The Collective Imagination: Throughout Europe, youthful architecture and design collectives are taking a DIY approach to today's living and working challenges—not least, the refugee crisis. 

Art in AmericaDecember 2017.

In the backyard garden of a family in Montreuil, a liberal suburb east of Paris, two asylum seekers from Sudan are living in a temporary relief shelter, a micro-house designed by the architecture collective Quatorze. Custom-built off-site by volunteers using burnt-wood cladding and Japanese carpentry techniques, the structure was brought to its current location on a trailer bed and connected to a composting septic system and an underground heating unit that generates surplus electricity for the hosts’ house. Called IMBY—In My Backyard, the dwelling was installed in the garden last summer by members of Quatorze. Next year, the family in Montreuil will decide whether to host a new couple, buy the house for their own use, or have it moved to another site.

A similar experiment is happening in Berlin, at an educational and social gathering place called Die G√§rtnerei (Nursery), conceived by the architecture collective Raumlabor and located on the property of a stonemason’s house set back from Hermannstrasse in Neuk√∂lln. Since the height of the refugee crisis, arts educators going by the name Schlesische27 have hosted planting, landscaping, and German classes there in an effort to build community with immigrants. Like many of the unexpected spaces created by architecture collectives in Germany and France, the Nursery exudes the optimism of a place that exists only through the efforts of the people who use it. Raumlabor, Quatorze, and other associations combine ad hoc public art with social research and architectural fabrication to create structures that alter relationships between groups of people. For the architects as much as for the communities they set out to serve, collaborative work is a means of self-determination: in a slow-growing economy with a depressed labor market, architecture collectives create their own possibilities instead of waiting for someone to hire them. Whether whimsical or utilitarian, their projects invest public space with a dynamic potential for small-scale change.