The Western Sahara is a country located at the western edge of the African continent. Formerly a Spanish colonial territory, and since 1975 occupied by Morocco, it has been called the world’s last remaining colony.With the beginning of a guerilla war against Morocco, most of the Western Saharan population had to flee across the border into Algeria where it settled in refugee camps, today housing approximately 160.000 Sahrawis. Even though the Sahrawis do not have control over their territory, they proclaimed independence of the Western Sahara on February 27, 1976. Its sovereignty is recognized today by 34 countries,though its status remains unresolved.
For the 2015 Shenzhen Biennial I propose the “National Pavilion of the Western Sahara” Having lived for 40 years in refugee camps in the border zone of south-western Algeria, the Sahrawi population has developed a unique set of urban and architectural tools and design methodologies to deal with the condition of transience and liminality. Instead of seeing the camps as a place of limitation, the Sahrawis have used them pro-actively as a tool of nation building. In fact, the camps have become the sites of novel architectural and urban conditions and can be understood as urban laboratories. This contribution to the 2015 Shenzhen Biennial will showcase contemporary Sahrawi architecture and urbanism.Life in the Sahrawi refugee camps gives rise to specific conditions that test and question some of the underlying parameters of the discipline of planning.
As just one example, the Sahrawi camps represent probably the only case of urban settlements where landownership does not exist. If the ground cannot be privately owned, other methods have to be developed for individuals to claim control over land, and to develop private homes. These methods include, amongst others, techniques of negotiation,and elements of commonality.
The design and constructions of the huts and houses in the Sahrawi camps always has to negotiate between elements of transience and permanence.Even though the Sahrawis have lived for almost 40 years in the camps, the tent is still a central element in the range of residential typologies. Beyond its cultural significance and certain climatic benefits, the tent represents and materializes temporality. It expresses to the onlooker that the population has not resigned itself to a life in the camps. The tent is the physical representation of a political demand for a return to the home country of the Western Sahara.
More recently the Sahrawis have started to develop and build architecturally designed houses.These buildings are the expression of the very normal desire to create comfortable and aesthetic spaces for living. On the other hand, they show that design is never neutral. The buildings can also be seen as a first step towards resignation, and acceptance of continuous life in the refugee camps. Maybe the situation teaches us that permanence and temporality, are in fact maybe not a pair of opposites, and categories of a binary dichotomy, but rather different means of expressing a political dilemma. The ‘National Pavilion of the Western Sahara’ at the 2015 Shenzhen Biennial will present contemporary Sahrawi architecture and urbanism. It will treat this architectural production with the same respect and consideration as any other national oeuvre within our discipline.That means that instead of focusing on aspects of lack or poverty, it will showcase the ingenuity that has developed through life in the camps, and how architecture is consciously used as a tool for nation building and control over ones own life.
Credits: Manuel Herz Architects
Concept and Research: Manuel Herz
Assistance: François de Font Reaulx