Refugee camps are meant to be the materialization of temporary architecture. Usually constituted of tents and shelters, they are designed for quick and easy assembly in order to respond to emergencies. A short-term form of architecture, they are not built to last.  Although the establishment of refugee camps is rhetorically justified by humanitarian intent and technocratic design discourse, they remain an essentially political issue. Whether they serve temporarily or become more permanent is ultimately not decided by the humanitarian bodies tasked with managing and controlling them, but rather by political conflicts. The prolonged exceptional temporality of the refugee camps could paradoxically create the condition for its transformation: from a pure humanitarian space to an active political space, the embodiment and the expression of the right of return.

The more than ten million refugees currently registered worldwide by the UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the five million Palestinian refugees registered by the UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East,in some sixty camps across the Middle East, give only a partial idea of a widespread phenomenon.  The radical economical and social transformations currently being experienced throughout the world have produced a proliferation of the “camp condition” – that is, a space suspended from the surrounding legal, social and political order.  There are now innumerable places in suspension in megalopolises around the world, where internally displaced people and new immigrants take refuge. Whether they are camps that precede or follow wars, encampments set up after natural catastrophe, or refugee camps, they often become places where people are born and die waiting to go home.

At the same time, the camp condition has opened a new horizon of political and social configurations, and new ways of understanding the relation of the population to space and territory.  The permanent temporality of refugee camps have produced spatio-political configurations that call into question the very idea of nation-state. And despite the fact that the “camp form” in origin has been used as a tool for regulating the “excess of its political dimension”, the camp as an exceptional space could also be seen as a counter-site for emerging political practices and a new form of urbanism. In the following pages, we will move between these two interetaleted aspects: between camp as site of discipline and control and camp as site of struggle and inventive practices.

The Camp as Site of Discipline and Control

Although states and non-governmental organizations have at length been, and still are, actively conceiving and managing camps, we are just beginning to understand how the camp form has problematized the very idea of a city as a functional political community and democratic space.  If a citizen’s political identity is played out in the public space of the city, what is found in the camp is its inverse: here, a citizen is stripped of his or her political rights.  In this sense, the camp represents a sort of anti-city, a constitutive void of a political order.  But what effect does this anti-city produce on the public and political space of the city?  If the city has historically represented the place where the rights of citizens (seem to) be recognized—often by excluding one part of the population kept outside its walls—the invention of the camp is a new mechanism of exclusion. The camp system goes beyond the inclusion-exclusion dichotomy that defines relations between citizens and non-citizens mediated by the borders of nation-states. The camp, in fact, excludes through its inclusion. It marks the degradation of conventional political organizational systems. It is a desperate attempt to preserve an outdated political order through constructing a space of suspension within which to confine all those who “do not belong.”  It is crucial that the space of the camp is no longer inside or outside, rather, it represents a sort of third area, a place in suspension, where an increasing number of individuals excluded from the polis are shut away.  Here, spatial segregation takes on an added dimension, becoming a strict confinement under armed surveillance: once inside these spaces, the lives of the inhabitants may be at stake.  The ‘camp’ signals the breakdown of any political relationship between territory and people, becoming the form of localization for those who do not belong.  The camp is a ‘space in suspension’, a place in limbo, held within the “normal” spatial and social order of a territory.

These spaces in suspension, summoned into being by security concerns, usually become powerful forms of social and spatial control. They emerge every time the relationship between the territorial space and the population enters a state of crisis. They first made their appearance in the colonial context as a temporary measure for controlling local populations, and later reemerged in Europe at a time when the imperial spatial order was collapsing.  Camps are once more becoming visible today, as the connection between territory, state, and citizenship has once again entered a crisis due to the disintegrative effects of migrations and the globalization of economies and communications. Called for as an exceptional means for preserving the established order, as a measure required to deal with temporary, short term geo-political crises (migrations, wars, terrorism), over time these spaces are often, in fact, transformed into more or less permanent expressions of political ideology and power.

The Camp as a Site of Political Invention

Although most recent scholarly work highlights the refugee as an emblematic figure of our contemporary political economy, these same conceptualizations tend to reduce the refugee to a passive subject, lacking autonomous identity or agency. Certainly, emerging social and political practices in the West Bank’s refugee camps challenge the idea of refugees as passive subjects. In our work as architects, we aim to invert the conceptualization of the everyday practices of refugees as a reaction or resistance to an absolute sovereign power. We argue that in order to do this, one needs to consider the political agency available to refugees through everyday practice, as opposed to the military, statutory and legal apparatus used by authorities to repress their activities and expropriate what they produce.

The Palestinian refugee camps, which first appeared after the 1948 Nakba, were conceived as an emergency assistance to the massive expulsion, operated by Jewish militias, of almost the entire Palestinian population of that time.  The first pictures of these camps, in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, showed small villages made of tents, arranged according to the same regular grids used for military encampments.

Dheisheh Camp, 1952

In 1948/49, the UN general assembly established two main bodies: the UN Conciliation Committee for Palestine (UNCCP) with a mandate to find a political solution for the Palestinian refugees, and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) with an exclusive humanitarian mandate.  This created the conceptual and operational distinction that still undermines UNRWA interventions in the eyes of Palestinian refugees.  When in 1966 the UNCCP ceased operations, having failed to mediate between newly established Israel, Arab States and the Palestinians, UNRWA was pushed by the refugee community to assume a more clear political role even though it had no political mandate.

Dheisheh Camp, 1968

As the years passed, and no political solution was found for the plight of the displaced Palestinians, tents were substituted with shelters in an attempt to respond to the growing needs of the camp population without undermining the temporary condition of the camp, and therefore undermining the right to return.  However, with a growing population, the condition in the camps worsened.  The terrible situations in which Palestinian refugees where forced to live was used by the Palestinian political leadership to pressure Israel and the international community in terms of the urgency of the refugees’ right to return. The precariousness and temporariness of the camp structure was not simply a technical problem, but also the material-symbolic embodiment of the principle that its inhabitants be allowed to return as soon as possible to their place of origin.

Dheisheh, 2012 (photo: Brave New Alps for Campus in Camps)

Israel refuses the international recognized right of return of Palestinian refugees. For this reason, Palestinian refugee camps have become a magnetic force field in which competing and unequally matched political entities  ­­– the host states, international governmental and non-governmental agencies, and the refugees themselves – attempt to exercise influence. Every single banal act, from building a roof to opening a new street, becomes a political statement concerning the right of return.  Nothing in the camp can be considered without political implications.

However, during the Nineties and within the framework of the peace process, which subsequently led to the creation of an interim Palestinian Authority, the right of return was increasingly marginalized under the pressure of successive Israeli governments who have never been willing to acknowledge Israel’s responsibility in the Palestinian Nakba.  At the same time, the withdrawal of the Israeli army from most Palestinian urban areas created the conditions for some West Bank camps to become relatively autonomous and independent socio-political communities.

For decades, the political discourse around the right of return, and the associated imperative to stagnate living conditions, imposed by the Palestinian political leadership to reaffirm the camp’s ephemerality, forced refugees to live in terrible conditions.  From 1948-49 to the present day, official political discourse has sought to prohibit any development in, or formalization of, the refugee camps.  The fear was that any trasformation of the camps would bring about an integration of the refugee community with the local environment and thus the political motivation for the right to return would be lost.  This discourse was also based on the assumption that as long as refugees were living in appalling conditions, their suffering would pressure the international community to enact their right to return. Thus, any improvement to camp infrastructure and housing was seen as a direct erosion of the right to return.

Today this imperative is being reconsidered: it is argued that improved living conditions in refugee camps do not necessarily conflict with the right to return. No longer a simple recipient of humanitarian intervention, the refugee is seen as an active political subject, through his or her participation in the development of autonomous governance for the camp.  Today, refugees are re-inventing social and political practices that improve their everyday life; the refugee camp has been transformed from a marginalized holding area to an interconnected center of social and political life.  It is however crucial that this radical transformation has not normalized the political condition of being exiled.

What follows are projects articulated as an architecture of exile which aim through its spatial and programmatic configuration to actively engage the camp urbanization produced by over sixty-four years of forced exile. Perhaps fragments constituting a different idea of a city.


Alessandro Petti for Campus in Camps – Dheisheh refugee camp, January 2015



01| The Garden: Making Place


02 | The Square: Learning in the common place

03 | The Bridge: Challenging perception

04 | The Pool: Re-activating connections

05 | The Suburb: Transgressing boundaries

suburb- low

06 | The Pathways: Reframing narration


07 | The Stadium: Sustaining relations


08 | The Municipality: Experiments in urbanity

09 | The Unbuilt: Regenerating spaces


to be continued…

note 1: on the colonial origins of camps

The first concentration camps, created to regulate an entire population living in a territory, appeared in the European-controlled territories between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. For the most part, they were established for security purposes in order to create a bulwark against potential revolts. In agreement with Foucault, we can say that Europeans responded to the problem of how to control and govern an entire population that rebelled against colonial hegemony by introducing not only disciplinary mechanisms (for example, prisons) but also mechanisms to prevent and govern “disorder.” Preventive confinement might very well be the apparatus that all forms of colonial repression have in common. The concentration and confinement of a population within a small space did not only serve to suppress and quell any revolts. Very often it served the paradoxical and ambiguous function of protecting the non-combatant civilian population. The intention of the colonial powers in establishing the camps was to “take care” of their people. It is interesting to note that from the outset, the camp form had the duplicitous nature of being a place of “containment” of the citizens’ freedom “for their own good.” In the colonies, the camp-form was essentially legitimized as a security measure for the internees: a measure made necessary by an exceptional situation, an administrative act that was outside the laws of the state or colony. It was a suspension of rights that was easy to implement in the colonial context, one which would later—as we know—meet with great success in Europe as well. Preventive detention, a special law used by the Nazis to legitimize the concentration camps, was actually not invented by the Third Reich: it was the English who used it to suppress the Boer guerillas in South Africa. At that time, one hundred and twenty thousand Boers, meaning colonists, women and children, were confined in concentration camps consisting of tents and barracks fenced in with barbed wire. Although the official justification for this measure was the need to protect the percentage of the population that did not participate in the revolt, more than twenty thousand people died in the camps. The concentration camps set up by the English in South Africa in the early nineteenth century were of a different sort than the ones created in the same period by the Belgians in the Congo or the Spanish in Cuba. Those interned by the Belgians and the Spanish were indigenous peoples, a population without rights who were never granted citizenship. The population interned in South Africa was not made up of “barbarous, underdeveloped” natives, but rather, of white Europeans. This was the first glimpse of a phenomenon that would later become widely diffused: the camp could be turned into a security apparatus to be used against its own citizens. This is what happened later in Europe with the German and Russian Jews. These first colonial camps, set up between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, “produced” a new type of population. This “hostile population” was composed of undesirable, dangerous, suspicious individuals, who needed to be kept under control simply because they belonged to a particular tribe, religion or ethnicity. The camp became a space where people who had not committed any crimes could be confined. Within its perimeters all rights were suspended and killing could take place with impunity. It is inside these spaces of suspension, where a people are transformed into a population, a statistic to be “governed,” that we begin to see the possibility for extermination. This socio-spatial form of rule is common to various colonial histories: from the German colonization of what is now Namibia—making it possible to exterminate three-quarters of the Herero population in a year—to the Italian concentration camps set up by General Graziani in Libya, from the villages built in Algeria during the French occupation, to those created by the English in Kenya against the insurrection of the Mau Mau. In the laboratory of the colonial enterprise between the two World Wars, a control mechanism was perfected that would later be used against the same Europeans who had developed it. During the First World War, faced with waves of refugees and stateless peoples, the internment of entire populations became “the solution.” In Europe, the first concentration camps appeared in Holland to “welcome” Belgian refugees after the German invasion; in England, as a measure for the internment of foreigners; in France, first to intern the Spanish Republicans and later the German exiles. To use Hannah Arendt’s words, the only practical substitute for a nonexistent homeland was an internment camp. Indeed, as early as the thirties this was the only “country” the world had to offer the stateless. It was in this historical context that the two extreme forms of the camp condition were created: the death factories of the Nazi laagers and the “new slavery” of the Soviet Gulags. The effects of the camp experiment did not remain confined within barriers and barbed wire, however. They pervaded the spaces of the city, eroding the areas belonging to its citizenry. Disenfranchisement practices became common in France starting as early as 1915, in the Soviet Union starting in 1921, in Belgium in 1922, in Italy in 1926, and in Germany beginning in 1935. The camp corrodes the political relationship that citizens have with their city or state, until that relationship is destroyed.

note 2: on public spaces and the common

In Western political tradition, the public has always been associated with collective interest. The public has been the space where the rights of the citizens have been inscribed and represented. The very idea of the city, as a democratic space, has been measured by the degree of inclusiveness and values expressed in the public space. Today, however, public spaces throughout the world are being “occupied” by institutional powers obsessed with security, surveillance and control. Defending the public against the massive privatization imposed by the neo-liberal regimes has been the only way to preserve a minimum sense of collectivity and the common good. The public being under heavy attack everywhere has left little space for a critical understanding of the very nature of contemporary public space. In colonial and postcolonial contexts, the public has more clearly shown its ambiguous and controversial nature. Massive expropriations of land and house demolitions have often been legitimized by a presupposed “collective interest”.  The public, hostage of state authorities already undermined in their powers by emerging transnational bodies, seems to increasingly operate for the interests of the few. In the name of the public, common spaces that are not mediated by state apparatus have been expropriated and placed under the control of the few.

Traditionally in Palestine there have been several categories of communal land. These lands not only existed as legal categories of communal ownership but also as forms of communal life. The Israeli state has leveled the different categories of communal land into one single category, state land. Manipulating the legal basis of Ottoman Land Law, Israel has nationalized Palestinian land. Today 90% of the land in Israel is, in fact, state land and the state prohibits ownership transfer. The Israeli appropriation of these territories led to the transformation of communal land into public state territory for the exclusive use of the Israeli Jewish population, entirely excluding Palestinians. This expropriation is evident through the establishment of Israeli settlements, the majority of which are built on what was once communally used land. Consequently, colonization brought on not only material expropriation, but also imposed changes to the forms of communal land use, relegating Palestinian land to private use.

We would like to propose a critical understanding of the contemporary notion of the public by re-imaging the notion of the common. Rather than the term “commons,” more familiar in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, we prefer to use “common” in order to refer to its Latin origin communi. The latin communem is composed of com=cum “together “ and mòinis,  originally meaning “obliged to participate”. This fundamental aspect of the common, a demand for active participation, is also present in the Arabic term masha, which refers to communal land equally distributed among farmers. This form of “common land use” was not fully recognized under Ottoman laws – for this reason, masha is not acknowledged under a written title in the Ottoman Code – and was dismissed by colonial authorities for its supposed economical inefficiency, yet it surprisingly still exists today in much of the West Bank. Colonial regimes, interested in territorial control, see in masha land a collective dimension beyond state control, for this reason masha have been transformed into state land and therefore fall under the control of public land. Masha is shared land, which was recognized through practice in the Islamic world. It emerged as a combination of Islamic property conceptions and customary practices of communal or tribal land. Masha could only exits if people decided to cultivate the land together. The moment they stop cultivating it, they loose its possession. It is possession through a common use.  Thus what appears to be fundamental is that, in order for this category to exist, it must be activated by common uses. Today we may ask if it is possible to reactivate the common cultivation, expanding the meaning of cultivation to other human activities that imply the common taking care of life (cultivation from Latin colere=taking care of life).

note 3: on Arab Revolts and the common

The Arab Revolts since December 2010 have shown various ways in which the common can be reclaimed and reactivated. In the Arab world, what is defined as public has always been regarded with suspicion; the public often has been associated with repressive political regimes and colonial history. Rarely have people felt fully represented by the public, never really owning it.

During the weeks following the Egyptian revolt that began on January 25, 2011, we observed a public plaza transform into a common space owned by the people themselves. Tahrir Square became the political space where new claims were invented, represented, and translated into political actions. The day after President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down, protesters began cleaning the space, an act that highlighted the end of a regime and the beginning of a possible new era for the Egyptian people. The space was no longer perceived as public—the space of authority—but rather as the space of the people. Owning the space implied owning the future of the country. Cleaning the square was a gesture of reappropriation, ownership, and care. In fact, this apparently banal act demonstrated a sense of reconstituted community and collective ownership.

The power of people gathering and transforming public space into a constituent common space manifested itself in other places throughout the Arab world. In February 2011, people began assembling around the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, converting the anonymous infrastructure into a political arena. As in Cairo, this roundabout became a constituent assembly capable of undermining the political regime. Consequently, on March 18, local authorities brutally intervened, completely destroying the roundabout. This demonstrates the importance of a physical space where people can assemble and assert their rights—without it, the virtual space of social networks is ineffective.

The ambiguous nature of contemporary public space can also be observed in Western society. During the summer of 2011, a group of protesters tried in vain to assemble and camp out in several public spaces of New York. Paradoxically, their attempts were limited by regulations and curfews imposed on these spaces. Only on September 17 were the Occupy Wall Street protesters able to set up camp in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space. This crack between the public and private perhaps represents the very nature of a shared collective space, what we call a common space.