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Words:
Irit Katz

Winner: Cities and Community

Camps, even this Kibbutz Givat Brenner, 1935, suspend their inhabitants without the possibility of planning the future.
Camps, even this Kibbutz Givat Brenner, 1935, suspend their inhabitants without the possibility of planning the future. Credit: Kluger Zoltan / copyright The Israeli National Photo Collection

The Common Camp: Temporary Settlements as a Spatio-political Instrument in Israel-Palestine
Dr Irit Katz, University of Cambridge, UK

With the Syrian refugee crisis and the so-called ‘migration crisis’ in Europe, more planners and designers became intrigued by the growing refugee camps which were declared as the ‘cities of tomorrow’.

Architects are becoming increasingly aware of camps as a complex spatial and human condition. The accelerated urbanisation processes of camps such as Za’atari in Jordan, which in only two weeks had become the country’s fourth largest population centre, or makeshift camps such as Calais Jungle which developed a town-like environment, are enthusiastically admired by some architects for the resourceful acts of their occupants who adapted these temporary spaces to their social, cultural and other everyday needs. Others have taken on the challenge of designing the ultimate refugee shelter while international design competitions were urgently lodged for this purpose.

Looking at camps as a design problem or as an architectural inspiration can be very problematic. More than 65 million displaced people worldwide have limited access not only to shelter but also to water, food, work and education, and are caught in a legal limbo that denies them the possibility to begin new life with a safe home in a different country.

The camp’s "ordered" layout hides a very ‘thin’ violent order, while its ‘chaotic’ layout is an expression of a much deeper cultural order

My study, ‘The Common Camp’, critically examines the role of the camp over the last century. It analyses how temporary camps were and still are being used as versatile instruments to control, manipulate and negotiate lands and populations in pursuing geopolitical interests, while camp residents sometimes use their temporary spaces as tools for their political struggles. The project focuses on Israel-Palestine as an extensive laboratory of camps – migrant camps, settler camps, refugee camps and detention camps – which form an integral part of the drastic territorial and demographic changes in the area. Yet the project’s theoretical analysis goes beyond this locality and offers a new understanding of the idea of the camp and its complex spatial and political meanings – which are inevitably related to crucial ethical questions. These are what architects must understand.

The research examines the multifaceted spatial characteristics of the camp as outcomes of the various powerful forces influencing its creation and change. The project shows that the camp’s ‘ordered’ layout hides a very ‘thin’ violent order, while its ‘chaotic’ layout is an expression of a much deeper cultural order.

Another aspect of the project deals with the political role of the camp in separating different populations according to ever-changing objectives and policies. The research shows that although the camp has varied typologies and spatial manifestations, it has distinct common characteristics such as the management of specific populations in temporary conditions outside the normal legal order. This makes it a device associated with radical and violent spatio-political practices of the modern state.

Nevertheless, it is the ethical awareness that this study calls for that may be its most important output. It exposes that excluding and separating specific populations from society – and suspending them in time and space without the possibility to plan their future – is a violent act which undermines their sheer sense of being. It explores the understanding that creating spaces in which vulnerable populations are denied basic rights and freedoms, and are dependent on others, deepens their dependency even more. It acknowledges that when temporariness becomes the rule, all that is built and everyone who lives in these spaces becomes defenceless, since in such lawless realities many forms of violence become acceptable (the dozens of unaccompanied minors left to sleep rough in Calais’ demolished Jungle is only one close-to-home example).

This research should encourage architects to act against the creation and existence of such spaces. While the creation of better shelters and better camps is perhaps a good short-term solution, it might also support a long-term problem. With their creative force, and with their sincere appreciation of the resourcefulness and creative force of others, architects should be aiming to suggest designs and policies which will enable us to host the displaced in our societies and to offer them opportunities to regain autonomy and control over their lives, rather than suspending them in spatial enclaves away from us.


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