More than architecture

--Originally published at Identidad digital

Through the history of knowledge the definition of space has changed, several philosophers such as Wilhelm Leibniz, René Descartes, Aristotle, and Immanuel Kant have proposed different meanings for such concept. Mathematicians have also contributed to define space, they speak of space in a mathematical language, and they have achieved to classify it quite precisely, the problem is that mathematicians have define it in a theoretical and mathematical way that does not relate much to the space experienced and lived by society, is with this problematic that philosophers enter again to the existence space issue. Philosophers have drawn upon other branches of knowledge, as an aid to solve the problem epistemology emerged, “[…] Epistemology has inherited and adopted the notion that the status of space is that of a “mental thing” or a “mental place” (Lefebvre 1974).

Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect, educated in America and influenced by the five architects, is worldwide known for his work with paper. One of his most important works with this material are the emergency shelters for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this project was made in 1994 for the Rwandan refugees that lost their homes due to the genocide and civil war. This project is especially relevant in various ways:  the techniques and materials used the place as a representation of hope for the people that had lost everything and the query if the places created should be considered homes or fake places. The construction of these places went further than just creating mass asylums; shelters were made with a humanitarian focus. The shelters should be considered a real space and must be classified as heterotopias.

Rwanda’s 1994 civil war left more than 2 million people homeless; refugees required a shelter and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees supplied aluminum poles and plastic sheets as resources to create temporary dwelling. The refugees used the aluminum poles and branches as structural support; this leaded to contribute with the grave deforestation suffered in the region, the situation was critical. Ban suggested using paper tubes to remediate the circumstances, and the use of these materials instead of branches did not affect the deforestation problem, were easily found and handled and served as structural support for the construction of simple shelters consisting of paper tubes and blue tarps.  The UNHCR accepted the proposal and after some tests approved the prototype.

Leibniz stated that space “itself” is neither nothing nor something; to know if space is something we have to introduce an origin and axes, these two elements give direction and orientation. This direction and orientation are given to the space by bodies that occupy it. The shelters posses’ direction and orientation, the asylums have certain boundaries (floor, wall, and ceiling) that denote that they work as spaces. The ancient greeks stated that boundary is that from which something begins its presence, having a presence denotes that something exists; hence, it can be conclude that the shelters work as spaces.

Assuming that shelters are spaces, now it can be discussed if these places can be called “homes”. In the other hand there is a concept called heterotopias, according to Teyssot (1997) Foucault establishes some characteristics of heterotopias:

(1) Though they assume a wide variety of forms, heterotopias are a constant feature of all cultures. (2) Over the course of its history, a society may take an existing heterotopia and make it function in a different way. (3) The heterotopia has the power of juxtaposing in a single real place different spaces and locations that are incompatible with each other. (4) Heterotopias are linked to time, entering fully into function when traditional time is breached (as in, for example, the cemetery, where the loss of life and the perception of eternity coincide). (5) One does not usually enter a heterotopia by one’s own will (think of the prison), and, as a visitor by force or permission, one must perform certain gestures only to be still excluded from its true heart. (6) Heterotopias perform the contradictory functions of revealing the illusory quality of all space and compensating for that illusion with a perfect,      meticulous, and well-arranged real space.

The materials used to build these places are not typical materials used for creating houses; the particularity of the materials used is that they are seen as ephemeral matter because paper is not known for its resistance and durability, usually homes are created with “stronger” materials because houses are thought to last for a long time. The shelters’ main purpose is to work as a place to protect people from the environment but the refugees have given the shelter another meaning; the shelter works as a home for them, as a place where they can find peace and faith.

These places will not exist forever; they are temporary places that serve as dwelling for the refugees. They did not decide to live in that shelter; they were forced to inhabit such place because they had lost their real homes. If they rearrange the place and introduce certain details the semiotics behind them will transport the users to the idea that they are at home. In fact, semiotics play quite an important role in this situation because society has embraced an ideology, “Ideology has the social function of maintaining the overall structure of society by introducing men to accept in their consciousness the place and role assigned to them […] (Agres and Gandelsosonas)”  they acquire this ideology by different means and through their whole lives. Architecture is a whole system of signs and by reproducing certain signs an idea will be transferred to the society. In this case semiotics will contribute to create an idea and opinion about the place inhabited, which will derive in the signification that is pretend to give to the asylums.

Human beings had always questioned their existence and their surroundings, people have tried to look for a definition of abstract and complicated concepts such as space, from those concepts many others may derive. The human being is not only concerned in that type of studies, society has other kind of issues, such as dwelling and humanitarian sense. When a society is needy people have done certain activities to help them such as the case of the Rwandan refugees of 1994. Shelters were provided to help them. The shelters for the refugees may not be precisely what is called a home but the people that inhabit them have given the space a different meaning, for these people the place represented that not everything is lost, that they can still believe in hope and in the human race.

With the word “home” many ideas, memories, scents, images come to our heads, each one has experienced their homes in a different way. What all those definitions have in common is that home is more than a place, is a certain friendly atmosphere that contains elements that make you feel comfortable and alludes the feeling of belonging somewhere.

We can only have one home; actually the world can be divided in two:  the home and all the places that are not our home. People can feel homelike in other places that are not theirs, for example the emergency shelters, in such place users can feel cozy there but these will never be what it pretends to be. They are not precisely the user’s homes’ but they work as one, they are what is called an “heterotopia” because these asylums will eventually stop existing, they emerged as an alternative to create dwelling for people that had lost everything, but they will not last long. They serve as something they are not. Even though the asylums are not homes they posses something special  due to the interaction between the inhabitants, the space, the semiotics and the architects’ purpose the shelter has conceived a certain meaning that goes beyond a place to protect people from the environment, Ban has re-signified the consign, he aimed to create a certain atmosphere; Ban’s humanitarian purpose change the place since its conception, as he mentions: “to work for each and every human being is the mission of the living architect (Ban, 2009)”.  He has the strong desire to improve people’s life by creating architecture that comes from the heart.



         Nesbitt, Kate. Theorizing a new agenda for architecture: an anthology of architectural theory: 1965-1995. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

         Lefebvre, Henri. The production of space. Oxford, OX, UK: Blackwell, 1991. Print.Heterotopias and the History of Spaces- Georges Teyssot

         The ethical Function of architecture- karsten Harries


         “Spotlight on Design – Shigeru Ban interview – YouTube.” YouTube. N.p., n.d. 13. Nov. 2012. <;.

         “The emergency architecture of Shigeru Ban – YouTube.” YouTube. 13. Nov. 2012. <;.