To see and be seen.

Alice Meyer is a part 1 architect , working and living in London. In her final year she wrote her dissertation titled- " the immigrant’s right to the city "- which looks at the role of the migrant within the city and how architecture can enhance it. After reading her dissertation we had a discussion on immigration , reappropriation , space and identity.

To see and be seen.

Carl: Why did you chose to write about the immigrant’s right to the city, you could have chosen to write about anything.

Alice: I’m an immigrant myself, I’m Italian, I’m living in London, and I’m half Swiss , I’ve always felt like a foreigner. Also in the last couple of years I’ve been interested in the politics of immigration. Generally in Italy we are experiencing a huge wave of immigration where foreigners are looked at as invaders.

C: Why do you think that is?

A: Well considering that we have been a country of migrants. For example, in the past Italians would leave to find a better place to settle in, leaving for need. However, recognising immigration as a continuous process in Italy is slow, and still developing. Italians used to migrate but don’t see that right applied to others and the prejudice against ‘strangers’ is encouraged by media and political parties.

C: Let’s talk about the right to the oeuvre, the right to wander and find where you fit in.

A: I think the right to the oeuvre is the right to participate in a bigger theatrical act in the city , it is the right to participate in urban life and not be segregated in private space or specific neighbourhoods of the city, but to be part of a bigger community, a bigger cosmopolitan community. I think we need other people to shake us…. to provoke a reaction, we need people to bring something new and participate in what makes the city alive.

C: Okay that’s interesting

A: If you think about London there are a lot different cultures, where as in places like bologna where I am from we don’t recognise that people who come from a different city or a different culture can…….

C: ….bring something new. How I interpreted the oeuvre, was the right to wander the right to go find yourself and see where you fit in. What struck me is the exclusivity of that right for example, if you can afford to study or move, you can ‘oeuvre’, you can participate but, if you are a refugee, you are not allowed to just exist, to work a job and see if you want to settle in certain society. So I thought of it as the restriction of desire- the desire to explore and find out where you fit in.

A: I think there are two types of immigration: there are those that want to travel and be cosmopolitan and there are those that need to move due to war or so on. What really breaks my heart is that in Italy it seems that people tend to not recognise that others actually have the need to move.


Image from "The immigrants right to the city" by Alice meyer

C: What if they were allowed to move before they needed to move, before things became really bad? So not necessarily being a refugee but wanting to master your own destiny.

A: Well, The widespread perception of the immigrant in Italy is one who 'interferes with tradition and steals jobs' . There are even political parties that think immigrants are going to destroy Italy, kind of like UKIP here.

C: They don’t recognise that maybe some migrants are not running away from conflict but could be seeking a normal life in Italy.

A: I think that type of immigration, right now, is really rare, it is really rare that people move to Italy to stay, the wave of immigration due to needs is much stronger.

C: I think it is because immigrants are not seen as people who can come to a country and help the country progress, they are seen as exploiters.

A: Yeah exactly, what happens sometimes instead is immigrants end up being exploited. The way I wrote this dissertation is quite personal and quite polemic about Italy. I believe that things are changing right now because the new generation, our generation is much more open. But there are still things that I will never understand and these things make me really angry.

But there are still things that I will never understand and these things make me really angry.

C: Let’s talk about spatial appropriation and identity, I think as architects we try and create spaces that fit certain identities or what we think peoples identities are, hence the programme and then a spatial layout that fits the programme.

In your dissertation you wrote something quite interesting about spatial appropriation and non-places. From your writing I understood a non- place ,places with no cultural references , as a space used to take away one’s identity. So, by this reasoning when one appropriates a space you are also appropriating an identity, if you make a space a non-place you are also taking away an identity, what are your thoughts on this ?

Image from "The immigrants right to the city" by Alice meyer


A: I think modern mobility and globalisation is producing a lot of these non places: airports, waiting rooms, shopping malls and even immigration centres.. All of these places don’t have any actual meaning or cultural reference they are just like passing points. What I think is, when immigrants come to Italy they sometimes have the need to ‘appropriate’ public spaces. Where they can be visible and share their culture whilst being in a space with other people and I think they have a right to do so, to participate in the public life of the city and get exposure. This way the interface between cultures is not imposed. This is what makes the city come alive!

C: So similar to London, where a high street could have restaurants from six or seven different nationalities but they are not competing to take away the identity of the high street… The idea is that something else can exist without interfering with anyone’s identity that you can be you as you are and I can be me as I am and we don’t have to be fighting.

You can be you as you are and I can be me as I am.

A: And we don’t even have to be friends… we just acknowledge that we share the same space and that you are doing something that makes me realize that there are actually others. But I think it’s really hard for these places not to get gentrified.

C: We keep on using the word appropriate, how do you define appropriation ?

A: By appropriation I mean the active use of public space, not only going to work and coming home. But having outdoor, restaurants and points of interaction, that are not only in your neighbourhood but are a point of relation to your neighbours .So that you can relate to your neighbours you can relate to those who live there. The way a space or building is designed is crucial to the way people use it and interact, and it’s a matter of getting a human scale, a porosity between different parts of the city, to have boundaries that are not dead. But borders that are alive.

C: I hear what you are saying, which takes me to my next question, where do you think the architects’ responsibility ends and it becomes a political issue instead. Sometimes I think architects are blamed for committing the original sin but if you think about, in essence we are only service providers, so are we only as good as the community we serve? I think there has to be an environment where architects are allowed to be generous and humane.


A: Of course I don’t think the prejudice of immigration comes from just buildings, but I think that space is really connected to the perception of migrant. I believe designers have a responsibility towards those that going to be affected so, they should cater to vulnerable users. In a racist and privatised or gentrified environment, architecture can be a revolutionary act.

Image from "The immigrants right to the city" by Alice meyer

C: That’s interesting because it goes back to this idea of space and identity.

A: I think there are many ways to see it: you can create a non place by not attaching an identity to it and sometimes this is good because you have a place that can be temporarily re-appropriated. What I am trying to say is, possibilities to reappropriate a space comes form non-places. Sort of like a heterotopia – a place where multiple identities can exist. The first person to write about that was Foucault and I think the concept is to create something that is not finished, something that other people can occupy and attach meaning to.

C: How do you think these non-places are created or are they completely accidental?

A: Most of the time they are accidental…

C: I am interested in the intentional non-places.

A: Uncertainty in spaces and territories is what in my opinion keeps them alive. Spaces that can be used in certain ways but are not fixed, where different actions, different things are happening at once, and designing for that can be really difficult.

C: Maybe you should just make a warehouse like Mies Van Der Rohe, he was really obsessed with the universal plan- a space that is divided into a modular grid and can be changed according to the programme.

A: In a way architects have tried to democratise space in the past. If you think about le Corbusier’s unite d’habitation where you have a space that is proportioned to your body, a school and an office in the same block where you live, the zoning and the fixed nature of the spaces make it almost dead. There is the need for thresholds and in-between spaces where you really allow people to discover what they want, that’s why I am really interested in how it might happen, in a city of multiple cultures how can you design for place-making where different groups of people are negotiating the same space ?

Image from "The immigrants right to the city" by Alice meyer


C: Going back to my first point to sort of provoke you, do you think that the migrants right to the city is given to those who can afford it, those who can get visas, those who can travel, those deemed worthy by society. Is the migrant’s right to the city an exclusive luxury ?

A: It’s true, it is a luxury to enjoy different cultures, at least in Italy

C: But why should it be a luxury ?

A: It should not be, it should be something that should be available to you in the city, or if you want to put in other words, it should be something that architects can and should make available. If everything is privatised and hidden you don’t have the chance to understand what you are missing

If everything is privatised and hidden you don’t have the chance to understand what you are missing.

C: So it is about exposure.

A: Yes, in buildings trying to achieve multiple exposure stimulates you to understand and begin to know what is happening outside your bubble

C: Isn’t that the luxury of being cosmopolitan.?

A: It shouldn’t be a luxury and I recognise it London. Cosmopolitanism should be fostered by design but interaction should not be forced. In a way my research is quite naïve, it’s an ideal of how it should be.

C: But it all starts from there, it’s the first step.

#immigration #italy #space #identity #nonplaces

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