Designing for Humanity

Following last month’s Harmony Day and Cultural Diversity Week, this article touches on my 2018 Honours thesis, a study on ‘The Future Migration Crisis and Resettlement of Refugees’. The overarching topic of ‘Future Habitats 2068’ led me to explore and understand how architecture can boost the resilience and unity of our Australian community to cope with future waves of migration.

We are currently witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record since World War 2. Globally, over the last decade, we have seen the number of displaced people more than double to 71 million. With the increased risk of diminishing resources, climate change, natural disasters and war, there is no doubt that forced migration will be a defining issue of the 21st century. However, is humanity prepared and equipped to managing these future waves of migration and dramatic change?

Human Flow (2017), a documentary led by internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, gives a powerful visual expression to this massive human migration crisis. The film elucidates both the staggering scale of the refugee crisis and its profoundly personal human impact. Captured over the course of a year, Human Flow is a witness to its subjects and their desperate search for safety, shelter and justice. The film comes at a crucial time when tolerance, compassion and trust are needed more than ever.

While Australia is the second most multicultural country in the world, being an ethnically diverse country does not necessarily constitute being a successful multicultural society. Research conducted by the Scanlon Foundation revealed that figures for cohesion in Australia are strong, but there is a drift in the wrong direction.

The resettlement of refugees into host communities brings about a range of issues, from discrimination to political interference, language barriers and a sense that they don’t really belong. And it’s here that a possible role for architects and designers has gone somewhat overlooked. As creatives with the tools and knowledge to assist, the design community can do its part to smooth the transition of refugee resettlement and boost the cohesion of our communities during this time of need.

Architectural philosophy has for decades pushed the importance and significance of the built environment within our global society. Buildings and cities help frame, articulate, structure, give significance to, relate, unite and facilitate communities. Architecture and the built environment, at its core, enables us to place ourselves in the continuum of culture.

In recent years, there has been a focus on designing innovative and sustainable solutions for refugee camps, from flat-packed easy-assembly shelters to deploying mud-spraying drones to construct temporary homes using whatever materials are to hand. More permanent solutions have come in the form of communal facilities, in an effort to encourage community and a proper sense of place in these temporary camps. Designed by Architecture students from the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany, this community centre in the Mannheim refugee camp provides a space for the occupants to come together and interact.

But in an effort to encourage the permanent resettlement of refugees within our cities, should we be shifting our focus to urban design and architecture within our own communities, to create built environments that celebrate diversity, promote social cohesion and equality of opportunity, and provide a sense of place for these newcomers? In Tel Aviv, Israel, where a large portion of the population are refugees, the Hayarden School for Refugee children was re-imagined to become a modern learning environment that is inviting, comfortable and gives the children a sense of belonging.

COncept designs for Georgina's Capstone project - Centre for National Unification
Concept design for Georgina’s Capstone project - Centre for National Unification

For my Capstone project, I explored the realm of public architecture and place-making, where I developed a design concept for a ‘Centre for National Unification’. The building was designed to improve the future experience of refugee resettlement through the facilitation of intercultural education and community interaction. The design brings the topic of human migration, cultural diversity and the importance of social cohesion to the public stage.

Indeed, for a nation that prides itself on multiculturalism, smoothing the way for those cut adrift from their own lands to join with and enable our communities to flourish can be a point of equal pride. And, ironically, by focusing inward, there may be a better chance to achieve that. And so, a note to our design community:

Let’s think today for tomorrow and for our future. Let’s open our minds and hearts and embrace the invaluable power of design and creativity, and let’s make our communities flourish through designing for inclusion, cultural diversity and cohesion, so to help shape our collective humanity and create a world of equality and opportunity.

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