Home, on demand
This striking pop-up, designed to meet the needs of refugees by Jordanian-Canadian architect Abeer Seikaly, is still a work-in-progress. But once built, it will do things that other temporary emergency tents have not: filter water, store solar power, survive storms – and, not least of all, add beauty in a time of desperation
This story is part of Crossings, a series chronicling the global refugee and migrant experience. Follow the series and add your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GlobeCrossings.
There can be few items in the world more poorly designed for the purpose it serves than the standard shelter given by humanitarian agencies to refugees.
Temporary ones are made of plastic; they rattle in the wind so that conversation is impossible, they shred and quickly start to leak. Canvas tents for longer-term shelter trap heat so that it is stifling inside once the sun is up; they hold a damp, cold chill through the night. They collapse under snow. They offer no insulation from the sounds of a neighbour's fights or pain. And they burn: they ignite almost instantly, so that when cooking fires or jury-rigged electrical wires set off fires, rows of tents go up like kindling, with children and the elderly trapped inside.
Jordanian-Canadian architect Abeer Seikaly is asking why: Why do we house the displaced, their numbers swelling so quickly, in dysfunctional, poorly designed shelters? How hard can it be, she wants to know, to make them sustainable and smart – and beautiful?
Seikaly has designed a temporary tent made of what she calls "structural fabric," woven together in a pattern that allows it to fold down flat, or pop out the way a circular tissue-paper ornament does. The tents are domes that can be open for ventilation in summer or closed against cold or rain. They have a water storage basin at the top, and she is working with industrial designers on a fabric that would allow the material itself to passively collect solar radiation and fuel a battery as a power source for each unit.
They should be energy efficient and energy independent, she says.
And beautiful: "Disasters break down community – shelters must transform something that remains into something new," she says in a rapid-fire tumble of words over Skype from her home in Amman. "Basic needs are not enough. If the environment isn't beautiful, it affects the way we behave in a negative way."
Seikaly, 36, was a finalist in the prestigious Lexus Design Award contest in innovation in 2013 for what she calls "Weaving a Home." She is currently working with engineers in Britain to create the building materials that would make it possible to produce the tents. But she is vague about a timeline – and a per-unit cost – and production appears to still be a considerable time off.
She began work on the tent in 2013, in the midst of a mass influx of refugees from Syria into Jordan. Their shelters, she said, seemed both non-functional and uninspired. She didn't visit Zaatari, the bleak and sprawling camp that houses 80,000 people, until last year. "That was truly a shocking experience: empathizing via reading the news is one thing, experiencing it was a whole other. It was surreal – it's heartbreaking and unbelievable. I couldn't believe that people actually exist in these types of conditions."
Seikaly's mother is Jordanian, her father a Palestinian refugee to Jordan. She grew up there, but the family moved to Montreal in the early 1990s. She went on to study fine art and architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Jordan, a country of 6.5 million currently hosting some three million refugees, has always been a crossroads of sorts for other cultures and conflicts; Seikaly has been thinking about that in the context of emphasizing locale in her design. Jordan's locale is diverse: "That's what characterizes the heart of Jordan. And we need to start embracing it."
She was already interested in Bedouin weaving, in her ancestors' nomadic past, she said, when the Lexus contest design brief – calling for a solution to a problem in daily life – inspired her to try to apply a reconception of fabric to refugee needs.
"A home is not a place where we happen to live, it's a place where we come into being, where we are able to express ourselves. It's a refuge from the outside world."