The Story of Architecture for Refugees

Longread6 Jul 2016

"Many people ask us if we do design projects and buildings on site, and we always have to emphasize that our focus is on the general organisation and information-sharing." Read the whole story from the co-founders.

Past - the very first steps

We - the co-founders of ‘Architecture for Refugees’ - started dealing with the architectural aspects of the refugee crisis in September 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. At that time, thousands of refugees arrived to the capital city. The government and the local authorities assigned the “Keleti” railway station and the surrounding areas as a transit zone and this was the only action they actually took. They gave no further help or support to the fleeing masses. There was no top-down organised ‘campsite’, public infrastructure or shelters. The lack of organised and formal support forced the local people, groups and NGOs to take voluntary action. Activists and informal groups started to provide food, clothes, water, basic hygienic supplies, shelters, sleeping bags, mattresses, wifi, … etc. The steps were slow, sometimes ineffective but very much needed and important. Informal Facebook groups emerged - like in other parts of Europe - to organise the impossible. The online based bottom-up developments became more and more effective, however top-down forces often blocked them.

The ‘Keleti’ railway station and the ‘transit zone’

The refugees are using the informally and bottom-up installed electricity and wifi system in the ‘transit zone’ in Budapest.The information as a basic need

This was the first time we met the phenomena of refugee architecture and its unique characteristics. We are all architects, therefore we tried to use our professional knowledge to improve the situation the refugees had to be facing. We are from Ecuador, Hungary and Norway and we are all living as migrants in three different countries, Germany, Hungary and Switzerland. We wrote an article to invite and urge the Hungarian architects’ society for action. We organised a workshop to analyse and understand the situation. We were invited to organise an exhibition about ‘refugee architecture’ in the ‘FUGA’ architecture centre. While we were continuously trying to help as much as possible, we were also gathering information and knowledge. It was a hard and time consuming work. The lack of online and centralised / organised materials hindered our work. There were only a very few articles, small projects and videos we could easily access. This was the time, when we realised that information and organisation are also key factors in the development process. We continued to collect all the available basic and architectural data and we kept sharing them. We applied for the Venice Biennale and for the Oslo Triennale to promote the architectural aspects of the refugee crisis. We contacted more and more people, organisations and institutes. We tried to share as much information as possible.
In November 2015, we launched the Architecture for Refugees FB Page and Public Group to share our collected materials. We also started to empower the architectural society for action and for more activity. The first two month were quite quiet. Only our architect friends joined to the FB Group, even if they didn’t really want to do anything. In January 2016, our FB Page started to gain more and more interest. We were invited by the Future Architecture Platform and this was the first time when we went offline to participate in an international architectural event. This was the first moment when public interest in our work started to rise. We already had a few hundred followers and we received the first comments and recommendations.

The Architecture for Refugees and its first findings

The ‘Architecture for Refugees’ open source online platform collects and shares information and knowledge about the architectural aspects of the refugee crisis. Our platform aims to connect people willing to search for short- and long term solutions. Creating an open source pool of information and knowledge could enhance the collaboration between refugees, activists, professionals and politicians. As a result, effective and tangible answers could be given to the shelter- and infrastructural challenges refugees are facing. Besides the main impact of the platform, the next step is much more ambitious: involvement and sustainable integration through architecture. In our modern society, information and the availability of knowledge are key values. Providing useful and accessible information and connecting all the parties concerned - from politicians to refugees - would boost up the helping process. The online platform collects ideas, plans and best practices. We do not do projects, we create opportunities to share ideas. These ideas alone may be weak but together they can have a significant impact. The implementation of single ideas or plans are micro-interventions and have a remarkable effect in the local context. With the help of the platform these interventions will gain visibility and participants will feel empowered by being connected to each other. The transformation of these small interventions into a sustainable and large scale strategy depends on every party involved. The platform should be user-friendly, compatible with mobile devices, multilingual and should channel positive attitude.Our open source online platform is planning to connect all the stakeholders, projects, ideas, …! Together is better!

Living with people who different - racially, ethnically, religiously or economically - is one of the most urgent challenges facing civil society today. Together argues that cooperation needs more than good will: it is a craft that requires skill. In modern society, traditional bonds are waning, and we must develop new forms of secular, civic ritual that make us more skilful in living with others. From medieval guilds to today’s social network, Richard Sennett’s visionary book explores the nature of cooperation, why it has become weak and how it can be strengthened.” says the back page of Richard Sennett’s ‘Together’ book.The organigram of the Architecture for Refugees

There are 6 findings which have to be mentioned in this chapter: similar organisations, collecting and sharing - main topics, general organisation, open source, online - offline, partnerships and languages.
There are many organisations, architecture offices and institutes doing projects, writing articles, creating videos, … etc, and a few organisations dealing with humanitarian architecture but there is no such platform where you can find collected information about refugee architecture. Our platform would like to focus only on this topic. Refugee architecture has many similarities with humanitarian architecture but the few differences make them very special. Refugee architecture has a strong political dependence, it often has a negative connotation and society also entertains doubts. We would like to change this attitude by introducing basic data, providing general information and promotion.
It is not so easy to collect information and knowledge on refugee architecture. The pieces are very scattered on the global scale and many of them are still offline. Our goal is to collect all these materials and to share them on one open source online platform. We started to tag the materials. There are eight to ten main topics which came up since we launched the FB page: on-site, Q&A, call for …, projects, texts, videos, events, basic data, institutes, meetups and ? (non-specified topic).The main topics within the collection

Many people ask us if we do design projects and buildings on site, and we always have to emphasize that our focus is on the general organisation and information-sharing. There are many good and important design ideas and projects that could improve the life of refugees but there is still no ‘central’ platform which would connect all these local projects. We believe, that this network would raise the influence of local interventions and would bring the accumulated knowledge to a global scale.
Our goal, to realise an open source platform which could be updated by anyone, is still in its initial phase. The FB Page is not really ideal for the goal. We need a dedicated platform with all the above mentioned functions: a website which will be managed by the Architecture for Refugees and edited by its users. Everybody will have an account via FB, Twitter or a simple email address. This pool of information won’t be curated, every material will be tagged and posted on the platform. The Architecture for Refugees team’s goal is to have one or two workshops per year where all the gathered information and data would be overviewed and the most successful and useful materials would be highlighted and listed as ‘best practices’ by a group of stakeholders.
The main purpose of the ‘Architecture for Refugees’ is to create a platform which is available from everywhere for everyone. The online platform would secure this accessibility. Even though this is our main aim, we had to realise in the last few months that offline events and face-to-face meetings are crucial. Every offline participation and attendance has brought many new followers and partnerships. The social network has to be developed on an offline level too. To obtain this offline presence, we participate in architectural conferences, summer festivals, biennales and triennales. We started a workshop- and lecture series called ‘CAMPing - beyond architecture’ to discuss and promote the architectural aspects of the refugee crisis.
We have a growing number of partners, but the network and the level of cooperation is still yet to be improved. The lack of common projects and financial possibilities block us from deepening the collaboration. The platform also tries to connect the different stakeholders from refugees through activists to institutes. To reach this goal we have to strengthen our relations with our partners. The Future Architecture Platform, the participation at the Prishtina Architecture Week, the eme3 international architecture festival in Barcelona, the Tirana Architecture Week and the collaboration with the Architecture Sans Frontier International are the first positive steps.
The ‘Babel fish’ of refugee architecture. Pieces of information and knowledge are not only scattered on a global scale but also vary in different languages. At the moment, we manage the FB Page, FB Public Group and Twitter in English but we also try to publish materials in different other languages. For this reason, we are continuously looking for new partners speaking various foreign languages. The goal is to create a platform which would provide multilingual information. The tags of the posts would help the users to find the materials in their languages. This multilingual pool of knowledge would be an amazing opportunity for information and knowledge exchange.

Next steps - our vision

For the upcoming summer we have two main short-term goals. We are going to participate at architectural festivals and we would like to start a BETA version of the open source online platform. We are invited to the eme3 international architecture festival, to the Prishtina Architecture Week and to the Tirana Architecture Week. We started the “CAMPing - beyond architecture” workshop and lecture series to start a discussion and to promote the architectural aspects of the refugee crisis. We would like to analyse its urban and rural, formal and informal, local and global aspects and we would like to empower as many architects as possible to join the ‘Architecture for Refugees’ community or any other NGO, institute which tries to improve the life of refugees.A lecture and workshop series organised by the Architecture for Refugees to discuss and promote the architectural aspects of the refugee crisisThe first design of the Architecture for Refugees PLATFORM

The ‘Architecture for Refugees’ is open for any kind of collaboration and partnership. We would like to call all of you for cooperation and we would like to invite you to be part of our community to work together on the development of ‘refugee architecture’.

22nd May, 2016, Architecture for Refugees co-founders