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Responsive Architecture: Ideas of Refuge

Posted by
on December 10, 2019 at 05:03 PM

We live in times of increasing events of strife today, in a world where development almost always has accidents and disasters trailing it, where progress that is unmindful of surrounding ecological balances tends to throw life out of gear at the slightest trigger. These are mere additions to factors like economic inequalities, unemployment and incessant conflicts for turf that have rendered immigration into a timeless problem, resulting in displaced, ravaged humans in urgent need of some shelter to take refuge in before starting life anew. How some members of the architectural community, as trained professional designers, have responded to this call with some ingeniously innovative, quick and economical shelter designs showcases, not just their noblest contributions, but also the impressively varied range of their perception of refuge and inherent creative capability.

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Slice of Land

[SLICE] – Refugee Hospitality Centre is a celebrated and awarded proposal by Greek Designer of 360’ Architects that addresses the immediate needs of refugees from Iraq, Syria and Turkey trying to enter eastern European shores after crossing the sea. People who undertake this arduous journey do so under desperate circumstances, and have to encounter steep cliffs and hostile terrain after spotting land on the shores of Greece, Spain, Italy, Malta - essentially the eastern gateway into Europe.

Greek Designer Spiros Koulias’ proposal includes a refugee hospitality building that is embedded into the steep wall of these cliffs using a framework of fins that extend from the ocean at the bottom to the top of the cliff. This frame supports individual dwelling units which are customisable in terms of height and depth as per the needs based on number of residents and their cultural background. The incoming boats of refugees can dock into the bottom of the structure and directly get absorbed into the shelter, after completing the formalities of registration in the same building – a veritable anchor for uprooted lives flung across the sea. 

The centre can provide immediate needs like food and shelter, medical aid and also register and record the number of immigrants coming in, thus serving the purposes of both, the refugees and the hosting administrations. The two most brilliant aspects of the design are: one, what Koulias calls its ‘volatility of scale’, i.e. the basic frame as well as the units can be extended or reduced in size and number as per need, underscoring the required temporariness of the arrangement; two, more than 80% of the building is accommodated within the hosting cliff, reducing the land area taken up to a negligible amount. It is also claimed that the design can be replicated on any terrain other than a cliff as the case may require.

Paper Shelters

Pritzker prize winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has always been known for his impassioned work in humanitarian architecture, creating innovative, quick and low cost shelters for disaster affected people all over the world. He has worked with various materials to build these shelters, but his most interesting and intense experiments have been on building with paper. A method of constructing instant shelters that Ban has been engaged in perfecting since the early days of his architectural career, building with cardboard tubes is surely the feature he is most well known for. Building with paper attracted Ban because he found it to be low cost, recyclable, low-tech and replaceable, and also applicable structurally, completely DIY, producing minimal waste.

Shigeru Ban’s DIY cardboard shelters have been erected at several places around the world post disasters like in Kobe (Japan), Rwanda, Turkey, etc. In the aftermath of the Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 in Philippines, he first successfully simplified this construction technique which had been rendered inefficient in earlier attempts in India and Turkey for being time consuming to build in large scales. Each shelter stood on a foundation and plinth of plastic soda/ beer crates held down by sandbags, with a structural framework of cardboard tubing strung together efficiently and filled in between with walls of woven bamboo mats. The flooring was of coconut and wood boards, while a plastic sheet ceiling is crowned by a thatched roof of Nypa palms.

The same idea evolved further for the Australian SCAF project in 2017, where Ban has made the walls as well of cardboard tubes and created a roof of framed fabric, which along with bamboo composites is now part of Ban’s material palette. He has earlier constructed cathedrals, pavilions and other fascinating structures which have garnered the recognition to have them moved, preserved and displayed at exhibitions at different places in the world.

Woven in Green

Well, after carving shelters into a cliff and then making them out of paper, does innovation get any better? Yes, it does, with Abeer Seikaly weaving shelters out of fabric in instantly collapsible webbed patterns, that doesn’t just weather efficiently but is solar powered! Jordanian Canadian designer Abeer Seikaly was inspired by traditional basket weaving techniques and the flexibility of snake-skin. He figured a way to integrate the usually disparate fabric envelope and structural framework by weaving together into a structural fabric. The result was a lightweight mobile shelter that was strong and durable as well as easy to put up and collapse into folds, called the ‘weaving a home’ project. 

These beautifully woven domical structures are made of a double layer of fabric that has been stitched by passing plastic tubes, that allow for passage of services like running water, through the seams. The openings in the patterned honeycomb allow sunlight and ventilation, while a crucible at the crown collects rain water that can later be used for bathing and other domestic purposes. The thermal fabric of the tent allows solar heating of the interior as well as water, and can be converted to electricity for use after sun-down. What’s more, the folds within the layers of fabric allow space for storage, too. 

So many different beautiful perceptions of shelter, so many wonderful applications of the knowledge of building – each of them as brilliant, out of which these are but a few examples! As Shigeru Ban had said, architecture is mostly about monumental or striking structures built for the display of and with the use of the power of money, but when such brilliant structures are created with limited resources for the benefit of people in need, it is the true showcase of the art of building.

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