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The transience of the spaces we occupy

Image from Aditya Siva

What is the meaning of shelter?

When we ask ourselves what we mean by shelter, various images might spring to mind. Is it a basic shack punctuating a remote place? Is it the place we currently live? Is it something temporary? Is it even something physical at all?

Questioning and analysing the concept of shelter sees this word sculpted into various forms.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs becomes a lot more acute when dealing with an atrocity such as war and its consequences, including people being forced to flee their homeland. Global citizens facing conflict in their territories can see their biggest struggles and perspectives shift overnight. One day they might be perched on the self-actualisation tier of Maslow’s hierarchy pondering morality and the next they’re cruelly plunged into the most elementary physiological tier, forced to determine how and where they’ll eat and sleep for the next 24 hours.

How We Think About Shelter

To those fortunate enough, the concept of shelter can sound like the most elementary of needs. It’s the first thing you’re provided with in life and takes on different forms; a blanket after you’re born, a cot when you arrive home, your family members’ arms as you learn and grow.

Rarely do those of us fortunate to live in safety and stability think of the very literal need for shelter in terms of a sturdy, waterproof roof over our dwelling to protect us from the elements and potential external threats.

Shelter in the Context of War

War brings the concept of shelter into abrupt focus and shifts its meaning. The idea of shelter is multifaceted and can be associated with the mundane (a bus shelter at a bus stop), the essential (a homeless shelter) or the thin line between immediate life or death (a bomb shelter).

With some Ukrainian citizens forced to live underground for weeks on end in the city of Mariupol, their shelter under the Azovstal steel plant represented both their protection and also their oppression. Their shelter deprived them of daylight and basic human dignities but ultimately ensured that they weren’t injured by bombs obliterating their city and dramatically altering its landscape.

Image from EBRD Green Cities: Mariupol before war

One Group’s Shelter Is Another’s Lucrative Opportunity

Let us not forget that, outside the immediacy of a warzone, a place considered as a vital shelter for some might be seen as a business opportunity or public space to be done with as people wish by others. The problem with this is that, as in many situations in life, it is the most vulnerable who come off worse and often have their shelter ripped from them.

In the Amazon rainforest, indigenous communities who have lived in certain areas for centuries are being forced out of the only shelter they have ever known because of deforestation initiatives to repurpose land for commercial gains, such as the Brazilian preserve Ituna-Itatá. The economically advantaged come out on top and indigenous communities are being forced to reconsider their very definition and representation of shelter.

Image from Neil Palmer : The Amazon rainforest

Architecture Giving Shelter Aesthetics

When humans have the luxury of thinking of shelter as something more than just a much-needed barrier of protection, we can even allow ourselves to think of the form and aesthetics of shelter. This is where architecture can provide us not only with function but also identity and beauty, as shown by some of the international greats such as the French-Swiss Le Corbusier and the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer.

Image from Cassiano Psomas: The Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, Brazil. Known informally as ‘Niemeyer’s Eye’

Post-war societies have no choice but to rebuild. Architecture is needed to provide physical space but also to reinvigorate morale and a sense of community in areas devastated by violence. After World War II, we saw the rise of modernist architecture. This was, of course, because there was an immediate need to rebuild but the aesthetics associated with this era could flourish thanks to creative minds being allowed space to think of something other than their immediate needs and the effects of war.

Post-war Modernism And Rebuilding Society

An international icon of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France is an example of how function has evolved to represent an emblematic form over time. Also known as La Cité Radieuse (the Radiant City), this housing development was completed in 1952 and comprises 337 apartments with 23 different layouts over 12 floors. The complex today also includes an art gallery, a hotel, a restaurant and educational facilities. Originally intended to be built with a steel frame, the development is actually constructed from rough-cast concrete due to the post-war steel shortage the world experienced. La Cité Radieuse, with its pops of cartoon-like colour represents the new vision for living and fostering a sense of community that the world so needed after the war.

Image from Yana Marudova: Le Corbusier’s Union d’Habitation development in Marseille, France

Likewise in post-war Japan, the bombing of several cities meant that there was a need for 4.2 million housing units across the country. Ambitious architect Kunio Maekawa, a former colleague of Le Corbusier in France, stepped up to the challenge and fused traditional Japanese styles with the modernism he’d absorbed from his time with Le Corbusier in Paris. His own Tokyo home was an early example of this newly formed Japanese modernist style. Maekawa’s most notable works include concert halls in Tokyo and Kyoto, representing how thoughtful architectural design can reintroduce shelter for creative spaces and host the enjoyment of individuals after national trauma.

Image from Flickr : Kunio Maekawa’s home in Tokyo, Japan

What does shelter mean to you?

In reality, history teaches us that each and every one of us is only a minute distance, expanse of time or personal decision away from having our notion of shelter drastically altered. Home is not a fixed concept for anyone; some drift away intentionally from the space they’ve occupied for most of their life and others are thrust into traumatic upheavals through no fault, or choice, of their own. And so we must create spaces that protect and inspire us all because unity and community are perhaps the most essential forms of shelter that exist.

We do not own the rights to any of the pictures in the article. All the rights go to the authors of the pictures

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