Designing for the Refugee Crisis Reveals Both Hard Truths and Hope

On 02.23.17, AIANY’s Global Dialogues Committee brought the roiling debate around refugees to the Center for Architecture for a night of hard truths and small glimmers of hope. The lecture, titled “Designing for the Refugee Crisis,” gathered a distinguished panel of political and design experts to discuss the complex concerns surrounding this global problem. The five panelists discussed several innovative ideas and projects surrounding the alleviation of refugees’ suffering and the need to spread awareness, but an ultimate solution to the crisis remained beyond reach. The night ended with a dash of humor as the panelists, moderators and guests were “displaced” from the Center for Architecture, the lecture having run a half-hour over the allotted time frame.

The evening began with moderator Farzana Gandhi, Chair, Department of Architecture, New York Institute of Technology, providing some sobering facts about displacement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR)’s Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015 report. “There are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people around the world today,” Gandhi explained. “21.3 million of those are refugees. This equates to about 24 persons per minute removed from their homes.”

What that volume of people really means is that refugee centers may appear to be camps, but in reality they are cities. And the city is the architect’s playground.

Panelist Eliza Montgomery of Ennead Architects brought this perspective on camps as cities to the forefront with a salient point about the startlingly long duration a person can spend as a refugee. According to the UNHCR, 17 years is the average amount of time refugees live outside their home countries. “We cannot design just for emergencies. We must plan for transition too,” Montgomery said. “Often these camps have components of urban areas, but they are without the formal planning or governmental oversight of a city,” she added.  Montgomery then presented Ennead Lab’s Rethinking Refugee Communities project, a toolkit she developed along with the UNHCR that helps designers identify appropriate locations and typographies for refugee settlements.

Robert Pietrusko, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, continued the exploration of digital aids to designers confronting the refugee crisis. His work with data visualization brought into sharp contrast the uneven dispersal of displaced peoples across the global north and south.

According to panelist Alex Aleinikoff, a former UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, there is a “bargain” between the global north and south to keep displaced peoples concentrated in the southern hemisphere in exchange for monetary aid. “The word we should be using is not displacement—it’s exclusion,” Aleinikoff said. “We need to move beyond humanitarianism and help people move on with their lives.”

Alfredo Brillembourg, co-founder of Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), echoed Aleinikoff’s sentiments. “The real problem [to resolving the refugee crisis] is empathy and ideology,” he said. Brillembourg presented his work on Torre David, an abandoned office tower in Caracas, Venezuela, that squatters had turned into a thriving settlement. By 2012, U-TT and other collaborators brought international attention to the tower and had even begun to design proposals to make it more habitable for its residents. Ultimately, the Venezuelan government evicted all of the tenants in favor of developing Torre David into a commercial and office tower in 2014. It stands empty to this day.

Sean Anderson, Associate Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA, mentioned that violence is often an unintended consequence of inadequately prepared and managed refugee settlements. He questioned how design might be better employed to give people in camps a calmer, more orderly environment. Additionally, Anderson referenced his work with the MoMA exhibit “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter” to raise the point that remembering those who reside in refugee camps is just as vital as getting them out. Without reminders that this epidemic of displacement exists, learning from the past and designing for the future is impossible.

Event: Designing for the Refugee Crisis
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.23.17
Speakers: T. Alexander Aleinkoff, Former Deputy High Commissioner, Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Sean Anderson, Associate Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art
Alfredo Brillembourg, Founder and Partner, Urban-Think Tank
Eliza Montgomery, Designer, Ennead
Robert Pietrusko, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Moderator: Farzana Gandhi, Chair, Department of Architecture, New York Institute of Technology
Organized by: AIANY Global Dialogues Committee
Sponsored by: Diller Scofidio + Renfro; KPF; Bustler