Uncharted Territory


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I’d also like to ask about your disaster-relief work, which I believe began with the Rwanda refugee camps set up during and after the genocide there in the 1990s. You obviously have a very strong notion of an architect’s social responsibility.

That’s right. Architects tend to work with the privileged classes of society. Historically speaking, it is people with money or political power who hire architects to change that power into something visible, a symbol of their status.

I realized this when I started working as an architect, and it was actually very disappointing. But at the same time I also noticed how, when disasters happen, people lose their houses or they suffer through lack of shelter — and I realized that this was where we could help. I had seen photos of the Rwanda refugee camps and so I went to the UNHCR in Geneva to make suggestions about how they could be improved.

How did they respond?

At that time they were having problems with their tents in Rwanda. They had been using local wood and 4×6-meter tarpaulin sheets, but there was not enough wood, so people were cutting down trees and causing deforestation.

The UNHCR then switched to aluminum frames, but that was problematic too, because in Africa aluminum is a valuable commodity and so the refugees would sell the tubing and go back to cutting down trees. I was suggesting something completely new — that the frames could be made with paper tubes — and so the timing was good.

What was it like to go and actually build those in Rwanda?

It was an eye-opening experience. I went with the intention of providing the people with more comfortable shelters — but I realized that if you give them shelters that are too good, then they lose their motivation to ever go back to rebuild their own homes. You need to provide just the bare minimum.

Anyway, my task was to come up with a material that could be used instead of wood. The budget was just $50 for each shelter, and we achieved that.