Empty slogans undo Fallaha's good work
In light of this year's RIBA Silver Medal-winning project, Hani Fallaha's 'Rapid Deployment/ Refugee Camp' (AJ 9.12.04), I would like to repeat some criticism I overheard at the Architectural Association (AA).
In response to a 'minimum space' housing project, my then tutor held up a packet of tobacco and read out: 'Smoking is highly addictive, don't start!' The point was a simple one: don't you have the luxury to say one thing, only because you enjoy the opposite?
The class huddled close for heat in a corner of the lecture room.
Hani's work is a beautiful and intricate elaboration of the possibilities of inflatable structures, a theme that the unit has been investigating for some years. At the first AA graduation party I went to, I ate the regulation strawberries and cream from a fragment of a similar project, designed by Hani's future tutor, which when tessellated would insulate the endless tulip fields of the Low Countries. Strawberries and cream, tulips - the excessive housed the excessive rather well, I thought.
The question of the project arises where it comes to programme. We know he is going to make an inflatable structure, but why a shelter for refugees?
Returning to former logic, I suggest that it is a shelter for refugees precisely because that is the thing it is least suited for. Why? Because the sense of purpose/speed/worldliness that the programme offers is the antithesis of the formalism/ care/locality that is the actual ground of the project. It is only in labelling the project 'rapid' and 'purposive' that he draws our attention to this 'lack' (just as the tobacco warning draws our attention to that enjoyment that is relative to the danger).
The transformation of strawberry fields (forever? ) to refugee hangar is not without humour.
But when a comic tells a joke, you expect him to consider his audience. The challenge of a comic in a refugee camp is serious - what kind of a joke can I tell here? Is this even a place for jokes? Would it be funny to imagine the conference call between a refugee, the International Red Cross and Hani, when the 'single-flip cushion' needs a patch?
It is a serious question, and one that a thesis project should thrive on. Where it could find sustenance, the project finds limits, and pays a price for ignoring them. It is no exaggeration to call the work neo-colonial. Hani proves himself a bad comic; he doesn't ask the fundamental question: 'Is there a place for architecture here at all?' What the refugee gets in return for shouldering Hani's question is incorporation, into the body from which it is definitively displaced. Unless Hani works for a plastics manufacturer, this is all simply to support a few empty slogans. Would a health warning be enough?
'Architecture is highly excessive, don't start!' No; in this instance, I'd say make mine a tent.
Liam Ross, Edinburgh