Azra Akšamija and Future Heritage Lab Receive Graham Foundation Grant

1002 Inventions: Art and Design in Al Azraq Refugee Camp, Jordan, Future Heritage Lab, 2017 Photo: Future Heritage Lab and the Al Azraq Journal Team, 2017.

ACT Associate Professor Azra Akšamija‘s lab at MIT, The Future Heritage Lab (FHL), has been awarded with a 2018 Graham Foundation Grant for Organizations for the upcoming publication 1002 Inventions: Art and Design in Al Azraq Refugee Camp.

1002 Inventions takes readers on a visit to the everyday-life in the Al Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan to discover hundreds of fascinating creations designed by displaced Syrians. The book documents a wide range of art and design projects, through a selection of photographs, paintings, and stories written by a group of 20 young authors from the camp. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of Al Azraq creations reveal the cultural, emotional, and architectural needs of refugees within a context of scarcity, war trauma, and struggle for a future. Refugee inventions demonstrate how art, architecture, and design inspire hope and underpin innovation in a humanitarian context. The book suggests a method for a culturally sensitive approach to humanitarian architecture informed by the resilience and creativity of displaced communities. The book aims to inform the competencies of humanitarian design from the perspective of the refugees themselves.

The world is experiencing a crisis of tragic proportion as war, persecution, and increasing poverty sequester growing refugee populations into camps and urban poverty clusters. Today, more than 60 million people worldwide have been forcefully displaced. Millions live in refugee camps, temporary cities of tents and barracks, whose design often neglects fundamental emotional and cultural needs. Current approaches to humanitarian design often prevent refugees from altering their living environments, enforcing a life in a permanent detachment and transition. Traumatized from the war and stripped of their homes, history, and identity – aside from basic necessities for food and safety —  camp residents face deep emotional challenges and cultural needs. Failing to address these needs will affect future generations born out of the ruins of war and destruction.

The book 1002 Inventions suggests a method for a culturally sensitive approach to humanitarian architecture that springs from lessons learned from the resilience and creativity of displaced communities. We can learn from designers working in the context of scarcity, who translate traditional arts and crafts to dignify life in the shelter. We can also learn from those who build architectural models of Syrian heritage to preserve cultural memory, who improve everyday life by turning solar lights into cell-phone chargers and who recycle shelter materials to create futuristic toys.

The book documents the creative work in the refugee camp Al Azraq in Jordan. This camp was established in 2014 and it currently shelters around 40,000 Syrian refugees (it is meant to become the region’s largest camp housing 150,000 people). Referencing the work of Arab scholar Al-Jazari (1136-1206), who wrote one of the most important 12th century treatises on mechanical engineering and automata in the Islamic tradition, the book celebrates the ongoing forms of innovation of Arab communities and highlights the role of art, architecture, and design as the antidote to war and destruction.

1002 Inventions offers an innovative approach to studying humanitarian design, expanding the thinking about the architecture of the refugee camps from the perspective of refugees themselves. The book offers a potential for a wide-reaching impact by bridging several fields of knowledge that can inform the UN’s humanitarian and educational initiatives. As an archive of design processes and stories about regional heritage, it contributes to the preservation of cultural memory. The making of the book itself takes place through a collaborative process involving the refugees and the host community. This method is meant to nurture social cohesion in the region, and offer a new model for more efficient, ethical, and culturally sensitive forms of humanitarian relief on a global scale.

Azra Aksamija, the Principal Investigator of this project, is an artist and architectural historian, Associate Professor in the Program in Art, Culture and Technology, Department of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is the Director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab (FHL), an artistic research and action lab working on creative responses to conflict and crisis. Aksamija holds graduate degrees from Technical University Graz, Princeton University, and a PhD from MIT. In her interdisciplinary work, Aksamija explores how social life is affected by cultural bias and by deterioration and destruction of cultural infrastructures within the context of conflict, migration, and forced displacement. Her recent exhibitions include the Royal Academy of Arts London, Queens Museum of Art in New York, Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin, and the 54th Art Biennale in Venice. She is the recipient of the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The book authors are a group of 20 young Syrians living in Al Azraq Refugee Camp. The age range of writers is diverse, from 16–30. These authors are advised by a group of respected elderly community leaders in the camp, to ensure the transmission of knowledge across generations. The group includes: Hana’a Ahmed, Kifah Akeel, Hussein Al-Abdallah, Hasan Al-Abdallah, Hatem Al-Balkhy, Wa’el Al-Faraj, Nagham Alsalha, Heba Caleh, Mohammed Al-Hamedy, Ahma Al-Hassan, Jar Al-Naby Abazaid, Yassin Al-Yassin, Mustafa Hamadah, Jameel Homede, Abdulkarim Ihsan, Ahmad Khalaf, Rawan Maher, Mohammed Mizail, Jameel Mousli, Mohammed Shaban.

Melina Philippou (SMArchS ’16) is a Cypriot architect and urban researcher based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is the programming director of MIT Future Heritage Lab (FHL) and a project coordinator for this book.

Omar Al-Darwish is a Syrian-Jordanian engineer, a graduate of the German-Jordanian University, based in Amman. Parallel to his work as engineering researcher in the FHL, he directs the curriculum development at the International Robotics Academy in Amman and runs a startup Solar Academy.

Zeid Madi is a Palestinian-Jordanian architect and urban researcher, a graduate of the German-Jordanian University, based in Amman. He works as the architectural researcher in the FHL and is in charge of FHL’s local coordination of this book in Al Azraq Camp.

Muteeb Awad Al Hamdan, English teacher and interpreter from Syria, collaborates on this book as a coeditor. He is supervising the writing process in the camp and helping with the coordination of entries.

CARE Jordan facilitates the realization of the project as the humanitarian host organization based at the camp and provides technical consultancy.

Mohammad Yaghan is a Jordanian architect and Professor at the German-Jordanian University (GJU) School of Architecture and Built Environment. He specializes in Islamic geometry and calligraphy and heads the academic collaboration between MIT/FHL and GJU in Amman. He is the academic advisor for this book in Jordan.

Rejan Ashour is a Jordanian architect and Lecturer at the GJU School of Architecture and Built Environment. She specializes in Islamic geometry and calligraphy. She is the academic co-advisor for this book in Jordan.

Raafat Majzoub (SMACT ’17) negotiates the territories of reality through fiction, public policy and strategic development. He is the co-editor of this book and is in charge of the writing and editing process across borders, between MIT and the Al Azraq Camp.