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Autonomous Planning Strategies

Part 2 Dissertation 2007
Julia King
Architectural Association London | UK
This thesis explores the role of the architect in relation to refugee settlements, focusing particularly on one of many set up on the Thai-Burma border to house Burmese citizens displaced by hostilities in that region. It begins by looking at the global context in which the administration of ‘camps’ and ‘settlements’ generally favours a top-down approach, and considers the relative merits and demerits of centralised and decentralised strategies for distributing aid. The thesis argues for autonomous settlement models that empower the refugee community, promoting self-sufficiency while ensuring that food and building materials are provided.
A series of case studies from different parts of the world are introduced to demonstrate the economic and humanitarian value of this approach. These range from the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi providing advice on community organisation and self-help techniques in an informal housing settlement, to the award-winning Drukh White Lotus School in Ladakh (Tibet) where Arup engineers worked with local people, using local materials to provide passive solar heating and improved pit latrines.
The second part of the thesis focuses on the Mae Sot refugee settlement on the Thai Burma border visited by the author and a fellow student earlier in the year, in order to assess conditions on site, to pinpoint geographic, social, economic and political factors that determine the quality of refugee life. Interviews with the carpenter (included in an appendix) revealed a community dependent on the external provision of materials for housing – in this case bamboo – but possessed of sufficient traditional skills to undertake construction. Back in England, the author undertook a collaborative project that proposes a new system of joints for the traditional bamboo construction, together with an opening roof that offers improved ventilation. A description of the building process is included in the thesis as a demonstration of the self-enabling approach to settlement that is argued for.
The conclusion proposes a new role for the architect in response to the housing requirements of an ever-increasing number of displaced persons, a role that recognizes the human right to self-determination and offers professional skills as a way of empowering others.

Julia King

To address the role of the architect in relation to refugee settlements is a courageous undertaking for an architectural student since it involves social, economic and political issues, as well as a practical knowledge of building technology. The wide-ranging research undertaken is presented like a government paper, with appropriate statistics, maps and diagrams. The second part of the thesis documents in a more personal style a ‘journey’ taken by the author to the Thai-Burma border, leading to the design and construction of an alternative framework for housing designed to empower the community. This live project convincingly demonstrates the architect working at a local scale to address a global problem.

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