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Exposing Architecture’s Subliminal Response to Refugees: Issues of ‘Place’ and ‘Identity’

Part 1 Dissertation 2003
Megan Worthington
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh | UK
Architecture’s current response to housing refugees remains anachronistically constrained by classical nation-state ideas of ‘place’ and ‘identity’. This primitive view persists even though proper management of the burgeoning numbers of refugees is commonly regarded as the most rapidly growing problem of the century. Until we appreciate the inherent limitations of this orthodox approach, we have little hope of finding effective solutions to the modern problem. This paper takes the first step in exposing current preconceptions.

The poignant image of the refugee wandering from airport to airport with no country willing to accept him is inevitably emotionally charged. Yet both political theory and current architectural strategy seem determined to reinforce this vision. The nation-state political model is underpinned by a conceptual framework of insiders and outsiders: the citizens (insiders) occupy the core; the non-citizens (outsiders) sit on the periphery. Modern refugee architecture reiterates this vision: the core-periphery mindset is replicated in a spatial equivalent of the citizen/ negated-citizen dichotomy.

Few if any analyses have recognised this. Indeed, there is a surprising paucity of theoretical analysis directed specifically at the issue of place and identity in refugee architecture. The iterative importance of this must necessarily be demonstrated by analogy. To do this, this paper focuses on three better-known architectural models that seem to provide sound comparators: these are housing for the homeless, prisons and private monasteries. Each of these models highlights the importance of place and identity to individual self-perceptions. Moreover, each model adopts rather similar strategies to reinforce important core-periphery barriers. Surprisingly, these same strategies are repeated in modern refugee architecture. The inevitable ramifications are surely unintended, unless we are prepared to accept a disturbing socio-political (mis)conception of refugees. Put another way, the modern architectural approach seems determined to create ‘non-places’ that subliminally undermine refugees’ notions of belonging, orientation and identification. If political discourse is guilty in treating refugees as non-citizens, then architecture is equally guilty in providing a locality to sustain and legitimate this treatment. Once we confront this, we will be better placed to find more effective ways for refugees to ‘be-in-the-world’ in socially acceptable ways.

Megan Worthington

1st Tutor
The topic of this dissertation – the architectural response to the refugee is a very timely one and the paper dissects this difficult area in relation to notions of statelessness, non-place and the deliberate suppression of identity.

The architecture is explored through a number of models; the prison, monastery, homeless hostel which are obvious precedents of near matches for what we might understand to be the response. Each is analysed in relation to the notions of non-place and surveillance. There are few examples of custom-built refugee centres but one in the Netherlands has been studied and compared to the monastery model.

The strength of the study lies in its continual questioning of the nature of boundaries, the non-place of the boundary condition be it in the airport or camp and the bland architectural expression and lack of context often displayed in these areas. This gives the paper a much deeper level of exploration than the precedent study approach.

2nd Tutor:
This is a really fantastic dissertation. It’s lucidly written and is on an important topic. It’s also excellently footnoted and produced. Megan has read widely and makes a whole series of references to material that I have never heard of, but am certainly keen to look at.

But I do have to say, despite all this praise which is richly deserved, that I disagree with the formulation of the original question and the conclusion that is reached. It seems to me that the nation state’s notions of place and identity derive not from the nation state, but are importantly inherited from older formations. The term ‘nation’ is applied historically at first to tribal groupings (thus, for example, its use by Elizabethan’s to describe Irish septs) which characteristically have a strong identification with place (the identity between land and the group). This gives rise to a much stronger polarity between insider and outsider than anything we see in the modern nation state. And it’s of course notable, that whenever particularly exclusionary forms of the latter appear, they tend to draw upon what are precisely pre-modern mythic identifications (e.g. the blood and soil ideology of the Third Reich). Likewise it’s not difficult to imagine that the same issues would be re-produced in a post-nation state configuration (e.g. under a federalised EU; indeed the opposition between the privileged ‘insider’ and the marginalised ‘outsider’ might be worse, because more monolithic).

Despite this gripe, I really think this is one of the best dissertations at this level I’ve ever read.

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