Designing for hope and dignity

Last week I was a guest of Premsela, the Dutch Design Foundation, as part of their International Visitor Programme, and participated in the cultural Speed Dating event organised by the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development . I spent three days enjoying dialogues with diverse designers, design educators and design-orientated organisations. I thank them deeply for their warm hospitality. This intense dialogue generated various personal insights into contemporary [design] culture in Amsterdam and the Netherlands.

The prima facie reason for my visit was to participate in the debate about ‘Design and Political Activism’  at the MCTheater on Monday 12 December. This event triggered a personal yet public invitation from architect and designer Joost Pothast who was in the audience. I publically accepted his invitation to visit De Vluchtkerk (the Refugee church), a temporary centre for refugees in the oldest (?) 1950s concrete church in Amsterdam. So, as dusk gathered on Wednesday evening my host from Premsela guided me towards the purposeful volume of De Vluchtkerk, a building which reverberates with constructivist, modernist and pre-renaissance tensions. We pushed through a side door to enter the cavernous interior and were greeted by a dense coldness. Inside, as my eyes accustomed to the dark recesses and the arcs of lighting, I quickly became aware of people everywhere – standing in groups, moving purposefully around, engaged in building work, huddling together or simply sitting, staring into the middle distance. News of our arrival must have spread and I was soon engaged by Joost and a group of colleagues who quickly briefed me about the building and the scene before my eyes. For Amsterdamers the back story perhaps needs no introduction, but for readers here, I will give a potted summary, relayed to me by social designer Diana Krabbendam, The Beach, in a short visual narrative.

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De Vluchtkerk and its peoples (from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and francophone people from Congo, Mauretania, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Mali and Guinee, and the Yemen, China and Armenia) exist in this locale as ‘non-citizens’ [my term], rejected after due process by the Dutch systems of governance and jurisprudence. Many of these people originate from two earlier locales, the Ter Apel Deportation Complex in the north founded in May 2012 and the Notweg 32 ‘Camp against the Cold’ in Osdorp in the west of Amsterdam. On 1 September, Migrant 2 Migrant (M2M) organised a work conference in Arnhem with 30 participants from Ter Apel and 3 academic supporters giving rise to a concept of ‘a Parliament of Refugees’. This was followed on 13 October in the camp by a workshop called Design the Future, including 10 professional artists, architects and social designers, where the ‘Theatre of Hope’ was created. Suddenly, events started to accelerate. Everyone was evicted from Notweg on 30 November. M2M became aware of an empty church building and approached the owner of De Vluchtkerk. Architects and designers quickly drafted plans in order to meet the health and safety issues for temporary occupation of the building, to which the owner has agreed. The Theatre of Hope morphed into The House of Hope and De Vluchtkerk was birthed.

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As I toured the building with Joost, Diana, Jo (M2M), Coffi, Georgina and Eugene the re-purposing of the building as a shelter unfolded. Sleeping areas were defined with studwork and plasterboard, food was neatly stacked on shelves, in short, everyone was engaged in the collective design of this spatial environment. An environment that promised a little dignity, that reduced (some) uncertainty, that comforted. Yet, I also sensed, despite the bustle, an underlying anxiety. This embryonic community was fragile and tense. When asked by Eugene, one of the refugees, for advice I felt insufficiently qualified to give it, but did give some reflexive thoughts…I sensed, and still sense, that this community has the ability to dream, create, make and contribute to the wider society, despite being given signals to the contrary. I sense that productive, tangible, meaningful and emotive things can originate from this building. And, I believe, there is an ingredient that can help catalyse these dreams. While several designers and architects have already made a significant difference at De Vluchtkerk, I call upon all the designers I met during my time in Amsterdam to think about what they could contribute. This happening is clearly sighted in the agenda of ‘design and political activism’ but, as those who attended the debate at MCTheater on Monday evening will recall, I made a distinction between the agenda of politics – one where ‘Politics are the means by which a state organization or other social order is held together, politics are the structures and mechanisms that enable governing’(DiSalvo, 2010, p2-3),– and the agenda of ‘design activism’, which works well beyond the confines and strictures of politics and is grounded in a deep sense of humanism. It is placed within the DiSalvo’s notion of ‘political is a condition of society. It is a condition of on-going opposition and contest’ (DiSalvo, ibid.). The activism required here is ‘design thinking, imagination and practice…to create a counter-narrative aimed at generating and balancing positive social, institutional, environmental and/or economic change’ (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p27). It begins with changing oneself, then changing others, who subsequently change and, in doing so, change you too. It is personal yet collective.

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Here, I believe, is a community that wishes to contribute (to society) yet has been denied this chance. Designers can help catalyse that contribution…because to design is to be human, and to be a designer is to be humane. ‘The political’ here is a reflection of the civil ‘condition’ or ‘uncondition’ of our society. The political is the lives of these individuals and how they merge with our lives. If we gaze into the near future it doesn’t take much imagination to see that climate change coupled with global shifts in fiscal policy has the potential to generate massive transmigration within Europe and outside Europe’s boundaries. Displacement of refugees into ‘no man’s land’ doesn’t seem an adequate moral or intellectual response (the latter being a frequent cited definition of what it is to be humane!). If you design and live in Amsterdam, ask yourself, ‘What can I do? How can I act?’…and visit De Vluchtkerk to listen, then act, design, make and do with others.

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With thanks to Premsela for inviting me to Amsterdam, Joost Pothast for inviting me to De Vluchtkerk and for everybody there welcoming me.

All photos Alastair Fuad-Luke.

References

DiSalvo, C. (2010), ‘Design, Democracy and Agonistic Pluralism’, in Proceedings of the Design Research Society International Conference 2010, 7-9 July 2010, Université de Montréal.

Fuad-Luke, A. (2009), Design Activism: Beautiful strangeness for a sustainable world, Earthscan: London.

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