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Centre for Urban Conflicts Research


By Toby Parsloe

In August 2019, a collaborative summer school between students at Cambridge and the Technical University in Berlin took place in the German capital. Twenty-six students from both universities temporarily transformed the roof terrace of an initial reception centre for refugees. The terrace would then be opened for the first time to the residents and would host an Open House day where neighbours were invited to interact with those in the shelter. To achieve this, students had to grapple with the complex theoretical and practical challenges of working with refugee shelters, as well as the difficult socio-political context of the surrounding urban environment.

The students undertook research and cataloguing tasks in the shelter as well as various site visits around the city. This included experiencing the hangars of the iconic Tempelhof airport, which was famously once the site of Germany’s largest refugee camp, as well as being taken on a tour of the diverse Neukölln neighbourhood by someone who had arrived as a refugee in the city to understand the challenges they faced in an unfamiliar urban environment. Using this acquired knowledge, in two days they designed and built temporary architectural structures that attempted to address the sorts of issues inherent in Berlin’s refugee shelters.

A fundamental part of the project is its legacy. The shelter kept all the structures built by the students which the residents now use in their daily lives. More importantly, the project hopes to support continued efforts to find ways to open the terrace permanently to the residents for their enjoyment. It was vital that the students didn’t just arrive, build something pretty, and leave, but instead create something that may continue positive discussions around the issues of forced migration.

A short film offers a compelling insight into the students’ work: 

Designs for a Refugee Shelter Rooftop from Toby Parsloe on Vimeo.

Furthermore, a publication provides detail the process and outcomes of the project:

When research concerns the lives of refugees, the lines between academia and activism become ambiguous. This inspired the key question at the heart of this project: how can academic understandings lead to potentially positive architectural interventions on the situations we research? Through the summer school, the students explored how they could utilise their specialised skill sets and knowledge to inform potential physical interventions. 

Toby is a third year PhD student based in the Centre for Urban Conflicts research. His thesis concerns the architecture of institutionalised refugee shelter in Berlin since the so-called ‘Refugee Crisis’ of 2015. He instigated the project ‘Designs for a Refugee Shelter Rooftop’ as a visiting scholar at the TU Berlin, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. 



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