The Birth of a City

Putting Down Roots in a Refugee Camp

he Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is the world’s largest. The machinery of international famine relief is in full gear there, but hundreds of thousands of people may become long-term residents. Conditions have prompted a camp manager to transform a temporary refuge into a city of the future.

This morning the Somali refugees are trying, again, to bury a child in his new city. Henok Ochalla sees them digging up red earth with their hatchets. He stops his SUV, plods over to the parents and tells them this camp is a place for life, not a cemetery.Life here admittedly drags on in filthy conditions, in hot tents surrounded by prickly shrubs cluttered with black plastic bags. But it could become a more nourishing life.

“You have to bury your child someplace else,” Ochalla says.

Less than an hour later he drives past the improvised gravesite again and nods with satisfaction. “They understood,” he says. The family has removed the small body and taken it to the place where a new sign reads “Graveyard.” Children are still dying in the camp from the effects of malnutrition, pneumonia and infection. “They are digging everywhere,” says Ochalla. “I can’t allow that. Order is critical here now.”

Ochalla is a powerful-looking man, a 39-year-old Ethiopian with a big, white smile, a smile that reassures people in Dadaab — otherwise a hellish, chaotic place.

Kenya’s Newest City

Ochalla works for the United Nations. He is one of the five camp managers, a sort of humanitarian mayor, in the world’s largest refugee camp, located on the Somali border in Kenya. He’s also a builder, a logistician and a registration office. His job is to find places to live for the thousands of refugees that have stubmled across the border every day for months now, their feet sore, their stomachs empty and their heads full of expectations. He allocates plots and makes arrangements to provide them with water, latrines, tents and addresses.

In fact, Ochalla is in the process of building a new city. It will be called “Ifo Extension” — a new wing of the twenty-year-old UN facility known as the Ifo Refugee Camp, outside the town of Dadaab. The new extension will be the size of the German city of Tübingen, about 90,000 people, and it will come complete with schools, market squares and police stations.

Ochalla wants to build a real city, a more tolerable place than the camp is today, and a place “made for the future.” He needs to provide a home for 90,000 refugees by December. Once emergency conditions are over, he hopes that stone houses will stand where there are tents today. A dust cloud engulfs Ochalla’s UN vehicle and a group of thin children, who stare as if it were a spaceship that had landed on their dried-up planet.

His two mobile phones, an iPhone and a Nokia, ring constantly. “It’s not going fast enough with the water tanks,” he says into one of the phones. “We need four more tents in section S today,” he says into the other. He wears suede shoes and a safari hat. Three tents were stolen during the night, he says.

Ochalla and his colleagues from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Food Program and the other aid organizations working in Dadaab need to come up with quick answers to the questions posed by refugees and politicians, or by donors, like a German family that gives €50 of its monthly budget to the camp. Questions like: How does the world’s largest refugee camp, a place with 450,000 residents, function?

And how does one bring structure to a place where the life of each individual is in a state of almost complete chaos, where people have no homes, no food and no plan for the future? Aside from giving them a few sacks of flour every month, is it possible to give these people a future?

Africa is the continent of human suffering, but it is also a place where people are constantly in flux, constantly trying to make its 30 million square kilometers (11.6 million square miles) more habitable. It has the African Union, which seeks “African solutions for African problems.” And it has Jeffrey Sachs and the UN Millennium Project, Bill Gates and his attempt to develop genetically modified plants to fight hunger, Bob Geldof, Bono, Angelina Jolie and all the other celebrities who have turned Africa into a canvas for their humanitarian efforts. Finally, it has Henok Ochalla of the UNHCR, who sets out every morning and tries to bring a little order and hope to this new wave of suffering.

‘I Can’t Count Them All’

But can anyone give hope to people like Nuriya Ali, a woman who fled the worst drought in a decade and arrived in Dadaab with nothing but her four daughters? It’s 6:30 a.m., and the sun is still pale in the sky above the reception center in the Ifo Extension, when Nuriya Ali and her daughters reach Dadaab, after walking for 10 days through the arid Somali steppe and wandering around the camps for two days and two nights. Nuriya is waiting to be granted entry into the world’s largest city of hungry people.

She presses her hand against her breast and squats on the ground in front of the gate, trying to nurse her four-month-old baby girl. Nuriya’s breast milk stopped flowing several days ago. Now the baby just lies there, lacking even the strength to cry. Her three other children — Sowdo, 7, Maryan, 5 and Amina, 3 — cling to her veil. The girls haven’t eaten in three days. They don’t speak, play or laugh. They simply stare into space. Hunger has made them apathetic.

Nuriya has a thoughtful look in her eyes and the smooth skin of a young girl. She is from Afmadow, a small city in southern Somalia, where the Shabab militias, armed with assault rifles, control everyday life. She believes she is 26. Her husband died of a snakebite when she was pregnant. He couldn’t be driven to the hospital because the family had no car. “Everything is gone, everything,” she says. “We don’t even have a plastic jug anymore.”

Nuriya Ali is a nomad. She remembers that her family once had 25 cows, but when the drought came they had to travel ever-greater distances to find even a small amount of water. Sometimes they would walk for two days before reaching water, and at other times there was no water to be found. First the animals died, and then the people started dying. “I can’t count them all,” says Nuriya, referring to the neighbors and friends who died. Those who were still able to flee left Somalia, and Nuriya joined the exodus.

Hunger threatens more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa. Some 38 percent of the population is malnourished in southern Somalia. Thousands have already starved to death this year, and the death toll could continue to rise, possibly reaching several hundred thousand in the coming weeks. No one knows how many will flee to Dadaab, or how many more people the enormous refugee camp can still support.

Nuriya looks at the gate, where hundreds of other refugees sit or squat on the ground, including women with up to seven children and old people dragging themselves along on sticks. An entire village has gathered under a single tarpaulin.

They’re all waiting to be ushered into this gigantic aid machine, where people are processed into computer files and sorted by health status and family size, and where tons of relief supplies and tents have been purchased with the money the aid organizations have raised.

In recent weeks, $251 million (€178 million) have been donated for drought victims in the Horn of Africa, including $21 million from the German government. Once again, the money is far from sufficient to meet the refugees’ needs.

Somalia suffers from the double curse of drought and war. The situation has worsened in the twenty years since the nation’s central government collapsed. And now international speculators, betting on agricultural commodities markets, have driven up prices and forced people like Nuriya to leave their homes. The West gives millions of dollar every year; but the West also takes. Dadaab and its residents are a microcosm of Africa, a place full of people forced by war, global markets and drought into a life that could not exist without the global aid machine.

Read the entire article at :






read full article


Better Living Through Architecture

Vacation Homes for a New Britain

By Katja Thimm in London

Photo Gallery: Alain de Botton's Holiday Homes
Philosopher and bestselling author Alain de Botton wants to improve the lives of the British population and teach them to appreciate modern architecture. He is hoping to transform society with a series of avant-garde vacation homes designed by top architects.
The streets around Belsize Park underground station in London are lined with stores selling organic food and wooden toys. Local children have names like Peach or Petal Blossom Rainbow.
The residents of the Victorian houses behind rose-filled front gardens are Oscar-winners, star chefs and pop musicians, happy-go-lucky bohemians for whom success is a given. And right in their midst lives a pale man with a receding hairline who spends his time thinking and writing — and planning how to re-educate the British population.
Alain de Botton wants to revolutionize Britain’s long-held tastes in housing, design and architecture, and thus change the entire outlook of people in this rather traditionally-minded country. Yet de Botton is a philosopher, not a rebel, and his British accent sounds like what used to be called BBC English. When he spoke to SPIEGEL, he was wearing neat, dark-blue trousers, and his tone of voice was polite and quiet. He says he is shy, sometimes almost reclusive. Having spent his childhood in Switzerland as the son of a banker before attending prestigious Cambridge University in England, 41-year-old De Botton was certainly not destined to deal merely with everyday life. And yet he is fascinated by the humdrum, its raw baseness, and it, in turn, has provided him with insight, wealth and fame. De Botton’s books have titles like “The Art of Travel” and “The Consolations of Philosophy.” His ability to express profound concepts in a simple way has made him a millionaire. As such, the philosopher of everyday life could easily sit back and enjoy a bohemian existence.
Clear, Light Architecture Leads to a Good Life
Yet he still ponders and writes and hatches plans. “I feel I have a real mission,” he says. “At the same time, it’s actually the most banal thing in the world: building and letting holiday homes.” De Botton knows that what he is doing isn’t banal. He has simply asked contemporary architects for designs for a series of modern dwellings. “In this country, you mainly encounter modern architecture in airports and museums,” he says. “But clear, light architecture can help people lead a good life.” De Botton is constantly searching for the conditions for successful existence. It’s a very atypical, proactive approach for a thinker. Yes, he also suffers from the same existential plight as any other true philosopher, and he’s no stranger to sleepless nights, headaches and monosyllabic bad moods. But now and then de Botton decides enough is enough. When that happens, he stops thinking and faces the world, ready to change it if need be. Philosophers can be a strange sight in real life. They can seem out of place, odd, smug even. But the pale man with the receding hairline has always found an audience.
A School of Life
Once, in the summer of 2009, he temporarily moved into London’s massive Heathrow Airport, where he sat at a desk amid travelers, exchanged fleeting words with busy voyagers, discussed the concepts of time and space and being home and away from home with waiting passengers. He then wrote down what he discovered, and soon another volume of his insights hit the bookshelves. De Botton also set up his so-called School of Life in the very heart of society in a store near a barber shop, the British Museum and an Asian take-out restaurant. There, he taught adults how to protect their love or make meaningful table-talk: “Try to avoid the banalities which can become second nature in personal interactions.” It may be somewhat pretentious to offer adults so much education, but Alain de Botton knows he is providing a public service. He just wants to help modern individuals who may have the means to confidently jet around the globe, but who are on the wrong track when it comes to their own lives. De Botton chose a quotation from Anton Chekhov as the motto of his School of Life: “Any idiot can face a crisis — it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.” You’re unlikely to find a man like de Botton — who wants to change everyday life with actions rather than words — in Germany, where philosophy is synonymous with gravity and gloom, irreconcilable moral conflicts, an ultra-complex dialectical history and lonely reflection. Nor will you find someone like him in France, even though philosophers there typically have their say on current affairs, advise politicians and regularly appear on talk shows. France has men like Bernard-Henri Lévy, who instructs presidents and has a large following. In his latest project, de Botton wants to create a series of designer holiday homes that Britons can stay in for as little as 20 pounds ($33 or €23) per person per night. That’s cost price, so he won’t be making any profit on it, but de Botton’s idea is about more important things than money. He’s convinced that giving people a vacation in avant-garde surroundings will teach them about the wonders of modern design. After all, he says, people are more relaxed and open to new ideas when they’re on holiday. De Botton is well aware he’s set himself an ambitious task. That’s why he uses appropriately grandiose words when talking about his venture. “We are fighting a culture war,” he says. “The UK is obsessed with the past. From an architectural standpoint, Prince Charles rules the land.” He grimaces as he utters these words, although he rarely permits himself such grotesque facial expressions. The heir to the British throne has famously dismissed modern buildings as “monstrous carbuncles,” and refuses to give much credence even to world-famous British architects like Norman Foster. ….Continued..

read full article


Are Architects Performance Artists?

A Conference Addresses ‘Performativity’

By Jonathan Liu 7/12 

 “We understand more than anyone else on the job site,” Gregg Pasquarelli told a second-floor conference room one recent Thursday evening inside the New School’s Arnhold Hall. His audience peered at him through a remarkable selection of eyewear—surely the most impressive array of cantilevers, arches and trusswork west of the East River. “We truly do,” he reiterated. “We know more than the developer, we know more the contractor, we know more than the inspector, we know more than the guy installing something. We know a lot about all the stuff. It’s the integrator and the communicator role that’s the most important thing: We don’t build buildings, we make instruction sets for buildings.” At a time when even flat-box furniture is morphed by amateurs into “Ikeahacks,” has our civilization forgotten how to properly follow instructions—and defer to instruction-makers? A principal of SHoP Architects, the burgeoning firm at work on Barclays Center and the South Street Seaport redevelopment, Mr. Pasquarelli was the keynote speaker at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture’s Teachers Seminar 2011. The theme of this year’s three-day conference was “Performative Practices,” which begs a bit of clarification. Borrowed from linguistics, by way of sociology, ethnography and much else besides, “performance” is perhaps better known as one of those terms of academic art whose very amorphousness—to the uncharitable, meaninglessness—is the intellectual and political point. And in a way, the advent of architecture-as-performance did free thinking from the entrenched, and perhaps as meaningless, rivalry between the formalist and functionalist. Is the “performer” in question the architect, the inhabitant, or the building itself?

read full article


Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy


Pedestrians and trams are given priority treatment in Zurich. Tram operators can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.


Published: June 26, 2011 

 While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation. Multimedia Slide Show Europe’s Fight Against Traffic.  Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter. Likeminded cities welcome new shopping malls and apartment buildings but severely restrict the allowable number of parking spaces.

read full article


Aesthetic Energy Autobahns


Can Designer Power Masts Win Over the Public?

By Christina Schmidt

Photo Gallery: Designer Power Masts

Europe is undergoing a revolution in energy production that requires massive new infrastructure to support the shift to renewables. But do new power lines always have to result in blight? Some utility companies are hoping that designer power masts can help overcome local opposition. Erik Bystrup gets enthusiastic when the talk turns to power transmission masts. Standing in front of one of his masts, the Danish architect uses words like “elegance” and “beauty” and talks about how pleased he is that transmission masts are finally no longer dotting the landscape like “giant sad men.”

There is a simple reason behind Bystrup’s passionate words: His masts are not ordinary steel structures but art. To improve the Danes’ acceptance of the poles, which are visible at great distances, the architect designed modern masts that look like abstract crowns or eagles’ wings.

read full article


Floating Hotel Could Defy Rising Sea Levels


The rising sea waters caused by global warming have inspired a Russian architect to design a hotel that could be built on water as well as land. The eco-friendly ”Ark” could be constructed in just a few months anywhere in the world, the designer says.

It’s called “The Ark”, but looks more like a ship sitting upside down on the water. A new design by Russian architect Alexander Remizov challenges the tradition of land-based hotel living and would provide a refuge in the future — should the world face a modern-day flood of Biblical proportions.

Remizov designed the hotel as part of a program on architecture and disaster relief through the International Union of Architects (UIA). He collaborated with a German design and engineering firm and the Moscow-based scientist Lev Britvin, who, according to Remizov, has developed energy-saving solutions for space stations. They are now searching for investors to make the design a reality.

read full article