5 March 2019 -

Report: DHS Conference Bursary by Tania Messell

Following the 2017 DHS Conference "Making and Unmaking the Environment", which explored the multifarious manners through which design impacts the natural and man-made habitat, the 2018 DHS Conference once again expanded into world issues by setting out to discuss the twin topics of "Design and Displacement". Hosted by Parsons, The New School and the Cooper Hewitt Museum of National Design in New York, the event was convened by Dr Sarah A. Lichtman and co-convened by Dr Marilyn Cohen and Dr Jilly Traganou.

Approaching the notion of displacement both literally and conceptually, the conference set out to investigate the role of design at the crux of global crisis, from war to environmental destruction and poor infrastructures, and the manners through which the profession contributes or responds to such threats. Embracing wider efforts to globalise design history, the conference also set out to examine the repercussions of displacement and cross-cultural exchanges on material culture. It hosted panels that explored the legacies of émigré designers on design institutionalisation, education and practices, and included studies that explored design and displacement in diverse geographical locations. I was extremely grateful to receive the DHS Conference Bursary, which supported my attendance to this event. This report will examine the DHS Conference through the lens of humanitarian aid, which, I believe, was one of the key areas of inquiry during the gathering.

Three keynotes were delivered during the DHS Conference, which provided an exceptional backdrop to the individual sessions. Tony Fry's keynote in particular highlighted the global 'accumulation of the condition of unsettlement', which, triggered by conflicts over border and resources, the loss of communities and environments, and the rise of nationalism, inevitably led to further conflicts. Highlighting the embeddedness of design in dehumanising responses to displacement, Fry therefore enquired: how should design operate in the context of crisis?

Advancing the need for design to grasp the complexity of diverse human conditions, the designer and design theorist admonished practitioners to move beyond their role as service providers and problem-solvers, and to adopt the role of 'enablers' instead, by assisting users to find solutions themselves. Addressing himself to design historians, Fry also proposed that the field needed to investigate the place of design in history, as opposed to a history of design. As he noted, new histories needed to reveal how design functions in the world, whilst the debates and findings of design historians needed to be harnessed beyond the discipline. Fry finally underlined the difficulties of addressing intellectual themes for which one cared emotionally and concluded his talk by presenting some of his projects on post-conflict and disaster response. The discussion that followed explored how design historians could expand their areas of investigation, and the extent to which design only acted as a destructive force in situations of crisis.

Tony Fry's opening keynote 'Being-in-the-World & Displacement: So Where is Design?'. Photograph by Harriet Atkinson.

Two panels explored the themes of humanitarian aid and design during the conference. The first, "Topics in Displacement: Africa", featured research on the material environment of refugee camps and transnational initiatives in Africa. Taking the Goudoubo refugee camp in Burkina Faso as a case study, Jamie Cross, Dr Craig Martin and Arno Verhoeven shed light on how humanitarian products provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), such as solar cook stoves and lanterns, failed to answer necessities on the ground. They also revealed how such equipment was repurposed by refugees, or used alongside traditional techniques, which testified to the circulation of alternative skills within such sites, and to the issues that arise when standardised solutions are transferred to diverse contexts.

The second paper brought forth issues of 'scalabity' in humanitarian interventions. Charles Newman addressed this theme by examining three cross-border infrastructures: The Great Green Wall, the TransAfrica Pipeline, and the Lake Chad Replenishment Project. His paper advocated the essential role of scalability when appraising the planning and results of such projects by demonstrating the diverse local visions, implementations and ecologies, and the inherent complexity and unpredictability of their outcomes. Finally, Nerea Amorós Elorduy offered a sweeping account of refugee camps in the Great Rift Valley in East Africa through the lens of urban studies. She countered the scarce amount of information held by aid actors, who often envision these camps as transitional 'limbo places' whose materiality and social dynamics do not warrant an examination. Amorós Elorduy, however, revealed their historical, social and material diversity, and the multifarious social processes that prevailed within these camps, some of which having existed for more than sixty years. She therefore critiqued the planning of current refugee camps, which failed to incorporate contextual knowledge. The discussion in turn tackled the issues that arise when foreign researchers investigate or intervene in different cultural contexts, and the limits of problem-solving discourses and initiatives.

"Shelter and Disaster" was the second panel that examined humanitarian response in the form of disaster relief. The first paper, "Design Towards Disaster Relief: ICSID and the League of Red Cross Societies (1971-1979)", delivered by myself, appraised the success of ICSID's efforts towards disaster relief in the 1970s, which it largely conducted with the League of Red Cross Societies. The paper argued that ICSID's lack of economic and human resources, and limited understanding of disaster response within governmental and non-governmental spheres, affected its ability to establish designers amongst disaster relief efforts. Mapping the production and distribution of disaster relief equipment, the paper highlighted the need for further research on the role of design in past humanitarian efforts.

Professor Izumi Kuroishi's paper, "Transformation of the Idea of Housing Through the Disaster Displacement: History and Design of Prefabricated Shelter Housing in Japan", traced the Westernisation of modernisation in Japan in the twentieth-century, and how it influenced the designs of emergency shelters. Highlighting the long-term usage of the latter, she discussed the physical and psychological harm resulting from such structures and advocated for the right of refugees to re-appropriate these spaces to experience a sense of 'dwelling' (in Heideggerian terms). Finally, Dr. Sophia Vyzoviti, in her paper "City of Beds: Emergency Shelters in European Refugee Crisis", examined a series of refugee responses in Europe, from the use of vast impersonal halls operating as 'apparatus of confinement', to the Ikea shelters and civic operation centres, comparing their benefits and limitations. She concluded by condemning the lack of innovative and adapted responses to the refugee crisis in Europe. The discussion in turn treated the exchange of design standards between Europe and Asia historically and today, the balance between large-scale planning and spontaneous space appropriation, and the inherent diversity of local contexts, and of adapted responses.  

By tackling themes such as humanitarian interventions and disaster relief, the 2018 DHS Conference offered a unique forum to reflect on the position of design in situations of unsettlement and crisis, both historically and currently. The conference, amongst other initiatives, was indeed significant through its questioning of the role of design history in documenting design as cause and effect of larger crises. It thereby constituted a 'turning point' for the field of design history, as Professor Jeremy Aynsley noted in his concluding remarks.

Tania Messell
Lecturer, University of Brighton

Headline image: Opening of the 2018 Design History Society Annual Conference. Photograph by Harriet Atkinson.


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