Lab Project

Harsham Camp Erbil

CONVERSATION Baerbel Mueller & Frida Robles & Stefanie Adisa
Baerbel Mueller, Frida Robles, Stefanie Adisa

FR: How did the invitation to work in Erbil end up at the [applied] Foreign Affairs program?

BM: It was an informal invitation from UNIDO to collaborate in Iraq. It was a very open request and discussion, but as UNIDO is a regulated UN organization, it started early with strategic meetings together with the head of our university. During this process I was advised not to take students to Iraq. This was back in 2016, with Erbil being only 80 kilometres away from Mosul, and about 50 kilometres away from the battle line. Therefore, we came up with this other project setup, in which young professionals and experienced professionals would team up to work together.

FR: Why did you decide to accept the project?

BM: I thought it would be relevant to contribute to the situation. There had been a general interest in the topic of migration for years, and the idea of contributing to the situation of refugees and IDPs, and the fact that the issue was – and still is – not a local but a global one, as well as a European one. At that time, others had already done amazing projects in Austria and in cities like Vienna, but I felt that as [a]FA, we could also contribute in the places of origin.

FR: What were the first steps you took for this project?

BM: I formed a team of individuals who would be interested in doing basic research on Kurdish Iraq, not only in a geographical and cultural project context, but also by topically diving into a discourse on migration, refugees, and IDPs, and, as architects, investigating how that manifests itself spatially and territorially, and in the form of camps. The team carried out this academic research in Vienna before Stefanie and I went on the first field research trip to Erbil.

FR: The first time you two went to Iraq, what were your first impressions, especially from an architectural point of view?

BM: Erbil came across as a city that was on hold regarding building activities, as there was an economic crisis happening caused by the ISIS crisis, following an economic peak. Nevertheless, we found ourselves in this somehow prosperous city, with its impressive historic centre, and then you would leave Erbil city and enter these camps, and then you’re in another world. These two worlds hardly meet or match, and that’s very similar to what we have in Vienna. You don’t know what’s going on in Traiskirchen if you’re based in the first district of Vienna.

Another thing that I vividly remember is that Stefanie, who was coming from Lagos, and I, basically coming from Ghana, when entering these temporary but formalised camp situations, our first impression was that the living conditions were so much better than in certain neighbourhoods in Lagos or Accra – especially on an infrastructural level. It took me some time to understand that the huge difference was the trauma, which didn't come across at first.

ST: I was surprised to see that there were so many programs in the camps: educational training schools, beatboxing, some kind of martial arts for boys and dance classes for girls, and quite good sanitary facilities. The camp had electric power and running water. Only when you met with the people or visited some homes in the camps would you get a feeling of what the people had experienced. But even though the camps are quite saturated with programs, there still isn’t a single psychologist in the area working inside the camps.

FR: What were the most important questions that you had in mind while making this first visit to the camps?

BM: Based on our academic research, there was a strong focus on the gender problematic, on the fact that women are the most vulnerable in camps. And, as I said before, it was a very open brief, we didn't know if we would be working inside a camp or if we would be doing something adjacent to a camp, or in a neighbourhood in Erbil where refugees and IDPs were living in a more anonymous way.

Following our camp visits, especially considering that the temporalities of camps are an illusion, we thought that focusing on the temporal reality of the situation was not the right take. Based on our research, we expected that none of these camps would be disappearing for several years. There was an invitation by UNIDO or a push to look at something that was meant to be prototypical and could be replicated, and would also lead to a design proposal that could be endlessly repeated and implemented in several camps. But at that point, we actively decided against that. We were interested in bringing in something that was framed in a different language and concept.

FR: Which camps did you visit and what were the criteria for choosing the place where you would do the project?

ST: Most of the camps that we had researched beforehand were the bigger ones, which were quite far away from Erbil, in areas that have many checkpoints that we couldn't pass due to clearances we didn’t have. Thus we focused on those in close proximity of the city, and one camp interested us in particular, the Baharka Camp, which was a few kilometres north of Erbil, close to a town called Baharka. We felt that doing something there could have quite an impact on the town. Potentially, whatever we would do there could remain and become part of the town, even if the camp itself wasn't there anymore.

FR: You have been interested in the notion of the temporary and the role of architecture in this regard, can you tell us more about that?

ST: We learned that most camps have existed for 15 years or longer. Once a camp has been established and its inhabitants have nowhere to go, it is very unlikely that they will go back to their places of origin. That’s why we thought that a typical camp architecture like the container structure wasn’t really suitable for any communal structures in a camp, which actually functions as a city in and of itself.

BM: There was a rigid grid of either tents or caravans in almost all the camps we saw and we felt that if we were going to propose a communal facility, and a recreational space, it would need to come across differently, allowing the inhabitants of the camp to leave their daily (tent or caravan) situation and enter another space – another world – which would also allow oneself to open up and become another person.

FR: What was the proposal that you made, taking both the academic research and the on-site research into account?

ST: Apart from visiting different camps, we visited the Citadel of Erbil, which has a number of impressive preserved buildings. One of them is the historical hammam, which had a big influence on us as it addresses the very ancient tradition of public bathing. “Hammam” means “spreader of warmth” in direct translation and the architecture of it demonstrates exactly what the word means to me. We learned that over the last few decades, the hammam culture had almost disappeared in the city. Hammams used to be very important as there was no running water in any household, people would go to the hammam at least once a week, also to gather and socialize. It was culturally important, and a part of marriage preparations and other rituals as well. We thought that the camp would provide an ideal situation for a building like a hammam.

BM: In a normal housing situation of a Muslim family, there would be rooms for the women in the household. In a tent or caravan environment, it is not possible to unveil or undress at any time, you’re seen and heard at all times. The idea of the hammam was to provide an introverted, internal space that is somehow semi-public, but, on another level, private – and a gendered space. We felt that this would be the ideal typology, program and opportunity for women to undress and to communicate without being seen or overheard.

FR: Can you explain more on how the project would work?

BM: Already after four or five days in Erbil we came up with a clear concept and proposal. On a programmatic level, it was of interest to create a hybrid of a recreational and educational space. It was really logical to us how we would create one cycle and one organism in and of itself. There would be a small-scale plantation in the camp, so that certain herbs could be cultivated, harvested and then processed into all kinds of cosmetics. But mostly we were interested in the soap production. Part of the proposal was then creating a facility to produce the Aleppo soap. The soap would become a product that could be sold in the markets in Erbil, but also be of use in the hammam itself and in turn, the grey water from the hammam could be filtered and used to water the plants.

ST: There are many olive plantations in the area, however, we learned that the olive oil production hasn’t been taken to an industrial level in the region, and that most of it actually comes from Turkey. The idea was to combine our and UNIDO´s interest in the olive oil production with a garden and a greenhouse project in which soapmaking and other ways of processing herbs and flowers would be learnt and fabricated, thereby including UNIDO´s expertise and project policy of providing trainings and income – generating skills for the small-scale agrarian and industrial sectors.

FR: Architectonically, what was the thinking behind it?

ST: Initially, the thought was to introduce a building with rammed earth as that was one of the traditional building techniques in the area. We thought about conducting trainings on how to build with rammed earth and to construct the building over the course of these trainings. Later on, the idea was rejected, as it would have been too difficult for UNIDO to execute due to organisational challenges.

BM: To me, it was a very powerful idea to build something very stable, present and massive with rammed earth, which is somehow a temporary material as it decays so naturally: you take earth from the ground, use it as a building material, and then goes back into the earth in the process of dying or decay.

FR: As I understand, there were organisational issues surrounding the realisation of this project. You had to reformulate and even change locations. Can you tell me about this process?

BM: There were two problems. First of all, there was a misunderstanding regarding the meaning of a hammam from the European side of UNIDO, who felt that it fell under the category of luxury facilities and not of basic infrastructure. Another crucial topic then was that even if you came with alternative technologies in the hammam cycle, it would still require a considerable amount of water, and there was a scarcity of water in the camp settings. On top of that, the Mosul ISIS offensive occurred when we came up with the proposal, which resulted in a larger inflow of IDPs, so it was a very dense and intense situation, which was another argument for abandoning the hammam idea. Aside from that, we needed to relocate from being within the Baharka camp to being adjacent to the Harsham Camp. The relocation was based on an on-the-ground analysis conducted during the second on-site visit made by Stefanie, in which it was identified that the ground situation, the soil, was not ideal for starting a new project.

FR: How was the project then reformulated for the Harsham Camp?

ST: What started as a three-tiered project – the hammam, the production centre, and the flower greenhouse together with the herb garden – became the Agricultural Training Centre. It was hard to switch from flowers to vegetables, as we had initially liked the idea of the flowers since they are highly valuable in Erbil. You can pay up to $5 for a single flower in the market as most of the flowers there are imported. It’s a prestige object that is needed for various cultural ceremonies. Compare that to one kilo of cucumbers, which were sold for about 25 cents at the time. When you compare one flower with one kilo of cucumbers, the value just doesn’t add up.

FR:  So, you had to shift from the flower concept to vegetables, which were more suited to UNIDO’s program? And how did the garden then become part of the project?

BM: Since the hammam was gone, I felt that we could still come up with a solution for women being able to meet. That was the moment when we thought of a garden, in the sense of the ideal of an Islamic garden, which is a retreat, close to paradise, with all kinds of fruit trees. It would compensate for the missing hammam, and that was the moment when I invited Kieran Fraser Landscape Design to become part of the team. I felt that we needed a professional landscape architect to come up with the garden design, which would allow for an open gathering, or shared space, where trainees could bring their children along or spend quality time together.

FR:  Stefanie, maybe you can tell me more about the design process for the Agricultural Training Centre?

ST: The idea was to create a building ensemble that relates to the greenhouses and the garden, and a structure that creates two indoor spaces, one which could be used as an indoor production place and one as a training classroom and workshop space. It’s basically one big volume with a big roof that can create shaded outdoor areas for people to work and pause. The building has big openings to allow for natural ventilation and to create visibility, but it also creates an intimate space at the same time. I think we were quite successful in building a space that is very inviting. In a camp situation, there are not many places with views, you have these repetitive alleys with continuous tracks and many self-made entrenched situations, but once you reach the training centre site, you have an elevated structure that provides you with a view over the surrounding fields.

A:  Can you share a bit about the construction process, your involvement in it, and its actors?

ST:  Let’s just say that if we hadn’t been involved in the construction process, I’m not sure we would have recognised the structure – I think that’s often the case when the author is not also supervising the project. We were involved from the very beginning of the tendering and commissioning up to the construction from start to end, as well as up to the handover. It was personally a good learning process to understand how things were done and how for me now – after having done this project - it’s quite difficult to design a building all the way to the end without being on the ground or without really knowing all the materials, the exact steel angles, the exact ground environments, and many other factors. I was hoping that the planning and the construction process would be more interwoven, but they weren’t in our case, which led to some difficulties in the process. However, we have to remember that it was between 45 to 50 degrees Celsius during a long stretch of the construction, also it was the time of Ramadan, which made it very difficult for the workers and myself to work under pressure to proceed quickly.

FR: What is critical for me is the fact that the Agricultural Training Centre is adjacent to the camp and that the entry situation from the camp is quite limited. I would like to know, how has it been received? What were your thoughts behind that?

ST: The Harsham Camp is located on government land that belongs to the Agricultural Ministry of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, which is located next to the Ministry’s facility for research on different agricultural techniques. Since the camp is already very densely packed, we needed to place the project adjacent to it, on the southern boundary within these fields.

BM: This fence or border situation was a crucial topic from the beginning. It took us a while to understand how restrictive these fenced conditions are. We were very optimistic in the beginning that there would be an opening or a direct second gate introduced as soon as the training centre opened. However, there wasn’t any land available close to the main entrance of the camp. To me, this barrier, which is the average, prototypical type of camp fence, was very painful to see, and it was frustrating that there was this strong and uninviting barrier. We tried our best to incorporate it into the planning and planting concept but of course, we wished that it could somehow become part of the camp itself.

Regarding the ownership situation, what I really like and why I was interested in working with UNIDO is that they always work with governments. I’m very sceptical about the development sector in the NGO set-up. I like the idea of collaborating with the government as equal partners.

FR: How do you see yourselves, coming from a European institution and being architects from another context, then engaging with this situation? How do you position yourself? What do you think is still important and what do you still question?

BM: Looking at myself, being there as a European and as an architect and proposing a project felt less loaded than working in certain other environments as an outsider. Since the situation was about a human condition that is tragic but universal I could easily have enough empathy towards it. I’ve never been in a war situation, but I don’t think it was so difficult to understand how unbearable it was, what people had gone through. Therefore, it’s not that difficult to contribute by bettering the living condition of people who have gone through situations and trauma like that. Talking about what we contribute as architects in this kind of environment is quite tricky. Through the course of the [applied] Foreign Affairs lab, I have seen our projects as attempts and experiments in testing situations: how can you – through architecture or as architects – contribute to certain environments or certain situations in a critical manner? By reflecting on questions like: What did we do there? What did we leave out? How would we do it differently a second time? For this particular project, there was an invitation from UNIDO, which usually works within very efficient, engineered structures with little identity, so it might be relevant to test what kind of surplus could be generated through involving architects who might have a bit more of a holistic approach towards looking at a situation than engineers would.

ST: Nothing about this IDP or camp situation is a local idea. There has been so much foreign investment and it has even reached the point where having all the expatriates working for NGOs in the area has resulted in the cost of living in the city becoming higher. There have been new housing estates built that only to cater to this market. I think you can only improve the situation through a project like this, in which so much research and thought has been invested.

FR: Are you interested in thinking of strategies for breaking down the paternalistic perspectives regarding this so-called humanitarian work?

BM: I’m very critical of the whole idea of development aid, so I was really curious to learn how UN organisations operate in a setting like Erbil. The apparatus of humanitarian work is highly questionable on a systemic level. It’s obvious that there are economic interests and unequal power relations. There is the general question of whether you can do good within the bad, and while questioning the whole system, you have to decide whether you’re going to step back from it completely, or try to do it differently from within: this project falls under the latter category.

It was also crucial for me to bring students to the Harsham Camp – which was only possible at a very late stage – to do a reverse reflection on what we have been doing here. How can we connect the camp back to the training centre and vice versa? There had been many discussions on topics like: Is it okay that a person living in this camp is getting a food package, or shouldn’t it be that this person has the autonomy to decide for him/herself whether they would get the equivalent amount of money in cash instead? You can question migration on many levels, you can also question the policies that Europe is setting that don’t allow these people to migrate, even when they are fleeing from war and conflict. Actually, the situation is a disaster on every level.

FR: What were your main learnings from this project as architects and as people?

ST: There have been many, but most of all, it helped me to understand one’s place in a different country as a woman, as a young person, and how to function in an existing societal hierarchy in which those two categories are the lowest on the totem pole. To still make oneself heard was an interesting experience. I think you can only grow from such a situation.

BM: Looking at it geopolitically, it was coming to Erbil and finding so much beauty, culturally. And being aware that this could be paradise on earth, but that it has been facing constant conflict and war – mostly caused by the West – for decades, that was one lesson. The other was on a very personal scale: in 2018, in a camp quite close to Mosul, sitting in a tent with a young father and his two kids, whose wife and mother had been killed in the war. The hospitality of these people and their positivity despite a situation in which they have only survived, this deeply touched me and has never left me.