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From Camp to City



- The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley -



 In its modern European sense, the city worked like a machine designed to dissolve kinship in a sea of anonymity - the city broke down intimate ties in order to re-establish other kinds of filiation like those to the nation. The history of urbanisation in Lebanon never followed this model, patterns of rural kinship and sectarian affiliation resisted dissolution and territorialized the city instead. This was a necessary response to the insecure climate in the newly capitalist city and its devastating privileging of the individual as the primary social unit. In the absence of a functioning state and legitimate institutions, kinship and religious identity and especially the networks of patronage they offered, played an important role in protecting life from the threats posed by this system. This phenomenon has continued without interruption and continues to shape Lebanese urbanisation and governance today.


Lebanese Urbanization

 The coexistence of antagonistic social groups is typical of modern urban processes. This condition finds its most extreme expression in Lebanon. First becoming a home to a large diaspora of Armenians fleeing from genocide, then later Palestinians escaping Israeli colonialism, and now Syrians trying to escape from war that has engulfed their country. Currently the refugee population of Lebanon stands at about 35% of the total national population. This portrait of migration includes the vast transfer of people from neighboring countries as well as the significant shifts in population from rural, toward urban centers that took place all through the 20th century, not to mention the movements out of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.


Uniquely among other Arabic countries, in Lebanon no one religious group can exert dominance over others. This condition is inscribed in another idiosyncratic aspect of Lebanese politics, an unwritten constitutional pact that guarentees power sharing among the major sects.


In a nation without a hegemon, with one third of its population classified as refugees, and whose political systems remains precriously balanced in an uneasy truce between power blocs, what do we make of ideas like citizenship or belonging, and the role of the city in a larger national project?

Thresholds of normalization

 The influx of refugees can bring conflict to host countries. With time these conflicts can be partially ameliorated through a process of normalization, coexistence and development. Most often, the process of normalization is used to pacify camp residents, to better manage issues pertaining to policing and security. In this process, architecture and urban design play an important but often forgotten role.


Once a refugee enters a host country, the camp seems like an enclave, an exceptional space in every sense. The process of normalization erodes the status of the enclave in spatial or even visual terms, but this is not always reciprocal to the rights that refugees gain in comparison to the citizens of the city.


The idea of normalization is controversial. Refugee rights, especially the right to return to their home country, are subject to significant political disagreements and conflicts between refugees but also with the host country and international community, in so far as they uphold the temporality and precarity of refugee status.


The Right to Return

 This project sets out to recognise the importance of this political claim whilst still acknowledging that a certain degree of normalization is inevitable. Though the camp is always understood in terms of its temporariness – the project acknowledges that the long-term fate of many urbanized camps is some form of integration into their surrounding urban context. This tension between the desire for and momentum toward dignity in the everyday practices of life, and the political claim for return, forms the core of this project. The slow urbanisation of camps is a reality. Time brings a degree of normalization regardless of the claim for return. The question to be asked however – is to what extent is the right to return in contradiction with the camp’s urbanisation, and moreover – if it is in contradiction – in what way and in precisely what sense? What counts as normalization? Where do we locate this threshold?


The Camp and the City

 Architecture is in a position to pose this question in an original way, since this threshold of normalization is something that is argued through the very organisation and materiality of buildings. In the space of the camp, nothing can escape a political burden – the decision to orient a building, the construction system for a roof, the width of a street – every element is saturated with political intent, with a potential to capitulate or to resist.


The space of the camp and the refugee, and the space of the city and its citizens are not the same – but this does not mean they have no relation to each other. The camp can be a space of revolutionary political potential. This potential exists in terms of the claim for return and the solidarity that exile and co-dependence fosters among the inhabitants.


Even if the camp might be imagined as a potential city to come – this is only true in so far as the city is, in turn, always a latent camp. The two poles haunt each other. The role of design however is not to assert a claim on behalf the refugees thereby effacing the action of the refugees claim – but through the specificity of a project, to explore spaces of possibility that might keep alive the claim to return while affording more than basic services and shelter for the camp inhabitants. 


In older refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon, such as the generation of Nakba camps from 1948, often one cannot immediately distinguish between the space of the camp and the space of the city. As Agier notes: “Due to their very heterogeneity, camps may become the genesis of unexpected cities, new social environment, relationship and identification” (Agier, 2002). The extended temporality of this situation and the acknowledgment that refugee flows will only increase in the future provokes reconsideration of the relation between the camp and the city around it. The refugee and the citizen are key to define this transformation. Therefore the comparison of the camp and city must begin with a comparison of the concept of the refugee and the citizen.


The Refugee and the Citizen

 On the road that links the cities of Beirut and Damascus, once the grain store for the eastern Roman Empire, the Bekaa Valley is home to hundreds of thousands Syrians fleeing from the civil war that has engulfed their country. This situation is exacerbated by recent clashes between ISIS and the Lebanese Army.


The project sets out to strategically relate two constituencies – the refugee and the local Lebanese citizen – asking what kind of relation might be possible between them. In order to do so, the project proposes something one can already find everywhere in Beirut - a city within a city.


A refugee is defined as someone outside of their country of origin who has been forced to leave their home because of conflict, persecution or natural disaster. During their displacement, surrounding countries take on the responsibilities to host the refugees, and humanitarian institutes such as UNHCR and UNRWA provide for the daily needs and shelters. While most host countries permit the establishment of camps, Lebanon has banned the construction of official refugee camps and limits the rights of refugees, such as the right to enter the employment market, access to education and health care, etc.


The Handbook for Emergencies by the UNHCR is the main guideline for coping with refugees. It covers the formation, resource management and registration of refugees and in Chapter 12 of the handbook; it deals with the location selection, planning and construction of a camp (UNHCR, 2007, p.205). It can be said that most refugee camps in the world are managed by this guidebook. Given that the average lifespan of a camp is several decades, we can imagine this guidebook as a kind accidental of master plan for the potential city to come – or perhaps a potential master plan for an accidental city?  In either case, this project takes the latent potential of the guide as a starting point and asks whether something new might be possible in the threshold of normalization - between the twin poles of life and its political pacification.


Besides the obvious differences in the form of accommodation, the differences between the camp and the city are at once legal pertaining to property rights and ownership, infrastructural, with separate management systems for water, electricity and waste, economic with restricted access to markets and employment opportunities as well as to health care and other social services. Rights to work, to own property, to vote and importantly to education are all differentiated according to refugee status. The most important of these however is the right to return to the country of ones origin.


Domino as humanitarian infrastructure

This project relies on two programs: housing and education provision. The housing aspect takes place in two phases. The first phase deploys a very fast and modest form of concrete construction to create a series of domino frames that are accessible through construction scaffolding fixed permanently to the side of the building. Lightweight fabrics especially curtains are used to enclose and divide the floor plates at the scale of an extended family unit. Empty service cores provide structural support and a secure place to locate belongings for each family. The accommodation is intentionally modest, aiming to secure fundamental amenities for the inhabitants. The rooms are used for sleeping and storage only, all other services such as eating and washing are located in collective spaces on the ground floor.


In the second phase, permanent partitions are built between the units, while more durable tensile fabrics are installed for sun shading on the façade of the building. This is done in recognition of the intensely political nature of construction materials in the camp since their status as permanent (concrete) or temporary (fabric) is determined by a broader question regarding normalization.  The use of lightweight structures and fabric therefore plays a double role – on hand utilizing the traditional balcony screening of privately, domestically oriented societies while also becoming a sign of the refusal to fully normalize ones status in the city.


Multi-polar education and training network

The second program in this project is education. The history of education in Lebanon is inseparable from its colonial history and the sectarian project of missionary education that was originally driven by Protestant and Jesuit schools and then by French, Italian and German ones. Later still, important Islamic schools were established and in each case organized around Sunni or Shiite instruction. Despite their religious or nationalist origins, these schools were quite pluralistic with student intake most often organized according to class lines rather than religious belief. However, this did not mean that schools were politically neutral; on the contrary they played a significant role in cultivation of power by different segments of society. Furthermore, like many other aspects of Lebanese society, the state was never been in a position to assert a secular nationalist project.


In this project, education is used as a space of mediation between the city-camp and the camp-city. Childcare, primary education and vocational education centers are distributed throughout the city forming a multi-polar network. This strategy complements and extends existing humanitarian projects around camp schools and integration of refugees within local economies.








Research Title : From Camp to City, City to Camp

Writer : Jay Song

Date : 2014

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