Camps 2 Cities Project

In September 2015, when the flow of forced migrants to Europe was at its peak, an email was circulated in Cambridge’s Department of Architecture, introducing a group of volunteers from Hackney who were looking for assistance in designing and building shelters for the refugees in the Jungle camp in Calais. The makeshift camp was then growing rapidly with dozens of people arriving daily, and there was an urgent need to replace tents with more robust shelters before the winter set in.

For those of us who responded to the appeal, the initial brief posed design, logistical and political problems. Existing designs for prefabricated emergency shelters were generally intended for hot climates and our challenge was to design low-cost, easily-transportable shelters that would protect dwellers from cold and damp on the frequently flooded site. In addition, following guidelines set down by the Mayor of Calais, any shelter built in the Jungle had to be temporary and, equally importantly, it had to look temporary. The IKEA Better Shelter, for example, used in refugee camps around the world, apparently looked too permanent and, at £950 per shelter, it was also too expensive; existing shelters built on-site by volunteers and Jungle residents typically cost £120. The Hackney group, who also raised money for the project, planned to spend £250 per shelter and to build, in the first phase, around twenty units in the camp.

A few weeks after our initial briefing, along with two colleagues from the Cambridge Association of Architects (CAA) and two representatives of the volunteer group, I visited the Jungle for the first time. The aim of the trip was to learn about materials and building methods from the more successful shelters in the camp, and to coordinate future distribution with NGOs active on site to promise assistance for those who most needed them. Most of the shelters we have seen in the camp were composed of a prefabricated timber frame wrapped in tarpaulin and insulated, from the inside, with blankets and carpets. We also watched production in the warehouse workshop of L’Auberge des Migrants (the main NGO then working in the Jungle), where many of the shelters used in the camp were built, and in an improvised workshop in a back garden of a private house in Calais where one of the French volunteers in the camp lived.

Our shelter design, incorporating many of the methods observed on the site-visit, included the use of industrial timber pallets to lift the shelter off the soaked ground and the use of air trapped between two layers of tarpaulin and aluminium-foil bubble sheet for insulation. Yet because of logistical issues and time constraints the design did not make it through to production and the group decided to provide shelters using a different method. While this was disappointing, the experience was invaluable and many of us found other opportunities to support the camp residents in different ways.

I revisited the Jungle several times for volunteering and research before the camp was completely demolished in October 2016. On each occasion, I was inspired by the resilience and creativity of the refugees and by the countless acts of care and solidarity shown to camp inhabitants by volunteers. At the same time, it was frustrating to witness how vulnerable women, men and children, who are legally entitled to protection, are left abandoned and exposed to appalling conditions, precariousness, and violence, just a few hours away from our safe and comfortable homes.

An earlier version was published in ‘The Year’ 2017, Girton College, University of Cambridge.