rƎCAsʇ bʎ DƎsᴉgN

ɐrchitects Yasser Shretah and Nabegh Issa  

Yallah Yallah 

Photo: AL Hasaka, Syria 

This interview is with Yasser Shretah and Nabegh Issa, two civically minded architects with relationships to Syria and migration in Berlin. Nabegh Issa was trained as an architect in Syria, but also worked as a town governor in AL Hasaka, before the war forced him to flee to Germany in 2013. Since then, he has been working in construction management in Berlin. Yasser Shretah is a second generation Syrian-German architect who has spent a significant period of time in Syria, and currently runs his own office in Berlin. He has published the book “Flüchtlingsbauten. Handbuch und Planungshilfe. Architektur der Zuflucht: Von der Notunterkunft zum kostengünstigen Wohnungsbau.” (Refugee Housing. Handbook and Planning Guide. Architecture of Refuge: From Emergency Shelters to Cost-effective Housing) with Lore Mühlbauer and DOM publishers in 2017. He is currently working on a second book about architecture in Syria and Iraq. Both books have the intention to increase cultural understanding between German-speaking regions and the Middle East.

After the Black Lives Matter protests broke out earlier this year, I felt is was necessary to seriously take time to shed light on issues of racism in spatial discourse. So, please take a look at the last show, which focuses on the discussions happening in the USA. In this show, I wanted to find some access points into understanding racism in Germany and Berlin, where I live. It is impossible to cover all aspects of racism, especially in Germany where the terrors of the Holocaust continue to haunt society and while Germany’s horrific participation in colonisation and its instrumentalisation of warfare continues to be underplayed. For this show, however, I chose to focus on trying to understand the structural racism in Germany towards Arabic people and culture. This racism is visible in the contemporary urban fabric: forced evictions are happening in historically Turkish neighbourhoods due to state-sanctioned gentrification, mass shootings are happening with Shisha bars as their targets, refugees are removed over and over again from city centres, and pushed into container-housing on the cities’ edges. Architecture and the built environment has more to do with these events than we might initially think. I turned to Yasser and Nabegh to talk through how Anti-Arab racism can be understood in Germany, where it occurs in conversations and in space, and what architects might be able to do about it.

 


 

Photo: Tempelhof refugee accomodations, Berlin 

Photo:  Hotel in Beelitz, renovated for refugee housing 

Refugee Housing, Yasser Shretah and Lore Mühlbauer with DOM publishers , 2017 

find out more here 

An English translation of the German interview is available as text (below). A segment of the English translation and the full length German interview are also available as audio (above).

 


Nabegh:
First we have to compare: what does racism mean? Do all people have the same idea? Well, I don’t  think so. For me, racism is a social problem, or a social disease. This problem has to be fought by society, by community, by all people of the city. Racism is, as I understand it, is where people are treated differently or discriminated against because of the way they look, or their origin, or religious affiliation, for example, or gender. This is a big issue, and I think this issue is not new, it is old and old for the people of the world. It came into being as competition between people. Racism, as I have said, must be fought. If racism continues to spread, that leads to more war, leads to more deaths.

We as humans can do many many things, but who believes that the other person is right? Everybody says, ‘I am right, because I learned this from my parents or know it this way. I can't do anything else. I think this is right.’ For example a religious person says, ‘no, I am right, the other one is not right.’ The men who have this disease say, ‘yes, the woman must stay at home.’ Can someone talk to him or say ‘no, you are wrong’ - he says, ‘no, I am right.’ So, there must be many efforts from everyone, from people, from society, from the city, to solve this problem, or try to solve this problem. If the issue is always open, we can easily solve the results of this problem. If all people always say no, we can't talk about it… If we can't talk about it, we can't find a solution.

Yasser:
If we get more specific: How was racism in Syria? We never talked about it. Nabegh is part of the Christian minority in Syria. I don't know, I am a Muslim. I belong to the majority. I don't know if this is also noticeable in Syria. Of course, it has other facets than here in Germany, I don't know if we are leaving the context too much, but it might be interesting to start with this point and then maybe tell how it developed after you came to Germany. Of course, racism has to do with education, but it affects all levels of society. So you find racism both between the uneducated and between those who have studied. You see it in politics, everywhere. How is it for you? I can also tell you how I experienced racism, but I would like to hear it from Nabegh’s perspective first.

Nabegh:
So, racism looks for a fertile ground, without this background it cannot spread.
Racism in Syria can be divided into two phases. Before the war and after the war. Before the war, before 2011, the people in Syria were in peace living with each other. For example, 95% of my friends were Muslims - nobody wanted to talk about it. We could only make jokes against racism or something, but we can't say that there is no racism in Syria or middle east. No, that's not possible. Because racism is connected to old characteristics or is connected to customs. It’s like that. For example, you can't say for all people, men have the same rights as women. That's not possible. Many say no, that it's fixed in religion. So to get things to one hundred percent racism-free, I don't believe it could ever happen. Of course, what comes after the war - all these relationships are broken. One neighbour says to another neighbour, ‘you are a terrorist,’ or ‘you are not from my community, you have to leave.’ That's conflict between different communities. So, after the outbreak of war all of this beautiful picture broke. And then racism has - as i said - a fertile ground to live, to develop. Now we see many many many bad things. Another thing: I think there is a connection between racism and the difference between what other concepts mean - in particular, the difference between equality and justice is very very important. I think many people, many countries in Europe, especially in Europe, do not understand what people need. What is the difference between equality and justice. It is not the same. Equality is a small part and justice is the big part. Justice solves this problem, but equality also leads to racism. You see, it is not so simple.

Anna:
What does justice mean to you?

Nabegh:
First of all let’s look at equality. For example, if a state like Germany gave all people regardless of their origin or gender support money to live. One person works and another person is unemployed. For retirement, you get the same amount of 2,500 as the unemployed person. Here is equality which the state has given to these people, but that is not justice, justice has to be done first ... so then there needs to be equal opportunity. Equality of opportunity: this must also be available for all people. And then there is also willingness to work. People can’t just sit on the sofa and say we have no chance. No, they must still fight to work. So, from all sides of this equation, things must be working to be correct. Justice, that is - I think - that is the high level of God to give justice, because justice assures the right chances for people to have a good life, but equality leads to racism when applied wrongly. Why are there, for example, so many people here in Germany nowadays talking about racism.There are two different opinions. One says, ‘this is racism: he has a racism problem because he was born that way or it is in his mentality.’ But others say, ‘no: the state gave these people something, more than they need. And we need something and the state didn't see that.’ And then there's a third person or the media that says, ‘yes, they are right’ and then these people fight against each other.

AK
I found this first question about how it is in Syria, or maybe how it is in Turkey to be a good starting point. To say, ‘ok, maybe we can try to understand how it is there before we even look at Germany.’

YS
Yes that was my idea. I know it a little bit different than Nabegh. I haven't lived in Syria for that long - good 10 years is 10 years - but maybe in a different environment. But I have actually experienced that racism is there. But nobody wants to talk about it. Of course, it has completely different facets than here.

AK
And when did you live there?

YS
1992- 2002.

Nabegh also said it: friends are mixed, but i think as soon as it goes into your own house. as soon as someone says I want to… I mean it often revolves around religious differences, we don't have a problem with foreigners, say in Syria, but it has other facets.

The most telling joke in Arabic goes like this:

translated: “so where is your lady from Sri Lanka from, where does she come from?” - so "Sri Lanka" means for us the cleaning lady. So, in a way, the whole country of Sri Lanka consists for Arabs only of domestic help - typical racism, of course.

But on the other side, as I said, if a Muslim says, ‘I want to marry a Christian,’ both sides start to think: do we want that, or we don't want that. There are a lot of examples, but they are still the exceptions. So, for me racism is like that in Syria. It is not reflected in the labor market, like here. Or in the salary. Maybe you can explain it better, but in the architecture offices - so in relation to architecture again - there were always people of different origins and they did more or less the same thing and got the same pay. Maybe it would be different when you go into politics. I mean that is also racist, I would say. Well, it is written in the Syrian constitution that the president has to be Muslim. From my point of view, that is completely - from my point of view - completely nonsense. So then the minority feels automatically disadvantaged. I don't think anybody has the idea of wanting to become president in Syria, but I still find this precondition in the constitution a bit difficult. That's my point of view. Here, it has completely different facets again. Here, you have to deal with the migration backgrounds, you have to acknowledge the - especially in Berlin -  the many Turkish people. And it is obvious when looking for an apartment: If you have a foreign name, you are really treated differently than if you are named Schmidt or Müller. And when looking for a job. When I was still studying and looking for a student job, I was actually looking for offices that had projects in the middle east so that i could use my Arabic skills there, which i deliberately chose. It didn't really work out because there are very few offices that do that. Unlike America or Britain, where the connection to the middle east is much stronger than in Germany.

AK
like in Dubai…

YS
I think German people are very conservative. You can see that in the architecture, too. In other words, they're rational and look for a familiar environment; they want to work there and not somewhere they don't know. I think Americans or English people are a little different. I didn't apply for so many jobs. I  worked in the Kleihues office for over 10 years. Kleihues was my professor, so I had a completely different relationship to him. I got to know him before I even applied for a job. Actually, it was just small talk: think you’d like to work at the office? … sure, I’d like to work there .  Then I slipped into the office, it was a completely different situation. I know from other people, it's hard when you don't speak perfect german. It's hard. Although I’ll say it now: in the architecture world, you don't need to speak perfect German because it's mostly about drawings or construction management where half of the people on the construction site don't speak much German anyway, or don't speak German at all, and I don't understand the sense of that. And somehow you have the feeling that the Turkish immigrants here are either doctors or own supermarkets and barbershops. There is nothing in between, there are no architects who made big names. This is also related to the society - that as an outsider you have to deal with your peers and not with the upper class, not with these big companies that develop these big projects. That is a big problem here. In my own projects, my clientele consists of 80 to 85% of people who speak Arabic and want to build a house or a doctor's office. They are doctors and successful people in society, but they are still afraid of this connection to the German bureaucracy or let's say this whole design process. They feel more comfortable if someone speaks their native language with whom they can discuss and they translate it into German, so to speak. There are many Arab doctors who have been working here for a very long time but otherwise, the Arab society is rather divided. The educated ones, the doctors and then there are people who also have a lot of money, they are also successful, and have Arabic restaurants, supermarkets and so on. So my gut feeling is that even the architects who come from Syria or speak Arabic, they came with the last wave in 2014/ 2015, and not with the first wave of immigration, before the war in Syria.

I think it will remain difficult in Germany. Maybe you know that. We also had this discussion: what is it like here, what is it like in America. I know of my cousins and cousins of my wife who live in America, they have almost the same situation as I do - they were born there but have this Arabic background. They have Arabic parents. They feel like Americans. I would say I speak German almost without an accent. I can read and write German perfectly. Nevertheless, there is always a situation where I feel like an outsider and do not belong. I think belonging as an Arab will not happen in Europe because that is the way society is built. The Turkish people are now in their third or fourth generation. So I have a lot of Turkish friends who say exactly the same thing: they don't know Turkey at all. Maybe they know Turkey from their vacations. They have never lived there. I have lived at least in Syria. But I hardly know the Turkish language, and still I get to the same situation. Always, you are seen as an outsider or as not 100% belonging. In America, I don't know, I have never lived in America. So, I only know it as an outsider from Europe… that you somehow belong to it, because everybody comes from somewhere in the world and mixes there. That's how society has developed there and that's different than in Europe. And I think there's no way around it. So, it will always stay like that and everybody will find their niche and stay in their niche — that's the worst part.

AK
…that there are no more possibilities than digging further and further into a corner, instead of finding diverse possibilities and reinventing yourself again and again, right…

I have an expression what I want to discuss with you both - there is this expression "wilkommenskultur” (welcome culture) in Germany.  I wondered if you have come across it at some point? Or, since 2015, how has it changed?  How is it perceived in society, how do you deal with, well - when in America sometimes people celebrate "diversity", saying, ‘we are all foreigners here’ - although, there are many situations where people are actually excluded in the USA, where people are made to feel they will never belong, and where the history of native Americans is erased. But in Germany, there has been an attempt to use different expressions like "welcome culture" or "multicultural" to get a different kind of understanding of foreigners.

N
This situation is an emergency. It can be said, that it is an emergency - this is not normal. Many people say, ‘no, they have taken our chances, and why, and how?’ And there are many questions asked now. And someone has to answer these people - but, no one can answer. Other people just say,  ‘no, we are all people, all people are equal. We have to help other people who have problems. We have to help these people.’ And the other person doesn't understand this and says, ‘this is not our problem.’ And this discussion stands and remains forever. In Syria in 2006, we received many Lebanese because there was a war in Lebanon. Also a few years ago we received Iraqi people because there was a war in Iraq. After two years of living together many Syrians say, ’yes - we are the same, these are our brothers or sisters or so,’ but others say, ‘no, they have taken our chances. Now all the rents are higher and there is traffic, they make problems here, look this one has done something bad and so and so.’ And what is Syria and Lebanon and Iraq? All these are brothers. Or a hundred years ago, it was just one country, the same people are there, but that always happens. This fracturing also happens in a supposedly unified society and the people here in Europe have the same problems now. Every day we hear when a foreigner has a problem all other people say, ‘look all the foreigners are not ok, or are bad or something.’

Four years ago, I was in Hackescher Markt with my wife and two children. We wanted to eat there in a restaurant and so I went to withdraw money from the ATM. And then there was an older German woman next to me. I stayed like that, she was looking very closely at me and was pretty close by.  If this person was not older, then I would have had to say something, but the old woman, well.  Then I made the withdrawal, and she was not very patient, and said, “You all are here just to take our money. You’ve come here to take our money.” I finished at the machine calmly. And well, I told her with my smile, “Dear madam, I work here. I’m an architect and I work for a construction company, and this is my salary, and I want to sit in a restaurant with my wife and kids.” Then she asked me, “How long have you been here?” I said “Three years, or two and a half years.” “And do you work here?” I said “Yes.” She said, “I’m sorry, I didn't want to make false accusations, but you convinced me that you are a good person.” “But why are you talking like that?” She said, “I live in Kreuzberg, and on our street there are many foreigners and the people do many bad things. I see how bikes get vandalized and I’m afraid of foreigners.” “Look,” I said, “all people are not the same: look at the street, there are many bad things, there are many good things.” And then I said, I wish you a nice day or something and then goodbye. So, this is the situation, but if you can go about it with a little politics, it leads to the solution, the desired solution. But if someone says no and why and so on and fights then maybe after 5 minutes police come and then we have to go to court and so on. But, here, I have convinced this woman that she is wrong, and certainly this story as I am telling it now, certainly this woman is also still telling it.

AK
So, in 2017/18 I think many Germans thought that, ‘we have so many refugees now and they get so much social money.’ So, exactly what you meant before, and ‘we get nothing, and they can just be unemployed, have their own apartment.’ They imagine all this, and the media portrays that it is all somehow totally easy for the refugees who came to Germany without portraying the hard journey that refugees survived to come to Germany in the first place, or to tell how difficult it is to deal with racism to find a job, or to tell about the refugee camp situation. Some media just cover how the refugees get this much money and they get apartments in Berlin… and then old women and even young people don't think about a bigger picture that there are families and also employees who pay taxes and give back to our society.

So it is just like you say - that somehow people have to be open to share their stories and have discussions with other people. People have to show rather than argue. It’s not helpful to say, ‘you're not right.’ One has to talk about a personal experience. So, I found your story about the confrontation very interesting - what will he say? What will Nabegh’s reaction be when this woman says that to him? It is very political and one has to stay calm.

YS
2016, or around the end of 2015, we worked on a hotel near Beelitz, a bit outside of Berlin in Brandenburg. At that time, there was not much space for refugees and then the different cities paid the rent to people who could provide accommodation for refugees. So it was a kind of lucrative thing to do - and there was a hotel that was kind of run down. So, I went with the owner, we applied for a building permit, applied for a change of use. We did a really simple job, but chic. So they turned out to be quite nice rooms. It was a little bit idyllic: a small building from the beginning of the twentieth century in the forest. Well, it has a lot of space around it and there are also tennis courts. So, it's actually very nice. And he rented it to the city and the refugees. That's a little outside of town. Then a lot of people came from the city and saw this hotel and it was just like what you said: ‘Oh nice rooms for the refugees. Look, they have nothing and they came with nothing and they get everything and we have to pay for it out of our own pockets’ and so on. There were a lot of protests. We were really afraid that something bad would happen. Then the hotel owner had a really smart idea. He invited everybody over. First he gave a tour. All the rooms were nice, but it was all really very simple: there were bunk beds, common showers, one kitchen for several people. When you see it from the outside, you think of luxury and it’s freshly renovated and so on, but it was really just a paint-brush renovation. And so then, when the public was there, then the refugees also came and told their story: their history in Syria, what they had to go through, how they came here and what they dreamed of. And just because of that event, we really got this whole city on our side. We realised that we just had to talk to each other. Then we realised: oh now you understand, the people don't have it easy. They don't want social help - not all of them. There are exceptions, of course. But not all of them want to live off the state. They just want to keep working, they want to have their jobs back again and most of all they want to go back to Syria. They told us about it. Everybody described a little bit where they lived in Syria, how big their apartment was there. You can see that there is a lack of information and that's why I started the book: how did they live there. They don't come from the bedouin tents, they also have cities - big cities. I think just talking to each other about the situation is really very important.

N
So at the beginning of 2016, in January, I found my job with this company as an architect / construction manager and then the first year and a half I was assistant site manager on 2-3 construction sites. You see, I came to Germany at the end of 2013, so after one year of working there… I mean, it was hard. All the people say, ‘who is he? why is he here? and why is he’ - so site manager is a little bit like the boss on this construction site, and there are a lot of workers. So, when I say, ‘do this,’ then they say, ‘aaah who is he? why? he can't talk and why do it like that?’ the discussion is always going on. It was hard, but I had a goal for myself. It’s not so easy, but I can play with this situation, too. And I understand. I have to get these things under control, and I had the support of my company. The boss there said from the beginning, I think you will stay with us. I think he enlightened me, because if a company comes with new employees too often, that's not easy. There are many construction sites back and forth and once one construction site is finished, then others come and so on. What I want to say is that after a year or so my boss came to me and asked me a question. He said, ‘I wanted to talk to you.’ Then his question was: ‘were you accepted here?’ Ha, I was thinking, ‘where does this question come from? what is this question?’ It is very clever. The man is very smart or has a lot of experience: were you accepted here? It is not so easy. One can say ‘yes.’ Yes, but if you think about the background of this question then you will find many things. I said, ‘well, of course there was a problem here…’ But he said, ‘you can do it.’ I said, ‘ok, everything is fine.’ Similarly… How did I manage come to Germany with my family or enter the country? A German friend of mine helped us. He is also a civil engineer and after about a year and a half we met up, as usual. He told me, ‘I wanted to ask you something’. I said ok, and he asked, ‘were you accepted at work or in Germany or in Berlin?’ I was thinking about this question. Look at this question. This is exactly the same question and this guy - he doesn't know my boss - ‘yes there are problems, yes’ i told him, but again - why this question? Because there are problems? In every society there are these problems. All over the world there are these problems. You just have to know that there is a problem and then we have to talk about it. If it remains in the dark or in the shadow then after a year, or after several years, after some time it comes up and then other problems of this society come up.

AK
I remember when I was in Germany when I was 18, I had a host family and they asked me quite often if i felt ‘at home.’ I thought that was quite uncanny, because of course I was not at home, not at all. But it's another question, they wanted me to feel comfortable, that I wasn’t stressed there and so on. But this question: "were you accepted?" that's mentally difficult to answer because you can only speak of your own experience, you don't know how others really see it. Actually, you can only answer the question, ‘do you feel like you belong?’ You can't answer the question ‘were you accepted,’ but you have to get a feeling for it.

YS
‘Were you accepted’ refers more to the others. In German, you can also say, ‘bist du angekommen?’ (‘have you arrived?’), which is more about yourself, if you feel like you want to be there. But I think the question is very difficult to answer, you can't answer it at all. You have to look into the souls of others to understand them. As I already said before, it is a problem and will remain a problem. Well, I think with time, the situation will become less and less fractured. Still, it happens again and again, through a word, or a joke or somehow, wanted or unwanted. I don't assume racism, but that is the view of society. I hope that with time and generation to generation that it will decrease, because it is normal in the whole world that there is such a mixture of different origins everywhere. Still, I think in Germany it will take a long time.

AK
I think in German society integration is still expected. Like what you said before, that in order to be accepted, you need to speak close to perfect German. That’s been my experience. But I think there are young people who are now struggling to say that they don't want to integrate in a way that they will become German. They want to live here and live well and be with each other without having to speak German perfectly. This is also being said in the USA, with the Black Lives Matter campaign - because there is a culture of American language that belongs more to the black people and that should be accepted. There is simply a language that can be expressed in different ways and we can still understand each other and we don't all have to express ourselves in the same way, we don’t have to all follow the same rules, we don’t all have to stick to the same dialect. Even in Germany there is Kölsch and Bayerisch - there are so many different languages or ways of speaking within Germany, we can still get involved even as foreigners with imperfect German.

N
Haha - yeah, lot’s of Germans even know Arabic words like "salaam alaikum" and ”yallah yallah”

YS
Yes, there are three new words in the Duden dictionary actually. I think one of the new words is yallah. I think it was included in Duden now. Or inschallah, one of those. inschallah. I believe it is developing, but very slowly...

AK
I also wanted to record a bit about your book. Maybe you can tell us some more about it.

YS
Yes, so the book started, well, I told you about it at the beginning: I renovated, refurbished, rebuilt one of the refugee accommodations at that time. And then I looked at many other accommodations in this context, among others at the Tempelhof airport. At the Tempelhof accommodation the situation was really inhumane, especially at the beginning. It was 2014/2015 when the big influx came and then I got to know Lore Mühlbauer on one of these tours. There were a lot of tours that architects did. And I noticed what I said at the beginning, that the people here don't really notice these cultural differences. For example, there were two big rooms, two big recreation rooms and they were full of men. Women were standing in the corridors and socialising there. So they had no space of their own. And then somebody complained that the people were in the corridors and not in the recreation room. I said, that it is not possible for the women to go into the rooms; men and women have to have separate areas, somehow. Well that's the way it is in our culture. So I advised, to just try to make one room for men and the other for women. And then they actually did it. It's a very simple change: an A4 sheet of paper with ‘men’ written on it, the other with ‘women’ written on it. They posted them on the doors, and suddenly the people found themselves in these rooms. It was accepted. Just to understand that, that’s all it took. After that, there was the idea with the book that said: look, you can move a lot with very precise, simple things. You actually just have to understand where the people come from. And yes, there are also people in Syria who live in tents, there are, but there are many others who live in cities who live in apartments, just like here in Berlin. And so we wanted to really show that. That's why we published the book. So we started in Syria and Iraq, where the people come from. Then we moved on to Turkey and Lebanon, where the refugee camps are. And we ended with projects here in Germany and in the Netherlands, with how the refugee buildings here are designed. We didn't even say that this is positive, that is negative, the reader should judge for themselves. If you read the book from front to back - then you can judge, “yes, I can imagine that is good for refugees” or “No, that is rather not so good.” That was our ambition.  Now the story continues and we are in the process of making an architectural guide for Iraq and Syria. This one is based on this particular history again. However, it is not like a travel guide, not in the sense of taking an architectural guide and traveling to see places. Rather, it follows the history of this region: how did this region come into being and how is it developing architecturally. It will also show the new projects going on there to give the German society here and the architects here an impression of how it looks. Like, how does the architecture look and how has it developed over the years and how can you as a German architect get involved in this work intelligently. So, like I said in the beginning, Germans are very reserved and conservative and maybe this book will bring people a little bit closer. It’s a long project. We worked on the first book for almost three years and we’ve already worked on the second one for two and a half years. You know how it is, trying to find time on the side to write something. It's really hard.

AK
And have you been keeping track of the buildings for refugees in Germany since the first book came out, or the politics behind them? How has it been over the last few years, how has it developed?

YS
So you can see that the good examples are still there. The good examples, in my view of the whole thing, they are a mixture. They aren’t just for temporary use. So all the temporary buildings are gone. At least that's the idea. Many temporary buildings are gone, not all of them - but the big halls, they are gone. The projects that were designed to accommodate the refugees but also the normal population, so normal housing, they have survived. They are all fast construction methods but there is a very nice project in Austria which has developed further. They are modular buildings in wood and it is so successful that it is ordered everywhere, not just as refugee accomodations but rather as normal housing for the population. But it is cheap and very fast, very effective.

AK
This is a success story.

YS
But there are also others that were not so well received. But I think the biggest problem was that everything had to be very fast and the quality suffered in many projects.

AK
I was a little bit outside of Berlin recently and I did see some shipping-container refugee housing. And I was a little bit surprised that they are still there. But I’m wondering if there is another plan or if it's a permanent solution.

YS
They are all temporary solutions. But I can tell you that it is a vicious circle. Where the problem lies is in this vicious circle. If you don't have a job, you don't get an apartment; if you don't have an apartment, you don't get a job. Each part affects the other. So, for instance, I think Nabegh had the will to get things going. He comes from a completely different class of people. He is well trained and he quickly got his foot in the door, I have to say. We've known each other for a very long time. But there are others who have had simple jobs in Syria before and simply have difficulty getting a foot in the door and they are caught in this vicious cycle. So if you don't have a job, you don't get an apartment, and vice versa. You have to imagine, if you apply for an apartment in Germany and you live on social welfare and have 5-6 children - you won't get an apartment, no chance. The only way out for these people from the refugee camps are their children, actually.

AK
So, to wait until the children are able to work?

YS
Exactly.

AK
That they can then have individual apartments?

YS
That the kids can support the parents. It comes down to language. That they are good at the language and can apply properly and so on, and that they don't apply through social offices, but with a job themselves. Only then can the situation relax.

AK
But this is almost a treatment as if one is homeless.

YS
Yes

AK
That's what it sounds like, from my little experience with homeless politics. I think in homeless centres in Berlin you have two weeks, and then they should have helped you figure something out or you have to leave and change locations. But I don't know if it's similar with this temporary refugee accommodations. Do they always register somewhere else, or do they stay longer…

YS
They stay longer. As I said, they are meant to be temporary but many people have been living there since 2014, 2015. That's 5-6 years now and they just can't find their way out. I think that has a very negative effect on the whole society here. Because these people work, but they work on the black market. They have no other choice because they can't get real jobs, and they can't get real apartments for this black market money either. So, like I said, it's a stupid situation. But I think it’s difficult for the politics because, and I’m talking about Berlin, I think the housing department in Berlin missed their chance. It sold a lot of land, it never built itself, it's all in private hands. Now there are these new companies - “Deutsche Wohnen” is the biggest one, and if you apply as a non-German, who also gets social welfare, you have almost no chance to get an apartment there. I know a lot of stories, the people just don't get out. Even people with a family have a better chance than a single person who is 22 or something like that.

AK
Why?

YS
Because people have these prejudices against single men: ready for violence…

N
without responsibility

AK
So maybe if a man has a child and a wife, he seems more responsible…

YS
Yes, but we also have to take responsibility for many things ourselves. One live’s here a little bit differently than in Syria. There are these horror stories that are now circulating on the internet. For instance, one guy who rents out his apartment, with a beautiful parquet floor, and the woman - as one does in southern countries, also in Italy and Spain - just mopped it with a lot of water - really a lot of water - and, of course, this completely damaged the floor. Now one asks oneself: are the renters really to blame? or is the landlord to blame because he didn't explain it? or did he explain it but there was a language barrier? You never know. You hear these horror stories and then one says, as the landlord, I'd rather rent to Schmidt or Müller. At least I know that - although it's never a guarantee.  But still, ok, one thinks - at least I know what I'm getting. Yes, that's also the racism in architecture.

AK
Yes - well, I never heard of such stories. But, of course, such cultural differences can lead to quite big or costly mistakes.

YS
Yes, but I think our task as architects is to do justice for everyone. I mean, Berliners are not all the same either, especially Berliners.  There is man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, man and dog, woman and dog, woman and two dogs, woman and three dogs…

AK
Man with child...

YS
You have to be able to cover all social needs and all the other tastes. And if you move into an apartment and you get an explanation of the maintenance requirements, that's a matter of course. And the explanation can also be in two or three languages, or something like that. What's wrong with that? I think that we as architects have lost if we say that's Germany, that's Berlin, that's our architecture, and you came here and you have to adapt. I don't think that's possible. Everybody needs his space - now not only in terms of maintenance, but also in terms of room layout. One person likes their bedroom big, another likes their living room big, the third likes an open area where they can have everything somehow connected. That should be up to each person, and we as architects have to be able to do that.

AK
I found this great book called “Open Architecture" by Esra Ackan, it talks a lot about migration in relationship to the international building exhibition in Berlin in 1983. There was an architect, Rob Krier, who had a couple of people in his office who were into Turkish architecture. So they had this idea that they wanted to build social housing here with a sofa as the central piece of furniture and somehow made it a big thing that they were going to make sofa-centric homes for families.

YS
Haha. Yeah, this is a very funny story. I was in Jordan, and I was running a project in Jordan. And we were there with two student groups, Jordanian students and German students, and they were supposed to make a design - for an office building. And then you see the designs - both were good - but then you see the Jordanian design and it has very big office rooms, lots of sofas, screens in the office. And then the German design, very rationalist, just has a table, a chair, and a shelf - so this is a mindset question! For us, a sofa really belongs to an office! but, you never see an office with sofas here!

AK
Haha - so here we have one today, by chance!

YS
But these leather couches!

AK
Ah yes, they should be more representative. Haha.

YS
Exactly, the boss’s office always has to be very big. Even the relationship or feeling to space, to square meters is different. So, when you talk about a 100 sqm apartment here in Germany - you are talking about a relatively large apartment. But when you talk about a 100 sqm apartment in Syria, you say, "oh, but that is a small apartment". So the scale is simply different. But that also has a lot to do with the family structure, because there are so many single people and so many small families living here in Germany. In Syria, people tend to live in big families, and it is rather rare that they move out of their parents' house before they get married. I also think that this is our job as architects. We have to be able to respond to this. So, we can't just say, “Oh sorry. You are a 7 person family; you won't get an apartment here.” I think that's the wrong answer.

AK
There should be flexibility.

Nabegh
So - I have another question: How can architecture be on the right side of this history, of this topic? How can one, as an architect, not stay in the dark or say ‘I can't, I don't know, I can't do anything, I’m not interested.’ No. How can we as architects do something positive about it - you have to think. Maybe you also have to start a campaign - for example - something that starts small but becomes big. I think architecture moves into all details of life. Maybe with small ideas we can do something.

AK
I had a conversation with Larissa Tsvetkova - and she is accompanying a project on co-housing, and co-living. There are these projects, especially in German-speaking countries: that you can build apartments that are either made with building groups or with building cooperatives, or through the “mietsyndikat” so that the people who live in these apartments somehow have more community in their building. And it is not for profit. So it is not built by developers, but by the people who live there and use it. And she was talking about this project, Spreefeld. It's a co-housing project in Kreuzberg, and they have 3 small towers and on the first floor they have "option rooms", where the people who live in these houses can always decide ok - this is now rentable space, or we can use it for yoga and stuff for the next 6 months. When the refugees came, they also used it as temporary housing. She said, something like, that if we had more of these houses, then if we have a new wave of immigration, then the refugees would make their way through the city, through some kind of host. Then you would have this discussion automatically where people are open, so to speak, when new-comers arrive: they’d be connected with people, with work, with apartments so much more easily. But when the newcomers are in camps, outside the city, and have to get out of the vicious circle... it is a completely different question than if there are many co-housing projects where people could really live temporarily for 6 months or so and get started. it would be something similar to what I experienced, with my exchange year, when I lived with a host family. You just have a completely different view of the city, that way. As an architect, one would have to think in every house one designs: ok there is a social structure, but there has to be this flexibility. I think in Germany we have to expect that there will be refugees coming here again.

YS
One has to prepare for it.

AK
One has to think. And this might be an approach or an idea that one could strive for as an architect - to plan these houses with flexible space and to educate the users, the inhabitants that actually as an inhabitant one has a responsibility to be a part of the city society and to be a host to newcomers. When I had this discussion with Larissa, I thought, ‘wow’ that would have been something completely different if this had happened at a larger scale.

YS
I think that is also a question of financing. We never have a problem to find ideas, but rather a problem of how to finance something. With this hotel project that I told you about, that was only possible because the city or the administration financed the whole thing. They said ok, you can renovate at our expense, but then the refugees can stay for the first 2 months for free. I think that the bad thing is to react and not to prepare: eg. somehow to create flexible living space that can be rebuild later or quickly converted to cope with such problems. There is always a question of money. and the investors here - also here in Berlin - unfortunately they always build these luxury apartments, which are unfortunately always bought by foreign investors. I think this has something to do with racism, too. But they remain empty and aren’t really rented out.

AK
Which apartments?

YS
So very expensive apartments, luxury apartments that are 6, 7, or 8 thousand euros  per square meter. But which - let's say - do not help the situation of the city.
If you refer to a bit of the current situation - with this rent brake - whether all this somehow improves the situation or not, that's also a big question.

What's it actually like from your point of view? I know it a bit from America. I’ve been there twice, I’ve seen a few different places. I’ve been to the Chicago suburbs and there were always in these neighbourhoods where only Italians were, and in these neighbourhoods with only black people, or only luxury apartments. I mean, I don't know if that's a bad or a good solution. We don't have that here. We have cores, you can see that we have Kreuzberg and Neukölln, or parts of Kreuzberg or parts of Neukölln - is that a good or a bad solution from your point of view?

AK
So, neighbourhoods that are characterised by a culture or demographic.

YS
Yeah, like we are all together but still have places.

AK
Well, you have to understand in America that it is really a ghettoisation that has become even more evident over the years because it was a certain policy of the insurance agency’s. So there was the so-called “red-lining" of insurance in the USA, where you could say here is a neighbourhood that is safe, and here is a neighbourhood that is not safe, and it is red, and it is a super difficult neighbourhood. When a black person moved into a neighbourhood that was previously “safe”, then it was immediately labeled “red.” And then of course all the white people fled the neighbourhood to get the money they had invested in their houses somewhere else. And that's why there were so many neighbourhoods that said, “we don't sell to black people.” The other places where Italians live or something, it could be that it was somehow in the middle and was rated yellow, so I don't know how it is with the other demographics, whether something similar was done to Italian or Irish or Latinos, but it is really bad in the USA because this exclusion of people then means that you don't get insurance, then no credit, then no good schools are built there, then no street lighting will come in because no taxes are paid because people don’t have good jobs. It all comes down to the neighbourhoods, especially in the US where they try to get tax payments directly into the infrastructure where you live. Or the Republicans want to pay almost no tax at all for infrastructure. They want to keep everything private, and then really pay only for themselves: something like "I'll pay for my own streetlight.” The social structure is not as strong as in Germany. Because maybe after world war 2 - well that's how old these problems are - because for example after world war 2, even if black people were involved in the war, they came back and many of those who were in the war got credit to buy houses, but the black people didn't get credit. Through this redlining they couldn’t get insurance or credit, and then they couldn't build up their property. And now we have huge huge problems. So you can see that ghettoisation is getting worse compared to maybe Germany where we are a rental society. Here, you have to deal with gentrification more, in comparison. We have to fight that people don't get kicked out by rising rents.

YS
Yeah - it's an eternal problem, like east and west Germany. In the East there aren't so many good jobs, so people pay less tax and that's why the city doesn't have so much money, and the schools are not as good, and so on. But ghettos, well, it's not that bad here yet, a lot of people rent, we are a rental society.

AK
But as I understand it, in the 80's - no before that - already in the 70's there was a regulation in Berlin that only a certain number of foreigners were allowed to live in different neighbourhoods, like 10% or so. Then the landlords could say, “we don't accept any more foreigners. We have reached the limit.” And then many people, many foreigners would have to move to Kreuzberg because there were still houses that were run down there, or it was a border area, and not so nice to live in and the houses were not renovated. Then came the IBA - the International Building Exhibition - which wanted to use Kreuzberg because they knew there weren't that many citizens living there. They thought: “it's pretty easy for us to make this area completely new, and the residents can't protest, they don't have any rights, because they don't know about it, they don't understand it, we will somehow implemented it.” And there was a group of people who tried to keep the apartments for the foreigners who were there and it was a bit subversive. Well, actually the senate wanted to get the foreigners out and make nice new apartments, then the IBA argued, no, we're making social housing, and Kleihues was more on this side, building social housing. And then there was another layer of architects who said - and we even want to build them for the people who already live there. So it's interesting to read the history about this time because it's political and there were architects that said, ‘I’m not going to build a house and say that's where it ends. I’m going to bring people into the planning, and I also bring the inhabitants who are there further into my planning, and I’m not going to show up with a solution that disturbs or destroys the social fabric.’

YS
But it is similar in Syria, the areas that are now being developed. There are many areas in Damascus that were not destroyed in the war, but many use that premise now to destroy areas where there are illegal settlements to build luxury villas or similar things.

AK
It is happening everywhere in the world. Where the foreigners are and where the people have few rights, they are first ones to be thrown to the side. As architects we also have to be careful that we don't participate in that.

YS
Absolutely, I think it is also our task as architects to find a way so that everyone has a place to live.



 


 

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