In a World of Endless Need

Why do architects think they have anything to offer that can help the plight of refugees globally?

By Brett Moore

Sometimes the biggest challenge for an architect when they first start working in the humanitarian world is coping with ambiguity and complexity.

— Brett Moore

Brett Moore is global lead of the Shelter and Settlements team at UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). For the past 18 years he has worked on humanitarian projects for a number of agencies in more than 20 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. His experience in damage assessment, implementation and interagency-coordination for projects including education, health, water, sanitation, judicial infrastructure and housing for disaster and conflict-affected communities more than qualifies him to report from the front line on how architecture is responding to the challenge of the global refugee crisis. In this essay, written especially for “Archifutures”, he shares his own personal view on the need for a complete rethink of how architects are trained and work to meet a shift in a focus towards the creation of shelter as a core intervention in humanitarian aid.

For the last two decades I have been an architect working at the frontline of global crises, from providing shelter after major global disasters, to upgrading programmes in urban slums. Now I am confronted with the complex issue of providing shelter for refugees. The need for architects here is clear, but their role is more complicated than ever. What are the skills needed to work in this field? Do architects possess them? Does academia equip the next generation of built environment professionals with the broad-based analytical skills and understanding to work across disciplines? Can they step down from ivory towers and help mobilise a generation of optimistic and energetic young professionals to work in humanitarian settings? I routinely field questions (and criticism) from students, academics and practitioners about the deplorable shelter conditions for refugees – both in refugee camps and dispersed in urban areas. Undoubtedly, more needs to be done, but apart from the lack of funding and skilled staff, along with a complex implementing environment, what most architects fail to realise is that deplorable habitation conditions are not architectural issues – they are inherently political.

The statistics are alarming – there are currently roughly 65 million people forcibly displaced around the world and some 20 million of them are refugees. That’s around 34,000 people displaced on a daily basis. The predicament of refugees is particularly challenging. On average, they are displaced for 26 years. In an endless cycle of conflict, few have either the chance of permanent resettlement in another country or are able to return to their point of origin. They are relegated to hastily erected camps, where basic services are provided, and a range of agencies and under-resourced governments try to meet their needs. Inevitably, interest wanes and the next global crisis, or domestic skirmish, displaces thousands more the following year, refocusing resources and donor attention to the next desperate group without finding solutions for the previous ones.

“Deplorable habitation conditions are not architectural issues – they are inherently political.”

In a World of Endless Need

M’Bera refugee camp, Mauritania. Image: Brett Moore

The reality is that host governments rarely welcome refugees – they see them as a political or security threat as well as an economic burden, draining scant resources from the local populations. Most governments (with few exceptions, Uganda being one of them) would prefer that refugees either returned to their country of origin, or moved on to a third country, more accepting of their claims. Combined with this general hostility toward refugees is a sinister global political shift away from shared responsibilities toward a conservative, nationalistic tone, where borders have hardened and the wealthiest countries openly deny refugee claims and shirk their international responsibilities. The burden is left with poor countries, where most refugees reside and where budgets are lowest and capacities stretched. With minimum assistance available, any shelter approach is only a light touch, using emergency materials. Few governments would agree to anything but basic intervention, concerned that any more would be deemed too generous and encourage refugees to stay. Even when host governments are more welcoming, many of their own populations live in entrenched poverty no better that the conditions of the refugees. Existing conditions also dictate the level of assistance available as governments try to mediate assistance between refugees in desperate need and host populations in dire poverty – who gets prioritised and how? Can support be spread more equitably, preventing tension amongst aid recipients and poor communities with decades of unmet needs?

“The answers lie across disciplines and require integration and imagination.”

This is the political reality of humanitarian shelter programmes and it is clear that architects alone don’t have the skills to respond in these contexts. The answers lie across disciplines and require integration and imagination. My belief is that architecture (a discipline that naturally exists at the crossroads of sciences and humanities) trains people with the broad thinking required to address complex humanitarian challenges; architects are well-placed to take up this challenge. Architects can think and respond at the interface of social issues and the built environment; they can connect spatial issues, social conditions, and environmental factors with material responses. The humanitarian space is wide open for flexible, creative, broad-thinking professionals to carve out disciplinary territory currently occupied by human rights activists and humanitarians from social sciences and generalist backgrounds, well-placed for working on essential advocacy and rights campaigns but ill-equipped to manage complex, interdisciplinary project implementation. But the question remains: is the profession (and academia) ready to alter course?

Architects have isolated themselves from the most needy, concentrating on design for the elite. What is needed is a realignment of the entire profession, away from producing fetishised, designer dwellings for the mega-rich, to tackling the big issues of global displacement and the conditions of around a billion people living in slums globally. With clear failures in the neo-liberal approach to the provision of housing, growing inequality and resources concentrated in the hands of those least willing to share, how can we house an expanding urbanised population? In a world battered by climate change and population movement on a scale unprecedented in the past 75 years, how can architects respond? The essential changes needed are ethical. There is a robust history of architecture and social change, and the interwar modernists seized it, rebuilding post-war Europe with fervour and a belief in a social good, and that progressive architecture could meet human needs and make a difference. This ideological approach to architecture needs to be reclaimed – but in a pluralist way, reconnecting with the emancipatory beliefs and pioneering spirit where architecture mixed with new technologies, political will, institutional financing and humanitarian need in a focused approach to meeting the shelter needs of millions of displaced Europeans and destroyed cities.

“This ideological approach to architecture needs to be reclaimed – but in a pluralist way.”

Students are desperate to be heard and contribute, many openly questioning what they are being taught and the focus of an architectural education. Over the past few years I have been linking practice and humanitarian need with teaching in the USA, UK, Australia and Asia. It is clear to me that students no longer want to be moulded to work just in the private sector – churned out to design more big buildings for rich people and focusing on investment-led architecture. They are confronted with global issues in the media every day and want to be taught the skills to respond. Academics are often the ones most unwilling to change, maintaining traditional approaches to curriculum and the vestiges of arcane modernist architectural theory. It’s true that architecture faculties around the world already have a tough job packing the explosion in computerised design, materials and technology, essential theoretical and historical tradition, construction and materials science, structural and pragmatic parameters, local architectural understanding and professional registration realities into five years of architectural training. But the academy is scared of its own shadow and needs to relinquish control – the disciplines of medicine, health and engineering have all broadened greatly and developed applied, interdisciplinary methods for new knowledge, learning opportunities and solutions. We have forgotten that housing is a human right. We have relinquished provision to the private sector, where it has moved from a basic need to a vehicle for investment, commodified and monetised, abetted by deregulated capital flows, further removing the possibility of housing the poor and displaced, as developers now lead the profession. With the scaling back of social housing, disinvestment by the state and municipalities, the gap has widened and with nearly a billion people living in slums globally, the failure of the architectural profession, private sector and governments to provide adequate, affordable dwellings is now a global crisis. Amongst this poverty of adequate housing, the needs of the globally displaced are somehow lost, left to a few humanitarian, UN agencies and NGOs to provide a basic response.

“The academy is scared of it’s own shadow and needs to relinquish control.”

In a World of Endless Need

Disaster displaced, Pakistan. Image: Brett Moore

The first step is questioning where to begin – architects tend to think in “projects” and in a very linear way: client, budget, contract design, document, implement. We need to rethink the fundamentals of key relationships: Who is the client? How do we work with communities, multiple donors, unspecified sites, materials, budgets and scope? Sometimes the biggest challenge for an architect when they first start working in the humanitarian world is coping with ambiguity and complexity. Architects need to understand that, in the humanitarian context, building is not a design process, but part of a project cycle. All projects are separated into their constituent sectors and implemented in parallel – whereas an architect may undertake a commercial project that includes design and implementation of a build and associated water and civil infrastructure, including landscape. The equivalent process in the humanitarian world is broken down into shelter, water, environment, etc. each measured as a contribution to a rights-based outcome. For example, the success of a project is rarely judged in terms of time or budget targets but more in terms of meeting the health, education or shelter needs of a displaced population. Fundamentally the humanitarian system has created a distinct lens for project formulation and implementation, using different metrics and broken into radically different phases to how architects and technical specialists are trained.

In a World of Endless Need

Upgraded shelter options, Mauritania. Image: Brett Moore

It’s time to get back to basics: we all know we need somewhere to live and we know that our lives are threatened when we are homeless or displaced, regardless of whether disaster or conflict induced. We also know that, if we are homeless, our health and that of our family will suffer. Without a home and access to education the learning outcomes of our children will also be limited. Shelter is a basic human right that has, in its simplest form, existed since the dawn of humanity as an enclosure that protects an individual and their family from the elements and provides a sense of emotional security and safety; a barrier, a separation from dangers – a place that separates “interior” from “exterior”.

We all know the importance of a home, but how do humanitarian shelter programmes contribute to this, providing protection and leading to longer-term development gains? These questions are not new, and a body of research is emerging around this. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, where agencies, donors and governments invested hundreds of millions of dollars into shelter and infrastructure reconstruction, with failure and success in equal amounts, many agencies began asking themselves whether shelter programmes should become the centre of their approach.

Few will negate the importance of shelter and most recognise that the merits of shelter don’t just apply in an emergency, they are beneficial throughout an entire programme and they increase as people’s lives stabilise. We see it in the field, more so after disaster, where there is a stronger trajectory from disaster to recovery. In conflict and refugee situations the picture is more complicated as the displacement context may stagnate in an emergency phase for years. We know that people’s living conditions directly affect psychosocial outcomes and a range of other well-being indicators. We also know that in such protracted crises, shelter is important, not just because it provides a protective environment, but because it is the focus for interventions at a family level that have a range of positive outcomes. When we work with shelter as a core intervention, the water, hygiene, health and nutrition programmes all capitalise on each other and protection outcomes (which humanitarians love to measure) are facilitated and maximised, through this process.

Architects need to see themselves as part of a collective of practitioners working with people rather than just designing shelters. There needs to be a shift from being an auteur to working in a team to achieve collective outcomes. Some 3.7 million people are currently living in UNHCR accommodation, making it one of the largest urban planners in the world. In this capacity we may work with communities in the Philippines to support rebuilding 100,000 homes after a typhoon to help build resilience against future disaster. Or work with more than a million south Sudanese refugees looking at a range of local material options, avoiding large and congested camps, designing with the environment, natural resources and local communities as part of the process. We also work in a range of Middle Eastern countries as part of the response to the Syrian crisis, with cash, rental subsidies and innovative approaches that are local and context based, quick to implement and get results, but still responding to the fundamental shelter needs of people. Sustainability, economic development and resilience are now the goals of shelter programmes.

“Some 3.7 million people are currently living in UNHCR accommodation, making it one of the largest urban planners in the world.”

“In a world of endless need, the architect can respond.”

In a world of endless need, the architect can respond. We need to recast the discipline, regain an ethical approach and focus on humanity. As Michael Sorkin wrote in Esther Charlesworth’s Humanitarian Architecture: “There is something more than a little tragic about the need to produce a book on humanitarian architecture…this speaks volumes about the condition of our profession. What architecture, after all isn’t humanitarian, engaged with that most primal activity – the provision of shelter?” Architecture can still be about people, and there is still time to reconnect their fundamental needs, to academia and the profession.