The 2015 Milan Expo required the input of more than 145 countries and 50 international organizations resulting in over 70 temporary pavilions; a combined effort totaling more than €13 billion. Norman Foster’s rippling pavilion for the United Arab Emirates ended up at €60 million. The massive slab of concrete, laid out over the previously green agricultural land to act as the Expo’s foundation cost a whopping €224 million. Even Vietnam’s “low cost” pavilion came in at $2.09 million.
Compare that with, for example, IKEA’s proposal for a temporary refugee shelter that can house 5, costing just $1000, and one can see the absurdity of spending gargantuan sums on buildings that will perhaps be sold to be used later as a clubhouse, or to a museum as another temporary cultural center. Where is the architectural action behind an architectural event that boasts “Energy for Life” or “Better City, Better Life” - the slogan of the Shanghai 2010 Expo - yet spends extraordinary amounts of resources on structures that provide little sustainable development to parts of the world that are actually in dire need of it?
Out of the 70-plus pavilions exhibited at the 2015 Expo, one belonged to Save the Children Italy, who demanded that the construction be reused for a charitable purpose after the exposition. CatalyticAction, a non-profit design studio specializing in play and education spaces for refugees, took up the challenge by addressing the lack of educational facilities at Jarahieh refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, home to 500,000 displaced Syrian children. Half of those children do not have access to any education, but among the other half, in the past two years, 320 children aged 5 to 14 have been through the dark tent that was Jarahieh School.
To improve the conditions at this school, Save the Children Italy’s donation was dismantled, transported to Jarahieh and adapted by CatalyticAction, in collaboration with the children and locals, to turn the pavilion construction into a functional and sustainable educational and social facility. Developments and idea generation began nine months prior to the opening of the school, starting with the children who took part in creative exercises that directly informed the final design. Unusual building strategies were implemented with the help of relationships built with the Syrian and Lebanese residents over several weeks, allowing CatalyticAction to, for example, experiment with locally sourced sheep’s wool as insulation and sound dampening material. As 72% of all the sheep in Lebanon are found in Bekaa, this strategy was not only sustainable but also supported local farmers and laborers hired to clean and dry the wool.
Working with local people had the additional benefit of transferring different kinds of building knowledge to them, equipping both women and men with the resources to continue to work for the community beyond this single project. The combined effort of this “inclusive approach” of sharing knowledge, empowering women and sourcing materials from vulnerable sources is an attempt at building bridges in a community that is made up of a wide range of Syrian ethnic groups. As said by Joana Dabaj, Principal Coordinator of CatalyticAction, during an interview at reSITE 2016: “As long as you are dealing with people, and working with those people, you should set aside some space for the process… for us, architecture is not just about the building itself but also the process. If you do several smaller-scale projects, it will affect the bigger scale.”
Jarahieh School is also not just a school for children; after 4 pm it is a school for adults, and on weekends it functions as a public cinema and a site for aid distribution. The square formed between the six small buildings creates a public area for all residents of the refugee camp, and during a potential natural disaster such as a flood or snowstorm, the buildings will double as a community shelter. All of this benefit originated in a small children’s “village” aimed at kids with parents wealthy enough to afford an Expo ticket. Now that same colony of structures houses a place of learning for less fortunate children across the Mediterranean Sea.
Jarahieh School is evidence for the fact that temporary constructions can have a substantial effect on people’s quality of life, beyond the simple appreciation for an experimental and flamboyant facade. Dabaj explains that “There are huge opportunities when it comes to exhibition structures because usually they have been done in a temporary way. When dealing with urgent situations there’s also this requisite that you need temporary structures. In Lebanon, you cannot build permanent structures for refugees, so it also fits the same design guidelines of the building: temporary, it can be disassembled and assembled.”
The idea is that once Jarahieh School is no longer needed in Bekaa Valley, the structure will be packed up and shipped to another location that does require such a structure to advance the social development of the area. “Recycling is not a new concept. What we maybe should try to push a bit more is to recycle almost at a global scale,” says Riccardo Conti, Executive Director of CatalyticAction, during the same reSITE interview with ArchDaily. “Resources are not equally distributed, so it would be great if architecture could find a way to redistribute some resources that otherwise would be wasted anyway.”
Why does it take a non-profit studio to truly embody the values of sustainability and all the other buzz-words constantly used in the architectural profession? Talk of sustainability begins to get old when you don’t put your money where your mouth is, but perhaps successful projects like the Jarahieh School can catalyse some action in areas such as the social challenges of migration.