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An interview with architect Abeer Seikaly.

What motivated you to address the needs of displaced communities through design?

I’m a firm believer that everything begins at home, and the same applies to motivation. In my case, home is Jordan, where as a nation, we host one of the largest communities of refugees in the world – 2 million Palestinians, 61,000 Iraqis, and most recently 1.4 million Syrians. As a result of this most recent influx of refugees, communities have struggled to survive. The most fundamental aspect of human existence which is inarguably, shelter. It is a universal human need. Putting this need into perspective – Jordan needs an additional 48,230 housing units to meet the mounting demand, and many existing units are significantly below habitable standards.

Moreso, there are more than one billion people worldwide who live without adequate shelter. These kinds of numbers at this devastating scale causes one to feel helpless. But we are designers, trained to look at problems as opportunities, each problem demands our creative solution. I decided to act!

I started by designing a shelter that could help refugees envision their new lives. Not just an adequate shelter. A dignified shelter. My innovative shelter design was a response to what I was reading as the ‘issue’ or ‘problem’ statement clearly spelled out as a bill of specifications in the press and by the relief agencies. Energy independence, harnessing photovoltaic and thermal energy have been a personal interests of mine for many years now. I designed a special folding tent fabric, transportable and easy to erect and dismantle…and within cost. I won an award for my tent design that meets those specifications I sought out but more importantly, the design has the social potential to be a dignified shelter and weave a displaced community together. It is home.Design For Social ChangeTell us about your creative process and how it has informed the first prototype of the tent.

As I continued through the process of developing and building the tent myself I gained deep insights on materials and building processes. Collaborating with various communities allowed me to understand how architecture can and must adapt to different contexts, social setting and environments using local resources and building technologies. The solution cannot be to impose shelter on a community but to develop the design with communities. This empowering, participatory process enhances skills, rebuilds social interaction, and cultivates well-being. In this context architecture and design become a social and cultural practice. This is where I found the timeless meaning of innovation and technology.

My innovation can be defined as a shelter design process uses materials and technology and engages communities in fabricating their dignified shelters. In essence and as Buckminster Fuller so rightly put it, “It is the way we live that needs attention.”Design for Social ChangeThis month saw the devastation of entire communities due to two hurricanes. How important is the role of design in addressing these kinds of recurring global humanitarian crises?

Design is essential in addressing and solving for the effects of these massive humanitarian crises of displacement –  where communities of millions are on the move fleeing violence or natural disasters. But it is not design alone that can provide a solution. We must integrate various fields of knowledge and benefit from the wide pool of human experience in order to truly and meaningfully innovate and in the process, create more equitable ways of living.Design for Social ChangeDesign for Social Change

* All images are: Courtesy of Abeer Seikaly