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Displacement and Architecture / Karsten Harries

By April 27, 2021May 2nd, 2022No Comments

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #45 – Summer 2020

  1. Introduction

She topic “Displacement and Architecture” strikes me as exhibiting a tension between the all too obvious timeliness of this topic and its timeless, but elusive significance. Depending on the context, both “displacement” and “architecture” can mean quite different things.

Architecture can be used broadly to embrace all building but it can also be opposed to mere building as an art. Displacement can be something human beings suffer as a consequence of some particular event, say a war or some natural disaster such as climate change. And that is what most likely comes to mind today when we hear the word. Such displacement can last a short or a long time; it can even be permanent. Displacement can also be something human beings choose in search of a better life. Think of the millions who left home to find a better life, a new haven, in this country. They chose to displace themselves.

Displacement can also be understood as a consequence of our modern way of life. In this age of technical reproducibility, we deny things their aura of uniqueness and it is this sense of uniqueness that is part of feeling at home in the world. And finally, displacement can also be understood as constitutive of the human condition. “Where are we really going?”, the poet Novalis asks: “Always home.” Think of the Biblical story of the fall; it is a story of displacement which has its secular analogue in Martin Heidegger’s fundamental ontology which insists on our essential homelessness. While “displacement” has first of all a negative connotation, it is also possible to understand it as a presupposition of human progress. Again, the story of the fall is suggestive. Why do Augustine and Thomas Aquinas speak of felix culpa, of a blessed fall, if not to suggest that Adam and Eve’s displacement from paradise was a precondition for human nature to be raised to an even higher state? Displacement here can be tied to an awakening of freedom, a presupposition of choosing between good and evil and thus of full humanity An analogous point can be made about the other forms of displacement which I mentioned above and to which I shall return in the course of this essay. Here I only want to suggest that displacement has two sides.

The timeliness of our topic requires no comment. The 2018 Coral Gables Museum’s exhibition, “Sheltering Survivors,” curated by Mitra Naseh, shows both ephemeral transitional shelters from around the world that in different ways respond to the humanitarian crises caused by wars and natural disasters that have displaced many millions. These shelters offer only temporary refuge to those displaced, with the hope that their occupants will one day return to the home they were forced to leave or find a new home in some other country. We are all aware of the suffering that displacement like this has brought, even if such awareness may not disturb most of us as much as it should. Yet the scope of the problem is paralyzing. The number of persons displaced by war, terror, and famine today is higher than it has ever been. It is higher even than after the catastrophe of World War II. The Second World War was a catastrophe that many years ago displaced me, too, indeed several times, and finally brought me to the United States-where even today I feel, despite the many happy years I have lived in this country, in some ways still a displaced person, whose spiritual home remains elsewhere. Today I consider my displacement a gift.

But displacement can hardly be considered a gift in this sense by the 65 million people today who are displaced. More than half of this number are children. It amounts roughly to one percent of the world’s population. These are individuals who have been displaced by conflict, persecution and climate change induced famine. The most immediate problems facing these millions are so evident that they do not require philosophical reflection; they call for a very different sort of engagement. What is needed is adequate shelter, food, clean water, clothing, medical care, education and the like. In the last few years the Syrian refugee crisis has taken center stage, but we should not forget the many other countries with huge numbers of internal and external refugees, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and many others; nor should we forget those countries whose resources are stretched to the breaking point by the sheer number of refugees such as Lebanon, with one refugee for every five citizens, or Jordan, or Turkey. Given the strain this influx has placed on such countries, on their economies, and the threat posed by the absorption of so many strangers to their national identity, it is hardly surprising that the world has not exactly embraced these displaced persons with open arms. Think of this country’s response to the refugee problem: in 2018, as of April 12, the U.S. had received only 11 Syrian refugees.

But is there a need for architecture? And in what sense?

Certainly not for architecture as it was understood by Nikolaus Pevsner when he wrote what to him seemed a self-evident distinction: “A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. What those fleeing from war and famine most immediately need is some sort of shed that offers protection from the weather and some privacy. Hopefully they will be able to move on in a reasonable amount of time to more adequate shelter, to a building that they could consider home, although the average time spent in a refugee camp is 17 years. But suppose some of these refugees eventually do find good employment in some welcoming country and they are able to acquire a house. Can building furnish us with a genuine home? The answer has to be negative: building can provide the displaced with shelter, but no matter how physically adequate such shelter may be, those displaced may still feel displaced. Think of some Syrian refugees who are now well sheltered and fed, say in Sweden. Are they likely to experience themselves as no longer displaced? Probably not. Displacement here means not so much a loss of adequate shelter, but as a tearing of a social fabric, a fabric that cannot be divorced from a certain land, a certain history, a certain language, religion and custom.

Turning a famous line by Sartre around: in its most fundamental sense home is other people. Embeddedness in a coherent ongoing community matters more than place. That is a lesson I have learned over and over, ever since my childhood, when World War II, and the almost daily bombing of Berlin, forced my mother and her children to seek refuge in quite a number of to us) strange places. Among them was the very primitive, but to me, magical fishing village

of Karkeln in East Prussia. This town, now part of Russia, is where I attended first grade and where we found shelter in a shed without electricity and running water, until the distant thunder of the guns of the approaching Red Army forced us to leave once more. For a few weeks we went back to Berlin, to a small room in a house in the Franconian Königshofen, where we awaited the end of the war. And we kept moving. Five years later we moved to America. By then, however, displacement was no longer forced, but chosen.

Although I was no doubt repeatedly displaced, I have never experienced myself as a displaced person. There was always some place to come home to, presided over by my mother. Often there was too little food, too little heat, inadequate clothing. In the winter my legs were covered with frost-bite boils. But despite all that, I had what I now consider a happy childhood. I always had friends. Community trumped displacement. Shelter, food, health, mattered a great deal, but not the particular building to which we happened to be assigned. What sustained us was what one might perhaps call a spiritual architecture that a shared life, in a still functioning family, had built. It was an architecture much more dependent on language than on building.

I mention this here to suggest that in my case the displacement caused by war had two sides. Displacement also meant growth. Real deprivation was countered by the challenge of discovering unfamiliar, strange, and at times, quite magical places. The sense of loss and comfort and security of our Berlin home was matched by a broadening of horizons, with a gain in freedom.

When we were forced from our Berlin home, we took a step back to a more primitive form of existence, where gathering wood for our stove, or beech nuts to be pressed into some cooking oil, or mushrooms and berries, really mattered. We lived much closer to the earth. I still dream at times of such proximity

It still carries a bit of the aura of paradise. Today there is no one place that I could call home in the fullest sense. To be sure, our home is in Hamden, Connecticut. But spiritually! am located in multiple places. And I consider this not a burden, but a gift. Memories of the different places that once offered me shelter have remained with me. Transfigured by my imagination, these memories gesture towards some place where I would be truly at home, even as I know that there never was, and that there never should be such a place, for such a homecoming would mean a loss of freedom; it would mean a spiritual death. When my imagination returns to these places, what I create, to use a German expression, Zwischenwelten, are dream-worlds suspended somewhere between a now irretrievably lost reality and fiction. What matters is not the recovery of some lost past; but quite the opposite. And yet, the preservation of such dreams matters. They still cast a light into our everyday existence, and they call on us to make this a somewhat better, more homelike, world.

  1. Forced Displacement I distinguish four different kinds of displacement: displacement caused by some particular event, say a war or some natural disaster; displacement as a condition chosen by human beings in search of a better life; displacement as a consequence of our modern way of life, and displacement as part of the human condition. All four have invited distinctive architectural responses.

It is not that architects have failed to address the all too evident suffering. Shigeru Ban’s imaginative response to the plight of displaced people, often using paper and cardboard to provide disaster victims with quick shelter, has even earned him a Pritzker Prize and other awards. (Fig. 1) And Ban is hardly alone: one could also mention the tent shelter system developed by Domo or the Belgian Maggie shelters-or to give another example, the center of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition(Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter was given over to the Refugee Housing Unit (RHU), also known as the Better Shelter. But welcome as these projects are, do they allow for the well-being of a family? For most of the displaced, the cost, modest as it is, is already a problem, so is the square footage, so is the shelter’s temporary character. And so is its insensitivity to what are inevitably local conditions and customs.

But no such shelter, no matter how flexible or well designed, will allow for the well-being of the family. I agree with Karrie Jacobs when she suggests that the focus of the architectural community should not be on designing little sheds, but on rethinking the larger context, calling into question the way we tend to think of camps for displaced persons in the image of military camp, based on the grid, instead of in the image of an evolving city.

Forced displacement becomes bearable only if the displaced have reason to hope for a better future. In the long run the tragedy of forced displacement can be met only by repatriation or by integration into the host society. The contribution architects can make to ameliorate the suffering of forced displacement is necessarily limited. Far more important is the willingness of the host society to embrace the displaced and the willingness of the displaced to engage the host, to actively seek to establish their place in what is likely to seem at first a very strange environment. That, however, presupposes a respect for the humanity of the stranger that unfortunately appears to be rarer than our humanity demands. 3. Chosen Displacement From forced displacement we can distinguish emigration, a self-displacement chosen by individuals in search of a better life. There is no sharp boundary separating voluntary emigration and forced displacement: those escaping violence or some natural disaster also choose to leave home behind. But they may feel that they really have no choice: emigration, self-displacement is part of history. The successful emigrant will affirm her or his displacement.

Emigration and nostalgia are likely to go together. The eclecticism of American architecture testifies to the fact that this is a country of immigrants: everywhere we meet with traces of the homes of the Old World. An often nostalgic looking back to the past continues to pervade our place-making. Nostalgia suggests a certain dissatisfaction with the world we have to live in. The built environment testifies to the place-establishing power of nostalgia.


We like to dress up our houses with finery borrowed from the past, inviting thoughts of a more firmly rooted dwelling. And this is hardly a new development. Consider the decorated sheds of the 19th century with their borrowed ornaments. Often such buildings invite the kitsch label, as they gesture towards a past that cannot be resurrected. And what is wrong with an architecture that so self-consciously seeks to edify and is unafraid to rely on recipes drawn from the past to achieve its end? 4. Modernity and Displacement Do we not all dream at times, as Gaston Bachelard thought, of an oneiric house, a home that promises physical and spiritual shelter, a more natural life? Sometimes that home may call us into what we experience as the genius loci of some place. Martin Heidegger thus found a metaphor of the oneiric house in a farmhouse from the 18th century. In countless variations such dreams will not let go of us and have helped to shape our building and dwelling.

But are such dreams not incompatible with our modern way of life and the freedom we demand? Are we not open today to the world in a way that is incompatible with the kind of strongly rooted existence Heidegger associates with his Black Forest farmhouse? Think of the way the car and the airplane, the television and the internet have diminished the significance of distance. Particular places, including the place where we happen to have been born, have lost much of the significance they once possessed. Literally and spiritually we have become mobile as never before. As place has come to matter less, so has displacement.

To be sure, our bodies inevitably bind us to some particular place. Following Aristotle and Heidegger, phenomenologists such as Ed Casey or Jeff Malpas have thus insisted on a certain priority of place over space. They can point to the way our being is essentially a being-in-the world.

To be in the world is inevitably to be placed, placed by our body, here and now, at this time, and in this place, on this earth and under this sky. Such placement brings with it a certain orientation. And it is not only our body that places us. We can also speak of our spiritual situation. As shaped by our past, a specific history, bound to specific places, has provided every one of us with an orientation that orders the possibilities that confront us.

Freedom of thought has from the very beginning generated a desire to overcome distance, to trade place for open space. From the very beginning human beings have sought greater mobility. And ever more effectively technology has allowed us to meet that demand. We want to understand things as they really are, not subject to the limits imposed by particular place-bound perspectives. The freedom of thought and a certain self-displacement go together.

What then are we to make of Heidegger’s assertion that technology today threatens the rootedness of man in its innermost essence? Does technology not offer us a new home, an altogether new kind of belonging? Think of the many young people today who have grown up with the computer. Will they not simply dismiss Heidegger’s claim that here, by means of technology, an attack on the life and the essence of the human being prepares itself, compared with which the explosion of the hydrogen bomb means little? Heidegger would have us tie “dwelling, and thus responsible building, to what he calls a saving of the earth. He neither wants building to master, nor to exploit the earth, but rather to tie us to a receiving of the sky that lets the day be day, and lets night be night. But our world has been shaped by technology. We would lose our place in the modern world if we turned our back to it.

Will the progress of reason inevitably transform our earth with its (ever more) scarce resources into a home that will do justice both to our and our children’s demand for security, for physical and spiritual shelter, and for our demand for freedom? The closer human beings come to fulfilling the Cartesian promise of rendering themselves the masters and possessors of nature, the less they will be able to experience nature as a power that assigns them their place. And there is the related question: What limits are set to our manipulation of the earth? is our fragile planet more than a reservoir of materials to be used by us as we see fit?

The other side of the progress of science and technology is an ever-progressing self-displacement that has found its expression also in today’s architecture.

The work of the modern architect, too, is inevitably in some particular place. And yet, is it not in its very essence spiritually mobile, in this sense placeless? Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso in the Swedish Malmö can stand for countless other recent buildings. (Fig. 2) Does it belong to where it happens to stand?

That such a question must be answered in the negative is suggested by the fact that not just one, but two Turning Torso towers were once supposed to rise in the American Las Vegas, two more in the Turkish Istanbul. And there is no reason why this should be the end. Most modern buildings invite cloning: no longer belonging to a particular geographic or historical context, they seem ready to travel.

But should we regret this and call for works of architecture that by their place-bound uniqueness place us, too? Is this look of mobility not in keeping with the ever-increasing freedom from the tyranny of place that science and technology have granted us? Consider once more how the progress of transportation and communications technology has made us not just physically, but spiritually mobile as never before. is such mobility compatible with place-establishing architecture? To be sure, we still require physical shelter and buildings that meet that need, but do we still look to architecture for spiritual shelter?

Part of modernity is thus a sense of what Milan Kundera called The “Unbearable Lightness of Being”. In his novel the tension between the magic of place and the lure of open space finds striking expression. In architectural discourse that opposition shows up in contrasting visions of a future shaped, on one hand, by dreams of freedom, of dancing, of flying, a future thought perhaps in the image of Lebbeus Woods’ architectural fantasies, and, on the other, in very different visions of a future that would allow us to come home, to experience ourselves once again as firmly placed members of a genuine, ongoing community, a future, say, thought in the image of old Prague and its unique genius loci. If one vision dreams of open space, of a freedom not bound by the body to particular places, the other dreams of homecoming to some particular place. The opposition of Fernweh and Heimweh, centrifugal and centripetal longings, is constitutive of human being: in all of us a longing to journey, literally and metaphorically, beyond what is all too comfortable and familiar challenges and is challenged by nostalgia, a longing to finally settle down and call some place home. From the very beginning modernity has been burdened by “the unbearable lightness of being “. And hence it has been shadowed by nostalgia, by a longing for a mode of dwelling that would restore to reality its lost weight.

The history of the word “nostalgia” is of interest. Like “aesthetics,” it is a word whose birth we can locate with precision. It, too, belongs to the Enlightenment, that is to the beginning of our modern age. The term was coined by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student, in his dissertation of 1688 and described by him in great and often amusing detail. Hofer coined the term, joining nostos meaning a journey back home, and algia, meaning pain, to name what in the vernacular was called Heimweh, homesickness, and which he had come to understand as a potentially deadly, wasting disease that in extreme cases may admit no remedy other than a return to the homeland.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, nostalgia was no longer considered primarily a medical problem, but came to mean in both poetry and philosophy a sense of spiritual homelessness that makes the home left behind a figure of utopia or paradise. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, Kant thus understands nostalgia negatively, as originating in a troubled imagination that seeks to recover what cannot be recovered. According to Kant, it is thus not so much a particular place that the nostalgic really longs for as lost youth, transfigured in memory and associated with “the simple pleasures of life.” When the nostalgic finally returns home, Kant suggests, he is disappointed, blames perhaps the changes that have taken place, but he is cured. Kant understood Enlightenment as the coming of age of humanity. Part of such coming of age is the conviction that human flourishing does not require roots in some particular place. The nostalgic does not want to grow up.

But Kant does find it worth noting that nostalgia afflicts more those who grew up in regions such as Switzerland that, while poor in money, were socially still more firmly knitted together. The nostalgic has not yet made patria ubi bene [my fatherland is where I am well off] his motto. Thus understood, nostalgia implies a legitimate critique of an increas ingly money-centered modernity and the resultant loss of community. What nostalgia laments is the way a particular historical situation has distorted reality. This raises the question: Is human progress bought at the price of beauty? At the price of feeling truly at home in the world? Is a certain homelessness, a sense of displacement, shadowed by nostalgia, the modern condition? 5. Displacement as the Human Condition A sense of displacement is not just modern, but is embedded in the human condition as is suggested by the Biblical account of the fall. Before the fall, Adam and Eve did not question their place in the garden that was paradise. And in endless variations the idea of paradise, a place where we would be truly at home, continues to haunt us. Consider once more Bachelard’s oneiric house. But there is no freedom where there is not some uncertainty about place and way. Freedom demands open space. The linkage between the progress of freedom and the erosion of the authority of place, however, is inescapably shadowed by a dread of being adrift, lost in space. We must be able to bind freedom, to bind space, to wrest place from space; we must be able to build, if there is to be authentic dwelling. It is in this need that architecture has its origin.

Self-affirmation, I insisted, requires that freedom be bound. But what binds freedom is still the human body. Unless mediated by the body, reason’s claims are empty. Consider the spiritual architecture raised by Kant’s ethics. Supposedly founded only in reason, his categorical imperative bids us to treat all rational beings as ends in themselves. But this presupposes that we are able to respond to and experience other human beings as worthy of respect. Every time we recognize another human being we experience the incarnation of meaning in matter as a living reality. Without such experiences of meaning incarnated in matter, life would be meaningless and moral precepts without application. Pure geometric forms may answer to the spirit, four walls and a roof to the needy body, but only an architecture that re-presents incarnations of meaning in matter answers to the whole human being.

To claim that it is the body first of all that binds freedom, is also to say that our lives are shadowed by death. We all know that our time is short; we know the terror of time. Nietzsche taught that as long as we have not learned to forgive ourselves our subjection to time, we will be unable to affirm ourselves as we are, embodied, vulnerable, and mortal. We will find it hard to take pleasure in whatever reminds us of the passing of time. We will turn for comfort instead to the timeless geometry of the Platonic solids and especially the sphere. Full self-affirmation requires that we open our lives to our mortality. From the very beginning the representation of death has been and remains at the very center of architecture’s ethical function. Adolf Loos came close to claiming that it is indeed all that is left of that function. Here is his example: “When we find in the forest a mound, six feet long and three feet wide, raised by a shovel to form a pyramid, we turn serious and something in us says: here someone lies buried. That is architecture.” Does such a mound of earth even qualify as a work of architecture? But what matters is that a human being was buried here, that human beings honored the deceased by making the effort to bury them and to mark the place. (Fig. 3) Like Jacob’s pillar, in its minimal way this pyramid of stone re-presents this place; it reminds us that we, too, belong to the earth and someday shall return to it. At the same time, it opens our life to a life that has been, and establishes a fragile bridge across the abyss that separates individuals, a bridge also across the abyss of time.

The Romans thought that “if burial was denied, the ghost of the dead would roam the earth in perpetual distress, and might do untold harm to the living.” Despite all the attention given to the death of certain celebrities, we tend to push death away from us. For the most part funerals have become quiet affairs. Rarely is death an event to be celebrated by a major ceremonial, or the grave a place to be tended by the living. Many cemeteries lie neglected today, overgrown and too often vandalized.

What price do we pay for such neglect of the dead? The past that we have to affirm in order to affirm ourselves does not begin with our birth; it includes our parents, our ancestors, the places and societies that helped form us. To deny one’s past is inevitably to trade a concrete for an abstract self. The authority of both history and landscape is anchored in our own being. Rupture with the past means inevitably also a rupture within the self, a rupture that will visit the individual in much the same way as ghosts of the badly buried were supposed to have visited the living.

And what holds for the individual also holds for the com munity. A healthy community needs to give room to its dead. There should be places where we are reminded, not just of our forebears, but of the generations who have gone before us, of those who worked, struggled, and died to shape those places where we feel at home, places we must love if we are to love ourselves. Calling us beyond pride, commemoration of the dead strengthens an ethos that bids us take our place as mortals in the ongoing realm of the living. With good reason Hegel could thus claim that it is graves, monuments, and service to the dead that first unite human beings, and provide even those, who otherwise have no abode, no definite property, with a place where they come together, with holy places that they defend and refuse to surrender. Commemoration of the dead places the living. Their neglect displaces us. (Fig. 4)

Let me conclude with one last example: the Neolithic chambered tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. (Fig. 5) Its entrance is arranged so that at the winter solstice the rising sun shines through a specially formed aperture, one can move down to the entrance passage and into the burial chamber at the heart of the mound. Here it is clear that we are looking at more than just a burial place. The dark realm of death is opened up to the East, to the light of the life-renewing, ever returning sun, rising over this particular landscape. This tomb then is not just a place of death, more importantly it is the place of the wedding of earth and sun, issuing in new life. This monument thus expresses a conviction that the darkness of death will not have the last word, that life will triumph over death. And thus, it represents not only those who have died, but even more the still unborn children, who should preside over all our architecture.