The 2018 Design History Society annual conference, Design and Displacement took place at the New School, Parsons School of Design in NY from the 6th until the 8th of September. The topic at hand was timely and extremely interesting. Firstly due to the intense waves of human displacement in the last few years that affect millions of people across the world. Secondly, because this topic, human displacement, is rarely looked at from the perspectives of design and history. Usually, displacement, forced migration and the causes for it are looked at from a highly humanitarian aid and emergency viewpoints that guide the portrayal of the topic on the media, the academic and the professional worlds.
The location was also very attractive and exciting since in the last years and due to the displacement reaching the shores of Europe and the US, many renowned institutions have increased their interest on the topic and have hosted similar events, such as the MoMA, and renowned artists such as Ai Weiwei have reflected on the issue in their art.
Hence I was thrilled and honored to be selected to participate in the conference and to be awarded the conference bursary. I believe the panel where I participated, Topics in Displacement: Africa, was especially relevant since the continent, and specially sub-Saharan Africa hosts almost a third of all the world registered refugees. The panelist with whom I shared the floor and the questions from the audience were extremely interesting and varied. Dr Craig Martin, a cultural geographer and design theorist based at the University of Edinburgh and Charles Newman, an architect developing a graduate research at Harvard GSD focusing on the implementation of large scale multi-national infrastructure projects in Africa. Amongst others, he presented a study on the Trans Africa Pipeline, focusing on issues of legality, transparency, efficiency, risk and responsibility and how these mega projects affect migration and displacement either as means to tackle it or as causes for it. The paper I presented discussed the relevance of the built environment of long-term refugee camps in East Africa on young children’s development.
The mix of panellists and the great coordination by Gabrielle Oropallo, the moderator of our panel, made for a very interesting session. The different papers touched upon very diverse topics from different temporal and special scales and stand points. There was a rich discussion about participation, the importance of local vs global, the relevance of the foreign researcher and the building of regional knowledge. It was a productive and engaged discussion.
The other sessions I had the pleasure to attend, and various speakers I interacted with throughout the visits organised by the conference, for example the cocktail at the Cooper Hewitt, made for a really fascinating and fruitful experience.
This conference was for me the culmination of three and a half years of intense research focused on long-term refugee camps in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya based at The Bartlett School of Architecture at the University College of London, for which I was awarded the title of PhD a couple of weeks after the conference took place. I am thankful to the organisers of the conference and to the team that awarded me the bursary as well as to Gabriele and my co-panelists for making of the conference such a good opportunity to learn further of the relevance of design and of history in burning topics such as displacement.