Sanctuary, Integration, and Representation: An Embassy for Refugees by Natasha Reid


What do you think of when you hear ‘marginalised communities’? Thoughts of far off, remote places? Makeshift encampments? A neighborhood that makes you weary?

When I hear ‘marginalised communities’, I’m reminded of Design for the Other 90%, the first exhibit I saw that sparked my interest in broadening design’s impact. To put 90% in perspective, this represents 6.4 billion people. That’s a whole LOT of people, and a hugely diverse group.

Climate, politics, socioeconomics, and cultures are ever-changing and affecting where, how, and why people live where they do. Some people are forced to relocate for safety and security, who we commonly refer to as ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’. Currently this is a population of 15.4 million, according to the UNHRC, and only bound to rise with the recent conflicts in Syria.

Kosovo Refugees

Refugees commonly end up in places where they have to make due without knowing what the future holds. Our HCD team met one such family in London–Afghani refugees who were waiting for work permits and spending days on end at home unable, but wanting, to contribute and integrate into their new communities.

So how do you help people feel more integrated, connect them to a new place, and bring to light their struggle (because we would all struggle in this situation)?

UN Refugee Week

Natasha Reid, a London-based designer and artist, has been thinking about this since studying architecture at university. Through travels to Brazil and India to study the integration of marginalised communities, she decided to address the most excluded population back at home in London–refugees–for her fifth year thesis project.

[The Embassy for Refugees] was an architectural proposition in Mayfair (London’s embassy quarter) which was made of 2 contrasting parts, a “public forum” and a “refugee retreat”, so a space of representation and a space of sanctuary.

Like an architecture student’s dream come true, Reid was able to bring her concept to life. Beginning with an exhibition held at Counterpoints Arts to share her thesis, she then had the opportunity to partner with Counterpoints to develop the idea into a pavilion for Celebrating Sanctuary London and The Embassy for Refugees during the UK’s Refugee Week in June 2013.

Counterpoints Arts approached me with the proposition of creating the Embassy for real, as a space for talks on the subject of sanctuary for the annual Celebrating Sanctuary Festival on the South Bank… They believed very strongly in the idea of the Embassy and I was very excited about the opportunity to fulfill the premise of my purposefully provocative, conceptual project. One of the key ideas is that the Embassy claims a territory for those that seek refuge in our city, so this was a chance to actually do this and claim one of the most iconic pieces of city at that.


But she didn’t create the space alone. Engaging the refugee community with participatory design, Reid worked with children from a London refugee charity to conceive of what a sanctuary and place of refuge could be. From the children’s models and discussions of ‘secret dens’, an organic cocoon-like space began to take on shape.

The children had expressed different ideas, sometimes contradictory, about how hidden or open their dens were. This design aimed to reflect spaces of refuge found in nature, so was very organic but also played with different degrees of enclosure and openness so that the appearance of how solid or transparent the Embassy was would change as you move around it.



Reid then scaled up the collaboration to define and build the form with engineers from ARUP. Together, designer and engineer created a CNC-milled, flat-packed kit-of-parts that maintained the organic beauty but also made the structure easy to construct and disassemble. “The final design is incredibly faithful to the concept design which I think is a great testimony of the collaborative spirit of the team at Arup,” stated Reid.

EFR_1_concept sketch

EFR_2_3d model

12_In construction_2

6_The EFR pavilion hosted humanitarian talks_2_SK

4_UNHCR launched their report on families in the cocoon-like space_1_SK

2_The undulating timber structure will transfrom to make Transient Sanctuaries

3_The Embassy hosted Celebrating Sanctuary London on the South Bank, for Refugee Week 2013

Although the space was originally conceived for Refugee Week, the design has allowed for a wider application to sanctuary in multiple landscapes. The form has taken on new initiatives–evoking the strata of the Black Mountains in Wales with dark elastic woven through the ribs and returning to cocoon-form while nestled into the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Next week it will be host to the Embassy for Children’s Rights at the Bloomsbury Festival.



As for the legacy of the Embassy for Refugees, Reid is looking at how it can transform and take on a different form, one that is even lighter and easier to reconstruct across the UK. Let’s see how the definition of space for this marginalised community transforms.


Along with the space, Reid worked with the children to make butterflies with maps of the world–a lovely representation of flight and transience.


The concept of the butterflies is in response both to the organic architecture of the Embassy for Refugees pavilion and the symbolism of positive change and hope.




Budget: £2000 with in kind donations from ARUP, Grassroot Garden, and Material & Manufacture below

Partners: Natasha Reid, Counterpoints Arts, Platforms, Refugee Week, Simple Acts, Salusbury World, Capital City Academy, ARUP, Grassroot Garden

Material & Manufacture: Coillte (smartply), Timbmet (CNC machining), Icopal (weatherproofing), Merz Barn and Littoral Arts Trust (funding)

Videos: Embassy for Refugees, Construction Time Lapse

Did you enjoy this article? We’d love to have you as a regular reader. Just enter your email below and click “Get Updates!”

You can also connect with us on TwitterFacebook, and RSS to make sure you don’t miss what we else we’re talking about.

Image Sources: Flickr user Climatalk & United Nations Photo, Miguel Santa Clara, Simon Kennedy, Louis Leeson, Natasha Reid

Want more news like this?

Join hundreds of designers who get tips, strategies, and support on doing more impactful work with the Design Affects monthly newsletter.

Powered by ConvertKit

2 Responses to Sanctuary, Integration, and Representation: An Embassy for Refugees by Natasha Reid

  1. JRC says:

    Awesome structures. How do I get the plans for these?

Leave a reply