January 26, 2017
Back in October, when I walked into the small gallery at MoMA that housed an exhibition called “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter,” the thing that caught my attention was a Dorothea Lange photo called Young Mother, a Migrant taken in California in 1937. It’s not the same one you see above, but similar. It was a reminder that once, in our own country, millions of people became what relief organizations now call Internally Displaced Persons [IDPs]. Victims of climate change — a phenomenon known as the “Dust Bowl” — they left their depleted Midwestern farms for California in an effort to survive.
In the 1930s, over 2.5 million Americans became refugees in their own country.
Back before the election, Architect Magazine asked me to do an in-depth look at the ways architects can apply their skills to refugee relief. The inspiration was the MoMA show which closed on January 22. I did my first interview for the piece on November 8, Election Day, with the exhibition’s creator, Sean Anderson, the museum’s new associate curator of design and architecture.
What I learned from Sean and from many subsequent conversations with architects, designers, and relief workers is that the clever, deployable shelters that architects love to draw up in response to disasters are of limited use. The real game for design professionals is helping refugee camps function more like cities, and to help adapt cities (where the majority of the world’s refugees actually live) to the needs of their newest arrivals. Architects can use their abilities to help refugees survive but, beyond that, they can help refugees succeed and thrive in their new communities.
Sadly, the story, published in the January issue of Architect, didn’t appear on the magazine’s website until yesterday, after the MoMA show had already closed. The exhibition’s “catalog” is an online collection of essays and you can still check that out.
Coincidentally, yesterday was the day that President Trump (an oxymoron, right?) issued an executive order blocking refugees from “Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.” While refugees from most of those countries will be shut out of the US for 120 days, refugees from the unimaginable devastation in Syria are blocked indefinitely. So the world’s refugees will be doing their surviving and thriving elsewhere. (Which, in general, has long been the case. The US takes in a shockingly small number of the world’s refugees.) Trump’s message is clear; the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are no longer welcome here. The “golden door” has been replaced by a wall.
We have conveniently forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants and that many of us are the descendants of refugees, or were once refugees ourselves. We have also forgotten about the Dust Bowl days, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Trail of Tears, and all the other times when Americans became refugees within their own country, IDPs.
What I kept thinking when I was writing the Architect story is that we should be empathetic, now more than ever, to the needs of the Syrians and the rest of the world’s refugees. We should be generous and open right now, because we may soon be refugees ourselves. Take a good look at those Dorothea Lange photos. They are our past, but they may also be our future.
Here’s my Architect Magazine piece, Rethinking the Refugee Camp.