in the paucity of visions put forward by architects. I think what many have been doing — myself included — is essentially watching the situation which is changing day by day.”

Refugees on the Austrian border, 2015

The latest deal between the EU and Turkey — designed to halt new arrivals by designating Turkey a “safe third country” — is a case in point. Last November, after hearing his brother’s story and seeing what he describes as “horrific images of suffering”, Economakis pitched the idea of a refugee village in Lesbos to the European High Commissioner for Refugees. Instead of young children shivering on the beach in space blankets, the plan was to provide locally-sourced, mud brick housing that could be repurposed in the event of the crisis abating. With the new deal though, that now seems unlikely to happen. “It’s been confirmed to me that the Greek government like the idea,” Economakis says, “but nobody wants to write to me and say let’s talk because nobody knows what the policy will be.”

While the EU-Turkey deal does somewhat complicate matters, there is of course, still the fate of the many refugees that have already arrived. In 2015 over one million asylum claims were made in Europe, many in Germany where the Chancellor Angela Merkel’s de facto open door policy encouraged hundreds of thousands of refugees predominantly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea to enter the country. “In England and other places in Europe architects probably don’t have to do so much in this regard as there aren’t that many refugees,” says Peter Schmal, director of the German Architecture museum, “but in Germany it’s been quite amazing.”

At first, Schmal says, German architects didn’t actually have that much to do. As thousands streamed in from Austria, states across the country scrambled to find whatever shelter they could — empty hotels, army barracks, abandoned factories, old psychiatric clinics, anything. “They started with improvised things,” Schmal says. “In Hessen for example, they just took a lot of sporting facilities and put beds in them.” From the outside it looked like a pretty heroic effort, but much of the shelter offered up according to Economakis, was unfit for long-term habitation. “Practically speaking it takes one to two years for your typical refugee arriving in Germany or Sweden to be able to actively seek their own housing on the open market,” he says. “What do you do in the meantime? One to two years can be a huge amount of time for an idle person who has nothing to do. As temporary as these places are, they still need to be structured, they still need to have an urban master-plan.” Integration has also been an issue, particularly in East Germany, where abandoned communist-era tower blocks on the fringes of towns and cities have suddenly been put back into use. “The greatest mistake would be to create a prospect of ghettoisation of migrant communities,” Economakis says. “They need to put these people in a place where positive interactions are fostered both among themselves and the local community.”

With German states in some cases having run out of facilities to repurpose, according to Schmal, and city halls elsewhere wanting to regain control over public buildings, architects are now becoming much more active. Last October, Schmal and his colleagues put out a call for housing projects for both asylum seekers and recognised refugees which have since been uploaded onto an impressive, online, public database. Some of the projects — which will be presented by Schmal’s team at the German pavilion of this year’s Venice architecture Biennale — are container complexes and tents but compared to what came before most are a stark improvement. Firstly they are intended for actual housing and offer more privacy and proper communal spaces. Secondly they are durable and can be repurposed in years to come as normal, affordable rented housing. And thirdly, in some cases, they involve a mixed resident base of locals and refugees, avoiding the problems associated with segregation.

“We put a call out for projects and we were looking for real ones, not student projects,” Schmal explains. “The supply of these improvised facilities is finished so we have to resort to building new. On our website we currently have 48 projects…and we are constantly enlarging it. This database serves as information for those cities that are trying to decide what to build, with which materials and so on.” Are there any projects under construction that take Schmal’s fancy? “There is one in Oranienburg near Berlin,” he says, “a great one, massive building, it’s interesting because it’s going to last for thirty years and it’s cheap, well-done housing…open staircase, open balcony access, something that you would see built in Dessau in 1925.”

Refugees in Calais, France, 2015

While the refugee flow into Europe has escalated to the point of a full-blown humanitarian crisis, it is often pointed out that the vast majority of displaced people actually reside outside of Europe. Out of 4.8 million Syrian refugees currently registered by UNHCR, for example, 2.1 million are living in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon and 1.9 million in Turkey. The majority of those refugees are based in cities and urban centres but huge numbers remain confined to camps where the chance of returning home looks slimmer by the day and where the need for expertise is critical.

With over 80,000 people, the largest of the Syrian refugee camps is Zaatari, established in July 2012 in northern Jordan and run, for a while at least, by Kilian Kleinschmidt, a gruff, sharp-tongued German who knows better than most the difficulties facing architects and planners involved in refugee camps. The key problem according to Kleinschmidt — who has now left his post in Zaatari — is the way camps are perceived as temporary and designed according to an ‘emergency response framework’. “UNHCR or any other agency may deploy architects and urban planners,” he says, “but they are put into this framework of humanitarian response. Basically you are instructed to do a storage facility and nothing more. In that storage facility of course you have certain social services like schools and hospitals and stuff but it’s the same grid more or less adapted to the different landscape. They aren’t designing something to last, and they aren’t looking into service delivery in the long-run.”

For architects this restricts what they can actually do and for refugees it means spaces are produced that are often inadequate to their actual needs. The average stay in a refugee camp, experts say, is now a staggering 17 years and Kleinschmidt wants that fact to be recognised: “I’m arguing that first responders should be the first responders but when it comes to the next stage we need to have a different framework where you bring in the right expertise and the right partners who can set up a longer-term space that works from an economical, ecological, security and social point of view. And that would involve architects and city-planners.”

Afghan refugees live in small makeshift camps Afghan refugee in small camp in French countryside

How do you make that argument though to host nations that balk at the idea of refugees camps becoming permanent fixtures in their own backyards? According to Don Weinreich, founding partner at Ennead Architects in New York, it is about nurturing mutually beneficial relationships between refugees and host communities: “If the representation to a host community or a host government is ‘we want to send a quantity of people who will at best contribute nothing to your country or locale and at worse become a drain on your resources’, that’s not a very good bargain,” says Weinrich, who has developed a toolkit alongside UNHCR to help make the case. “We’re advocating using a methodology of analysis that can quickly measure the absorption capacity of a host community’s resources. Maybe they have an abundance of water but no medical care. In which case a bargain can be struck that says ‘if you will accept this community of refugees we will build a medical centre that can handle both the refugee population and the host population. And when the refugees move on that facility is yours to keep.’”

Another major challenge for architects working in large refugee camps is understanding how displaced populations tend to engage in the process of making their own homes and communities. “Zaatari is an example of how there is a huge disconnect between what humanitarians do and the real requirements of people living in such spaces,” says Kleinschmidt. “Within a year of the camp being set up we had something else which wasn’t what UNHCR site planners had been designing. It was a constant battle between surveyors putting containers exactly where they thought they should be and refugees dismantling and reassembling them five minutes later”. Those designing the kind of high-tech shelters that look good on the picture galleries of European architecture Zines should bare this in mind, Weinrech adds. “As important as shelter type A or B is, we need to give agency to the refugees that have had their lives torn apart,” he says. “They need to be given more control over their circumstances as opposed to being placed into a very alien type of shelter that is unfamiliar to them.”

However challenging these issues — from Germany to Jordan — might seem, in the coming years they are only likely to get worse. A recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation found that climate change alone could create more than 150 million new refugees by 2050. “The reality is there will be increasing mobility in the world thanks to climate change and poverty,” Kleinschmidt says. “People are no longer confined to the places they live. Before they didn’t know where to go; now globalisation and technology means the poorest man in the world knows what it looks like in Vienna.” Architects are perhaps fortunate in the skills they have and the contribution they can make. But in the end, Weinreich says, echoing the discovery Economakis made, this is an issue that affects everyone collectively: “All of us as humans should entertain the possibility that at some point in our lives we ourselves may become refugees” he says. “This is not something that happens to the other. This is happening now to all of us.”