Displacement connotes a sense of being uprooted, of instability, whereas domesticity implies security and familiarity. At first glance, these two concepts appear irreconcilable. Indeed, when people are displaced, they experience strong feelings of loss: the loss of community, privacy and physical and emotional orientation. Conversely, domesticity, or domestic practices, tends to ‘root’ an individual or group in a certain locality or place. Domestic space thereby typically refers to something static, something that lies within a shelter or other structure. Applied to the building and adaptation of architecture, domesticity concerns the spatial and material practices as well as non-material affects indicative of making home(s).

Given that displacement and domesticity are often contrasted with one another, it has become difficult to theorise their relationship. For this reason, the socio-material histories of mass migratory flows — the movement of large groups of people across national or regional borders — have either been overlooked or forgotten within the discipline of architecture (notable exceptions to this include Heynen and Loeckx 1998; Cairns 2004; King 2004; Lozanovska 2015; Beeckmans 2019; Siddiqi 2017; Akcan 2018; Lozanovska 2019). Yet, as migration (whether it be for political, economic or social reasons) becomes ever more synonymous with modernity and contemporary life, it is pertinent that architectural history and theory apply their practical and epistemological tools to understanding how domestic practices are stimulated by and respond to various experiences of human displacement, and vice versa.

For this reason, the sixth thematic conference of the European Architectural History Network (EAHN) sought to provide a platform that could foster encounters between scholars and practitioners alike from a multitude of disciplinary and interdisciplinary backgrounds, including architecture, urban planning, history, sociology, anthropology and philosophy. The conference sought to illuminate and critically reflect on the conceptual role and socio-material expressions of domesticity employed in response to human displacement in contemporary history, taking the year 1945 as its starting point. The choice of keynotes reflects the conference’s objective of dynamic interdisciplinary discourse: Peter Gatrell is a global historian on refugees, Romola Sanyal is an urban geographer on migration and spatial practices and Paolo Boccagni as a sociologist on migration and concepts of home. The conference contributes to a growing sociological, ethnographic and anthropological literature within refugee and migration studies on the topic, which thus far rarely addresses material and spatial practices of home-making.

The practices of (forced) migrants to engender stability and intimacy or, as it were, to re-root themselves in a new or estranged setting, are of increasing interest among scholars (e.g. Berger, Berger, and Kellner 1973; Brun and Fábos 2015; Boccagni 2017). Studies can be enriched by applying the practical and epistemological tools of architecture, which can generate significant insights given specific methodological approaches to space and material culture. Many of the papers presented at the conference proved this point, as they were the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration, reflecting a deep engagement with the processes of thinking, building and preserving home.

Situating Displacement: Refugees, Migrants and Expats

Although the reality of displacement is perhaps as old as homo sapiens themselves, the year 1945 represents for many the starting point of an irreversible sense of displacement. Speaking of our contemporary situation, Hannah Arendt writes, ‘[w]hat is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one’ (1958: 293). Displacement appears to be inherent to modern and contemporary life, a view which can be substantiated by the evident mass displacement of persons within Europe and in other parts of the globe prior to and after WWII (Figure 1).

Figure 1 

The HAPAG emigration camp on the island of Veddel, in the river Elbe, Hamburg, 1907. Photo by Welt, Kultur-Die BallinStadt.

Following WWII, when an estimated 60 million people were displaced, nation-building, decolonisation, neocolonialism and the rise of neoliberal globalisation spurred the migration of millions upon millions who sought safety, better opportunities and better lifestyles. The partition of India (1947) and the creation of Israel (1948) alone uprooted an estimated 15 million people and 8 million Palestinians respectively. Since then, migration is estimated to have more than tripled, from 77 million in 1960 to 258 million in 2015 (Migration Policy Institute 2017). However, this figure includes neither the 68 million people who have been forcibly displaced (UNHCR 2017), nor the influx of rural-to-urban migration in rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India.

Modern displacement has radically shaped perceptions and lives, not to mention our immediate and global environment. However, the term ‘displacement’ refers to a number of diverse situations and conditions. Therefore, in our call for papers, we sought to situate this diversity by invoking three distinct groups of displaced people that have emerged since 1945: refugees, migrants and expats. We extracted two of these differences from Saskia Sassen’s keynote to the 2016 reSITE conference, ‘Cities in Migration’, in which she identifies the refugee, who flees from not only political turmoil and armed conflict, but also the corporate exploitation of labour and land; and the economic migrant, who seeks a better life in a new country (Stott 2016). To these, Michael Kimmelman adds a third: ‘an often unrecognized but large class of middle-class, educated, mobile people who choose to see different parts of the world and live in different places because they can’ (ibid.). In speech, we tend to differentiate this (hyper) privileged form of migrancy with the term ‘expat’.

Certainly, these three types of displaced people — refugee, migrant and expat — do not encompass all situations and experiences; even their definitions should invite challenge and a better understanding of their entanglement. Other experiences, for instance, of internally displaced and stateless persons, ‘elite’ refugees, nomads, etc., must also be identified. Even so, the identification of these types helps shine light on the differences manifest within the situations and experiences of displacement, providing a preliminary point to understand how various forms of displacement can relate to architecture and the concept of domesticity.

Interpreting Domesticity

Like displacement, domesticity is a complex and value-laden concept. At first glance, it refers to a setting — a domestic space — but it also concerns a series of processes and activities. While domesticity is often associated with familiar and secure places, it is neither so simple nor ideal in practice. Feminist and critical architectural theory in particular has revealed how domesticity is laden with problematic implications of modern capitalist privatisation, repressive gender roles and colonialist practices (e.g. Hansen 1992; McClintock 1995; Palmer 1989; Cairns 2004; Heynen and Badar 2005; Colomina 2006). The normalisation, as ‘natural’ homes, of particular settings of domesticity, such as private property or the nation state, obscures the normative subtext and even the violence often inherent in these spaces (Webster 1998). Critical questions should arise such as, who exactly is involved in the processes of domesticity, and what counts as domestic and extra-domestic spaces?

Endeavouring to remain critical of domesticity, our call for papers sought to reflect on the concept as an integral but not necessarily sufficient aspect of the homing process, as Paolo Boccagni calls it (2017: 22–26). In this process, displaced people employ particular concepts and activities to ensure security, familiarity and control in a new situation or setting. The process of homing can revolve around the immediate domestic space or it can occur in larger urban situations, like the city (Low 2016). While it remains important to deconstruct the normative and culturally embedded models of domesticity, equally significant to interpreting domesticity are the socio-material processes and the places associated with its day-to-day making.

Many architectural practices lie at the intersection of domesticity and displacement. These include built environments made and appropriated by displaced people, such as the jhuggi jhopdis and favelas of India and Brazil, and the ‘ethnic enclaves’ — Little Italy or Chinatown — and ‘super-diverse streets’ of the global North (Hall 2015). Built environments are also deployed as top-down initiatives for displaced people, like refugee camps and expat towns (Scott-Smith 2017). The conference therefore sought to reflect on the rather ambivalent capacity of architecture to materially ‘root’ displaced people (Figure 2). Indeed, architecture has historically functioned as a receptacle and even as a stage to reinstate, to develop and to change domestic practices within situations of displacement (Heynen & Loeckx 1998).

Figure 2 

Standardised shelters in Zarqa Camp, Jordan, showing how inhabitants use fabric sheets to provide privacy between households (Davies 2016).

Illuminating the Call for Papers and its Response

A strong desire to make visible traditionally ‘invisible geographies’ pervaded the response to the call for papers (CFP). Launched in June 2018, the call received 121 submissions from many countries (from Brazil to Slovenia, from Egypt to Australia) and fields of knowledge (from architectural studies to political sciences and sociology). The topics drew attention to a number of issues concerning the current state of debates on displacement and domesticity, including the concentration of interests as well as the various and at times conflicting understandings of the nexus.

First, a critical comment on the demographic of the participants and their research. Nearly 70 per cent of submissions were from individuals affiliated with institutions of the ‘Global North’, in particular, countries within the EU, North America and Australasia. Yet, as the figures show, the individual researchers themselves often originated from the ‘Global South’, and so were conducting their research in culturally and linguistically foreign contexts (Figure 3).1 This suggests a disparity between the producers of knowledge on displacement and domesticity (many themselves having been displaced) and the location of that knowledge production.2 Moreover, the majority of researchers took as their subject matter the experiences of displaced groups or individuals from or within the ‘Global South’. Indeed, the majority of abstracts submitted addressed the various experiences and situations of refugees and, to a lesser degree, lower-income migrants, whereas the experiences and situations of expats were strikingly absent.

The lack of proposals around this latter category deserves futher reflection, because expats relate to issues of socio-cultural, economic and political activity and integration with greater autonomy, authority and flexibility than refugees and migrant workers. Indeed, studying these more privileged experiences, and the built forms they produce, can reveal important and alternative insights into the spatial and architectural practices of (neo)colonialism and neoliberal economic globalisation (Birtchnell and Caletrio 2014; Meier 2015). Many academics would likely themselves be expats, which might be the reason they are somewhat reluctant to study this experience. Nevertheless, reflecting on this category might be productive as a critical repositioning of oneself as a researcher in such global frameworks.

Figure 3 

Catographic distribution of conference applicants according to the country of origin. Image by authors.

The geographic demographic of participants likely relates to the initial reach of the call for proposals, which was inevitably influenced by the networks of the two main sponsors, EAHN and KU Leuven. This fails to substantiate the rather limited response from the African context and from that of the Middle East (barring Israel and Palestine, as seen in Figure 4), however. Their limited participation is striking given the relevance and indeed complexity of the issue in the contemporary history of these two regions. Issues at stake concern both the legal and physical access of scholars to transnational mobility as well as their access to international academic debates.3

Figure 4 

Al-Amari Refugee Camp, Palestine, and the Israeli Settlement of P’sagot in the background, representing the complex socio-spatial framework of living in a colonial context. Photo by Alessandra Gola (2018).

Conversely, the response may also hint at a pedagogical limit of the topic of displacement and domesticity itself, which concerns, not only the nexus as a relatively emergent academic discourse, but also as one that is not yet adequately developed for academic institutionalisation. In architectural courses (both in the Global North and Global South), rarely is displacement a relevant topic of intersection with domesticity. In addition, particular regions of the world are currently subject to intense dynamics of displacement and political instability that render the debate premature at an academic level. In this regard, the displacement of researchers on this topic might lead to questioning the epistemological influences of academic institutions from the Global North that shape scholarly approaches and references, causing such individuals to operate in contexts that can feel distant in terms of history, culture, social dynamics, institutions, problems and possibilities.

It should also be noted that 75 per cent of the proposals were by women, which is an unusually high proportion in the field of architectural history. But, in this case, it might not be that surprising. As Hilde Heynen notes, women scholars ‘feel more the need to come to terms with domesticity because they are supposedly very familiar with it and nevertheless have difficulties in “placing” it within the architectural narratives in which they are educated’ (Heynen and Baydar 2005: 24). This observation seems still applicable 15 years after publication.

More can be said on the subject of the submissions and presentations. Despite the clear historical emphasis of the conference, there seemed at times a struggle for historians to deal with the spatial and material effects of migration. Most presentations focussed on migration within the last two decades, especially on recent waves of migration from the Middle East and East Asia into Europe, even though migration itself is by no means a recent phenomenon (Gatrell, 2019). We suspect that the reason for this absence is twofold. First, there is not yet an abundant architectural historiography on the phenomenon of displaced people or even ‘displaced cities’. Think, for instance, how Danzig became Gdansk and how this is reflected in its architectural heritage (Clark 2017). Second, domestic interiors have always been private, everyday spaces, hence typically undocumented. Official archives rarely contain much relevant material for those wishing to investigate domestic or homing practices. Therefore, one often has to read these histories against the grain to construct a narrative on displacement and domesticity (Cieraad and Short 2006; Burton 2003; Vasudevan 2017).

We are left to wonder whether this struggle is because the products of everyday home-making have often been underestimated as architectural artefacts. Domestic things are all too often relegated to the accidental background of private memories and family pictures, materials which may later turn into something useful to historians or ethnographers interested in personal and societal developments. Some conference contributions join the efforts of architectural historians like Adrian Forty (1992) and Stefan Muthesius (2009) in focussing on the relationship between the design of domestic spaces and the development of personal and social identities. Homes take shape as the expression of parenting values and community care, but also in the reclamation of dignity and political resistance in institutionalised and occupied settings. The contributions sought, in this way, to engage with built forms and space as they were and continue to be lived (Figure 5). As world history unfolds through the fine grain of common gestures, habits, objects and places, we must question the place everyday practices of home-making and its material expressions have in historical accounts and narratives, and through which methodological terms this could be rethought.

Figure 5 

Interior of a Chinese migrant’s home in Antwerp, an illustration for the submission ‘Homing the City: Cross-Scale Exploration of Negotiating the Idea of Home by Chinese Women in Antwerp,’ with the caption, ‘The elements of home in Ms. C’s Kitchen’. Sketch by Yu-Hsui Liu (Gola, Singh and Singh 2019: 145).

Interdisciplinary Work: Struggles and Gains

The majority of participants had an architectural background, although scholars from a number of other disciplines, particularly from the social sciences, were present. The architects in attendance had, almost without exception, a highly interdisciplinary profile. While they apply a spatial perspective, both theoretically and methodologically, they draw extensively on other disciplines to ascertain conceptual cross-fertilisations, as it were, from the social and political sciences. This came to the fore in several contributions that relied on participatory observations and interviews with displaced people finding (or claiming) refuge in European cities, necessitating a cross-fertilization of ethnographic methods and spatial analyses (Figure 6).

Figure 6 

Collective discussion of the experience of space in displacement, an illustration for the submission ‘Retracing Home: Conversations with Syrian Newcomers on the Arrival Crisis in Berlin’, with the caption, ‘Re-tracing an ‘old’ home from Aleppo, Syria’. Photo by Benedikt Stoll (Gola, Singh and Singh 2019: 84).

This interdisciplinary character of the participants’ profiles is deeply entangled with that of the topic itself. Indeed, the discipline of architecture is in itself almost intrinsically interdisciplinary: architects never work in a void, but need to process different strands of information through their designs, as do architectural scholars through their thoughts and writings. The architectural study of practices and architectural makings of ‘non-experts’ in the production of the built environment, as in the case of self-builders in Palestinian camps, exemplifies this point. In these situations, the classical epistemological frameworks of architectural histories and theories often fall short in investigating and interpreting the spatial decisions, strategies and practices of those making homes in displacement. Hence, integral to the conference was the challenge to broaden and simultaneously provincialise ‘the canon’ by adding new and often silent (and sometimes silenced) voices from hitherto invisible geographies. In so doing, it further endeavoured to establish alternative epistemological and heuristic frameworks for the integration of interdisciplinary knowledge.

Indeed, while the interdisciplinary character of the conference was probably what made it attractive (and accessible) to many, resulting in a vibrant and productive dynamic, it also became evident that for many scholars, interdisciplinary research is also a challenging endeavour. Participants expressed struggles with mixing methods, merging theoretical frameworks and coping with ideas being lost in translation. This was made particularly clear in the pre-conference doctoral workshop (under the guidance of Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi and Luce Beeckmans). Apart from the research topic, what united the diverse group of PhD students, though mainly with an architectural background, was the lack of basic guidelines for the research and teaching in the interdisciplinary field of displacement and domesticity. As a response to this observation, they drafted together a document, called a ‘Teaching Tool’ (Vv.Aa 2019), which includes recommendations on ethical issues and of strategies to decolonise and provincialise canonical knowledge and pathways to overcome binary (power) relations often prevalent in academic research. The goal was ‘to allow multiplicity and diversity to generate space for the unknown and the unknowable, as important factors in the consideration of domesticity and displacement’ (Vv.Aa 2019: 8).

The doctoral workshop can thus be viewed as an initial collaborative attempt to open up a (more) generous research environment for those working on the intersection of domesticity and displacement; it encouraged an atmosphere that persisted throughout the actual conference. The doctoral workshop and conference thereby seemed to produce a momentum for interdisciplinary knowledge production and exchange. Many participants expressed their wish to continue these discussion beyond the conference; ideas of an interactive digital platform emerged during the workshop, for instance. The aim of the open access publication of the teaching tool as well as of the working paper series (Gola, Singh and Singh 2019) was to maintain this momentum, but also to steer future discussion. In addition, we believe that the forthcoming book publication, Making Home(s) in Displacement: Critical Perspectives on a Spatial Practice (Beeckmans, Gola, Singh and Heynen 2021), upholds the objective to create new methodological and epistemological frameworks for further interdisciplinary research on the topic. Something more dynamic (and inclusive) nonetheless might be needed to keep the momentum going.