Humanitarian Design

When Visions Collide with Practice and What to Do About It

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    Norman Foster Foundation - Re-materializing Housing Workshop

    Johan Karlsson at the Norman Foster Foundation’s library during his seminar on humanitarian design.

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    Norman Foster Foundation - Re-materializing Housing Workshop

    Transit settlement using RHUs in Greece.

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    Norman Foster Foundation - Re-materializing Housing Workshop

    Assembly of the RHU in Ethiopia.

Presenting his renowned work at Better Shelter, a nonprofit company that builds shelters for displacement settlements created in response to warzone conflict and natural crises, Johan Karlsson offered an intensely provocative reconsideration of the relationship between architecture and the humanitarian system. In opposition to the precedent set by traditional shelter architecture, where temporality and impersonality often prevail, Karlsson asked, “Can we build shelters that are able to not only stand against the next hurricane, but to feel like home?”

Last updated: November 19, 2021 Madrid, Spain

From there, Karlsson presented the seminar’s audience with a key question: what is it exactly that makes a home? From a social perspective, is there a common denominator across cultures? For humanitarian shelter practitioners, the perspective is often that prefabricated shelters are typically expensive, do not contribute to local labour and are seldom culturally appropriate or functional. Even worse, prefabricated designs are often ‘camps’—that is, the temporary containment of families without any political incentive to become sustainable settlements or cities.

Local reconstruction is the preferred and proven method; yet, in many of the major displacement situations of today, the palette of options is limited. Local supply chains are not functional and populations on the move are large. As Karlsson explained, the average duration of displacement is twenty-six years. The planning horizon, however, is often twelve months or less.

Through the lens of a humanitarian design practitioner, the lecture highlighted the many well-intended, but often incorrect assumptions that designers and architects have, as well as the limitations of standard shelter programming. To conclude, the discussion turned again to the question of how designers may navigate this complex field so as to create solutions that remain relevant throughout the true duration of displacement.

Contents Report - Norman Foster Foundation - Re-materializing Housing Workshop