Refugee Architecture Gets Its First Major Museum Show

MoMA devotes a new exhibition to shelter in crisis zones, and identifies what the best designs have in common.


The global refugee crisis is a political problem, a human-rights issue, and a design challenge. More than 4.8 million refugees have fled–and are still fleeing–from Syria alone. One out of every 113 people on earth is now displaced or a refugee, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And those displaced individuals need shelter.


But how best to house tens of millions of people remains a question with an elusive answer. A new exhibition at MoMA, Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter, examines some of the most prominent designs from the past few decades to help shed some light on the issue.

“This exhibition raises questions rather than tries to provide answers,” says curator Sean Anderson. “How does architecture and design today reflect, or not reflect, these conditions of transit? In the carving up of new territories and the creation of new border systems, we begin to see how architecture plays into the spatial or geospatial ideas of identity.”

[Photo: Nizip II, Container Camp]

The architecture of displacement is far from a niche issue today, and it extends outside of conflict zones. While Anderson makes a distinction between disaster relief structures and refugee shelters, the effects of climate change are impacting coastal communities to the point where entire communities are forced to relocate to avoid rising sea levels–now known as climate refugees. “I think with climate change we are going to see a vast influx and repositioning of what it means to be a refugee in the future,” Anderson says.


Today, refugee architecture is contemporary architecture. Designers have created countless propositions, from wearable tents to structures that pack flat and assemble within an hour. Even Ikea has gotten into the game. Almost anything that can be prefabricated is now touted as a potential solution for housing displaced individuals: Bjarke Ingels recently said that his prefab floating dorms could be adapted for refugees. The designers of a 3D-printed micro cabin propose applications for disaster relief or temporary housing–clearly a stretch since the technology is far from cost-effective today.

While the MoMA exhibition focuses on structures deployed into the real world, Anderson included some conceptual ideas for context. Some “are like architect’s images in a portfolio,” he says. “But I wanted to include some of those because I find them to be as problematic but also intriguing as propositions.” These designs may be meaty for the architecture community, but are any of them really pushing the conversation forward in a practical way?

To Anderson, there’s no one-size-fits-all architectural solution to the refugee crisis, but there’s a handful of traits that are common to a successful relief shelter. Here are three of them.

Sandbag Shelter. Nader Khalili, 1995.

It’s Rapidly Deployable

The exhibition includes shelters from refugee camps in Kenya, Jordan, and Turkey, as well as experimental architect-designed solutions like Shigeru Ban’s c. 1999 paper-tube structures for the UNHCR in Rwanda and bamboo houses by Norwegian firm TYIN Tegnestue.

In Zaatari, one of the biggest camps for Syrian refugees, an Italian scaffolding company modified its product to yield easy-to-assemble structures.

Nader Khalili’s sandbag shelters, seen above, can be assembled by hand. They require no special construction tools, techniques, or materials–just sandbags and dirt–and can be erected in a fraction of the time as traditional buildings. It should take just one day for six to seven people with no prior experience to build a sandbag shelter. “You could argue that these structures are fundamentally about materiality and the ability to move them into sites relatively quickly,” Anderson says. “That’s where the Ikea shelter becomes very successful–it comes in two boxes and you can put 50 on a flatbed truck and deliver them anywhere.”

Dunkirk, France. Henk Wildschut. 2010.

It’s Contextual

Though rapidly deployable design is important, so is site sensitivity–a challenge that some of the most prevalent structures ignore. When Anderson took a research trip to Zaatari–he also traveled to Jordan, Sri Lanka, and Italy for the exhibition–he saw this problem firsthand, and says that paying attention to the regional style of building could make for stronger designs.

“What was really just eye-opening to me was the lack of imagination but also consideration of where these shelters are,” he says. “It was 120 degrees out and you see acres and acres of metal buildings with one or two small windows. So people can’t live in these structures during the day.”

The windows were too small for adequate ventilation, and also ill-equipped to protect the interior from sand storms. Residents often had to leave their doors open so they could breathe, which presented a security problem. In the oldest part of the camp, many of the structures were covered by tents and other materials–necessary hacks to make the structures habitable. “What was more intriguing to me was how [the refugees] began to manipulate and change and augment these spaces,” Anderson says. “The most poignant moment for me was sitting for a few hours in a tent, a large tent and the man said through the translator, ‘I’m a Bedouin, I know how to build tents and I refuse to live in these metal boxes.'”

Ifo 2, Dadaab Refugee Camp. Brendan Bannon. 2011.

It’s Mutable

Cookie-cutter design in the name of efficiency poses another problem: cultural sensitivity–an important element given that these shelters aren’t the same as emergency structures for disaster relief. The tenure of a resident can be years, or even decades, as is the case with Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya that has existed for 25 years. Fulfilling the short-term need for shelter is the first step, but the next is transitioning to long-term housing, which means making the structures robust enough to stand the test of time and flexible enough to give residents the opportunity to make it their own.

“In this desire for maximum visibility, maximum rationality, and organization, there is a lack then of individuality,” Anderson says. “These individuals who are moving or are being forcibly moved from various countries literally lose their identity to go into places that are for their own safety and security and become a number in a system that they don’t necessarily recognize or understand. Shelter is not an end in itself; it actually requires a close observation of the client. What are the everyday needs of these individuals? I would suggest that it’s more than just access to food and water, but they deserve a bit of privacy and a bit of humanity.”

Mutability of a structure to accommodate a displaced individual’s needs is essential, but so is the ability to transition groups of structures to functioning cities with respect to infrastructure–a reminder that the spatial challenge extends far beyond four walls and a roof to running water, sewage, power, and phone lines. So far, Anderson hasn’t found a single, all-purpose response to the problem.


“If we see camps as permanent impermanent conditions architecturally, what’s overlooked is the landscape and the very nature of how do we transform the landscape to accommodate these cities,” Anderson says. “Everyone I interviewed [at Zaatari] said they would rather have better telephone reception than better housing.”

Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter
is on view at MoMA from October 1 to January 22, 2017.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.