Refugee tents are a waste of money, says Alejandro Aravena

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Tents are a quick response to the need for emergency shelter, but "it's money that melts" says Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 director Alejandro Aravena.

Investing in less temporary disaster-relief shelters should be seen as "payment in advance" for a long-term solution to the world's housing shortages, said the Chilean architect and founder of architecture studio Elemental.

Elemental Monterrey by Elemental
This housing complex by Alejandro Aravena's studio Elemental was designed to provide 70 low-cost homes in Mexico

"The problem with a tent is that when you use it you throw it away, so it's money that melts," said Aravena during a lecture at the University of East London (UEL) last week. "It's a pity to waste and throw away money."

Aravena champions an "incremental" approach to housing by providing low-cost partial solutions that residents can complete themselves.

He said that developing longer-term solutions like this for the refugees and immigrants flooding into Europe could help solve the continent's existing housing shortage.

"The housing crisis in Europe, not only due to refugees and immigration that wasn't there before, will require eventually to at least be open to discuss the incremental approach to housing," he told Dezeen after the talk.

"If you [have to] provide something very, very quickly, then the chances of making a mistake are higher, so you need some help to buy time," he said. "If the temporary solution is of better quality you may buy that required time."

Quinta Monroy by Alejandro Aravena
Elemental's Quinta Monroy residential development includes 93 houses and was built to replace an illegal settlement in Iquique, Chile

More sustainable and incremental models for housing need to be delivered globally to deal with the growing number of people living below the poverty line due to social or natural disasters, he added.

Aravena, who was named as next year's Biennale director in July, founded Santiago-based "Do Tank" Elemental in 2000 to develop better affordable housing solutions.

Elemental developed a model for low-cost housing based on the principle of initially providing "half a good home". This involved designing the "difficult half" of the house, while gaps left between the dwellings could be filled in by residents later.



This system was used to replace an illegal settlement in Iquique, Chile, to build a new housing development in Mexico, and was adapted into a proposal for emergency housing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

"From a financial point of view it was more expensive, but we were not throwing away money, it was paying in advance for a solution that now works as an emergency shelter but later it will work as a permanent solution," said Aravena.

Casa-per-tutti_Milan-Triennale_dezeen_sq2
Elemental's prototype house as part of the Casa Per Tutti (Housing For All) exhibition at the Milan Triennale 2008, which aimed to address problems related to housing

His statements echo the sentiment of humanitarian aid expert Kilian Kleinschmidt, who recently told Dezeen that governments should stop thinking about refugee camps as temporary places and instead see them as future cities.

"The way to contribute to the issue is through design," said Aravena. "We [Elemental] provide professional quality, not professional charity."

"We're not particularly good people, we're not generous, we're not going for a romantic hippy approach." he said "The project started from a very pragmatic, cold-blooded reading of the facts."

Avarena's theme for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale is Reporting from the Front, a reference to the difficulty in producing a model for quality housing.

"The title of the biennale is Reporting from the Front and by that I mean to produce quality in the built environment is difficult. It takes a lot of effort," said Aravena at UEL. "The idea of the biennale is to try to understand what it takes."

  • Concerned Citizen

    The “investment” in New Orleans after Katrina was actually the mass purchase and installation of mobile homes. Most of the homes were so severely trashed by the occupants that they had to be destroyed, e.g., melting money.

    People in Chile may be able to take care of quarters given to them, but in pretty much the rest of the world, such recipients show no gratitude or respect.

    • MB

      So what then, give them nothing because they can’t show gratitude or respect?

      New Orleans is a completely different situation to the refugee situation in Europe. In New Orleans people were temporarily displaced with the hope that they could return to their homes – though obviously many couldn’t.

      Furthermore, the public attitude towards the government and the NGOs involved in supplying those mobile homes was pretty low. Would you show gratitude for a mobile home when you feel your government has abandoned your city? It’s not hard to imagine how that might feel like a token gesture.

      Many refugees in Europe have migrated from their home without hope that they might return. They are looking for more permanence, and with that why not build something that might stand for years rather than months? The idea that eventually these people will just disappear is utterly ignorant. You only need to look to the favelas and slums around the world to see that it’s incredibly difficult to manage a shantytown once it’s established.

      I can’t see any other way to resolve the situation than to treat these emergency camps as proper townships and develop them accordingly.

      • Concerned Citizen

        Well, thanks for completely missing the point. If you had read the article beforehand you would have seen where the commentator is demanding that governments put up a lot of money, time, and effort for emergency housing.

        It is quite distressing that you, like the Katrina inhabitants, think it’s just fine to totally demolish something you direly need and received for free. When one has nothing, then something is better. That basis cannot be discarded because you think you want more. “To him who is given much, much is expected.” It wasn’t that anyone abandoned the flood victims, it was that the victims were firing weapons at their rescuers and killing each other.

        My point is that giving more money to such emergency facilities will only result in more money being lost. The place will become inhabitable within weeks of full occupation. People seem to do better when they have tents.

        The crux of emergency shelters is that they are EMERGENCIES. Housing must be provided at speeds not possible in ordinary conditions. To erect a community that will eventually become permanent requires planning, purchase of land, zoning, earthwork, infrastructure, utilities, etc., etc. By the time all that work is done, before the first structure is built, the emergency will have passed.

        Sorry, I just happen to exist in a real world, and I think as though I do. If I had euphoria, I might imagine a society like the one you are dreaming about.

  • spadestick

    It depends on where you put people and what cultures people are. Some cultures originally prefer the bush or a mud hut. You put them into a high-rise, and the building is in trouble. Some cultures prefer to squat and poop…

    Consumerism is also a culture. What may work in one may not in the other. Socialistic societies are now finding it impossible to provide welfare to the refugees and fresh immigrants, burdening the entire system, which was designed to cope with a certain number to claim benefits.

    Oh and please refrain from putting people in deserts – piping water from thousands of miles away and a supply chain of free food is unsustainable. Period.

  • Pierre M

    Let’s be pragmatic: you refer to the migrant situation and the fact that there is enough housing. In France for instance, there are two million empty houses! Sure design can help, but clearly politics could also do something about it.

    Moreover, the argument that the use of tents is “money that melts” seems very surprising. What would be the cost difference between building low-cost housing and having tents? Even on long term, it would be surprising if tents were more expensive. That it is about human decency makes sense, but the cold-blooded and pragmatic cost argument appears, to say the least, to be questionable, unless discussed clearly.

    • danielle

      Two million empty houses in France ! Ooooh brilliant statistics…

      Tell me where they are, and who’s they are, and what kind of houses they are!

      1) Thousands (yes…) of people arrive EVERY day at Europe frontiers and 4000 are concentrated now in Calais (France) just near the town.
      2) Do we have to build houses for them…no. Why? Because they won’t stay. (Most of then don’t want to stay. They are trying to go to England . And we can’t build in Italy, Greece, France new “cities” of thousand of migrants…
      3) A tent is better than the mud and the rain and having no privacy. But a tent is not a “definitive” house. Just a help.When they are allowed to stay or when they illegally stay, the problem is different. They have a house in cities and villages in the country. Tent or house ?

      Yes it is also problem of money. With houses, you have to organise the supply of water, heat, permanent roads etc. All things that the cities has to pay… it is a problem of politics and respect of their lives and of lives too, can we give a home to so many refugees.

      • Pierre M

        I just don’t understand what you write. Is it supposed to be a reply?

        Yes, Danielle, two million. For Paris alone there are 1,356,000 apartments and INSEE estimates that 7.3% are vacant, so about 100.000 of them, only in Paris.

        We have regions that have been emptying for the last 30 years, and if you know France a little bit, you should know that many villages and small towns are very much empty and the fraction of vacant housing is quite higher there. So yes, there are plenty of vacant housing, apparently much more than what you seem to imagine, but we learn new things everyday right?

  • whatever

    Architecture is not a Red Cross department! Architecture is not (only) sheltering! Stop hiding behind this kind of statement, just to work on your PR or to show how ‘trendy’ you are with the current political issues.

    This is no concern of architecture. There are people and organisations working on this daily since the WWII; well funded by foundations and governments! OK, you got yourself the next biennale, now stop pretending please…

  • Stefano

    I’ve said it on another thread, but to summarise, architecture will not solve this humanitarian crisis. It’s up to humanity to accept that we must all pull together as a species and de-consumerise ourselves in order to engender an equal world based on sharing (knowledge, currency, resources and compassion). It won’t happen though…

  • Alex W

    Me thinks Mr Aravena is a bit naive, or at best tilting at a straw man. Tents are ‘popular’ in a crisis because they can be shipped, erected and start functioning in hours and days, not weeks and months.

    I don’t think anyone considers them a good long-term housing solution. Doing things in a hurry is not often conducive to spending money well.

    Secondly, many (most?) places faced with an influx of refugees are unwilling to take actions that help make that settlement permanent, precisely because they are hoping that it won’t become permanent. I’m sure Mr Kleinschmidt knows that, and whilst his may the voice of the greater good making, it may not be a popular argument with the original population of the area (and we do like democracy, right?)