Design for a Nomadic World exhibition at Amman Design Week

As part of Amman Design Week, our Jordanian partner, Department of Architecture at the German Jordanian University organised Design for a Nomadic World exhibition in collaboration with young people from Azraq refugee camp, the Future Heritage Lab - MIT Department of Architecture and CARE Jordan. The exhibition showcases studies of everyday-life problems and inventions of the Azraq refugee camp residents and explores how art, architecture and design can address the emotional, cultural and aesthetic needs of refugees. The exhibition was opened on 8 October by curators Dr Azra Aksamija, Dr Mohammed Yaghan, Zeid Madi and Melina Philippou alongside the group of young refugees who were involved in the project. 

The project started informally as the “book of problems” in Azraq camp which enlisted issues encountered by refugees in their daily lives. After two months spent documenting inventions in the camp, the team designed the “book of inventions” created as solutions to those problems, for instance a washing machine built out of two buckets by 14 year old refugee Rawan Hussein. The end product of the exhibition which is still under development, the Lightweaver, is a playful kinetic lighting machine and an educational device developed in collaboration with the artists, calligraphists, engineers and inventors from the Azraq camp. 

Drawing on the cultural memory, the exhibition examines the notion of refugee camps as civic spaces where social healing, innovation, creativity and cross-cultural interactions take place. It aims to broaden the dialogue around the role of design in conditions of conflict and crisis within a global perspective.

Healthy Housing for the Displaced has been shortlisted for RIBA Awards

We are delighted to announce that our project has been shortlisted for RIBA President's Awards for Research in the category of the Annual Theme - Housing. The awards celebrate the best research in the fields of architecture and the built environment. In 2017 51 submissions were received from 11 countries with a significant number of practice-based entries. The work submitted provides a glimpse of just some of the research being undertaken across the globe by architects, built environment professionals, academics and students and includes fieldwork and case studies from the USA, Singapore, China, Brazil and across the UK. The winners in each category and the winner of the President's Medal for Research 2017 will be announced at the President’s Medals ceremony on 5 December, 2017.


In pursuit of the 'perfect' refugee shelter in Jordan

When asked about an ‘ideal’ shelter design, Syrian refugees in Zaatari and Azraq camps were mainly pointing to the notion of privacy, followed by specific cultural needs according to their particular socio-economic background (e.g. farmers, nomads, traders, artisans etc.) as well as referring to different forms of traditional architecture in their region/ city. For example, some people saw mud as a great material because they used to live in mud houses in Syria; others did not see it as an appropriate form of dwelling. Therefore, there is no one model of a ‘perfect’ shelter – some people said they only need materials to build, and they will do the rest themselves; in principle, it’s about agency and freedom to build, or at least to make adaptations as part of the process of home-making.

According to refugees, spatial divisions inside a shelter are more important than its size. There should be at least two rooms in order to create separate space for men and women, especially if there are older children in the family (e.g. older girls cannot change clothes in front of their brothers), or separate rooms for a couple and their children. The space should be modular in order to respond to changing needs of a family (for example children being born). Currently people create partitions but this increases the temperature inside the shelter. On the other hand, when doors are open for ventilation, women have to wear hijab all the time. There is therefore a need for shading to provide privacy as well as to protect against the sun. Families with young children also complained about the lack of shaded and floored spaces for children to play outdoors.

Bathroom (i.e. toilet and washing space) and kitchen should be inside a shelter because people do not wish to use communal spaces. Women were not happy about having to fully dress and cover their hair every time they go to a toilet; children get dirty on their way to and from bathrooms, and pit toilets have holes that are too big for young children. As a solution, refugees often construct bathroom inside kitchen space but this leads to problems related to odours and hygiene. Also, there is no space for drying laundry, and it is culturally inappropriate to dry underwear in a place where it can be seen by others.

Specially designated space to receive guests is very important in the Arabic cultural context, and ideally there should be one for woman’s guests, and another one for man’s guests in each household. Guests sit on the floor with cushions, so if there is no insulation on the walls, they may burn their back in the summer. People are longing for courtyards, gardens, fountains and birds towers that they used to have in Syria – and some manage to re-create them in the camp. This indicates the importance of examining traditional Syrian forms of architecture when designing a shelter for Syrian refugees, and replicating those to a certain extend where possible, for example designing L-shaped courtyards outside shelters. Initially refugees were building extensions around their caravans to protect themselves against stray dogs wandering in Zaatari.

In terms of aesthetics, people don’t like the look of walls indoors, especially that white colour is blinding in the sun, and some paint them or put wallpaper or curtains to cover them. Cladding and timber would be more aesthetically pleasing, and insulation should not be just randomly added on the walls inside.


'We need initiatives that have no other purpose than aesthetics': Painting shelters project in Zaatari refugee camp

During our last field trip to Jordan we met with Mohammad Jokhadar, a Syrian artist who fled Homs in 2013. He now works as a barber in Zaatari refugee camp and also gives free arts classes to children; his colourful barber shop is full of his students' paintings. In 2016 Mohammed formed the Jasmine Necklace, a collective of artists in Zaatari. The members of the group came up with a volunteer initiative to paint shelters in the camp and got the Norwegian Refugee Council’s support for the project. The artists divided the camp into twelve parts, and each was painted following a certain theme or a dominant colour to ensure that the otherwise anonymous streets gain some individual character. The themes often refer to the region that refugees came from or to Syria’s green landscapes, very different from the desert-like surroundings of the camp. One of the themes focused on Syrian archaeological sites in order to educate children born and brought up in the camp about their cultural heritage. The project lasted for over a year and attracted lots of attention from visitors. According to Mohammad, it is one of the most successful initiatives ever carried out in Zaatari because it is entirely about aesthetics, and because it responds to the longing for beauty shared by many Syrian refugees.