Blog | July 2019


Shifting Architectures of Refugee (In)habitation

by Shahd Wari, Somayeh Chitchian, and Maja Momic

Since the peak of the so-called refugee “influx” in summer of 2015, a plethora of events, conferences, workshops, open discussions, research groups, task forces, courses, and debates have taken place to address this new situation. However, themes like architecture and space were almost entirely missing from most sociological conversations on the topic. This motivated us to organize this workshop and start a debate with architects and designers from both academia and practice on questions of architecture, displacement, and refuge.

The workshop investigated the reciprocal relation between design, displacement, and practices of inhabitation, seen through the lens of the shifting architectures of refuge. It brought together architects and academics that critically examine concepts and categories such as architecture on the one hand, and refuge(e) on the other. In doing so, it asked: How can architecture be conceptualized beyond an object of study or design but rather as a mode of practice, a positionality, or a force in the formation of (new) political subjectivities and agents in the production of space? Moreover, how can it be understood as a mechanism and force, which simultaneously displaces and emplaces, uproots and shelters, and constructs while destroying? And, in this double mode of operation, how can architecture, or architectural production, be seen as a space/position of negotiation between the powers and forces controlling its operation in relation to practices of inhabitation, appropriation, and the subjectification happening from below? Thus, starting from the questioning of the figure of the so-called architect, we moved towards the notion of dis/em-placement as a mode of spatial production, whether in formally designated accommodation (/detention) centers or in self-made and self-claimed urban spaces (through practices of squatting or the creation of makeshift camps).

In geographically and thematically diverse papers, different architectures of asylum and spatial practices were presented: from refugee camps in Jordan, through squatting practices in Greece, institutionalized accommodations in European cities, to the IDP slums/settlements in Colombia. Spatial practices of refugee inhabitation were addressed on different scales: from the zoomed in, ethnographic level of analysis, to the broader interconnections with the neighborhood and the urban scale, thus presenting different but interrelated geographies of displacement and challenging the inside/outside delineations framing the architectural form and its broader discipline.

As such, the workshop gave a platform to architects and academics to present their work and start debates on the (shifting) meaning of architecture and the subsequent roles and divides of the “architect” and the “refugee” in the production and creation of space. Some saw architects as community activists, while others saw the figure of the architect as being a representative of state power. On the other hand, some saw displaced populations as the main producers of architectural and urban space, while others saw them as limited to the so-called user status by state and non-state actors, restricted by building codes and regulations imposed on them. The workshop had another debate on whether climate could be considered the dominant factor in the “universal” need of sheltering. The permanency or ephemerality of architecture was also central to the conversation – given the frequently temporal nature of questions of displacement and the architectural forms thereof, even in longue durée conditions of displacement, i.e., “permanent temporariness”.

Significant was the presence of trained architects and engineers who had personally experienced recent conditions of exile and refuge, bringing invaluable perspectives to the conversation. Additionally, by bringing in various theories (from Marxist, post-colonial, feminist, perspectives to questions of decolonliality and infrastructures of architecture); different case studies (Jordan, Greece, Colombia, Kenya, Lebanon, and a few European cities); various methodologies and techniques of research and representation (from architectural ethnographies and their representation through sketching and various modes of drawing, to archival research, and participatory modalities of design) – the workshop participants were able to challenge and complexify what should be considered under the broad term of architectural research. While some presenters saw themselves as activists and actors in refugee housing movements, others saw themselves as observers, or as mere researchers studying conditions of displacement and refuge. Some presentations addressed the final results of their projects and interventions, and others focused on the brainstorming and deliberation phase of the design process in active participation with their ultimate users and inhabitants. This led to a lengthy discussion on the role of the researcher/architect in academic and public debates, as well as the ethics of doing research in conditions of (mass-) displacement.

The debate also addressed the question of the production of space and its subsequent categorization and segmentation in conditions of displacement; whether through notions such as squatting, or commoning, dwelling, “campization,” in/formalities, sheltering, (im)mobilities, place-making, in/visibilities, encounters, etc. This multi-scalar discussion also posed the question of how various dimensions of displacement and refuge are fundamentally interrelated with the urban poor; the dwindling, saturation, and commodification of (social) housing; detention and incarceration of urban inhabitants, etc. – requiring a broader cross-connection and linkage between these various levels of analyses. Accordingly, the discussion touched upon the ambiguous role of institutions and their contextualization and historicization in relation to questions of power, violence, capital-labor relations, etc. which, on the one hand, shelter and house displaced populations and, on the other, survey, control, and immobilize them. Particular attention was given to the agency and autonomy of displaced populations (e.g. through inhabiting, appropriating, altering, and self-organizing spaces) as a modality and potentiality of power from below.

The workshop was well rounded with an extremely interesting keynote panel. First, Prof. Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi proposed decoloniality as an approach to deconstruct the forms of (colonial) structural violence and acknowledge and re-center the work, experiences, and knowledge of the formerly colonized. The lecture was followed by a response by Prof. Romola Sanyal, who addressed the unsettling architectural narratives of refuge, and in particular the complex relationship between the camp and the city, and thus questioned and challenged the parameters and scales of architectural thinking and analysis.

We hope to continue the conversation with this inspiring network of scholars and activists on questions of (in)habitation and displacement as modes of spatial production in the form of a collective edited volume, soon to be announced on our event webpage:

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