BY Niklas Maak in Opinion | 01 JUN 16
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Issue 180

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15th Venice Architecture Biennale: the German pavilion showcases projects for rehousing refugees

BY Niklas Maak in Opinion | 01 JUN 16

Over the next few decades, hundreds of thousands of people will be coming to Germany. Even if the Western Balkan route is now closed, and even if a gigantic wall were to be erected around the country tomorrow, there are already more than a million refugees here. Many of them will stay, which makes it necessary to build, to convert, to create accommodation for the new arrivals. But how? In the state’s view, the solution is ‘mobile refugee homes’. In Berlin, for example, ‘housing groups in lightweight design’ are currently being built at six locations, with each intended to accommodate 450 people. (‘Lightweight’ sounds good, but the designs actually use re-inforced concrete elements, prefabricated for assembly onsite.) By the end of the year, this work should provide homes for 19,000 refugees. Each ‘housing group’ consists of two parallel four-storey wings, connected by a single-storey ‘utility wing’ to form a U-shape that encloses a kind of courtyard.

Architects have been up in arms for months because these ‘mobile refugee homes’, comprising one of the largest housing pro­­grammes in decades with a budget of around €600 million (GBP £470 million), were designed by bureaucrats. The fact that no international competition for the project was held is all the more astonishing given that the need for new mass accommodation was already being discussed in Germany before the current refugee crisis. After many years of inner cities being increasingly privatized, it has been widely recognized that the issue of affordable housing needs to be resolved. Once, there were six million social housing units in Germany; today, there are just 1.4 million. At the same time, cities are growing. As a result, Berlin, for example, will need 120,000 new apartments by 2020 (of which less than ten percent are planned to be social housing). These figures don’t include the 40,000–70,000 apartments that may be needed to house refugees. In order to make all of this happen, new apartments will also need to be considerably cheaper.

Architect’s rendering of repurposed Dutch Pavilion, EXPO 2000 Hanover, from Refugees Welcome, 2015, designed by Martina Frybova and Madeleine Möller. Courtesy: the architects and JOVIS Verlag, Berlin

How will this be possible? Mobile homes for refugees alone will not be the answer. Oliver Elser and Peter Cachola Schmal from the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt (who, with project co-ordinator Anna Scheuermann, are responsible for the German pavilion at this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice) have set up the website to document buildings for migrants. It is already clear that the crisis is leading to spectacular and ingenious proposals: the Berlin architect Max Schwitalla has joined forces with lift manufacturer Schindler and ETH, Zurich’s technical university, to design an ‘urban shelf’ made of concrete. Not unlike a parking garage for cars, the building offers only infrastructure: load-bearing structure, mains water, electricity. With expert assistance, the future inhabitants build their homes into this concrete shelf and, in the process, according to the plan, they acquire skills and architectural knowledge that may be useful either on their return to their destroyed home countries or, if they remain, on the German job market: building one’s own home as a training course. 

Meanwhile, the legal conditions of building are being rethought. Parallel to the need for more apartments at lower prices, the demands of energy efficiency are driving construction costs up. For this reason, in September 2015 the German government passed an act temporarily reducing energy-efficiency requirements for certain buildings. The refugee crisis could thus act as a catalyst for reform of a construction sector that is both over-regulated and hopelessly acquiescent to the market. But good proposals are still the exception. ‘We seem unable to develop a dignified approach to dealing with the issue of refugees in terms of architecture and town planning,’ explains the architect Jörg Friedrich. Developed with students and presented in the book Refugees Welcome (2015), he shows what alternatives to mobile housing groups and containers might look like. According to Friedrich, rather than shutting people away in ‘metal-box architecture’ on the outskirts of a town which ‘promotes aggression, violence and exclusion, not integration’, new residential architecture must be incorporated into the existing urban fabric. Friedrich and his students suggest building additional apartments on the flat roofs of thousands of postwar administrative and office buildings at inner-city locations. With simple changes to the existing building regulations, it would be easy to obtain planning permission and, in social terms, such a project would help revitalize moribund areas. 

Another key question is that of the revival of countless deserted rural areas, since the refugees cannot all be housed in cities. There have been many reports about the evacuated village of Kerpen-Manheim, halfway between Cologne and Aachen, which was supposed to make way for lignite mining by 2022, and where 70 refugees are now living. Optimists see the distribution of refugees to empty villages and small towns as an opportunity: in places intelligently converted by architects, especially in the east, they could find a new home and, given the right labour-market policy, boost local economies. This state-sponsored boom would then win over a local population frustrated by eastern Germany’s economic decline and diminish, if not eradicate, their current xenophobia.

The Urban Shelf architect’s rendering of integrated housing concept for refugees, designed by Studio Schwitalla. Courtesy: © Studio Schwitalla, Schindler Ltd. 

But can this strategy actually work? Recently, Germany’s Vice-Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, called for refugees to be assigned fixed places of residence to prevent them from moving into cities and ‘creating ghettos there’. Immediately, the counter-argument was voiced: refugees integrate better in cities; in rural areas, where unemployment is high, refugees are more greatly feared by the local population. The demonstrations of the far-right Pegida movement are full of people from rural areas with signs that read ‘Refugees Go Home’. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of attacks in Germany on refugee homes rose from 18 to 924. In spite of all this, rural areas could actually benefit from refugees. Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Andrea Nahles, has stated that 460,000 employable refugees are currently registered in Germany. This year, they will be joined by a further estimated 200,000. ‘At the same time,’ Nahles says, ‘we currently have around a million job vacancies. This means that, with the help of the refugees, we could manage to reduce the shortage of skilled workers in craft trades in the medium term.’ What if abandoned farms, deserted workshops and empty administrative buildings were to be given to refugees? In Bavaria, this is already happening, with local authorities getting funding to convert empty properties they own into accommodation. 

Eighteen Iraqis in an empty block of flats; 12 Syrians behind the brown door of a yellow-brick building from the 1970s: for optimists, this is the image of a colourful revival, of a new, more lively Germany. What if the Syrian doctor re-opened the village surgery that closed years ago? What if the Iraqis re-opened the old bakery, which could be economically viable again now that the villagers have been joined by a few hundred refugees? Wouldn’t this small labour market help people get to know each other, take young people off the streets, revive deserted rural areas and take pressure off the cities? And would this not be a real opportunity to resettle the countryside: to increase population density, to create jobs, to necessitate the building of fast rail links into the cities? Rural areas, seen to date almost exclusively as problematic, could be transformed into genuine residential alternatives to the cities that are becoming increasingly expensive to live in.

If the so-called refugee crisis could be seen as the key to a new rural futurism, aimed at repopulating and revitalizing the countryside, it might well offer an unexpected opportunity for the entire country.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Niklas Maak is a writer and arts editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as well as John T. Dunlop Lecturer of Housing and Urbanization at Harvard University, USA. He is the author of Le Corbusier: The Architect on the Beach (2011) and Living Complex: From Zombie City to the New Communal (2015), both published by Hirmer.