The Best of 2017: a project at the transit centre in Zurich-Oerlikon nominated for Design Prize
“What can a designer do here and now, to solve a concrete problem at a transit centre for asylum seekers in the shortest possible time, and with minimum resources?” This challenging question was put to students at an interdisciplinary workshop of Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) by lecturer Karin Seiler, designer and architect Antonio Scarponi and interior architect Martin Bölsterli. Their teaching module ‘Hic et Nunc – here and now’, which was given in the spring in Oerlikon’s trade fair hall 9 for the second time, in partnership with the Zurich professional organisation AOZ [Zurich Asylum Organisation], has now been nominated by Hochparterre in the Design category for the competition ‘The Best of 2017’. The prize-giving ceremony will take place on 5 December at the Museum of Design, Zurich.
The setting for the course is a transit centre in Zurich-Oerlikon, north of the city centre, which opened at the beginning of 2016. To respond to a shortage in accommodation, authorities repurposed a trade-fair hall (called Halle 9) by building 62 small housing capsules out of light wood, each of which houses four people. The people who live there are asylum seekers, young men and families, mostly from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. During the academic year 2016-2017, three courses were held by Karin Seiler, Antonio Scarponi and Martin Bölsterli in collaboration with AOZ (Asylum Organization Zurich). The aim was to prototype an educational model that changes the context of design disciplines and challenges the students’ expertise with a humanitarian crisis.
The course participants were young bachelor students with different academic backgrounds, ranging from product to fashion design and scientific illustration. In the first week, students had to choose the problem they were going to try and solve. In the second week they developed their ideas; and in the third week they started making their end product. The inhabitants of the transit centre had to be involved in the whole design phase. Throughout the process students also had to try to augment the scarce budget of CHF 200 they had been given by seeking sponsorships in kind. A participatory model initiated by Jennifer Duyne Barenstein (ETH Wohnforum – ETH CASE) at the beginning of the project involved both the inhabitants of the migration centre and its employees, a step that facilitated the interaction with the students.
The living set-up is an ‘exceptional situation’ according to Thomas Schmutz, head of communication at the Zurich Asylum Organisation (AOZ), a public, independent, institution of the city of Zurich. In Zurich asylum seekers are normally housed in flats rented out by the AOZ or by the asylum seekers themselves. “In Switzerland, in the last three years, about half of all applicants for asylum have received a protective status, which means either a provisional admission or a formal recognition as refugee”, said Schmutz.
Thanks to the set-up of the project and its steps, priority was given to the construction of a ‘Frauenzimmer’ (women’s room), a space to be exclusively used by women and granting a measure of privacy for them to retreat or implement recreational activities. Thanks to the technical sponsorship of IKEA and Doka, a vacant dwelling unit was converted for this particular purpose. The Frauenzimmer also has a prototype ‘veranda’, consisting of a semi-transparent curtain and a bench that can also contain shoes, to be placed in front of the entrance of each dwelling unit.
It’s hoped that the experience means the students can gain knowledge from different fields. Working in such an unusual context is also something special about the course that should push the students out of their comfort zone. The working hypothesis behind the group organising the course is that the students can gain practical experience in a field that appears tough at first, but can reap valuable results.
Scarponi says he was surprised to see the energy his students have put in and the will they have to accomplish something extremely concrete. Employees from the AOZ accompanied the interaction between students and residents. They enabled communication across language and cultural barriers and made sure that the course is a mutually profitable experience for both the students and the centre’s residents.