What does architecture mean in places like Syria and the Calais Jungle?

This review first appeared in bdonline on 24 June 2016.

Joanna Day is impressed by the Architecture Foundation’s refugee festival

It’s festival season. Festivals bring the opportunity to choose, within a compressed time-frame, from a range of acts or activities and to personally curate your own programme. It also exaggerates any “fear of missing out” tendencies – what if the act I choose to go to isn’t as good as the others happening at the same time, what if I’m in the queue for the loo when the best event of the day happens, and so on!

Last week, I went to the Architecture Foundation-organised festival Papers held at the Barbican. This is the second (very reasonably priced) AF day-long festival I’ve been to. I find it a thought-provoking choice of format. It creates a buzz around a theme, creates discussions that thread between and cross over different events, and saturates visitors with viewpoints from a range of voices. Despite the celebratory tone and beer-drinking of the festivals, the topics chosen by AF are deeply serious. None could be more potent than that of the plight of refugees that Papers addressed “through art, culture and architecture”.

I think there is mileage in this kind of event, a sort of intellectual pick ‘n’ mix, as long as it’s well-attended. The choice of venue is key and the Barbican conservatory seems to have been a popular setting in which to view installations and artworks and hear talks about the refugee crisis. In particular, focus was on the scandalous situation at and around the Calais Jungle, something there seems to have been very little coverage of in the mainstream architectural media.

Highlights of the day, for me, included the short historical perspective of Richard Sennett, an author I have long admired. His conclusion, through comparisons with the experience of the Jews who fled Spain and were ghettoised by the authorities of Venice in the 15th century, was that, contrary to received wisdom, what we in Britain fear is not the lack of integration of refugees, but the polar opposite. We worry that they will integrate, that we won’t be able to identify them as outsiders any more, and hence lose our perceived power over them. It was a provocative political point worthy of consideration.

The other event that resonated particularly was the live Skype feed to Homs to interview the Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni, who recently published her book The Battle for Home. For those of us who had read about her in the Observer recently, it was a stunning feeling to see her smiling from her living room, with car horns blaring in the background, and to realise at once the possible connection with and actual separation from a person in Syria at that moment in time. Discussions covered how architecture can bring people together or tear them apart, about (not) learning the lessons of history written in a city, and about the importance of identity to place. The interview was a very modern and moving experience to watch.

The characteristic of a festival is that each person’s review will be different from the next, according to the combination of events attended. For one attendee, the discussions between architects and non-architects with direct experience of the Calais Jungle and the role of beauty in such a place may have been the most powerful debate. For another, the film footage, or children’s artworks fresh from the coalface of human suffering would have been the most affecting. Or, potentially - and perhaps for the organisers this would be the most sure sign of success - it would be an un-orchestrated evening conversation with other attendees as music played in the background.

I look forward to seeing what the AF does next with the festival approach. I commend the topics so far chosen for examination, which are largely outside the current scope of day-to-day architectural press and discussions. I can’t think of an issue that needs more sober attention than the refugee crisis we see surrounding us. I hope the conversation continues.