I’ve worked with and for disaster-affected com- munities the world over and perhaps have a special vantage point on the temporary and the ephemeral in architecture. In my work, everything is temporary along a long enough timeline. But some things are strangely permanent — like temporary architecture. Some designers fawn over that sort of thing and climb over one another to design the latest inflatable, flat-pack, insta-igloo that’s going to solve all of the world’s refugee problems.
I never really saw the sense in that, so I’ll say this: To hell with your temporary architecture. That’s not what architects do, and you should stop.
It’s a ruse. To address the temporary dimensions of homelessness or placelessness is a de facto concession that we don’t have the resources to address such problems on a permanent basis. That is false. There’s more than enough wealth in the world to house every single Syrian refugee and every climate change refugee, and, technologically speaking, we possess all that we need to avert most types of so-called natural disasters. What we lack is the will.
The Syrian refugee crisis has given rise to a new debate and newish ideas about what to do in the face of unplanned mass migration. Unplanned isn’t synonymous with unforeseeable. We know with certainty that our shared future will be a story of mass urbanization and displacement. We know that once-great cities will sink into the sea, and the competition for space will fuel conflict, which in turn will lead to more millions displaced. We can start planning for that future now. Or we can slap a Band-Aid on the latest crisis and see if we can get our designs published in the Journal of Bleedingly Obvious Architecture.
Temporary architectural solutions to humanitarian crises are a Hobson’s choice that is presented to the dispossessed by those with wealth: You can have a temporary shelter or no shelter, but don’t ask for anything permanent because we can’t afford that. It is the ghettoization of the humanitarian spirit itself — effectively forcing those who would do good to do less than what is morally necessary.
Refugee camps such as Dadaab in Kenya and Zaatari in Jordan monstrously prove that it’s possible to corral and contain 80,000 people. Indefinitely, in the case of Dadaab. Probably eventually, in the case of Zaatari as well. Throughout the 20th century, humanity continuously proved that when one community didn’t want another community to assimilate, it could “temporarily” house people in some barren stretch of land that no one else wanted and keep them docile with the promise of a better tomorrow. I’ve never seen a temporary solution that didn’t become permanent as a result of exhausted budgets and lapsing media attention. The real solution to the real problem is daunting, but that’s OK. How does the global community create permanent homes and communities for 4.6 million Syrian refugees throughout the Middle East and Europe without falling prey to the discredited, centrally planned, utopic visions of Modernism? How can we grant authorship, identity, and dignity to those who inhabit our work, when we don’t have a single client, but millions of clients? How do we plan for a future of upheaval, dispossession, and conflict while making sure our built environment can adapt and safely protect the disenfranchised? How do we avoid capitulating to an aid industry that would offer one-year solutions to 30-year problems? I don’t know, but there are 2.1 million architects in the world, and I think collectively, we could figure it out. If, you know, we wanted to.
Date Mounted: 1990 | Duration: ongoing