How Shigeru Ban’s designs are helping Ukrainian refugees

After the Russian invasion that few believed would actually happen erupted just outside its eastern border, Poland scrapbled to organize relief for the more than 2 million Ukrainians who have sought refuge in the country. The border town of Chełm—population 60,000—was seeing thousands of people coming in every day.

With the initial reception point at a town sports center quickly becoming overcrowded, the city’s mayor secured space formerly occupied by the supermarket Tesco, vacant after the British company shut down its Polish operation.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]

Meanwhile, Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban reached out to Polish architect and educator Hubert Trammer, a fellow member of the European Union’s sustainable design initiative, with a desire to help with the refugee crisis. Ban is known for constructing elaborate cathedrals and other buildings out of recycled cardboard. Since 2004, he’s been perfecting an ingeniously simple, temporary inexpensive partition system that offers people who’ve had to flee their homes a bit of privacy in large shelter spaces. It’s made out of cardboard tubes, duct tape, and some cloth.

An early shelter design on display at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005 [Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images]

The need for more intimate spaces in the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II is acute—especially considering that more than 90% of those who’ve escaped the war are women and children.

Trammer called around to see which Polish city would work with them to implement the system. Jerzy Łątka, a onetime student of Ban and an architect who works with paper structures, secured free materials from cardboard manufacturer Corex. Chełm had the perfect space, and the city worked with a team of architects and volunteers to set up the partitions in the giant, nearly 40,000-square-foot hall of the former supermarket, dividing it up to provide a more intimate environment for refugees exhausted from war and a long, precarious journey. The center opened on March 12, with 319 cardboard-and-cloth cubicles.

A Shigeru Ban tent house in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2015 [Photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images]

“The entire aim of this design is to create an ersatz room where you can process your emotions in at least a little bit of seclusion,” said Dominik Pękalski, one of the architects on the project. The cardboard frame is quite sturdy to the touch, and the white curtains do create an impression of a walled structure—although a fleeting one, with children suddenly darting out from behind them.

A little over a week into the center’s operations, Natasha and Sasha, 36-year-old twins from the cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, set up camp in one of the cubicles. When I met with them, they apologized for the mess inside, as one would with a home. There was no mess, only towels hanging from the middle beam, and backpacks lined up on cots.

They came to Poland with Sasha’s three kids, ages 3, 7, and 10. “We’ve only been here eight hours but the kids finally calmed down,” Natasha said. “Before that, they were afraid of even a knock on the door, scared as if it was an explosion.” They had spent weeks in a basement, sheltering from the fighting. “There were tears of joy when we came here,” she said.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]

The reception center in Chełm is a transit point, intended for people to stay for just a few days. But for many of the refugees here, it’s the first place where they can rest and figure out next steps, whether that means moving on to another city in Poland or taking up offers to relocate abroad, perhaps in Germany or the Netherlands. Natasha and Sasha did not yet know where they would go next.

Lyudmila, 72, came with her 12-year-old granddaughter Viktoria, who was lying on a cot inside one of the cubicles playing a game on her phone. They’re from Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, respectively, both in eastern Ukraine. Viktoria hasn’t been able to eat anything, Lyudmila said. But she finally calmed down a bit. “At least here she sleeps,” she said.

The partitions are made of eight long substantial cardboard tubes (around 7 feet long), with large holes drilled into them. Smaller tubes serve as connectors, secured with strips of duct tape. A piece of fabric is thrown over the top beam, secured with safety pins, and that’s it. Setting up one cubicle can take as little as 90 seconds.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]

“The advantage of this design, and the reason why it has worked well in disaster areas for over a decade, is that anyone can put the unit together. You don’t need tools,” said Hanna Dzielińska, a Warsaw tour guide and former TV producer who is coordinating the project. “It’s not rocket science. Anyone can learn how to do it by watching YouTube.”

The Polish team made a detailed video tutorial with best practices to make the process smoother for any future users, and has sent the system to be set up in Lviv in western Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing from more dangerous areas of the country. Some partitions have also been set up at a train station in Wrocław, Poland.

The bulk of the first response to the massive refugee crisis Poland is experiencing came from everyday people, who dedicated their time and various skills—including design—to the effort. Volunteers from all over the country and abroad helped set up the partitions in Chełm (including even Ban, himself).

The partition system is a work in progress. Initially, the fabric for the cubicle walls was just whatever the team could get, making for a colorful labyrinth. But the fire department demanded that the cloth be fire-retardant, so the originals were swapped out—and the fabric walls from the center of the hall were removed to provide a clearly visible evacuation route. Still, there are about 100 two- and four-person fully curtained cubicles in the space, which still bears a faint food-like scent of a supermarket.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]

The Chełm reception center has a separate play area for kids, a medical station, a dining room with meals provided by World Central Kitchen, a laundry area, and a free store with clothing, toiletries, and pet supplies. A private company designed an IT system that displays on giant TV screens how many people are staying there at the moment, where the refugees have declared they want to go, and where the drivers who registered with the center are headed. Everything is run with the help of soldiers from Poland’s Territorial Defense Force, a kind of equivalent of the US National Guard.

The setup in “Tesco,” which became shorthand for the reception hall, is a unique one. While there are no tented refugee encampments in Poland, and Poles have taken in tens of thousands of Ukrainians into their homes, many of the refugees spend their first nights in the country sleeping on the floors of train stations, babies and pets in tow. Poland is dotted with shelters set up in empty shopping malls, expo halls, and gyms. Many are massive, cavernous spaces with hundreds of cots lined up side by side. People have been staying in some of these warehouse-like conditions for weeks.

The team behind the Chełm reception center hopes to give more of them some small pockets of privacy and is in talks with other cities to expand the partition project.

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