The 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale broaches issues such as segregation, natural disasters, housing shortages, pollution and migration. At the Thursday Night programme Reflecting on Venice: Design Positions at the Front, the curators of the Austrian, Dutch and German pavilions and an expert from the global refugee organisation UNHCR discussed the question: what positions can designers adopt in complex social and political issues. The discussion was moderated by Lilet Breddels, director of Volume.
In her introduction, Breddels pointed out that the question outlined above raises another fundamental question: what exactly is the task of architects and designers? For all the speakers, the overarching theme is dealing with refugees in conflict zones and their reception in Western Europe. Breddels was interested in the concrete positions that designers take and not in abstract reflections on the role of the designer. The various positions were illustrated with sample projects. Breddels also pointed to counter arguments, such as Ruben Pater’s contention in Dezeen magazine that it is ‘absurd to suggest that design can come up with solutions for a crisis that is political and socio-economic at heart.’ He believes that designers’ engagement with such issues can actually be counterproductive.
‘Everything had to be done in absolute secrecy’
The first speaker was Sabine Dreher, director of the Vienna-based design studio Liquid Frontiers and curator of the Austrian pavilion. With her project Places for People she aims to create spaces for people in transition and explore possible positions for designers. As a curator, she works with various design practices, NGOs and project developers. She highlighted three projects in Vienna: 1. Using curtains to create instant divisions within a large space, to provide at least a minimum of privacy for refugees; 2. opening up a fenced-off office complex and creating a garden for the residents that can also be used by the local population and 3. creating communal spaces in a complex made up only of private cells for refuges: from building tables to installing shops, a hair salon and a kitchen. The designers of this latter project moved their studio into the refugee shelter and built the temporary interventions together with the residents.
Dreher describes her designs as experiments that, by definition, have an unpredictable outcome. She is concerned with exploring ways as a designer to make a ‘modest contribution’ to solving complex problems. She pointed out that it was not possible to realise all her project concepts. An attendant difficulty was the fact that stakeholders wanted to keep projects secret for as long as possible because of the possibilities of negative publicity or social unrest.
‘The military camp viewed as an ordinary city’
Malkit Shoshan, founder of the architecture think-tank FAST and curator of the Dutch pavilion, explores the military camps of the UN peacekeeping missions in BLUE. She contends that, for military personnel, the security fences around the camps form a literal and figurative boundary with the ‘other’ and, for the population living ‘outside’, they symbolise the umpteenth foreign occupation. Through her research, Shoshan wants to improve both the situation within the camps and the relationship between the camps and the surrounding communities. Part of her work involves research into the interaction between military camps and ‘the city’: collecting stories and conducting interviews in order to get a sense of the complex functioning of a camp. She is interested in how the set-up of a camp can change and when it can be seen as a ‘normal’ urban project.
Shoshan’s position is the position of researcher and provocateur. She believes that the UN’s working methods are outmoded and that the organisation needs to be more open. Other professions, such as anthropologists, policy-makers and specialists in urban farming, should be involved in setting up and running the camps.
‘This final great wave of urbanisation’
Architect and journalist Oliver Elser is responsible for the German contribution Making Heimat. Analogous with Angela Merkel’s ‘Willkommenskultur’ and Germany’s open borders, he has created an ‘open pavilion’: the walls of an existing pavilion have been broken open so that the building is accessible to the public day and night, but also open to the elements. The second component of his project comprises documenting realised refugee housing in Germany. The third part is an interpretation of ideas from Doug Saunders’ book Arrival Cities. Saunders’ analysis of the ‘final great wave of urbanisation’ concerns migrants and the consequences of their presence for the functioning of cities. Elser transposes Saunders’ propositions to German cities, studies informal structures and pleads for a certain ethnic homogeneity promoted by these informal structures, a controversial stance that has incited much discussion in the press and in society at large.
Elser’s position can be seen as questioning and surveying. Through his contribution he asks himself – and by showing various examples in an unprejudiced way, he involves the visitor in this question – if architecture is even capable of playing a role in solving the refugee crisis.
‘How can we do more?’
Luke Korlaar, a ‘protection officer’ at UNHCR, briefly summed up the aims of the organisation: providing not only physical protection against war, other people and the elements but also psychological protection: providing security. UNHCR provides camps with tents and, in partnership with the IKEA Foundation, flat-pack ‘Refugee Housing Units’. Because some countries forbid the establishment of refugee camps, almost 70 percent of refugees live in existing urban areas in their own or neighbouring countries, in half-built or derelict buildings, in factory sheds or under plastic sheeting.
Korlaar is primarily interested in how these ‘slum-like’ circumstances can be made more bearable. He is looking for ideas for temporary use of spaces in urban areas and certainly sees a role for designers in this task.
‘There isn’t a single refugee in the room…’
The aim of the discussion following the presentations was to refine the speakers’ positions. Much of the discussion focussed on the relationship between architecture and politics. Dreher observed that politicians are completely uninterested in her projects about refugee shelters. Only in this sense does the Biennale offer a certain level of support because stakeholders can be certain that their projects will be seen by a broad audience. Dreher is interested in creating spaces for people in transition, a theme that extends beyond providing shelter for refugees. For her, the real question is: will it even be possible to coexist in cities in the future?
Elser is interested in making spatial, social and political connections comprehensible. For him, this intention is incorporated in the Biennale’s subtitle: ‘Reporting from the Front’. The Latin word reportare literally means to ‘bring back’. A reporter’s task is to communicate knowledge clearly: the architect as (political) journalist.
For Shoshan space is political by definition. Researching the precise relationship between architecture and political stances is an essential component of her project. Can spaces for relief workers and refugees be used communally? Can living quarters and amenities really be shared? Her ideas are at odds with the regulations around security and therefore meet with strong resistance. Shoshan concludes that there are sometimes shared spaces, for example in refugee camps or in administrative zones, but that there are no real connections: ‘shared space, but no links’. Space is the reflection of socio-political borders.
Members of the audience asked whether architects lack the knowledge to engage meaningfully with social or political issues and which aspects of space are important for refugees. Shoshan answered the first question by saying that architects do not sufficiently address crises. Architects should be more in tune with the social and political reality. In response to the second question, Dreher stated that privacy is the most important spatial aspect for people in transition. The evening ended with a question from a visitor: ‘Are there any refugees in the room?’ They have knowledge that designers don’t have. Everyone agreed that it is important for designers maintain a constant dialogue with the people they design for.
Report by Andrea Prins, Expert Heritage Het Nieuwe Instituut