Displaced – Space for Change (Vienna, Austria)

Last year, Europe was surprised to find itself seemingly overrun with refugees. Whereas before it seemed as if the conflict next door in Syria and those just down the road in Afghanistan and northern Africa would stay there, that presumption was now shown to be shockingly naive. Thousands of refugees were arriving in rickety boats and inflatable rafts every day, and, too often, drowning at sea during the difficult journey. Europeans, distressed by images of drowned refugees, responded with compassion.

Europe in general and Germany and Sweden in particular threw open their doors, with Germany’s Angela Merkel declaring theirs a country of “Willkommenskultur.” Thousands of refugees grew into tens of thousands as they seized this opportunity to escape the chaos of their home countries or the overcrowded refugee camps in neighboring states. While Germany or Sweden were most of their final destinations, countries on the road from Greece and Italy were also profoundly impacted. Austria found itself in the middle of the route with more and more refugees arriving every day. Ordinary Austrians responded wonderfully, showing up at train stations to welcome the asylum seekers with food, clothes, and emotional support. Still, Austria (and Europe in general) struggled to cope with the logistical, cultural, and political challenge.

Dr. Karin Harather and Dr. Renate Stuefer, professors in the School of Architecture and Spatial Planning at the Technical University of Vienna, found themselves asking a question that has recurred consistently throughout these interviews: “What can we do?” Sure, they could give food and old clothes and even some monetary support, but anyone could do that. What, if anything, could they uniquely offer?

Sign outside of the building of the Technical University of Vienna where the interview took place


I met with the professors to discuss that question on a sunny afternoon in a university building near the center of Vienna. As we talked, their close cooperation on the project was apparent as they finished each other’s sentences and reminded each other of forgotten details with agreeable ease. Also obvious was their passion for the project, clear in their impassioned tone and their inclination to get side-tracked by personal anecdotes from their work.

They stumbled upon an answer to the question “What can we do?” as they prepared for Urbanize 2015, an architecture and city planning conference in an empty federal building. As they examined the rooms in the large, five-story building where the conference would take place, Harather and Stuefer thought that “it could not be true that this place could be empty whilst refugees are sleeping in the street.” It seemed the same thought had occurred to government planners, because the next week the building was full of over one thousand refugees.

Dr. Karin Harather (left) and Dr. Renate Stuefer

The center, located in Vienna’s Third District, was organized overnight and run by only three overworked employees from the Red Cross and rotating volunteers, making its beginning especially chaotic and challenging. Urbanize considered changing venues, but in the end decided only to shrink the space it would use to a small portion of the ground floor. The organizers and participants hoped that their proximity might help initiate interaction between the participants and the refugees.

The work of Displaced (website only in German) emerged from this conference. Harather and Stuefer cooperated with Project School for All (PROSA) and SKUOR, another department of the Technical University of Vienna to organize a project under the central idea of “Displaced. Refugees and the City.” The working groups of students and refugees that were created for the conference came up with ideas for helping refugees using their architectural and spatial knowledge.

One group created a mapping app to help refugees get around the city which, with the help of IT students from the Technical University of Vienna proved to be quite successful.

A second group, called “Displaced. Learnscapes,” attempted to find ways to bring people together when language and culture were monumental challenges. They found it in music. Students and refugees invented musical instruments that they could play together. While Harather and Stuefer admit that this was not, in itself changing all that much, it was “making them individuals again.” It was a reminder for people who had been making the difficult journey from home for weeks, months, or years, that they were more than headaches for hosting governments. They were individuals, and “the community needs all these special people.”

We had one refugee in the building who made a flute… in our workshop. He [started playing] it and a lot of people stopped working and were just listening. And all people together had tears in their eyes when he stopped. And at that moment, everybody knew who he was and what he could do. -Dr. Renate Stuefer


Another group, called “Displaced. Space for Change,” focused on how to utilize the building to best support the needs and integration of the refugees. This project became the main focus for the group for the next year.

Through this project, Harather, Stuefer, and their students started small projects in the center. They set up areas in the center where children could play between rooms without exhausted parents having to watch them or worry about them leaving the building. Strangely, though, soon after they set them up “a lot of them disappeared.” Later, they realized that, since the building was never meant to be used for housing and therefore had few emergency exits, the structures had been seen as fire risks and had been taken down by the Red Cross.

A play area for children in the building that was later taken down as a fire risk (Photo courtesy of Displaced)

This did not discourage Harather, Stuefer, and their students. They continued working in ever better communication with the Red Cross. With the help of donations from university faculty and people from around the neighborhood, they began to work on meeting the needs of the refugees and using their knowledge in the best way possible.

Why don’t they ask us? It makes a difference [to ask an architect]. –Dr. Karin Harather

In one case, they dealt with the issue of insufficient showers in the building. As it was not meant for housing, the building had only a single shower in it. Unsurprisingly, after a few days the entire place began to stink, not helped by the fact that the refugees were all given tinned fish for their meals with no good place to dispose of the tins after eating. Displaced helped arrange for temporary showers to be delivered to the side of the building for residents to use. Here, students were able to utilize their knowledge in two ways. First, the containers would ordinarily have been placed in a line, meaning that whenever somebody walked out people would be able to see into showers, giving no privacy at all. The students designed an arrangement that offered much-needed privacy for the refugees. Second, the containers were to be placed in an alley by the building which, without proper placement, could have blocked emergency vehicles from passing. The students not only planned their proper placement, but also drew up plans and had them approved by the city, which ensured that they were not removed due to poor planning.

A student working with Displaced works on the plans for the placement of temporary showers (Photo courtesy of Displaced)

In other places, Harather, Stuefer, their students, and many others, including colleagues and students from the University of Applied Art in Vienna, worked with the Red Cross, refugees, and other volunteers to make the building into a home. They organized a workshop where refugees could come to make small tables, shelves, and more to help make their rooms more livable. Retired teachers helped by setting up a kindergarten and German classes. In one room Displaced together with Urbanize partners and many helping hands set up a cafe where refugees could meet and talk and socialize with other refugees and locals. Later on, they set up a sewing shop where refugees could alter donated clothing and simply meet to socialize.

Women’s afternoon at the Kulturcafe organized and built in the refugee center (Photo courtesy of Displaced)

When I asked Harather and Stuefer what made the building work, these opportunities to socialize were high on their list. The cafe, the workshop, the school, and the sewing shop created a place where refugees “have something to do… and keep it open to make integration possible.” Those opportunities at cross-cultural interaction also “showed [refugees] how [Austrians] live by living with them.”

Together, these projects proved very helpful in integrating the refugees and helping them feel at home. As professors, Harather and Stuefer also found the experience immensely rewarding for their students. As they see it, “architects learn many things at the university, but they are very far away from this social thinking and reality, and they don’t think about what those people without much money need or how you can use cheap material and also get quality space.” By being in the building and interacting on a daily level with its residents, the students learned what was really needed. At the same time, with cost a constant pressure, the importance of sustainability and re-usability was clearly communicated in the students’ work.


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Refugees and students paint self-designed creations on the walls of the center (Photo courtesy of Displaced)

The work has not been without challenges though. Besides the aforementioned initial lack of communication with the Red Cross, communication proved to be a continuous challenge at the building. The Red Cross employees and managers of the facility, Martina Burtscher and Eliane Ettmüller, were the key-figures in coordinating all the projects and dedicated enormous time, energy, and passion to the effort. Still, with only two managers in a building hosting over one thousand refugees, logistics were difficult. Displaced was only one of dozens of organizations and individuals interested in helping at the building, so overlap and project dissonance sometimes occurred. Eventually, Displaced was able to help in coordination as it familiarized it with the Red Cross volunteers and their methodology. Greater communication and coordination between all parties helped create the success that the building turned out to be.

Asked for other keys to their success, Harather and Stuefer credit the strong structure of their organization. According to them, “Everything needs a structure. Otherwise if there are only people who use their free time and their money it will shut down after some time. It’s just not possible to do it all. After three years at latest projects like this one… go down if there is not support or community organization.” For Displaced, the Technical University of Vienna provided the structure necessary to make the project strong and sustainable.

We felt that our ten students were really tired at Christmas time. And we told them that we [would] go on the next semester. And three of them stayed on, but it was really important that they knew that it was continuing, that somebody new and fresh with energy was coming on. It makes a big difference. If you know that everything is on your shoulders… nobody can stand that forever. –Dr. Karin Harather and Dr. Renate Stuefer

Displaced has faced further challenges after the initially welcoming atmosphere toward refugees soured as the flow of asylum seekers continued unabated. Fears have grown about cultural integration following sexual assaults in Cologne and terrorism following attacks in Paris and Brussels. As Harather and Stuefer put it, “the atmosphere here has changed.” It became more difficult to get funding for their projects. For them, “Cologne made everyone in the building feel sad, but it didn’t affect [how it ran].” Instead it convinced them of the importance of the work they were doing and made them want to share its success with all of Vienna and all of Europe.


The enlarged Displaced team of Summer term with Red Cross organizers (Photo courtesy of Displaced)

Unfortunately, it was difficult to find a responsive audience for their message. “We tried to show the public and the people who are in charge what happened here and that it is good… and the ministry told us that they didn’t want to have good news in the media. They didn’t want the people to know that there is a really good house… They think [Austrians] would be jealous that refugees could live in such good surroundings and such good atmosphere.” Maybe, too, the ministry didn’t want other refugees to be encouraged to come because they hear about excellent conditions in Austria. “We don’t understand it,” Stuefer continued passionately, “All of Europe should look at this spot. Because it is in the middle of the center of Vienna. And the whole neighborhood is standing behind this project.” They wrote an open letter to Austrian politicians about the building and its usefulness as a model of successful integration and community support to try to share their effective approach.

The entire time the project was taking place, neighbors called the police twice. Once because teenagers were kissing and the other time when a child was roller skating in the road. “The police actually came round [to the building] to say ‘Thank you’ because nowhere else was it so easy.” At almost every other refugee camp “the police had to come every day.”

At other camps, yeah, they have a good bed and a shower, but they have nothing to do. Of course [problems occur] if you have nothing to do every day but to think about what is going on in my life, where is my family and I miss them and I feel alone and I’m sad or afraid or whatever. –Dr. Renate Stuefer

Perhaps the greatest challenge shows itself in the fact that I could not go and visit the building after talking with Harather and Stuefer. The last refugees had been cleared from the building just three days before I arrived. The building had been only temporary housing for the refugees before it would be renovated for use by the government, and the time for renovation had come. It was a difficult moment for Displaced, for community members who volunteered at the building, and for the refugees who had come to see the place as a home.

Happily, though, this is not the end of the road for Displaced. After this setback, they are now looking for a place to reestablish their work. At this point, Stuefer shared, “it’s not clear yet where we want to do it.” “We don’t want… to build something up and have it taken down again some months later,” she explained, “Nobody has the energy to do that again and again and again.”

After speaking about Displaced for more than two hours, I left feeling confident that I would see more of their work in the future no matter where they decided to do it. I also felt that here at Displaced, Dr. Karin Harather, Dr. Renate Stuefer, and their students had indisputably found their answer to the oft-posed question of “How can I help?”


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