A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 29, 2022

How Award-Winning Architects Are Building Shelters For Ukrainian Refugees

It's not like most cities have huge spaces available which can be easily converted into shelters for thousands of refugees. 

Architects have been designing inexpensive and easily assembled systems that provide temporary housing until more permanent solutions can be arranged. JL 

Kriston Capps reports in Bloomberg, image Jerzy Latka:

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban developed a partition system using rigid paper tubes - part of a humanitarian mission that has earned the design field’s highest accolades - to make ad-hoc facilities more livable for vulnerable families. The Voluntary Architects Network, working alongside Polish architects as well as design students and volunteers has established refugee centers near Ukraine’s border, with others across Europe. The partition system is assembled using material made from recycled paper pulp.Textile curtains suspended from this framework divvy up large spaces, such as vacant grocery stores, providing privacy and dignity. 

When the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban watched the searing images of Ukrainians fleeing their homes as war arrived at their doorsteps, he recognized a humanitarian crisis he had seen before: Displaced families, many facing their most desperate moments, were packed into hastily constructed refugee centers that offered little in the way of privacy.

“That was exactly the same condition after the earthquake in Japan,” says Ban, in a call from Paris. The March 2011 quake and subsequent tsunami displaced hundreds of thousands of people, who sought temporary shelter in gymnasiums and other public buildings. To help out, the architect developed a partition system using rigid paper tubes — part of a humanitarian mission that has earned the design field’s highest accolades — in order to make ad-hoc facilities more livable for vulnerable families.

On March 11, Ban tapped the Voluntary Architects Network, a nonprofit he founded in 1995, to lend a hand in Poland, where towns along the border have seen an influx of millions of refugees since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Working alongside Polish architects as well as design students and volunteers — some arriving from as far away as Sweden — the organization has established refugee centers near Ukraine’s border, with others in the works across Europe.

Chelm Refugee Center
Thousands of Ukrainian women and children arrive daily in Chełm, a small city just 20 miles from Poland’s border with Ukraine.
Photographer: Jerzy Łątka

In Chełm, the first stop in Poland for train lines from central and northern Ukraine, volunteers used Ban’s paper-partition system to transform a vacant supermarket into a center for processing arrivals. With 300 individual units, the space offers enough room for about 620 people (so far).

Another team in Wrocław, a much larger city to the west, transformed part of a rail depot into a station for refugees.

The construction technique is simple, according to Hubert Trammer, a professor of architecture and engineering at Poland’s Lublin University of Technology and one of the leaders of the Voluntary Architects Network’s efforts in Poland. The partition system is assembled using a sturdy paperboard material made from recycled paper pulp. Support columns roughly four inches in diameter are connected to narrower two-inch tubes used as crossbeams.

Textile curtains suspended from this framework can divvy up large spaces — such as the vacant Tesco grocery store in Chełm — providing privacy and dignity for refugee families and orderliness for shelter administrators.

Yet deploying this partition system has been tricky in Poland. After a fire chief raised safety concerns, the architects must now test and certify the paper tubes for fire resistance so they can be authorized for use under local regulations, Trammer says. The fabric partitions also need to meet the same safety standards for curtains hanging in a public space such as a museum or theater.

In Wrocław, local fire authorities asked volunteers to dismantle about 50 units last week and threatened to shut down the installation, but later relented.

“The situation is difficult because this system is something between furniture and walls,” says Jerzy Łątka, professor of architecture and engineering at the Wrocław University of Science and Technology and another leader in the effort. “Normal furniture isn’t subject to regulations.”

Ban first used recycled paper to build shelters in 1994, when he pitched the idea to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help people displaced by genocide in Rwanda. The next year, following the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, he used paper tubes and donated beer crates to build log houses for victims from Vietnam who weren’t eligible for temporary housing provided by the Japanese government.

That same year, in 1995, Ban launched the Voluntary Architects Network to promote and expand his post-disaster relief work. Since then, he’s built shelters in China, India, Turkey, Italy, New Zealand and other nations — projects that played no small part in Ban’s selection in 2014 for the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor.

“Always I have to fight with the prejudice of the people,” Ban says. “People think that the paper is very weak, but it’s not. Paper is industrial material.”

Local architects and volunteers assemble the paper structure in Chełm.
Photographer: Jerzy Łątka

Logistics is typically the chief obstacle for this humanitarian mission. In that regard, the projects in Poland had help from the New European Bauhaus, an initiative launched by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2020. The New European Bauhaus is largely a technocratic effort — building retrofits to satisfy Europe’s Green New Deal fall under its purview — but like so many other programs in Europe, its focus has shifted to war.

Both Ban and Trammer serve as ambassadors for the New European Bauhaus as members of its high-level roundtable. The group’s regular chats turned swiftly to relief efforts as Russia launched its invasion. Trammer enlisted the mayor of Chełm as well as Łątka, who as an architect specializes in the use of paper as a building material. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Łątka studied under Ban, at the Kyoto University of Art and Design.) Corex Group, a cardboard manufacturer based in Belgium, delivered two trucks’ worth of paper tubes, pro bono. Łątka brought in students past and present to lead the assembly, with Weronika Abramczyk coordinating volunteers in Chełm and Agata Jasiołek leading the group in Wrocław.

Fire authorities told architects in Wrocław to remove the structure over code issues before reversing course.
Photographer: Maciej Bujko

Other cities in Poland are clamoring for assistance from the Voluntary Architects Network, among them Warsaw and Kraków, population centers where many thousands of refugees are already massing in classrooms and vacant buildings. Before the mission can expand, though, the Polish architects hope to get formal certification for all the materials they’ll use. That way, they can avoid headaches with local bureaucrats in the future. The grocery store in Chełm alone can hold about 1,200 units — beds for some 2,500 people — once they have authorization, and according to Łątka, local authorities intend to open up the second floor of the building as well.

According to Anna Oleszczuk of the refugee aid organization Miejski Sztab Pomocy dla Ukrainy, some 6,000 refugees from Ukraine are pouring into Chełm every day — a vast number for a city of 64,000 residents. Buses are shuttling hundreds of families from the border and the train station to the old Tesco supermarket, where many stay the night before moving on to their next destination.

At least five paper-built refugee centers will soon be operational in Poland. Unfortunately, Ban says, many more will be necessary.

As European nations brace to receive as many as 10 million refugees fleeing Ukraine, the need for more emergency shelters is expanding. Ban is currently helping to build refugee centers in two gyms in Paris, and several are planned for Germany. Another member of the New European Bauhaus high-level roundtable, Mária Beňačková Rišková, is steering a Voluntary Architects Network drive in Slovakia.

For the architects, there is no time to waste. When the paper tubes that arrived in Chełm couldn’t all be put to use immediately, the architects reached out to a colleague in Ukraine. They transferred the paper to Lviv, where locals built about 800 partitioned units for refugees making their way out of the country.

“We also support our friends on the other side of the Ukrainian border,” Łątka says.


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