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Cardboard for Humanity

Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human being—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.

—Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees”

Humanitarianism is often posed as a “practice of humanity”: an ensemble of forms of care that protect a notionally universal “human.” But who or what is the humanitarian human? Might the humanitarian protection of humanity also involve a production of humanity, the fabrication of specific sorts of bodies and lives? And how might the humanitarian human exist in relation to other humans? Humanitarian architecture—architecture designed to respond to “humanitarian emergencies”—offers one way into these and related questions.

Consider Shigeru Ban’s renowned “emergency shelters” at the Gihembe Refugee Camp in Rwanda. In 1998, the first year of Gihembe’s operation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided incoming refugees with plastic sheets and aluminum poles to use for shelter, but refugees would often cut down trees to use as supports for the plastic sheets and sell the aluminum poles in the adjacent town of Byumba. While this entrepreneurialism provided refugees a rare opportunity to produce value and accumulate capital, it also led to what the UNHCR called “deforestation” around the camp, despite the fact that the building of the camp initiated the process of “deforestation” in the first place. The question was actually who at Gihembe had the right to deforest. In response to this question, Ban created a prototype shelter that used recycled cardboard tubes, which refugees could not sell, in place of aluminum poles to support the plastic sheets. 50 of these prototypes were erected at Gihembe in 1999.

Following his work in post-earthquake Kobe in 1995, Ban’s project at Gihembe extended professional architectural practice to sites and problems hitherto regarded as marginal, and his work was justly celebrated in architectural circles. According to one critic, it was Ban’s emergency shelters at Gihembe that “made him famous and particularly admired … in a field where humanitarian relief work isn't exactly commonplace.” Ban subsequently carried out a series of other projects using recycled materials for post-disaster shelter—in the post-typhoon Philippines, post-earthquake Nepal, Japan, and Haiti, and post-hurricane New Orleans—alongside other architectural work in the field’s more conventional contexts.

Read the full article here.