Temporary Flat Pack Refugee Embassy Unveiled In London’s South Bank

The innovative, undulating timber structure, made of a kit of almost 700 intricately-cut parts, was constructed for Refugee Week 17-23 June 2013 on London’s South Bank. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched their latest report within its cocoon-like interior which was inspired by sculptures made by refugee children.  Part art installation, part public pavilion, the “Embassy for Refugees” is a concept created by young, socially-engaged designer Natasha Reid.  She developed the design for the experimental structure in collaboration with engineers Arup. The demountable pavilion is currently resting “flat-packed” at her studios but will re-emerge to form a legacy of “Transient Sanctuaries”, transforming into a variety of site-specific, creative interventions across new locations.

An “Embassy for Refugees” was commissioned to host the annual Celebrating Sanctuary London festival and constructed as an experimental pavilion on the South Bank which brought together art, architecture and human rights advocacy.  The sculptural structure will now embark on a journey through a variety of festivals, pocket parks, urban spaces and city squares, exploring wide interpretations of the word “sanctuary” in different contexts. The unusual cross-disciplinary project will adapt and grow through new collaborations to create surprising communities spaces and engaging art installations.  

London-based designer Reid, who has worked for award-winning architecture practices, developed her on-going, provocative project, an “Embassy for Refugees”, as a cross-arts and interdisciplinary pavilion. It is formed of two intimate, timber hide-aways, a design inspired by making miniature secret dens with refugee children and evoking spaces of sanctuary in nature. The organic form was refined in close collaboration with young engineers at Arup and intricately machine-cut from slender OSB, a timber sheet material normally used for fencing off building sites. The pavilion will now migrate between new homes as a “Transient Sanctuary”, creatively investigating what “refuge” means, both in urban and natural landscapes. Discussions have been initiated with the Green Man Festival to make an interactive art installation at their Black Mountain site in August, Bankside Urban Forest project for summer sites in Bankside, London SE1, as well as with the Bloomsbury Festival, potentially as part of their October events in Russell Square, London WC1.

Temporary Flat Pack Refugee Embassy Unveiled In London’s South Bank

Natasha Reid, Designer, said; During Refugee Week, the premise my Embassy for Refugees idea was physically enacted, which was to claim a territory for those that seek refuge in our city and to give ambassadorial status to a humanitarian issue. Whilst I keep developing the Embassy concept, the new “Transient Sanctuaries” project ensures that the structure itself has a legacy, acting as a real-time exploration of what “refuge” means to different groups in a variety of contexts. The pavilion will become a nomadic medium to experiment with site-specific ideas about sanctuary and space, through new collaborations, community partnerships and creativity.
By working closely with young engineers at Arup, complex 3D-modelling and high tech processes were used to achieve a low tech solution and the curving, sinuous structure is in fact made of a coded kit-of-parts, which can be constructed and deconstructed by hand in a few hours. The pavilion’s highly efficient construction technique was also developed with fabricators Grassroot Garden, a social enterprise of young craftsmen who originally studied architecture with Reid at Cambridge University. The inventive project aims to convey how through careful design, ordinary materials can be crafted to produce an innovative, distinctive and elegant structure which dignifies and embodies a humanitarian ethos.
Rory O’Malley, Senior Engineer, Arup stated, “Although the EFR pavilions appear random and organic, we used parametric modelling tools to manipulate the geometry, optimising both buildability and structural performance. The main emphasis of our work was to ensure the assembly of the freeform structure would be simple and repetitive to suit the strict build time available. We are truly delighted with the results and very much look forward to legacy phase of the pavilion”

Unusually, Reid, who works between the worlds of art and architecture, was commissioned to create her Embassy for Refugees proposition not only as a conceptual artwork but as a functioning event venue. Acting as both artist and architect, she formulated the concept design with support from refugee charity Salusbury World and specialist arts organization Counterpoints Arts. With only a shoestring budget to construct an “embassy”, Reid embarked on a journey of social entrepreneurship by engaging widespread support in order to implement the socially-led agenda.  Developed in only three months, the project expanded exponentially, drawing together a wealth of ethical organizations to realize the ambition of the project. Whilst crafted from everyday materials, the value of in-kind support embedded into the structure is over 20 times the worth of the original commission itself.
The “Embassy for Refugees”, as a conceptual investigation, will continue to develop separately from the structure as reflections, conclusions and new ideas are drawn from its first incarnation as a physical space. The ongoing theoretical project, developed through a series of stages from 2010, will form a key case study for the Learning Lab at Counterpoints Arts, run in partnership with the British Council in Autumn 2013, which focuses on the creative arts as a driver for social change.

Almir Koldzic, Co-Director, Counterpoints Arts: Natasha’s Embassy is a beautifully imagined concept that plays with the idea of providing diplomatic status and ambassadorial protection to asylum seekers and refugees – the one group of people who are mostly excluded from such national and political privileges. Its aesthetic alludes to a cocoon-like space of sanctuary or refuge that is at the same time open, porous and encourages dialogue.

Temporary Flat Pack Refugee Embassy Unveiled In London’s South Bank

The design of the Embassy for Refugees pavilion was inspired by “secret den” sculptures by refugee children and draws strongly upon references of tree canopies, caves and cocoons to explore concepts of refuge in nature. The curving timber framework oscillates between appearing solid and substantial but also delicate and transparent depending on the view. Made of two intimately scaled structures, the pavilions offers different degrees of enclosure and openness, protection and exposure: The larger space is covered with an ethereal inner lining, made of scaffold sheeting, which at once recalls the language of tents, whilst also providing weatherproofing for events. The smaller structure houses an art installation of suspended butterflies crafted from world maps which were created in a specially developed workshop for students at Capital City Academy, exploring the concept of “Flight” in relation to refugees.


Arup has collaborated with the artiste to design and experiment with the formation of an unusual and highly surprising structure constructed from OSB. Using 3D modelling young engineers from Arup have utilised a high tech process to make a low tech solution achievable. Striving to overcome the design challenges to deliver the artiste’s vision, the Pavilion is simple to construct, deconstruct & reconstruct, to meet the requirements of the fast paced programme.
Thomas Prospert, Graduate Engineer, Arup commented, “Having taken part in the design as well as the construction process of the EFR was very rewarding. The incredible ease and pace at which the pavilions were put together showcased the merits of the design process and the focus that was put on buildability. It was pleasing to see that such a stunning structure can be created from such an ordinary material”.


, ,