In November, a newly displaced girl stands outside a tent in the Khazer refugee camp in Iraq
Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS In November, a newly displaced girl stands outside a tent in the Khazer refugee camp in Iraq

One of the most remarkable things about the “Insecurities” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was that Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA, played a very minor role in it. The show, after all, was mounted by the museum’s department of architecture and design, and Ban’s works for displaced people—models of grace and ingenuity—are what earned him a Pritzker Prize. Ban’s ability to design and build elegant temporary structures out of humble, readily available materials, such as paper tubes and compressed earth blocks, has made him a hero within the architectural profession and beyond. But his work made just a single appearance at the MoMA show: Within a wall-sized grid of 20 photos, discerning visitors spied a lone image of a Ban-designed paper shelter.

In a way, that was the message of “Insecurities,” which made palpable the urgency of the current refugee crisis. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Ban’s work or, for that matter, the many ingenious shelters that have been designed for competitions run by organizations like the now defunct Architecture for Humanity. It’s that the typical architectural response to disaster may be fundamentally misguided. Despite the exhibition’s subtitle, “Tracing Displacement and Shelter,” and wall text, which noted that the United Nations Refugee convention of 1951 declared shelter a human right, the show demonstrated that the vast majority of designs for temporary housing, well-intentioned as they may be, are largely beside the point.

A UNHCR map showing the concentrations of refugees worldwide at the end of the 2015
UNCHR Forced Displacement Global Trends in 2015 A UNHCR map showing the concentrations of refugees worldwide at the end of the 2015

A Crisis Out of Sight and Far Away
According to the most recent Global Trends Report issued by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), in 2015 there were 65.3 million “forcibly displaced” people in the world, who were uprooted by “persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations.” Most of them, 40.8 million, are what the language of humanitarian relief calls Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), meaning they have been dislodged by violence or threats of violence, but remain within their own countries. Another 21.3 million are refugees, people who have been compelled to leave their homelands. When you subtract the Palestinians, whose well-being is attended to by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and people who are in the process of seeking asylum in one country or another, there are currently 16.1 million refugees who fall under the protective mandate of the UNHCR—about twice the population of New York City. The Global Trends Report puts these statistics in context: “The current number of displaced globally is the highest since the aftermath of World War II.”

Here in the U.S., we’ve largely managed to ignore this catastrophe because it happens out of sight and far away. Most of the world’s refugees, nearly 5 million of them, are from Syria, and represent nearly a quarter of that country’s population. Driven from their homes by a hellish civil war, the majority of them have landed in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan. (The U.S. has accepted roughly 10,000 of them.) There are also 3 million Afghan refugees, mostly in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Somalia’s endless civil war has generated a million refugees, most of whom have ended up in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Only occasionally has their plight entered the mainstream American consciousness. An encampment in Calais, France, made news as desperate refugees attempted to reach England via the Eurotunnel. There was also the death of one small Syrian boy, 2-year-old Alan Kurdi, photographed face down in September 2015 on a beach in Turkey after he drowned in the Mediterranean, the same fate suffered by his mother, his older brother, and 3,600 other refugees who attempted similar crossings that year. That devastating image grabbed our attention, if only for a moment.

UNCHR chart showing where refugees found asylum in 2015

The refugee crisis emerged as the theme of the MoMA exhibition because of Sean Anderson, the museum’s new associate curator in the department of architecture and design, who taught previously at the University of Sydney. “Before coming back to New York,” Anderson says, “I was a professor in Australia, and I had been working on a series of projects to not only critique but examine the offshore immigration detention facilities that Australia horrendously maintains.”

Refugees who try to reach Australia have been shunted into encampments of over-crowded tents on the islands of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. A recent Amnesty International report has described the conditions in these camps as “appalling.” Initially, the refugees there were primarily Sri Lankans escaping their nation’s civil war. But, more recently, a general assortment of the world’s most desperate people have landed there. As an American, and not an Australian, Anderson was allowed to visit the camps. “To be honest, it’s the worst, most horrendous thing I’ve ever seen people be subjected to at every level,” he says. Although this experience inspired the exhibition, the off-shore refugee camps in Australia were not displayed on MoMA’s walls: “I tried to think about ways to show it, and the sad and scary thing is that there is a very tight lid on images and works and anything that has to do with it because they don’t want people to see.”

A selection of the refugee housing designs displayed at MoMA's "Insecurities" exhibit

Anderson, trained as an architect, resisted making a show about the formal concerns the profession tends to address when confronted with humanitarian problems, although it would have been easy to do. Architects love to design shelters. “When we sent out the press release,” Anderson tells me, “I received over 200 different proposals from around the world of people who thought that they had cracked the code.”

Anderson doesn’t buy it: “Architects and designers frequently overlook for whom they are designing,” he says. “They are also fundamentally disregarding the length of time with which people are being forced into these conditions. One of the statistics that we found was that the average length of time for a stay in a refugee or a displaced condition is 17 years.”

So Anderson relegated most of shelters in the show to a single wall-sized grid of photos, featuring the handsome architect-designed tents like the German-made Domo or the Belgian Maggie; an improvised dome-like construct of bent sticks and plastic sheeting seen at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya; and precious bamboo houses built by the Norwegian Tyin Tegnestue Architects for orphans living on the Thai Burmese border. And, of course, Ban’s paper shelter.

Instead, most of the exhibit was dedicated more to creating a context for understanding the situations in which the world’s displaced masses find themselves. For example, there was a detailed video, produced by a University of London–based research team called Forensic Architecture, that told the story of a deadly refugee boat ride in the Mediterranean. And there was a handmade map projected on the floor that documented everyday life in a Northern Iraq refugee camp, part of a larger multimedia project called Refugee Republic. The result was an exhibition that, unlike almost everything I’ve ever seen at MoMA, was tied to the real world, was rooted in the present moment.

Ikea's Better Shelter as displayed at MoMA's "Insecurities" exhibit
Ikea's Better Shelter as displayed at MoMA's "Insecurities" exhibit

Ikea and the Quest for a Better Shelter
Anderson’s impulses as a curator largely capture the views of professional relief workers, some of whom are architects and combine their professional training with a deep understanding of conditions on the ground. “The architectural solutions are developed in architects’ offices or universities that are remote from the context,” says Brett Moore, an Australian architect and Loeb Fellow who is the UNHCR’s Shelter and Settlements Section chief. “They’re often too expensive, too heavy, too hard to move. They take too long because of customs clearance and global logistics and flying. The budgets per family often are very, very small, sometimes $25 or $30 per family, or maybe even $100, so sometimes these solutions that are devised by architects, they might be $1,000 or $2,000 each, and it’s not viable.”

The Shelter and Settlement Section of the UNHCR has issued a Shelter Design Catalog showing all the available housing types and rating them to, in the organization’s bureaucratese, “assist sector specialists in implementing a phased shelter response through more predictable planning and implementation.” The catalog is fascinating, like a revised and highly specialized edition of the Bernard Rudofsky classic, Architecture without Architects. It details the cost, construction, and life span of generic standbys like the UNHCR Family Tent, your basic canvas construct supported by metal poles ($420, one year), and it diagrams geographically distinct structures: for instance, the Taureg Shelter, designed for nomadic refugees from Mali who find their way to Burkina Faso. A traditional shelter, it is made of eucalyptus and has a curved roof covered with plastic sheeting instead of the customary tanned goatskins ($300, two years).

Two projects from the UNHCR design catalog: A Twin Elevated Shelter from Myanmar (left), and an L-Shape Shelter from Iraq
UNHCR Shelter Design Catalog Two projects from the UNHCR design catalog: A Twin Elevated Shelter from Myanmar (left), and an L-Shape Shelter from Iraq
A UNHCR Family Tent (left), and a Tukul Shelter from South Sudan
A UNHCR Family Tent (left), and a Tukul Shelter from South Sudan

Local solutions, Moore says, are often the best. But they don’t always exist. “An example,” he explains, “might be camps in Iraq where they’re deep in the desert. There just aren’t local materials, and you can’t do mud brick easily or there’s no timber to utilize.”

Enter the Refugee Housing Unit (RHU), also known as the Better Shelter, which is devised and manufactured under the auspices of the Ikea Foundation, and which served as the centerpiece of the MoMA show. A sample unit, a rudimentary plastic house, occupied the middle of the gallery along with UNHCR supplies, including stackable water bottles, a “school in a box,” and a package of art supplies labeled “Adolescent Kit for Expression and Innovation.” The 188-square-foot houses come with four windows, two ventilation hatches, a photovoltaic array that provides lighting, and a USB port for charging phones and computers; they can accommodate a family of five, last three years (“with maintenance”), and sell for about $1,150. Architecturally speaking, they’re the equivalent of a garden shed, except made from polyolefin plastic panels with a steel frame. Naturally, they pack flat, in two cardboard cartons and, like a Mostorp TV unit or a Billy bookcase, can be assembled with a minimum of skill.

Even a determined group of designers with access to the intellectual and logistical resources of Ikea, a company that perhaps comes the closest to the grand modernist project of mass producing essentials for everyone on the planet, can’t design and manufacture a universal dwelling.

The concept for the Better Shelter emerged in 2010, when Swedish industrial designer Johan Karlsson found himself consulting on a project to upgrade the tents that his country was using in Pakistan. “I didn’t know anything about humanitarian relief,” Karlsson recalls. “It was very new to me. But my reflection was that these tents that we are working on, they’re very much like the tents that my grandmother slept in when she was young.” Karlsson thought we might have learned a thing or two about lightweight structures since his grandmother was a girl. He began to discuss this with colleagues: “Why do we put refugees in tents? We [know] that commonly refugees stay for years, sometimes for decades, in refugee camps. It’s not like they [are] going camping.”

Karlsson pitched his idea to a design manager at Ikea with whom he’d worked on another project, who took it to his bosses, who then directed him to the Ikea Foundation, the furniture maker’s philanthropic arm. With the foundation’s backing, Karlsson and his project team formed a not-for-profit company, Better Shelter. The team spent nearly three years designing a shelter “in the middle of Sweden, in the forest.”

“We thought that we were very good at making flat packs, being Sweden and all that,” says Karlsson. He was correct up to a point. They tested some of their prototypes at a refugee camp called Dollo Ado in Ethiopia. This meant the cartons had to travel by ship from Sweden to Djibouti and then by truck to Addis Ababa and on to the camp near the Somali border. The truck, as it turned out, also carried passengers who used the Ikea-type cartons as seats, which meant that by the end of the journey, the boxes were falling apart.

A Better Shelter before it was constructed at a refugee camp
Märta Terne A Better Shelter before it was constructed at a refugee camp

Once Karlsson and his team determined that all the parts were still there, “the second thing was how to assemble it. We had Ikea manuals,” Karlsson notes, but “no one read them.” While the purchasers of Ikea furniture around the world are accustomed to following complex step-by-step pictorial instructions, the Somali refugees of Dollo Ado were not. “They didn’t even bother to look at them. So we learned that this is ‘learning by doing.’ We set up a small training program that taught people, then they taught themselves.”

Karlsson’s team also discovered that different cultures have different opinions about how a shelter should be configured. Placement of the door at the far end of the unit, shotgun style, for instance, offered anyone who entered a full view of the interior, something unacceptable among Muslim refugees, who prefer that women are more hidden. Similarly, large windows, good for ventilation, are bad for privacy. “Our main conclusion after the test was that we can never make a shelter that works for every family around the world,” acknowledges Karlsson. His team is now focusing on making the Better Shelter more easily reconfigurable. “We need to have something that is adaptable and flexible.”

The lesson: Even a determined group of designers with access to the intellectual and logistical resources of Ikea, a company that perhaps comes the closest to the grand modernist project of mass producing essentials for everyone on the planet, can’t design and manufacture a universal dwelling. Also, according to the UNHCR, 60 percent of the world’s refugees don’t live in camps but, rather, in ordinary buildings in cities or towns. So what can architects do? What is the profession’s best approach to responding to this tragic and persistent problem?

The Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya circa 2011
Brendan Bannon; courtesy MoMA The Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya circa 2011

The Refugee Camp as City
Moore suggests that they learn, in architecture school, the skills necessary for humanitarian relief. For example, Tommy Sandløkk, an architect with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), has taught an Oslo School of Architecture course called “Architectural Solutions in Emergencies,” as part of a master’s concentration on “safe spaces in a crisis context.” He did fieldwork for the UNHCR in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake and worked with the UNRWA in Gaza on Palestinian camps that have been in place since 1948. Currently he’s on loan from the NRC to the International Organization for Migration Northeast Nigeria, working as a shelter and site planner in a region where Boko Haram attacks have forced millions of people out of their homes.

He tells me that the shelters he’s helping to site and construct are fairly rudimentary: “The emergency shelter is a wooden structure with pitched roof, covered with tarpaulin, one door and one window. The reinforced shelter is a wooden structure with a pitched roof, façade covered with tarpaulin, roofing sheets, two doors, two windows, and ventilation with mosquito net.”

" ‘Camp’ is kind of a misnomer. It already labels it as a second-class place and these places should be thought of as cities."

Even in the dire situation in which he’s operating, Sandløkk believes the shelters and the settlement could be better. “Our aim,” he says, “is to achieve contextualized and community-based participated design solution and site planning. Many camps and settlements around the world are growing into cities,” Sandløkk notes. Zaatari, for instance, the vast refugee camp in Jordan, has developed a business district with a pet store, a barber shop, and vendors selling barbecue chicken. “Knowledge from urban planners and architects is therefore essential to provide a good and sustainable response. We need to think about long-term consequences and recognize the possibilities of camps becoming a permanent settlement. Our physical structures and infrastructural layouts (site plans) will be important guidelines if the settlement becomes permanent.”

Which is actually a pretty good summation of the emerging view on refugee relief. Sandløkk referred me to Kilian Kleinschmidt, a lifelong aid worker who spent 25 years with the UNHCR, and who most recently managed Zaatari, population 79,000 or more. In 2015, he left the UN to form Vienna-based Switxboard, an “innovation and planning agency” that works with refugees. He is perhaps the most forceful spokesman for the idea that refugees are not necessarily a transient population. “In the Middle East, we were building camps: storage facilities for people. But the refugees were building a city,” he told the London-based publication Dezeen. Beside the hive of small businesses, Zaatari has streets, gardens, electricity, satellite dishes, and the occasional private toilet. Kleinschmidt argues that the refugee “crisis” in Europe is actually an opportunity: “Many places in Europe are totally deserted because the people have moved to other places,” he said, citing Eastern Germany, Southern Italy, and parts of Spain. “You could put in a new population, set up opportunities to develop and trade and work. You could see them as special development zones which are actually used as a trigger for an otherwise impoverished neglected area.”

Ennead’s Revolutionary Tool Kit
Kleinschmidt’s argument is controversial, because many (perhaps most) governments don’t want a new, ethnically distinct population and won’t permit refugee encampments to have anything resembling permanent housing. But it’s exactly this type of thinking that motivates another pair of architects who, although less famous than Shigeru Ban, claimed more wall space at MoMA’s “Insecurities.” Ennead partner Don Weinreich, FAIA, and his colleague Eliza Montgomery have been working for about four years on a “planning & design tool kit” specifically for refugee communities.

The project began in 2012, when Weinreich was based at Stanford University and working on a building for the law school there. A visiting faculty member, Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuéllar, now a justice on the California Supreme Court, invited the Ennead partner to participate in a workshop organized by Alexander Aleinikoff, who was then the UN’s deputy high commissioner for refugees. “Alex had this idea,” Weinreich explains, “which was very timely, that the way UNHCR was responding to refugee crises, perpetuating refugee camps, was no longer serving the intended purpose. It’s still a good system for moving people quickly out of harm’s way, keeping them biologically alive, but it wasn’t really going beyond that. The UNHCR policy—and actually their mandate—was the false premise that these situations will resolve very quickly and people will go home or they will go elsewhere.”

The tool kit is not simply a neutral device for understanding how a settlement can be best positioned on empty ground. It’s a polemic about refugees. In the long run, they are an asset, not a liability—an economic benefit that can help revitalize a region, not a drain on resources.

Weinreich was the only architect in attendance, and the workshop led to his ongoing relationship with the UNHCR as part of a team, led by Cuéllar, developing strategies to make refugee settlements better places. When Montgomery joined Ennead in 2013, she began working closely with Weinreich. “There are a couple of truths that we arrived at,” Weinreich says. “One was that ‘camp’ is kind of a misnomer. It already labels it as a second-class place and these places should be thought of as cities. The term ‘refugee’ in the context of planning is again a second-class role that lacks agency and, similarly, ‘hosts’ is also a privileged role. So we talk about settlements and we call refugees ‘citizens’ and hosts ‘partners.’ ”

The upshot was that accepting refugees shouldn’t be viewed as a charitable act, but instead, Weinreich says, there “should be mechanisms available to make the arrival of refugees a benefit to the population. Because refugees, along with humanitarian aid, can help remedy deficits that might exist in a place.” In other words, refugees attract resources.

UNHCR diagram of the Ajuong Thok camp in South Sudan
UNHCR Settlement Folio UNHCR diagram of the Ajuong Thok camp in South Sudan

Weinreich and Montgomery began developing planning strategies to implement these ideas. Invited by the UNHCR to plan a new refugee camp, they wound up on the ground in Mugombwa, Rwanda, where they learned that 10,000 Congolese refugees would be arriving in two months. “We did manage in two months to pull off a very decent plan,” Weinreich says. “[The UNHCR] was thrilled with it. It began to take into account the topography, the local neighborhood, the characteristics of the site that might make the refugees more comfortable.”

For example, instead of laying the camp out on a military grid, the customary procedure, Weinreich and Montgomery created a curving site plan that used the hilly terrain to advantage and placed public facilities like schools along a road that was already the main transportation corridor for an adjacent town.

Out of the Rwanda experience, Weinreich and Montgomery began to build the “tool kit,” a booklet and associated apps that would allow humanitarian organizations to map out a settlement by taking into account basics like topography and access to water and, also, to negotiate the sharing of resources between the refugee camps and existing communities. “The idea is that there would be sliders that you can use in these negotiating meetings,” says Montgomery of one of the tool kit’s apps. “You could say: We know there’s a deficit of schools in this certain region of the country. Let’s move that slider up so that you show the benefit of adding a school for this area.”

UNHCR refugee response plans from a 2011 workshop
J. Good / UNHCR Interactive Preparedness Package for Refugee Emergencies UNHCR refugee response plans from a 2011 workshop

Montgomery describes the tool kit as “an inspiration tool for planners,” and notes that its “spatial ideas” and “design vignettes” offer a corrective to UNHCR’s quantitatively driven bureaucracy. But the ultimate goal of the tool kit might be, as Kleinschmidt has proposed, to encourage and enable refugee groups to settle permanently in underpopulated regions. Weinreich and Montgomery have led workshops at Stanford and Pratt in which the students worked on strategies for settling refugees in places closer to home and in need of repopulation, such as Gary, Ind., or Sullivan County in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City.

Indeed, the tool kit is not simply a neutral device for understanding how a settlement can be best positioned on empty ground. It’s a polemic about refugees. In the long run, they are an asset, not a liability—an economic benefit that can help revitalize a region, not a drain on resources. The Ennead strategy is a strong signal that runs counter to the rampant xenophobia of the present moment. (And who’s to say, given the realities of climate change and political turmoil, that some of us in the U.S. won’t someday end up as another UNHCR statistic?) It’s the beginning of a broader architectural approach to the refugee problem, an approach with far greater resonance than a multitude of innovative little sheds, even if designing one of those sheds might help an architect score a Pritzker.