Fostering Success through Refugee Housing in Germany

As refugee housing is reexamined we should be looking to create shelter that doesn’t simply provide the absolute minimum for survival, but elevates shelter to become something more than basic protection.

In 2016 I submitted a research proposal to the Fulbright Program for the 2017-2018 grant year. Although it was not accepted, this project is a representation of my passion for research, my drive to expand my knowledge of the world, and my interest in how interior design can be used to achieve humanitarian goals.

10 month Study/Research: Creative Arts
Proposed Location: Germany
Affiliation: Dr. Frank Eckardt, Bauhaus University, Weimar

Grant Title: “Seeking Sanctuary: Fostering Success through Refugee Housing in Germany.”

Statement of Grant Purpose

Shelter is one of three basic needs for survival, grouped with the other essentials of food and clothing. But how is shelter defined? What constitutes an acceptable level of protection? A cotton shirt, although technically clothing, would not help you survive in almost any circumstance. In the same way, a basic shelter, if inappropriate for the climate and culture, would not fulfill any basic need. Unfortunately, shelters in their most rudimentary forms are common in Germany’s refugee camps, and are being occupied for long periods of time. As refugee housing is reexamined we should be looking to create shelter that doesn’t simply provide the absolute minimum for survival, but elevates shelter to become something more than basic protection.

The Federal Republic of Germany is currently providing facilities to refugees that range from private apartments to tent camps, empty airport hangars, and stadiums. Not only is Germany still struggling to keep up with the demand for shelter, but the majority of shelters already provided to refugees are woefully inadequate. This is where my research can make a critical difference. The goals of my project are to document the wants and needs of refugees as they relate to temporary shelter, and to facilitate discussion between refugees and Germany’s design community. By analyzing the ways refugees use and adapt a variety of interior spaces and pinpointing what home means to refugees, my research will provide a resource for future shelter projects and will help us as providers of asylum create better shelter. To solve the many problems facing refugee housing in Germany I believe that we cannot work in isolation. Good design is a result of extensive research and collaboration, and refugee shelter should not be an exception.

The first part of my research will consist of documenting the state of current refugee housing. I will focus on existing mass shelters including the shelter at Tempelhoff airport, as well as tent camps surrounding Berlin, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. In addition to mass shelters I hope to study other types of refugee dwellings including private flats and dormitory style housing. I am fascinated by where refugees felt most comfortable in the past and how they are manipulating their current space to better meet their physical and emotional needs. Using my architectural training I will measure and draft the interior layouts of these existing shelters. I will pair the created plans, as well as interviews of the inhabitants, with my own sketches and photographs of each space. The goal is to create a program of housing typologies along with narrative portraits of families and individuals living in current refugee housing. Through my drawings and interviews I will help define what home means and how each person tries, successfully and unsuccessfully, to project it into the shelters provided.

I will spend the second part of my grant period using this program to facilitate discussions between refugees and Germans from a variety of disciplines focused around design and disaster relief including students, architects, interior designers, product designers, urban planners, contractors, and aid providers. My background in interior architecture and psychology will allow me to lead charrettes that respond to the problems facing refugees in German camps in a concrete way, using my previous research as a guide. This step is especially important because lasting change comes from within the affected community. It would be impossible to talk about German refugee camps without taking the surrounding culture into account. The inclusion of German citizens in the process not only educates, but also provides insight into how citizens are responding to the issues surrounding refugees.

At the end of my grant period I will produce a book, organized by housing typology, which is a combination of written observations, illustrations, photographs, narrative and visual conclusions from design charrettes, and drafted plans. Presenting my research as a hybrid of written and graphic material is essential. Only through the use of multiple presentation techniques can something as complex as a home be communicated.

There are many groups currently working to improve emergency shelter. What makes my project unique is a concentration on the interior components of refugee camps. This is a crucial area that is often overlooked. Luis Barragan, an influential architect and recipient of the Pritzker Prize, once wrote “My house is my refuge, an emotional piece of architecture, not a cold piece of convenience.” To me this translates directly to the relationship between a shelter that protects from the elements, and a thoughtfully executed shelter that can be a sanctuary. Although a roof and walls will protect from the elements, it is the interior experience that creates a home.

In 2015, a record 65.3 million individuals were forced from their homes worldwide. This includes 21.3 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18 (UNHCR, “Global Trends Report 2015”, p. 2). These individuals and families flee from war and natural disaster, seeking a life better than the one left behind. Germany is not alone in the struggle to accommodate a growing influx of people seeking shelter. The country is unique because of policy decisions that have resulted in the nation becoming the single largest recipient of new asylum applications in the last year. German citizens initially met the opening of borders to migrants with Willkommenskultur, or “welcoming culture”, but this positive attitude quickly weakened as an increased number of vitriolic opinions were voiced by the media about refugees, as well as the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany political party. The change in social and political climate resulted in a decline in community based refugee outreach programs and a continued decrease in the quality of refugee housing. Despite these changes refugees continue to apply for asylum in Germany and continue to pour into the country in unprecedented numbers.

Dr. Frank Ekhardt is a professor in the Urban Studies and Social Research department with the Bauhaus University at Weimar. He has invited me to collaborate with his team during my grant period. This affiliation will help me make the contacts necessary meet with refugees and professionals throughout Germany, while also providing invaluable access to the school itself and the university community. The Bauhaus University was founded on the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk which roughly translates to “total artwork”. The phrase describes the concept that a work of art requires the use of all or many disparate art forms to create a complete piece. The same philosophy can and should be applied to the complex problems facing the global refugee crisis, especially as it relates to housing.

My research is designed to uncover patterns in how refugee camps are being used in order to identify what is and isn’t working, and what can be done to improve not only the shelter but also the psychological impact of that shelter on its inhabitants. By investigating how shelter is truly being used and facilitating discussions between refugees and Germany’s design community, my project will open a much needed dialogue. There is a profound need for this research as we work as a society to make refugees happier, healthier, safer, and more comfortable in the only place they have to call home. My research is one step forward in the pursuit to provide refugee housing that nourishes its inhabitants and allows for success in addition to survival.

Personal Statement

It was in New Zealand that I experienced my first concrete example of interior design used as a tool to achieve humanitarian aims. When I arrived to Christchurch in 2012, the effect of the recent earthquakes was visible on every city corner, and frequent aftershocks reminded residents of the disaster that took the lives of 187 people. At the beginning of the semester I became involved with Rebuild Christchurch, a nonprofit organization committed to helping those affected by the earthquakes. While volunteering for Rebuild I met people from all walks of life who were still living in the nightmare of loss. I learned that the people who felt the effects of the disaster most acutely were those who had lost their homes. It wasn’t the grand city squares, high rise office buildings, or iconic skyline that were mourned. It was the weathered hardwood floors, the porch swing, and the reading nook by the window, the small but beloved details that weaved the rich tapestry of home.

This sense of home and security was taken away with the concrete elements of a house, and after such a loss it became exponentially more difficult for residents to resume their lives. Rebuild helped individuals by recovering pieces of condemned homes before demolition. It was amazing to see how simply possessing something of their past, a familiar fireplace mantle or section of tile flooring, gave people closure and allowed them to move forward. I saw design helping help people recover and succeed through the small gestures and the intimate parts of interiors as well as the grand strokes of space planning and architecture.

After this experience my ambition to become a humanitarian designer solidified. Executing this design philosophy in a primarily aesthetic profession has not been easy. It is a challenge convince people that interior design is more than pillows and paint, let alone that it holds the power to enrich and transform lives. Examples of how humanitarian design can be practiced are few and far between, but I believe that design can change the world. And through design I seek to elevate myself and my profession to be one that helps and one that heals.

Interacting with the Christchurch community through ReBuild and seeing the effects of good design was an eye opening experience. In the years since I have sought out opportunities that allow me to engage with people from other communities and cultures in a similar way. This has led me to Wisconsin, London, Utah, and now to Germany. Germany fascinates me because, with the recent rise of the Alternative for Germany political party, which operates on an anti-immigration platform, mutual understanding between cultures is nonexistent. This makes Germany the ideal place to examine the dynamics of refugee camps within the larger German culture, and how those two cultures differ when it comes to housing typologies.

Through my project I hope to perform a small part in improving the lives of others. I would like to bring the experience made possible by a Fulbright grant back with me to the United States and apply it to my own community where refugees and a large homeless population are facing similar problems. I believe that design can change the world. I will be a part of that change by continuing to be inquisitive of my environment, sensitive to the problems inherent in the world around me, and allowing myself the capacity to grow.

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