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Why isn't the profession seeing refugee camps as architectural projects?

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What is stopping architects from looking at solutions to the current refugee crisis? Is it a problem with how the profession is trained, asks David Turnbull

Architects should be addressing this crisis and the profession should be equipped with the skills to do so

My concern is that it is not on both counts. Given that in any history of urbanism, with its associated patterns of growth and change, the emergence of institutions and the expansion of markets, is directly and intimately related to migration, from city to city, country to country, and from the rural areas to the urban concentrations of the world.

This is odd, to say the least. In the past, architects have been passionate about urban structure, about infrastructure design, and about the construction of decent places for human activity, for commerce and for cultural production.

Most architects do not know what to do in extreme circumstances

Perhaps we still are. Certainly it would be tragic if we were not. A dark possibility is that as educators we are no longer teaching the skills that are required, and the reality is that most architects actually do not know what to do in extreme situations, with distress, poverty, no sanitation, no water, power or institutional structure. I do not believe in institutionalized carelessness or individual neglect so something is happening.

So, is it possible that an obstacle is created by the words ‘temporary’ and ‘camp’ - is it probable that the laying out of a camp is not understood to be an architectural project? Is this work, inevitably, the work of others? Is the design of temporary settlements off the table and out of sight as a challenging, interesting and worthwhile venture? Has the activity of International Agencies, NGOs, Foundations and Trusts produced a set of codes and conventions that eliminate architectural design as contributory factor in the accommodation of migrant populations? Or have architects voluntarily abdicated responsibility for one of their profession’s foundational obligations, namely the provision of shelter, which even in dire circumstances should be sensibly arranged and safe?

A camp is never just a camp

From my perspective, and I know that this view is shared by many others, there is a issue that is related to the widespread use of the term ‘camp’. This is huge, practically, technically and conceptually. If migration is a matter of concern that is permanent and ubiquitous - not isolated and never singular - in a word, the biggest problem is the idea: ‘camp’ - a camp is never just a camp.

Camps need to provide shelter but they also need shops, schools, clinics, and administrative institutions. Even in the most provisional situations, commercial activity of many kinds, some bright and optimistic, some rather dark, is a prerequisite. People need places to meet, to engage with each other, to debate, to plan, to weep, but also to fall in love.

Places which like people have dignity and are respectful. Everyday in the news there examples of camps, or situations in a camp that have prompted new businesses. Is this a symptom of journalistic desperation? I do not think so. A camp is a new city or part of a city and as such should be designed by architects. 

So, the big question must be: If architects get this, and understand that this job is truly the job of a lifetime, why not do it?

David Turnbull, professor of architecture at The Cooper Union, and design director for PITCHAfrica / Waterbanks

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The writer poses the question: Why not do it?

    A simple, yet fundamental answer is Money. I am not speaking of payment for the services rendered, as I am sure that there would be many willing to assist in such a project pro-bono.

    But; Who is paying for the school, the corner store, the housing and the clinic? While the labour could undoubtedly be provided from skilled tradespeople within the refugee population, inevitably NGO's, public donation and foreign aid budgets are footing the bill for the materials. Do these already stretched funds have capacity to extend further, so that something other than an off the shelf tent is used for these much needed buildings?

    When the priority is clean water, sanitation and food, does it really make sense to allocate additional budget to the architecture, given that the fundamental obligation of shelter has been met on a very fundamental level (a transportable container fitted out with bedrooms, or a tent etc.)?

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