As the Venice Biennale of Architecture draws to a close, it’s worth mentioning two proposals which seemed to have special potential for impacting the way we live. The German Pavillion at the Giardini, dedicated to the idea of “making heimat” in Germany, touted as an “arrival country”, and the “Ephemeral Urbanism: Cities in a Constant Flux” proposal by Rahul Mehrorta and Felipe Vera at the “Making of” in the Arsenale. Both groups have interpreted the theme of “Reporting from the Front” through the lens of migration, though on two very different scales.

Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country

The German Pavillion looks at the very real, unfold-before-your-eyes phenomenon, as thousands of people arrive in Germany. The organisers write boldly, plainly: “we need to create conditions for Germany to become a new home country for many people.” Their proposal for making heimat, which they explain as “the country or region where one was born or resides permanently” is rooted in the concept of a home(land) that can be—and is—made. They focus on the early stages of that process, when a city (or country) is most aptly characterised, in the mind of the newcomer, as an “arrival city”.

Ephemeral Urbanism: Cities in a Constant Flux

The main argument of Mehrorta and Vera’s research project is that modern cities need to have the capacity to “accommodate more temporary fluxes in motion” in order to be sustainable. They ask if permanence, a luxury concept, is still a relevant notion in the modern world. Their convincing argument is that accommodating for more temporal settlements in urban planning, where “conditions within and outside the boundaries of the city are simultaneously negotiated and appropriated [allows] to build more meaningful, productive and inclusive urban expressions.”

7 Ephemeral Landscapes

Mehrorta and Vera point towards seven landscapes which can serve as templates for ephemeral urban design. They are the Ephemeral Landscapes of Disaster, Military, Extraction, Refuge, Transaction, Celebration and Religion. Though there are valuable insights to be gained from every one of these, the Ephemeral Landscape of Refuge merits our special attention.

History proves that the ephemeral landscapes of refuge are anything but. Al Shati, home to over 85,000 inhabitants, opened in 1948; Dadaab, opened in 1992 and is home to 460,000; Nyarugusu, to 150,000 since 1996. It is reasonable to consider these older settlements, as well as newer ones, such as Zaatari (opened in 2012, and home to 83,000) not camps, but rather ephemeral cities.

8 theses of the Arrival City

The organisers of the German Pavillion collaborated with Doug Saunders, the author of “Arrival City”, in trying to establish what conditions need to be met in order for “immigrants to successfully integrate in Germany”. They developed the following theses:

  1. Immigrants look for opportunities in areas of urban density.
  2. For cities to be attractive (to immigrants), rents must be low.
  3. Jobs emerge where there are jobs already. A good public transport system is essential.
  4. Tolerating semi-legal practices can make sense.
  5. Strict housing construction regulations should not be allowed to stand in the way of much-needed self-built solutions.
  6. The success of a neighbourhood is determined by the availability of small-scale spaces on the ground floor.
  7. Ethnically homogenous districts enable community networks.
  8. The worst neighbourhoods need the very best schools to educate local children.

Importantly, Saunder’s research theses were developed during his time spent in slums and favelas around the world, and then transferred to the German context. Although the project focuses specifically on the post-reception centre stages of settlement, applying the German theses on a zoomed-out scale, allows us to better perceive the connection between “arrival” and “ephemeral” cities.

Ephemeral Heimat

“What is it that really differentiates a refugee camp from an actual city? What is the impediment that prevents the political and social to be instrumental for ‘citizens’ in refugee camps, as it does in other forms of Ephemeral Urbanism?” ask Mehrorta and Vera.

We should ask ourselves, as well as our cities’ planning authorities, further: what really differentiates an “immigrant” from any other newcomer to any given city?

If we consider the 8 theses of the German “arrival city” not in the context of “immigrants”, but rather in the context of any population on the move, we obtain a valuable template for an urban design that is relevant for the cities, including ephemeral ones, of today:

The arrival city is dense and diverse.

The arrival city has affordable housing for all.

The arrival city has a good transport system.

The arrival city is informal, meaning that common sense is valued above regulations.

The arrival city is self-built.

The arrival city has plentiful opportunities and incentives for small businesses.

The arrival city fosters community networks.

The arrival city invests heavily in schools.

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