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Two experimental, sculptural timber pavilions formed an “Embassy for Refugees” on London’s South Bank this summer, inspired by spaces of refuge found in nature. This unusual project, by emerging designer Natasha Reid, weaves together art, architecture, innovative design and socially-engaged practice to explore the idea of sanctuary in the city. The surprising structures, made of a flat-pack kit of over 700 intricate parts, strike a balance between rigorous economy of materials whilst creating delightfully striking organic forms. The fleeting structures will now have a continued legacy as a travelling artwork called the “Transient Sanctuary” which will emerge in a variety of sites around London and the UK, creating new, unexpected spaces and interactive installations exploring the idea of “refuge” in different contexts. The highly inventive design is the culmination of several cross-disciplinary collaborations initiated by architecturally-trained Reid who worked with refugee children and engineers Arup amongst others.
The project intertwines the world of design with participatory art, engineering, curation, performance and human rights advocacy. The two complementary structures found a temporary riverside home, nestled next to the iconic Oxo Tower, to hold the annual “Celebrating Sanctuary” festival. As well as hosting music performances and talks on the subject of sanctuary, the pavilions also provided a space for the UN Refugee Agency to launch a report in its unusual cocoon-like forms, which also allude to the characteristics of temporary refugee tents.
Designer, Natasha Reid: The Embassy for Refugees concept is an ongoing investigation into whether it’s possible to engage with social issues through design. By using practice as research and by crossing several disciplines, the experimental, Embassy pavilions explore a range of interpretations of what sanctuary and refuge can mean. The nuances and complexity of a subject can often be revealed through the arts, which can offer multiple perspectives and embrace many shades of grey rather than provide black and white statements.
Reid worked first with children from a refugee charity to develop the design through art workshops and then collaborated with engineers Arup who used complex 3D modelling techniques to realise a highly innovative, low-tech solution which could be rapidly built by hand. The design of the pavilions takes a strongly phenomenological approach, drawing upon natural references of tree canopies, caves and cocoons to explore concepts of refuge. The two intimately scaled structures juxtapose characteristic of enclosure and openness, protection and exposure, permanence and transience. Crafted from slender timber sheets, the dynamic form fluctuates on approach, at once solid and substantial but also delicate and transparent. Like an oyster shell, the external structure of the pavilion is tough and robust, revealing an ethereal inner lining. Through these contrasts, the design aims to evoke the intangible ideas of refuge and sanctuary and their opposites, precariousness and instability, through contrasting spatial and material qualities.
Almir Koldzic, Co-Director, Counterpoints Arts: Natasha’s Embassy is a beautifully imagined concept that plays with the idea of providing diplomatic status and ambassadorial protection to asylum seekers and refugees – the one group of people who are mostly excluded from such national and political privileges. Its aesthetic alludes to a cocoon-like space of sanctuary or refuge that is at the same time open, porous and encourages dialogue.
The sharp contrast between the solidity, strength and precision of the CNC-machined timber framework and the rippling, translucent plastic envelope further heightens each material’s particular characteristics. The language of juxtaposition is emphasized at a detailed level, with the irregularly textured quality and rich, golden colour of the OSB, often used to fence of building sites, against the grid-like pattern and reflective, whiteness of the plastic, which is in fact scaffold sheeting. The inventive structure aims to convey how through careful design, simple materials can be crafted and transformed to produce an innovative, distinctive and elegant outcome.
Thomas Prospert, Graduate Engineer, Arup commented,
Having taken part in the design as well as the construction process of the EFR was very rewarding. The incredible ease and pace at which the pavilions were put together showcased the merits of the design process and the focus that was put on buildability. It was pleasing to see that such a stunning structure can be created from such an ordinary material
The sculptural, curving pavilions are constructed from a coded kit-of-parts, developed with engineers Arup who collaborated with Reid to design and experiment with the unusual structure. The young team used high tech processed to make a low tech solution achievable which is simple to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct in a few hours.
Rory O’Malley, Senior Engineer, Arup stated, “Although the EFR pavilions appear random and organic, we used parametric modelling tools to manipulate the geometry, optimising both buildability and structural performance. The main emphasis of our work was to ensure the assembly of the freeform structure would be simple and repetitive to suit the strict build time available. We are truly delighted with the results and very much look forward to legacy phase of the pavilion”