Fleeing civil war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 3.3 million refugees have arrived on European shores since 2015. In the world at large there are now 68.5 million forcibly displaced people, the highest recorded since World War II.
While their journeys across the Mediterranean are often the focus of world-wide media reports, the trauma certainly doesn’t end once they reach the shore. Many wait months before receiving their registration papers, living in makeshift shelters in football fields and abandoned airports as Europe struggles to cope with the surge in new arrivals.
According to Finish architect Marco Steinberg, Director of Helsinki based firm Snowcone & Haystack, this unprecedented wave of migration presents an opportunity to revolutionise the way we think about architecture in the 21stcentury.
“We think of building solutions in a very static manner. A building is built as a school and will remain a school forever, is the thinking. But what happens when there are no longer enough kids in the neighbourhood because that generation matured? Could we use the building for a new and emerging need?”
“Interestingly, in cities like Helsinki we cry because of a lack of housing while at the same time we have an oversupply of office buildings. 13% of our metro region’s office buildings are empty. Could we see this as potential asset rather than liability?”
This issue is not exclusive to Helsinki, with 107,000 vacant homes in Paris and a whopping 318,831 in New York City; cities where demand for new housing outstrips supply and homelessness is a real threat for low income earners.
Other challenges include rent affordability, inadequate government subsidies and the marginalised nature of housing giving rise to social issues.
“Often, our institutions and systems are not equipped to tackle society’s most critical and fundamental issues. Real innovation is only going to happen by challenging the current categories, not by working within them.”
Steinberg is among a league of socially-minded architects, urban planners and artists across Europe who are reimagining our built environment at the micro level - ensuring refugees have not only a roof over their heads, but a better chance to integrate with the community, find jobs and regain a sense of belonging.
With more than 745,155 asylum seekers arriving in 2016 alone – almost doubling that of previous year – Germany has accepted more refugees than any country in the European union.
Berlin-based architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel saw first-hand the difficulties faced by new arrivals, and decided to do something about it.
“Up to 400 people were standing in a line every morning in the freezing cold and snow to get a registration, some sleeping there overnight trying to beat the queue.”
Le Mentzel hatched a plan that would not only provide some respite from Berlin’s unforgiving winter, but also give refugees the registration papers to start their lives in Germany.
“I worked with refugees to build tiny houses made from scrap wood and built on wheels. Then I thought, what they really needed is their papers, so I founded the ‘Tiny House University’, declaring them as my students so they could get their registration.”
Featuring licence plates and a berth no wider than a mattress, the homes can be parked anywhere in the city. They provide temporary relief for families who are priced out of Berlin’s rental market or struggling to find permanent accommodation elsewhere.
“We recently built a tiny house for a guy from Afghanistan who found a job cleaning a hotel, but they paid him so little that he couldn’t afford to live in the city. He already had a flat but it was a three hour return trip from his work.”
Le Mentzel has worked alongside a team of eight refugees for the Tiny House University, a process which he says ‘shifted his perspective on the world.’
“When I started to get to know carpenters and urban planners from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq, I found out that actually I know so little about diversity in architecture.”
“They taught me how to design a kitchen where you cook on the floor, we designed houses where you don’t have a door, you enter through the window. We had hidden rooms to hide people when police come and so on.”
Le Mentzel’s next project, Co-Being House, is a social housing project that will see diverse sectors of society living side by side in the inner city.
“Co-Being house is like the next generation of a commune, where everyone will have their own 4 x 6 metre apartment as well as access to a central living area with a kitchen, bathroom and space to socialise.”
“We need to revolutionise the way we think about architecture. My vision is to create houses that reflect society. The society is diverse. Why shouldn’t our homes also be like that?.”
The United Nations estimates more than 220,000 refugees live in France, where the number of people filing asylum requests hit a record in 2017, topping 100,000.
Medecins Sans Frontieres reported in November 2017 that about 1,000 refugees and migrants were sleeping rough in Paris, exposed to harsh winter temperatures.
When Dominique Blanc and his partner Charlotte Boulanger first heard of ‘In My Backyard’, a non-profit organisation building tiny houses for refugees in Parisian backyards, they didn’t hesitate in volunteering.
“It only took us a few hours to make up our minds,” Montreuil resident Dominque Blanc told France24.com.
“My partner and I have really been troubled by the failure of many French people to welcome immigrants and refugees to our country.”
Perched in the couple’s sizeable backyard in the eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil, the 20m2house includes a kitchen, a bathroom, a mezzanine that serves as a bedroom, plus a separate entrance.
Blanc and Boulanger’s first tenant was Sadiq, a 29 year old man from Afghanistan, who escaped his home country three years ago following threats from the Taliban for working for NATO troops.
Before moving in, Sadiq slept on the streets of Paris for four months and lived in a reception centre for one year. He has now found a permanent job and a home of his own.
The In My Backyard (IMBY) initiative was developed by Quatorze, an organisation dedicated to architecture in the cause of social justice.
IMBY is meant to express the opposite sentiment of NIMBY (an acronym for ‘Not In My Backyard’), which is used in the United States and the UK to refer to people who oppose a new development because of its close proximity to their homes, even though it may be useful to society.
A social movement geared towards downsizing and reducing our environmental footprint, the tiny house movement originated in California in the 1970s. Any free-standing residential structure less than 46 square metres is considered to be a tiny home.
The movement is increasingly popular all over the world, especially in places where rents are relatively high such as the USA, Australia, Japan, the UK and Germany.
With more than 5 tiny houses already erected in the Paris region, In My Backyard’s vision is to extend that to 50 by 2020.
Vienna-based architects Sabine Dreher, Christian Muhr and Elke Delugan-Meissl formed a project team to address the housing needs of more than 88,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Austria in 2015, many of whom were sleeping in tents and on the streets.
“We knew that there were thousands of square meters in vacant office buildings and started to ask for available space in all kinds of directions,” architect Sabine Dreher explained.
They collaborated with real estate firms and private developers, eventually honing in on a 1970s office building, a former training facility for customs officers, a warehouse and a partly vacant office building.
For the 1970s office building, Caramel Architects designed a quick, inexpensive intervention that offered the residents privacy and a “home”.
“Each family’s area was marked off with a large parasol with a curtain hung around it. The residents were able to make their “homes” unique and feel that they were in control of their own space. They could even invite other people over for a cup of tea,” said Dreher.
The former training facility had small rooms with accommodation for 600 men. To curtail potential social problems, the design team EOOS devised a ‘do it together’ social furniture collection, where the residents build furniture in workshops, allowing them to feel useful and contribute to the community.
In the third project, the Next Enterprise Architects developed a solution based on a “room in room” module that can be adapted by the residents depending on their needs. There are both asylum seekers and students living on the fifth and sixth floors, and recreational areas were created in the adjacent park.
“Social housing works best when architects and urban planners maximise the opportunities people have to communicate and socialise,” Dreher explained.
“The refugee situation that escalated a year and a half ago is not a passing phenomenon, instead long-term solutions are needed.”
Italy’s 2006 Winter Olympic stadium in Turin became known for an entirely different reason – housing thousands of northern African refugees during the height of Europe’s migration crisis.
The ‘Ex Moi’ occupation – named after the former wholesale fruit market that was once the area’s main landmark – began in March 2013 when approximately 100 refugees moved into the Olympic athletes’ village.
Within weeks, the occupation had grown to more than 500 people, swelling to thousands by 2015-2017, as Italy received upwards of 335,000 asylum seekers.
US-born, Italy-based artist and social activist Marguerite Kahrl started a community project titled ‘Con MOI’ (with me), in the hope of strengthening social bonds among the residents who had experienced significant ‘upheaval, isolation and depression’.
Spurred by Kahrl’s expertise in permaculture (she is co-founder of international collective Permaculture for Refugees), one of the key activities was sharing and distributing food, including collecting leftover goods from the market and organising communal picnics.
Another feature of the project was using art as a catalyst to help the residents process complex emotions around their identity, loss of culture and feelings of isolation.
“After exploring ideas about group identity, the members of Con MOI embarked on the creation of individual self-portraits by transforming donated fabric into hand-sewn sculptures.”
“The final individual portraits existed as 90 second videos of hands building the sculptures, accompanied by stories or song by their makers.”
While the occupied buildings are now being evacuated as Turin explores different resettlement strategies, the Con MOI project has lived on, most notably through the creation of the film ‘JOY’, about an African migrant dancer, grappling with her identity while living at Ex Moi.
Kahrl continues her work with Permaculture for Refugees, which helps to alleviate suffering in refugee camps by providing access to permaculture and sustainable living practices.
“Migration exposes a larger problem of our current industrial economy, and refugees are some of the most visible and vulnerable consequences of this infrastructure,” says Karhl explains.
“If we can transition to an approach that recognises and values all people as essentially resourceful, cooperative and enterprising (…) this can have huge social and environmental benefits for all.”