This essay counterposes the predominant moral framing of architecture’s recent forays into humanitarianism with a critical framing attentive to the ways in which humanitarianism is tied to and advances the interests of states in the Global North. It suggests that, especially since the end of the Cold War, the protection of refugees through humanitarian interventions in the Global South has been inextricably linked to protection against refugees in the Global North. The chapter argues that contemporary architecture’s involvement in humanitarianism should thus be understood as part of a politics of global segregation that is disavowed by the moral framing of this involvement.
In 2014, Shigeru Ban was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, typically described as the highest honor a contemporary architect can receive. In the announcement of Ban’s award, the Pritzker jury made much of Ban’s “humanitarian efforts” (Pritzker Architecture Prize 2014). For that jury, it seemed, Ban’s achievement was to extend the benefits of architecture from the select group of entitled people who could afford to hire an architect to the recipients of humanitarian assistance—among the most disadvantaged people on the globe.
This extension was an iteration of a relationship between professional architecture and humanitarian relief that has existed throughout the history of humanitarianism. Since its emergence in the mid-nineteenth century, humanitarianism has often manifested itself in relation to buildings or the built environment. Whether understood in relation to the slums of cities, or relief facilities for victims of famines and epidemics constructed by colonial administrations, or camps for displaced people erected by nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations, humanitarianism has frequently involved the design of spaces—camps, shelters, emergency housing, and still others—to which architects have contributed their disciplinary expertise or have subsequently claimed as their disciplinary patrimony.
Throughout much of this history, architecture’s engagement with humanitarianism was not marked as exceptional; modernism in architecture can be understood as, among other things, an attempt to reorganize architecture according to some of the imperatives that also organized humanitarianism. 1 And so, refugee camps accommodating people displaced by the violence of World War I appeared along with other buildings in the pages of Der Architekt during the war; the issue of mass housing emerged in CIAM after the war to contend with the consequences of a mass war waged against a mass subject; and emergency shelters accommodating citizens of English cities unhoused by German aerial warfare appeared along with other buildings in the pages of the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects during World War II (Herscher 2017).
The career of the paradigmatic “modern” architect, Le Corbusier, perhaps epitomizes the intersection of modernism, architecture, and humanitarianism (Herscher 2017: 43–46, 68–70). Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino, usually considered in terms of the development of “purist architecture,” was conceived in 1914, amid the devastation of Belgian cities in the beginning of World War I; the abstract Dom-ino frame was intended to facilitate the rapid and efficient reconstruction of Belgian housing. After the war, Le Corbusier continued to approach the needs of the displaced and unhoused as resources for architectural innovation; his 1929 project for a “Floating Asylum,” commissioned by the French branch of the Salvation Army for a barge on the Seine, provided the physical space for a new community that would take homeless people off Parisian streets. During World War II, Le Corbusier developed the “murondin” system of dry construction to quickly and efficiently build shelters for displaced people and designed settlements based on this system to house up to 1000 people. “Architecture or revolution?” Le Corbusier’s famous question at the conclusion of his 1923 manifesto, Towards an Architecture, suggested that revolution could be avoided by architecture, but it was humanitarian needs that provided Le Corbusier with many of the specific programs for architecture to pre-empt revolution by assimilating potentially restive sections of the urban population into the social status quo.
By Ban’s 2014 Pritzker Prize, however, the relationship between architecture and humanitarianism was different: the post-World War II emergence of an international humanitarian regime and consequent specialization of humanitarian architecture now rendered traffic between client-based practice and relief work as extraordinary (Siddiqi 2017). As one critic wrote about Ban’s 1999 “emergency shelters” at the Gihembe Refugee Camp in Rwanda, this project “made him famous and particularly admired … in a field where humanitarian relief work isn’t exactly commonplace” (Kimmelman 2007) (Figure 3.1).
The architectural history of Gihembe Refugee Camp registers two of the most salient dynamics of the field of contemporary humanitarian architecture: first, the application of architectural expertise to the refugee camp and, second, the application of digital technology to the problem of refugee accommodation. The salience of these dynamics, I suggest, comes from their parallel effectiveness at displacing recognition of one of the most intractable issues facing both contemporary architecture and contemporary politics: the shelter crisis that leaves vast swathes of the world’s population under- or unhoused on what Mike Davis has termed “the planet of slums” (Davis 2007).
The residents of the Gihembe Refugee Camp are descendants of Rwandan Tutsis who found sanctuary in the neighboring Belgian Congo when anti-Tutsi violence swept Rwanda between 1959 and 1961. 3 Those refugees subsequently received citizenship in what became Zaire, where many built secure and prosperous lives. But with the collapse of Zaire in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide and Civil War, their citizenship was revoked and they were forced to return to Rwanda. Many refugees were forced to turn over all their possessions to Congolese soldiers or militia members as they fled, and therefore arrived in Rwanda with little or nothing of value (Wakabi and Kigambo 2012).
Figure 3.1 Shigeru Ban, emergency shelters at Gihembe Refugee Camp, Rwanda, 1999
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) first housed these refugees close to the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—Zaire’s successor state—in a refugee camp at Mudende. In the months after this camp was established, however, Interahamwe militias launched a series of attacks on it, killing an estimated 3000 refugees. The UNHCR then moved the surviving refugees further from the border, to Gihembe, at the end of 1997, where Ban’s prototype emergency shelters were erected about a year later (Lynch 2013). His shelters accommodated newly arriving refugees at the camp, which from its founding lacked sufficient housing to accommodate all of its residents.
In 1998, the first year of Gihembe’s operation, the UNHCR provided incoming refugees with plastic sheets and aluminum poles to use for shelter, but refugees would often cut down trees to use as supports for the plastic sheets and sell the aluminum poles in the adjacent town of Byumba. While this entrepreneurialism provided refugees a rare opportunity to produce value and accumulate capital, it also led to what the UNHCR called “deforestation” around the camp, despite the fact that the building of the camp initiated the process of deforestation in the first place. 4 The question was actually who at Gihembe had the right to deforest. In response to this question, Ban created a prototype shelter that used recycled cardboard tubes, which refugees could not sell, in place of aluminum poles to support the plastic sheets. Fifty of these prototypes were erected at Gihembe in 1999.
Following his work in post-earthquake Kobe in 1995, Ban’s project at Gihembe extended his architectural practice to sites and problems that had become the domain of a specialized architectural humanitarianism. 5 Ban subsequently carried out a series of other projects using recycled materials for post-disaster shelter—in the post-typhoon Philippines, post-earthquake Nepal, Japan, and Haiti, and post-hurricane New Orleans—alongside other architectural work in the field’s more conventional contexts.
In the announcement of Ban’s Pritzker Prize, the Pritzker jury declared that Ban “uses the same inventive and resourceful design approach for his extensive humanitarian efforts” as he does in his “elegant, innovative work for private clients” (Pritzker Prize 2014). But this claim should be understood differently with the recognition that, at Gihembe, the architect’s invention and resourcefulness replaced the invention and resourcefulness of refugees. The architecture that Ban provided at Gihembe may have been minimal, just as in his “elegant, innovative work for private clients,” but it was precisely this minimal architecture that limited the capacity of refugees to build their own spaces and their own lives. That precisely this act of limitation is read as humanitarian is more than irony. This reading points to a politics of inequity embedded in humanitarian architecture—if not humanitarianism more generally—that mystifies the notion of a common humanity.
And yet, the dominant reading of Ban’s project in architectural discourse is much more than a fiction of architecture as an art of equality in which “the same design approach” subtends the shelters of refugees and the refuges of the tax sheltering class. Just this same fiction testifies to the actual inequality that motivates the staging of fictions of equality, the recruitment of the refugee as the human figure by means of which architecture seeks redemption, and, perhaps most importantly, the relationship between the refugee’s performance in architectural narratives of humanitarian intervention and her actual life in the humanitarian space of the refugee camp. I want to suggest, then, that the impact of Ban’s emergency shelters at Gihembe lay in the way they furthered the helplessness of refugees and received acclaim for providing assistance to the helpless.
The humanitarian emergency at stake was the lack of accommodation for refugees at Gihembe. Ban’s shelters responded to this lack by conjoining and supplanting it with another emergency that humanitarianism itself was accomplice to: the normalized emergency in which stateless refugees indefinitely occupy refugee camps and depend on humanitarian assistance for their survival. 6 The refugee residents of Gihembe are unable to be repatriated to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are considered to be Rwandan; they are unable to be repatriated in Rwanda, where they are considered to be Congolese; and very few of them have been able to secure resettlement in a third country (UNHCR Rwanda 2014). The refugee camp at Gihembe therefore exists as a permanently temporary space where the threshold conditions of bare life extend indefinitely into the future (Kabeera 2012).
Indeed, it was the punctual emergency that Ban’s shelters aimed to ameliorate that inaugurated the protracted emergency of everyday life in Gihembe—an emergency in which Gihembe’s refugees “live in the conditions of the camp that further immobilize, demoralize, and often extend their experiences of brutality on a daily basis” (Lynch 2013: 8). Yet Ban’s shelters did not only introduce refugees to Gihembe; through the exchange of valuable aluminum poles for valueless cardboard tubes, those shelters also introduced refugees to the abjection that humanitarian assistance at Gihembe entailed.
Ban’s shelters, intended for short-term use, have long since been replaced by more durable houses at Gihembe (Figure 3.2). Sometimes with the assistance of aid workers, the camp’s long-term residents have built themselves houses with wood frames and mud-plaster walls. The wood harvesting that Ban’s temporary shelters were designed to forestall has surreptitiously continued to yield building material for these permanently temporary houses (UNHCR Rwanda 2009). The only part of Ban’s emergency shelters that could be recycled for these houses was the part that Ban inherited from the UNHCR’s emergency shelters: the plastic sheet, which provides the roof for houses whose residents cannot afford corrugated metal. Many houses lack windows and no house is supplied with water or electricity. Around 12 square meters in size, the houses accommodate families that can include many children, the latter being among the only sanctioned objects of (re)production at Gihembe.
Figure 3.2 Gihembe Refugee Camp, Rwanda, 2015
The repeated display of images of Ban’s emergency shelters in exhibitions and texts about humanitarian architecture from 1999 to the present should be viewed in relation to the protracted emergency in which Gihembe’s refugee residents reside. As Ban’s shelters appear and re-appear amid professional architecture’s conjoined expressions of guilt and self-congratulation, the residents of Gihembe still live in an emergency. No longer crowded under tents, they are now crowded into houses. The fact that there are no new architectural images of Gihembe does not mean that Ban’s emergency shelters solved the shelter problem (as Ban himself would no doubt admit), but the continuous replay of his initial response undoubtedly obscures the fact that the shelter problem persists as refugees are forced to occupy camps that they cannot leave—a phenomenon that is increasingly typical in camps across the globe (Davies and Isakjee 2015).
And yet, from 1999 to the present, professional architecture has been preoccupied with punctual responses to punctual emergencies like those that faced incoming refugees to Gihembe. The exemplars of “humanity” that “humanitarian architecture” has recognized and responded to occupy situations of abjection and distress amid wars, disasters, and displacements, rather than the conditions of abjection and distress that characterize everyday life for the vast majority of humans on the planet (Architecture for Humanity 2006). According to Saskia Sassen, this bifurcated attention to social suffering demands that the language and policies of humanitarianism be replaced by languages and policies adequate to the slow violence of everyday life experienced by many communities across the globe (Sassen 2014). Until this replacement, however, what the humanitarian rescue of human beings from situations of abjection and distress in many cases accomplishes is a restoration of those humans to the conditions that made them vulnerable to those situations in the first place. This is why Slavoj Žižek argues that “much more than a refugee, a slum-dweller is a homo sacer, the systematically generated ‘living dead’ of global capitalism. The slum-dweller is a kind of negative of the refugee: a refugee from his own community” (Žižek 2009).
In 2016, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York displayed the exhibition “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter.” “Bringing together works by architects, designers, and artists in a range of mediums and scales that respond to the complex circumstances brought about by forced displacement,” the press release announced that “the exhibition focuses on conditions that disrupt conventional images of the built environment as an arbiter of modernity and globalization” (Museum of Modern Art Department of Communications 2016). Locating itself in the context of recent and contemporary humanitarianism, the exhibition can be located in a related but different context, as well.
In 1986 Shigeru Ban was commissioned by MoMA to design an exhibition in Tokyo of Alvar Aalto’s furniture and glasswork. In Ban’s words: in order to avoid the expense and the inevitable waste of resources, recycled paper tubing was adopted as alternative material and was used to create ceiling panels, partitions, and display stands. The material explorations in this exhibit design mark the beginning of “paper architecture.”
in order to avoid the expense and the inevitable waste of resources, recycled paper tubing was adopted as alternative material and was used to create ceiling panels, partitions, and display stands. The material explorations in this exhibit design mark the beginning of “paper architecture.”(Shigeru Ban Architects 1986)
In “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” an essay written in the years following World War II, Hannah Arendt probed the contradictions that statelessness posed to humanitarian and human rights politics. In the course of her analysis, she anticipated what is now the reality of refugee life in places like Gihembe—the way in which the camp became “the only ‘country’ the world had to offer the stateless” (Arendt 1958). For Arendt, however, it was clear that the fundamental problem of the camp was less architectural than political: The first loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of their homes.… This calamity is far from unprecedented; in the long memory of history, forced migrations of individuals or whole groups of people for political or economic reasons look like everyday occurrences. What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one.… [I]t was a problem not of space but of political organization.
The first loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of their homes.… This calamity is far from unprecedented; in the long memory of history, forced migrations of individuals or whole groups of people for political or economic reasons look like everyday occurrences. What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one.… [I]t was a problem not of space but of political organization.(Arendt 1958: 293–294)
If Arendt suggests the impossibility of building a better refugee camp, digital technology is in the process of rendering the question of the better refugee camp moot, while displacing the problem of political organization yet again. In 2014, the year in which Ban was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the World Food Program and Visa Inc. selected Gihembe Refugee Camp as the site to launch mVISA, a digital humanitarian relief program. One of a proliferating number of similar examples of “voucher humanitarianism” developed through collaborations between humanitarian institutions and the financial services sector, “mVISA is a bank account in the form of a virtual wallet linked to a mobile phone number” (González 2015). The World Food Program distributed mobile phones to heads of households at Gihembe and then, through mVISA, transferred 6,300 RWF (US$8.60) per month to those heads of households, allowing them to use these funds to make purchases (Figure 3.3).
The voucher humanitarianism of which mVISA is an early example has led to another important intersection of contemporary architecture and humanitarianism. Emerging from an ongoing privatization of humanitarianism, voucher humanitarianism has yielded “digital shelter,” the posing of the housing market as a “solution” to the housing needs of displaced populations, and the potential end of the camp as the primary humanitarian spatial technology.
The privatization of humanitarianism received its institutional mandate in 1999 when the United Nation’s “Global Compact,” released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, announced an intention to “harness the energy and influence of multinational corporations to act as good corporate citizens” (United Nations 1999). Following such partnerships as those between the Coca-Cola Company and the United Nations Development Program, the Pfizer Corporation and the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the United Parcel Service and CARE International, humanitarianism became a target of corporate expertise (White 2012).
Figure 3.3 Shop using mVISA, Gihembe Refugee Camp, Rwanda, 2015
Among other places, this targeting played out in the context of the refugee camp, with the Ikea Foundation establishing a partnership with the UNHCR to develop a new form of temporary shelter. The resulting “Refugee Housing Unit”—ultimately re-branded as the “Better Shelter”—was designed to be shipped in flat packs, assembled without additional tools and equipment, and last for three years, two and a half years longer than the tarpaulin shelters it was intended to replace (Ikea Foundation 2015). In March 2015 the Ikea Foundation announced that the UNHCR ordered 10,000 “Better Shelters” for immediate deployment in the following summer (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2012). Applying techniques of consumer furniture design, construction, and delivery to refugee housing, this deployment normalized that housing by integrating it into the housing market. Not at all incidentally, an Ikea “Better Shelter” formed the centerpiece of MoMA’s 2016 “Insecurities” exhibition.
The integration of refugee housing into the housing market was enormously furthered with the almost simultaneous advent of voucher humanitarianism: a technique by means of which humanitarian assistance takes the form of vouchers distributed by automated teller machines and credit card readers (Harvey 2005; Smith et al. 2011). Voucher humanitarianism has been developed by the UNHCR and the World Food Program, which have partnered with credit card companies, mobile phone companies, banks, and other businesses to provide digitally accessed funding to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey with which to purchase food and rent shelter. 8 Architecturally, voucher humanitarianism gives refugees “digital shelter”—digitally distributed funds with which to purchase physical shelter.
In 2013, in one of the most recent innovations in voucher humanitarianism, all Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan were added to a biometric database (Sundelin 2013). At Jordanian ATMs equipped with iris scanners, these refugees could be identified by iris scans rather than by ATM cards and PIN codes: Instead of receiving food packages, money vouchers or bank cards from the UNHCR, refugees in the iris-identification system receive a monthly text message saying money has been placed in their accounts. Then, they walk up to an ATM owned by Cairo Amman Bank, and, rather than insert a card and punch in a pass code, they look into a specially designed iris camera. Once ID’d, a refugee would be able to withdraw his or her monthly allotment of cash.
Instead of receiving food packages, money vouchers or bank cards from the UNHCR, refugees in the iris-identification system receive a monthly text message saying money has been placed in their accounts. Then, they walk up to an ATM owned by Cairo Amman Bank, and, rather than insert a card and punch in a pass code, they look into a specially designed iris camera. Once ID’d, a refugee would be able to withdraw his or her monthly allotment of cash.(Maron 2013)
The smoothing of distinctions between humanitarianism and capitalist consumerism is typically regarded—from the perspectives of humanitarianism and capitalism alike—as “progress.” As a typical claim asserts, with significant logistical abilities, massive resources invested in R&D and highly capable personnel, many within the aid community hope that businesses can do for humanitarian aid what Amazon did for the world of retail or what Microsoft and Apple did for personal computing.
with significant logistical abilities, massive resources invested in R&D and highly capable personnel, many within the aid community hope that businesses can do for humanitarian aid what Amazon did for the world of retail or what Microsoft and Apple did for personal computing.(Zyck and Armstrong 2014)
In this sense, it is not accidental that the technological innovation of digital shelter, which forces refugees to compete for substandard housing with working-class renters, brings precise economic benefits to property owners, in the form of increased housing demand, along with increased social suffering to communities denied affordable housing. This became apparent in Jordan, where for a time an estimated 80 percent of registered Syrian refugees were residing outside of refugee camps, for the most part in the country’s most impoverished municipalities. There, refugees competed with poor and working-class residents for affordable housing. In the summer of 2014, according to one NGO,
The rapid influx of Syrian refugees into northern Jordan has directly impacted the housing market, driving up rental prices and exacerbating an already acute lack of housing. This challenging situation has forced many to resort to coping strategies such as sharing living quarters … and improvising makeshift shelters with limited access to basic services.
The rapid influx of Syrian refugees into northern Jordan has directly impacted the housing market, driving up rental prices and exacerbating an already acute lack of housing. This challenging situation has forced many to resort to coping strategies such as sharing living quarters … and improvising makeshift shelters with limited access to basic services.(REACH 2014)
The architectural labor performed by Syrian refugees in repurposing a refugee camp into affordable housing in Jordan is also a critique of the predominant model of architectural humanitarianism, if not humanitarianism more generally. Predicated on the management of punctual emergencies, humanitarianism normalizes emergencies of inequality, oppression, and unequal exposure to danger and violence that are commonplace in global capitalism and ongoing colonialism; on a planet of slums, what humanitarianism offers as a refugee camp is less of a refuge than affordable housing. Designs in response to the slow disasters of inequality, exploitation, and exclusion that are normalized in capitalism and colonialism transcend the given terms of architectural humanitarianism but also address the core emergencies from which humanitarian emergencies arise.
As Daniel Bertrand Monk and I have suggested, “whatever else it aspired to attain, the architectural modernism of the interwar period also envisioned itself as a humanitarian practice of sorts, of necessity preoccupied with the unhoused and underhoused”: see “The new universalism: refuges and refugees between global history and voucher humanitarianism,” Grey Room 61 (2015), 74.
This section draws upon Andrew Herscher, “Cardboard for humanity,” in Nick Axel, Beatriz Colomina, Nikolaus Hirsch, Anton Vidokle, and Mark Wigley (eds) Superhumanity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 34–41.
On the prehistory of Gihembe, see René Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Gerard Prunier, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Filip Reyntjens, The Great African War: Congo and Regional Geopolitics, 1996–2006 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
In December 1998, UNHCR reported that, in Rwanda, it supports the forestry programme that is redressing damage done to the environment by massive shelter programmes and refugee camps. In addition to reforestation programmes, UNHCR has also introduced, in both camps and settlement sites, energy-saving stoves that reduce energy lost by open cooking fires by at least 60 per cent. The use of ‘paper poles’ for shelter construction is also being investigated.
supports the forestry programme that is redressing damage done to the environment by massive shelter programmes and refugee camps. In addition to reforestation programmes, UNHCR has also introduced, in both camps and settlement sites, energy-saving stoves that reduce energy lost by open cooking fires by at least 60 per cent. The use of ‘paper poles’ for shelter construction is also being investigated.(UNHCR, “UNHCR Global Appeal 1999—Rwanda,” December 1, 1998, www.unhcr.org/3eaff44124.html)
Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi identifies Fred Cuny and Ian Davis as protagonists in this specialization: see Siddiqi, “Architecture culture, humanitarian expertise: from the tropics to shelter, 1953–1993,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 76, 3.
In Rwandan refugee camps like Gihembe, “nearly every Congolese refugee relied exclusively on UNHCR for basic needs, including food, water, health care, education, and clothing”: see United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, “U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 – Rwanda,” June 1, 2003, www.refworld.org/docid/3eddc48b8.html.
Among its contemporary manifestations is the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture; oriented around the theme of “Reporting from the Front,” the Biennale attends to architecture’s encounter with refugees in the national pavilions of Austria and Germany as well as in a number of other projects.
For example, through the “Digital Food” program, MasterCard and the World Food Programme have partnered to develop pre-paid debit cards for Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon; see MasterCard, “MasterCard and the United Nations World Food Programme in partnership to deliver ‘Digital Food’,” press release, September 13, 2012, http://newsroom.mastercard.com/press-releases/mastercard-and-the-united-nations-world-food-programme-in-partnership-to-deliver-digital-food-4/ and World Food Programme, “Meet our partners,” www.wfp.org/partners/private-sector/meet-our-partners/mastercard.