A BRAC and ActionAid in Bangladesh initiative
One of the six winners of the 2022 Aga Khan Award for Architecture is Community Spaces in the Rohingya Refugee Response, a programme created through a partnership between BRAC and ActionAid to design dignified space for the Rohingya refugees based on their culture, craftsmanship and identity. Located in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in the world’s largest refugee camps, the spaces are a collective of six sustainably built structures that evolved collaboratively in the field without drawings or models. The process was led by architects Khwaja Fatmi, Rizvi Hassan and Saad Ben Mostafa, working in close cooperation with women and girls of the Rohingya community. It reflects BRAC’s commitment to unlocking the potential of people and communities, frontline pragmatism, frugal innovation, and engaging women as catalysts of change.
The six spaces are part of a massive response to the forced displacement of almost one million Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh in August 2017. That displacement left the community feeling like a ship without an anchor. The loss of homes and possessions, the temporary living arrangements in makeshift shelters and the denial of nationality imprinted a sense of dissociation and a loss of any feeling of safety. As time went on, and dependence on aid increased, the sense of loss grew, and the effects were disproportionately felt by women and girls.
Amid the congested shelters, community spaces were needed where women and girls could access support networks, strengthen social relationships, learn and share skills, and find peace. Vital was the participation of women and girls in the design who would use the resulting spaces.
The spaces that evolved are female-friendly, low to the ground to withstand cyclones, and recognizable for their complex roof trusses built by Rohingya bamboo workers. The exteriors are designed to avoid disturbing visiting elephants.
The Award’s master jury citation calls the spaces an “ingenious response to emergency needs related to the major influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladeshi host communities, with particular attention to the safety of women and girls.” It adds: “The concept and design of the six spaces are the result of appropriate planning, solid partnerships and inclusive processes involving the diverse refugee and host communities, such as defining spatial and functional needs. The project’s implementation succeeded in adapting to various constraints (physical, social, regulatory, budgetary, climatic and environmental) and harsh working conditions, and harnessing the skills of workers and artists – women and men from refugee and host communities – for both construction and decoration, drawing from a variety of Rohingya and Bangladeshi construction techniques, spatial and architectural features, ways of life and aesthetic references.”
The design process began with a focus group discussion led by the architects involving mostly Rohingya women. The discussion identified needs to be met by the structures – and how they could best be addressed. Construction used locally available materials such as bamboo, straw, and tarpaulin. The building of the spaces was led mostly by Rohingya men, many of whom are expertly skilled at woodwork and building with bamboo. The interior decoration was led mostly by Rohingya girls and women, who covered the structure with vibrant artwork and colours that continue to be expanded by other girls and women using the space.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is given every three years to projects that set new standards of excellence in architecture, planning practices, historic preservation and landscape architecture. The Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies across the world, in which Muslims have a significant presence.