June 20th. World Refugee Day.
When we think of emergency architecture, what usually comes to mind are villages razed by flooding, by a hurricane or tornado. Families who have lost everything. From catastrophe emerges a new home for a new life, a new future to rebuild from the debris. But there are many other emergencies of an equally - if not more - dramatic nature.
Political and armed conflicts displace tens of millions of people every year. In the 2012 census collected by ANCUR, it was estimated that “43.3 million people in the world were displaced by force due to conflict and persecution. Children constitute 46% of this population.” These are not people who are starting from 0 with a new home, but rather who have run to save their own lives, taking with them only what they can carry - the things that will furnish houses that aren’t houses, because their inhabitants aren’t citizens.
But a refugee camp is also a city.
A temporary city, in theory. An ephemeral city whose inhabitants have been placed there like pieces in a puzzle. A stand-by city that architecture has not embraced.
But a refugee camp is also a city - and not an ephemeral one.
It is a spontaneous generation, yes. A city with no natural origin or evolution, but stable nonetheless. It’s just not recognized as a city because its citizens are invisible, forgotten.
And the question that I am asking myself today is: What role should architecture play?
A refugee camp is a city - and not just one that should be barely livable. Running water and the disposal of waste are not the only requisites. We constantly speak of the influence architecture can have on people’s quality of life - so where is the architecture in the refugee camp?
A refugee camp needs more than doctors, psychologists, teachers - it needs architects. It needs an identity born from the creation of space. If architecture is the expression of each village, of each society, then surely these citizens need, deserve this expression too.
There aren’t the resources for it - true. But we constantly see buildings made without resources, and not just in informal communities. We see them result from workshops and conferences and post-grad programs that like to portray themselves as being on the “cutting-edge” of architecture, because they speak about the informal, ephemeral direction of architecture today.
Architecture can help, and it should - so that we can cease to call refugee camps “refugee camps” and can start calling them “living cities.”
Because a refugee camp is a city - a living city with a past, present, and future. We only need to start seeing it that way.
If you're interested in getting involved with efforts for refugees, check out the UNHCR (United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees) or Architecture for Humanity - their Tehran chapter has been particularly active in the refugee community.
For more reading on this subject, check out these ArchDaily articles: