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Parametric software such as Grasshopper accepts various inputs, its output realized instantly using 3D fabrication. These inputs potentially encapsulate the social/political parameters of transitional settlements for displaced populations, or refugee camps, to generate more sustainable living conditions. And within these camps of protection/control, how can these technologies return a level of self-empowerment to the displaced, and how can the urban typology of these TAZs (temporary autonomous zones) suggest new forms of, however brief, utopian camps of freedom?



In his book, Camps, Charlie Hailey proposes three categories of camps: camps of autonomy, camps of control, and camps of necessity.[1] Camps of autonomy include your typical summer camp, camps for negotiation such as Camp David, and camps of protest such as Camp Casey[2] or, more recently, Occupy Wall Street. Camps of control include concentration camps and internment camps, company town employment camps, such as those seeking to retain control over natural resources, and detention camps, such as Guantanamo Bay. Last are camps of necessity, including homeless camps, where communities of transients pool resources and share available space, and transitional settlements for displaced populations, or refugee camps. Refugee camps are a topic of wide media coverage and intense architectural musings, though exactly how architects can alleviate such an economically, politically, and socially complex problem is unclear. Revolutionary technological innovations that are on the rise, specifically parametric software and building-scale 3D printing robotics, could potentially offer ways for architects to propose more sustainable solutions. And what can these technologies suggest for self-empowerment in the face of puissant outside forces and overarching control structures?


The subheading to Hailey’s book is “A Guide to 21st-Century Space,” positioning camps as the most contemporary of spatial typologies, and modern philosophers have written of similar human longings and wanderlusts. Deleuze and Guattari wrote extensively of nomads and their “smooth spaces” and “war machines,”[3] Foucault wrote of heterotopias, whose epitome was found in boats, the ultimate nomad conveyance,[4] and Hakim Bey wrote of Temporary Autonomous Zones, or TAZs, spaces of autonomy and anarchy, for example his so called “pirate utopias” of the 17th century.[5] The camp as a home-away-from-home resonates with contemporary ideas of rootlessness, of a society made always-on-the-go by modern technology. However, such nomads would be considered self-imposed refugees, or “intentionally displaced persons”. This differs drastically from the situation one is placed in when disaster occurs.


In the unfortunate event of a disaster, defined by a wide range of events from earthquakes to war to wildfires and floods, large numbers of people are oftentimes displaced from their homes. However large, this number of displaced people needs to be organized and sheltered for an indeterminate amount of time, typically with no prior notice, giving birth to crisis when systems aren’t in place to accommodate for a rapid response. This response is typically handled by the nation in crisis and often in cooperation with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). According to the UNHCR, as of 2012 there were 45.2 million displaced persons in the world,[6] 10.5 million of which are under the mandate of the UNHCR, according to their Global Trends 2012 publication, forebodingly subtitled Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge.[7] Looking at the ten most populous refugee camps, Figure 1 shows all of them clustered in this region of the world.[8] Hovering near the top is Zaatari Camp in Jordan, which has shot to the top in the last year, peaking at just over 200,000 people in April, as refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war flooded into neighboring countries.[9]

These camps range in size, and depending on the severity of the disaster (meaning how quickly and how many need shelter) the displaced are typically housed in burlap tents.[10] These tents are widely used because of their low cost, simple storage, fast and easy delivery, and low-skill assembly. However, they have only a 6-month lifespan and are susceptible to extreme weather conditions. There are many within the design fields that have attempted to improve on and replace the ubiquitous UNHCR tent, though few have ever made any lasting change.[11] Designer’s intentions need to be aligned with forces on the ground. In Shelter Projects 2008, a “design for a timber-free domed shelter” shaped like a large, mud-covered ant-hill, was proposed as the solution to a disaster but “affectees were not involved in the design and it was not used on any scale,” whereas a patched together shanty “using reclaimed materials built by affectees… [was] common.”[12] Furthermore, “all of the projects that successfully constructed a specific model of shelter developed the basic shelter model in direct consultation with affected communities, taking into account their skills, capacities and resources.”[13] It seems in order for a shelter proposal to be successful it must have a component for user input baked in. The most radical project to improve on the ubiquitous tent does not come from any famous architect but from a company that has the engineering know-how to economically mass-produce such shelters, namely IKEA. They have been working with the UNHCR to develop a flat-packed shelter that may cost twice as much as a standard tent (around $1,000) but has a much longer lifespan (theoretically around two years).[14] 

Having more solid shelters does not preclude creating more problems. In Zaatari there are already trailer-like units called “caravans.” They have a door, windows, and electricity, and are highly valued. They are all donations from governments around the world, such as Taiwan and the UAE, and at the international scale are already political tools. But at the camp scale they are highly politicized. Though they are meant to go to those in need these caravans often end up being traded and sold on the black market, the desire for them being so great.


Figure 2: Layout for 16 units

Figure 3: Schedule of operations

Figure 3: Schedule of operations

There are a number of handbooks that outline the regulations, construction concepts, and overall procedures that should be followed when a transitional settlement is needed. According to Hailey the “main document” for crisis relief is the UNHCR’s Handbook for Emergencies, “which addresses broad concepts of the UNHCR mandate, emergency management, and more particular issues of field operations such as the location of camps in relation to host communities.”[15] It is a dense document with thoroughly laid out emergency planning procedures. Figure 2 describes the ideal shelter layout: 16 units for 80 people clustered around a common area with strict metrics determining distances to showers, water points and other amenities.

Another influential document is Transitional Settlement / Displaced Populations, a handbook that “is the product of ‘extensive peer review from concerned agencies’ and seeks to develop new models of response with a focus on livelihood after transition.”[16] A key graphic in the document is Figure 3, a “schedule of operations” that illustrates the different time frames for different camp types, from the period of “emergency” to “care + maintenance.”[17] The typical sort of refugee camp such as Zaatari would fall under the category of “planned camps,” the sort of camp that requires large scale planning.


The difference between optimal guidelines and actualized camp plans is that camp planning on the ground is governed by economy: packing the most people into the least space. This creates an unfortunate sprawl of tents, a suburban-like undifferentiated field of shelters. In Zaatari, there are neighborhoods and schools planned in, though “many parents won’t send their kids to class: ‘the tents all look the same. They are worried they will not find their way home,’” reports one young refugee.[18] Another problem is the lack of productive activity and the inability to restart former economic activity. “Camps are built in the middle of nowhere so they can keep refugees away from local society, which is what host governments demand.”[19] Land use and zoning are tricky questions in a refugee camp, as they are sinkholes within the host country’s political borders. Former urban designer-turned-humanitarian aid consultant Mitchell Sipus blogs at Humanitarian Space about a situation in Dadaab Refugee Camp (currently the largest in the world) in Kenya in which “rioting broke out when police sought to disperse a crowd that was protesting an attempt to demolish illegal structures around a food distribution point… The event raises several questions: for structures to be illegal, what sort of land use laws are in place within the camp? Who determines the legality of these structures? How does the process work?”[20] These are complex and important parameters to factor into camp planning, and how can these parameters be leveraged through computational design tools to model more effective camp plans?


Within the milieu of these larger political machinations, where can architects seek to assist? Helping refugees find agency within this strictly controlled living environment by applying a Peter Trummer-style parametric planning process makes sense.[21] Such parametric models are adaptable on the ground and already come loaded with potential.

Parametric software such as Grasshopper use “definitions” to create digital output, polygonal shapes and 2D drawings and such. These definitions are sharable and allow the spreading of not simply a mimicable form but a making process, much like open-source code. Open-source code invites transparency to software, as well as tinkering and crowd-sourced updating, and the implicit argument for the de-commodification of a tool. This utopian or even anarchic mindset is paralleled by the “pirating” of software, an ethos that bits of code or anything that can be put onto a computer is open for all. After Napster the most famous of these communities is The Pirate Bay, a tracking site for such softwares whose servers are forever traipsing the world, avoiding authorities and subverting international laws, a true TAZ.[22] 

This sharing community was taken advantage of in the development of the images above. Different spacing algorithms were explored in an effort to understand their correlation with an existing camp layout parameter. While simply two-dimensional in nature they begin to form a frame work from which to be able to design entire camp sites based on any given parameters. The question is, if these camp layouts become much more sophisticated than simple grids, does there need to be a more robust and computer-controlled site construction method in place?


Technological innovations and their application towards humanitarian efforts have been gaining attention recently. The idea of robotic manufacturing, meaning any manufacturing process that has been automated to be carried out by computer-controlled machines, is that there are particular efficiencies inherent to them. In one article titled Architecture by Robots, For Humanity, the author explains “robotic efficiency can do more than just save people money, it can make the act of aid more economically feasible.”[23] In another article on 3D printing’s ability to easily produce variability and flexibility “could dramatically increase the ability of communities to develop locally appropriate solutions for enhancing climate resiliency.”[24] With such obvious implications for humanitarian goals it seems not a question of why but how to utilize robotic manufacturing towards these ends. 

The latest form of robotic manufacturing is 3D printing, and we must first understand the complexities of this process before we can exploit it. Currently there are four major production types of computer aided manufacturing: FDM (fused deposition modeling), SLA (stereolithography), SLS (selective laser sintering), and CNC (computer numerically controlled). All but CNC are what we can term “additive manufacturing.” At the moment there are utopian/anarchic qualities inherent to home 3D printing as well. Take for example the Guy Fawkes mask so widely used by protest groups such as Anonymous. The irony of the use of this symbol is that it is trademarked by Warner Brothers and is actually produced in low-income countries. Thus, by 3D printing your own version at home you can subvert these copyrights, but at the same time the finished printed product cannot yet match the quality made in a sweatshop.

There are also three different deployment methods possible for 3D printing, including rails, robot arms, and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. By scaling up these technologies architects and innovators are attempting to 3D print buildings. Projects such as Radiolaria by Shiro Studio architects and D-Shape and Echoviren by Smith|Allen claim to be the first 3D printed structures. These structures are similar in that they are simply vertically extruded shapes with apertures, produced out of a single material, and have little enclosure. If both of these projects suffer from the constraints of today’s manufacturing technologies then perhaps there are prospective technologies on their way to more realized architectural structures.

The closest research technology to this is Contour Crafting, a project run by Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California, who has developed a technique to layer up extruded concrete, using massive rails to control the extrusion head. He has even started to develop a system for placing reinforcement, glazing, and piping into the printed walls, utilizing additional robot arms. Their website has even touted it’s application in disaster relief structures, and sums up the advantages of robotic manufacturing in this humanitarian field very nicely:

Contour Crafting technology can deliver strong dignified houses to disaster victims very rapidly. Construction by Contour Crafting can build a 2,000 square foot house with all utilities for electrical and plumbing in less than 24 hours. Contour Crafting technology is adaptable and can use in situ construction material, thus eliminating the need to transport materials long distances, saving the time and costs associated with transportation. Since Contour Crafting is an automated process, labor needs are highly minimized allowing relief workers to allocate their time and effort to rebuilding local infrastructure such as water sanitation and distribution systems, roads, electrical and communication systems as well as irrigations systems. In this way Contour Crafting has the potential of providing disaster survivors not only with dignified shelter, but also with more resources to rebuild their lives and their communities.

While this is all completely speculative at this point, the goals are respectable and somewhat realistic when you consider the exponential pace of technological advancement of recent. Though some may consider 3D printing a “disruptive technology” with it’s potential to superannuate many manufacturing jobs, one need only consider that the iPhone and all that has come with it has only existed for four years and has produced 600,000 new jobs in that time.


How can the leveraging of these technologies towards temporary settlement design begin to take shape? Utilizing parametric software such as Grasshopper can take the very rigorous planning criteria outlined by aid agencies and develop a visualization tool for camp design. The power of parametric software is its ability to receive various inputs, whether those are formal, climatic, or political. Such a parametric tool could at once be an aid in rapid planning scenarios but also serve as a critique of the guidelines as they are set down now. This tool does not necessarily have to be used only for refugee camps, and there are a number of ways it can inform us of developing other kinds of urban layouts. 

Furthermore, the goals of aligning parametrically informed layouts with robotics with settlement design has already been addressed in a project for Jason Kelly Johnson’s Creative Architecture Machines advanced options studio in the fall of 2013. This project proposed a large-scale, satellite-controlled, ambulatory robot that could traverse difficult terrains while laying down the necessary infrastructure for a new settlement, printing out geotextiles, roadways, sewage lines, outhouses, and other components. Though this project does not address who will actually be running these machines and what materials on site that could be taken advantage of, it is a first step in considering how deployable manufacturing robots could be used in camp layout, as well as attempt to realign autonomous machines not as drones of war but robots for peace.

However, what larger ideas can be extrapolated from the application of these technologies to this problem of camp design? What can a parametric model designed to help refugees self-empower say about finding agency overall, and the occupation of that otherland Neil Brenner calls the “extended urban”, that territory not typically considered urban or suburban but can hardly be thought of as nature since nearly the entire surface of the earth is now utilized to supply urban areas with the sustenance needed to exist. This is why I’d like to return to Hakim Bey and his TAZs. His writings on what he deems the pirate utopias of the 17th century are an alluring example of the kind of managed, anarchic, but temporary societies that can be formed by those living outside of normal societal boundaries. Just as refugee camps are politically ambiguous spaces, the pirate utopia of the Republic of Salé was a kind of democratic precursor to the American, French, and British republics, one in which they developed their own lingua franca, and purportedly even developed their own monetary system. Like other pirate utopias that preceded them, they were intentionally temporal, it’s residents very much Deleuze and Guattari’s nomads, not migrants. Ultimately, the aim is not to romanticize refugee camps but to understand the operational potentials of both of these TAZs in order to formulate a new kind of temptopian urbanism, one in which nomads or the displaced activate as weapons against oppression, democratic or totalitarian, and define a new kind of camp: not Hailey’s camps of autonomy, control, or necessity, but a camp founded for abject freedom, however brief.

[1] Hailey, Camps, 13.

[2] The camp started by Cindy Shaheen outside of former president George W. Bush’s family ranch to protest the Iraq war in 2005.

[3] “Smooth or nomad space lies between two striated spaces: that of the forest, with its gravitational verticals, and that of agriculture, with its grids and generalized parallels, its now independent arborescence, its art of extracting the tree and wood from the forest.” (Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus, 384.)

[4] “The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations where it is lacking, dreams dry up, adventure is replaced by espionage, and privateers by the police.” (Foucault, Of Other Places, 27.)

[5] “These nomads practice the razzia, they are corsairs, they are viruses; they have both need and desire for TAZs, camps of black tents under the desert stars, interzones, hidden fortified oases along secret caravan routes, “liberated” bits of jungle and bad-land, no-go areas, black markets, and underground bazaars.” (Bey, Pirate Utopias.)

[6] 28.8 million of this total are internally displaced persons (IDPs), meaning they were forced out of their homes but still reside within the borders of their own countries.

[7] UNHCR, Global Trends 2012, 2.

[8], “50 Most Populous Refugee Camps.”

[9] UNHCR, “Zaatri Refugee Camp.”

[10] UNHCR, “Shelter.”

[11] One architect who has become famous for his work on refugee shelters is Shigeru Ban, with successful projects in Haiti, Japan, and southeast Asia. His work with cardboard tubing as a construction material has made many small relief projects possible but has yet to supplant the tent as the optimal rapid response unit for shelter. (Ban, “Emergency Shelters.”)

[12] IASC, Shelter Projects 2008, 9.

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] Snow, “Shelter For Refugees.”

[15] Hailey, Camps, 489.

[16] Ibid., 489.

[17] Corsellis and Vitale, Transitional Settlement, 38.

[18] Leigh, “Becoming Refugees.”

[19] Rosenberg, “For Refugees.”

[20] Sipus, “Planning and Conflict.”

[21] The associative design research of Peter Trummer uses software to take planning codes and FARs and makes them dynamic and visually accessible.

[22] Matlack, “Unintentionally Forced.”

[23] C. Molly, “Architecture by Robots.”

[24] Werrell and Femia, “Could 3D Printing?”


Ban, Shigeru. “Shigeru Ban: Emergency shelters made from paper.” Filmed May 2013. TED video. Posted June 2013.

Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism.

C. Molloy, Jonathan. “Architecture by Robots, For Humanity.” ArchDaily, March 29, 2013.

Corsellis, Tom and Antonella Vitale. Transitional Settlement, Displaced Populations. Oxfam GB, 2005.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces,” in Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1, translated by Jay Miskowiec, 22-27. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Hailey, Charlie. Camps, A Guide to 21st-Century Space. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2009.

Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). Shelter Projects 2008. UN-HABITAT, 2009.

Leigh, Karen. “Becoming Refugees: Overnight Check-In at Zaatari.” Syria Deeply (blog), December 13, 2012.

Matlack, Carol. “How I Unintentionally Forced Pirate Bay From Its Latest Haven.”, December 12, 2013.

Rosenberg, Tina. “For Refugees, the Price of Dignity.” New York Times, September 1, 2011.

Sipus, Mitchell. “Planning and Conflict in #Dadaab Refugee Camp: Land Use Law, Zoning Regulations.” Humanitarian Space (blog), July 3, 2011. “Where Are the 50 Most Populous Refugee Camps?”

Snow, Shane. “A New Ingeniously Designed Shelter For Refugees--Made By Ikea.” Fast Company, June 26, 2013.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Global Trends 2012, Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge. Geneva: UNHCR, 2013.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Handbook for Emergencies. Third edition, 2007.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “Shelter.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “Zaatri Refugee Camp.” Last modified December 10, 2013.

Werrell, Caitlin and Francesco Femia. “Could 3D printing be a climate revolution?” (blog), December 18, 2012.