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Refugee Heritage conversations: Pelin Tan, “Camps as Trans-Local Commons”


Camps as Trans-Local Commons

Pelin Tan

Documentation of existing tent settlement in Çınar camp, Diyarbakir, by Ashraf Nassab. Produced within Architecture Master Studio, MAU Architecture Faculty, 2016.

What trans-local commoning practices could exist between urbanized camps such as Dheisheh or Al-Fawar in Palestine and those recently established in Turkey? How can we redefine and experience the infrastructure of thresholds, commoning practices and methods of experimental heritage that emerge within them? And how might architectural and design pedagogies provide a common base for such understandings? Distinct geographical conditions, socio-political forces and uncommon histories make cumulative interpretation and analysis difficult. This uncommon knowledge is, however, exactly the way in which methodologies can be expanded and concepts redefined. The anachronistic forms of refugee camps lead us towards a new understanding of dwelling, one that is not grounded in practices of “empathy,” but rather of knitting the commons.

Highly secured tent and container camps first started being built in Turkey by the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD)—a Turkish state administrative body operating with UN support—in 2013 to house refugees from the Syrian civil war. At the same time, many self-organized or NGO organized camps began appearing, such as in occupied bus terminals building or vacant spaces in between towns or urban neighborhoods. In both types, refugees have reorganized and adapted these spatial environments according to their everyday needs and respective backgrounds. Since 2013 I have run postgraduate design studios at the Architecture Faculty, Artuklu University, Mardin, in which we have documented and archived processes of self-organization and design in various camps, such as Calais, on the English Channel in France, to Al-Fawar and Pikpa in Lesvos, a Greek island 4km from the Turkish coast, and Midyat in Mardin, just 25km from the Syrian border in southwest Turkey. We have focused on the question of autonomous, interdependent infrastructures and commoning practices from an architectural perspective, which has led us to the camps’ heritage, both tangible and intangible.

Accompanied by a group of postgraduate students and David Harvey, I visited Dheisheh Refugee Camp in 2015 to run a workshop with Campus in Camps on the idea of “autonomous infrastructure.” Instead of basic forms of infrastructure like water or electricity, we focused primarily on solidarity, which we found to be closely linked to those more basic, material forms. One master’s student, urbanist Yildiz Tahtaci, drew a parallel between the Women’s Center and Square in Al-Fawar Refugee Camp and the women’s laundry center in Benusen, a neighborhood in Diyarbakir populated by Kurds who were forced to migrate from their villages in the 1990s and due to state-led urban development, might be forced to move again.¹ Tahtaci’s thesis was that despite their geopolitical difference, a comparison between structures of the commons can be made between recent Greek and Turkish camps and more urbanized and established ones in Palestine and Jordan.² Women from shared backgrounds like eviction and exile in both Al-Fawar and Benusen were creating threshold spaces where commons are practiced. Similarly, the kitchens, bathrooms and shared vegetable gardens we witnessed families organizing and designing during our two-year survey of Çınar camp in Diyarbakir had a parallel in Al-Fawar’s rooftop gardens.³ Thresholds function as a space of passage, a bridge that creates potentialities.⁴ Within threshold spaces such as refugee camps, detention centers or safe passages, localities are reproduced and commons are practiced through diverse social solidarities and imaginations in situations of supposedly temporary precariousness.⁵

According to Silvia Federici, commoning practices require community, which in itself is based on relations with the principles of cooperation and responsibility to one another.⁶ Examples like Pikpa camp in Lesvos—which serves more a space for safe passage rather than one of confinement—or City Plaza Hotel in Athens—an occupied space where refugee families and Greek activists together act as one—are thresholds evolving within co-existing communities. But in many refugee camps, ethnic identity and religion often act as the basis for community networks and formative relations. While this can result in social structures that leave certain inhabitants vulnerable, design can be used to ameliorate, or even subvert such conditions. Ezidi women in Çınar camp, for instance, are prohibited by their husbands to sit in front of their tents. As a response, they have built semi-public extensions to their tents from found materials like wood, blankets and humanitarian-grade plastic sheeting. While in different and at times conflicting ways, each of these cases demonstrate Federici’s claim that commoning practices not only have the ability to overcome vulnerability and precariousness, but also highlight the role of women in their becoming.

The effects of war and the active renegotiation of borders demands a transformation in the way infrastructure is approached and working with, not just as the functional and scalar threshold of architecture, but also as mechanisms that form part of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls geontologies of landscape. According to Povinelli, both “geos” (non-life) and “being” (ontology) are “currently in play in the late liberal governance of difference and markets,” in response to which she outlines new figures, tactics and discourses of power by proposing a definition of biopolitics with no separation between elements of Life and Non-life.⁷ How then can we approach infrastructural landscapes that have been shaped by war and migration, such as camps? Within such a framework I see both conflict and possibility in connecting “infrastructure” with commoning practices. Towards these ends, design and architectural pedagogy can be used as tools to understand infrastructure as empirical facts of how heterogeneous forms of the commons are rooted in daily life.⁸

The camp is a vulnerable space. It is constituted by its thresholds and the exchanges that take place across it. It is a space of small economic initiatives and heterogenous commoning practices that subvert established concepts of heritage, urban, neighborhood and citizenship. It is thus something that should be not only physically protected but also institutionally valued. The documentation and archiving of temporary heritage, that which might not be recognized by a modernist approach to preservation, is therefore essential. Çınar camp was decommissioned and all of its inhabitants were transferred to Midyat, an official, AFAD, state-run camp in December 2016. The material we collected during our two-year survey is the only lasting documentation of the heterogenous commons that took place there.⁹ Producing a collective body of knowledge about refugee camps and the representation of their commoning practices is a vital part of heritage so that it may be shared and passed on to future generations.¹⁰

1 Yildiz Tahtaci, Masters Thesis. Al-Fawar Refugee Camp Women Center survey by Yildiz Tahtaci, Isshaq Elbarbary, Ayat Al -Thursan, Pelin Tan (2016–2017)
2 Further notes forthcoming in Turkish: Pelin Tan & Ömer Faruk Günenç, “Camp: Decolonizing Architecture” in: Yapi Mimarlik Dergisi, (Yapi Endustri Merkezi, Istanbul: 2017).
3 See .
4 For a more expanded discussion on the topic, see: Pelin Tan, “Architecture in Crisis: Exception as a Form of Decay”, ARQ, 92, 2016: pp. 118-125.
5 Pelin Tan, “The Unconditional Experience of Space,” in: The Unexpected Guest - Art, Writing, Thinking of Hospitality, eds. Sally Tallant & Paul Domela, (Art Books Publishing Ltd, London: 2012).
6 Silvia Federici, “Feminism And the Politics of the Commons,” The Commoner, .
7 Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies (Duke University Press: 2016), 5.
8 Cyrille Hanappe, an architect who has worked with students in Calais, is another example of how architectural methodologies can be pushed beyond a humanitarian approach and deployed as a form of research. See .
9 With Advanced Architecture Studio, Autumn, 2016, Mardin. Students: Ashraf Nassab, Tugba Yasar, Selim Batı,
Berat Celebioğlu, Derya Dağ, Hülya Irmak, Ferda Ocakhanoglu, Elif E.Yilmaz.
10 See, for example, the Campus in Camps publications “Common II,” “The Square” and “The Bridge,” .

Pelin Tan is Associate Professor at the Architecture Faculty, Mardin Artuklu University, Turkey.

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