Interview with Nasr Chamma

Born in Lebanon 1988, Nasr Chamma is an architect, humanitarian activist and urban planner who obtained two master degrees: the first in Advanced Architecture from IAAC and another Master of International Cooperation in Sustainable Emergency Architecture from UIC Barcelona. He currently resides in Beirut, conducting different researches related to Syrian Refugees and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which support his PhD research in Architecture at UIC Barcelona.

First of all, a quick questionnaire: first thing that comes to your mind, short answers, included just one word:

City that works: Vienna
Nice landscape: Mayon Volcano/ Philippines
Book: A Long Way to Water
Movie: The Pursuit of Happiness
Exposition: La Biannale
Song: Stand by me
Artist: Michael Angelo
Architect: Bernard Tschumi
Dish: Fettuccine
Sport: Ski
Professor: Gonzalo Sanchez-Teran
Subject/ course: Encrypted Mega Cities
Material: Hemp fiber

About Barcelona:

Eixample: Organized
La Diagonal: Creative
Sagrada Familia: Too detailed
Las Ramblas: Crowded
Glorias: Node
L’Illa: Attraction
Forum 2004: Solid
22@: Future

Why did you choose to study architecture? What did you appreciate most in the architectural study? What skills that you got during your studies were most useful in your professional or personal life?
I do believe that architecture is not only the art of designing buildings, but designing lives as well. We shape buildings at first then they reshape us later on, in a way that’s capable of influencing ones’ future. Perhaps the fact that architectural study reveals the difference between physical and social values and the ways of integrating both these aspects is what I appreciate most about it. As for skills, free hand sketching was and still is the best way to transmit ideas and create visions and thoughts.

Which features would you highlight of the Master of International Cooperation in Sustainable Emergency Architecture of UIC Barcelona School of Architecture? What it brings to its students comparing to others schools?
It’s a unique one. In one year you can learn about many topics/subjects from valuable professors coming from all over the globe. This master program taught us humanity and how to use architecture to improve the quality of life of the poor and the people who are in need.

Which advice would you give to students of the Master International Cooperation starting their studies? And when they are about to finish?
Try to learn as much as possible about all the given subjects in the program and mainly the complex ones related to development and emergencies. Everything you learn is going to be useful in your career.
After you finish you will go to work in different fields with humanitarian organizations, NGOs, governments, architectural firms and others. Final decisions might not be yours at first, and of course challenges will cross your way all through your journey causing frustration and disappointment especially when you realize the amount of suffer people are facing. However, while your solutions are just visions on papers at first they will later become a reality, and the support people in need will get is nothing but that final decision of yours.

Does writing your thesis help your studies? What was your topic? Who was your thesis director?
My thesis topic was called “The Shift: Rethinking Refugee Camps. A Critical Perspective on Refugee Camp Planning”.
While I was searching for a shift to improve the lives of refugees, this shift changed me and refugee camps became my everyday’s life.
My thesis director was Carmen Mendoza, a great professor, teacher and friend.

What did you do next, after your thesis defense? Did you plan it in advance?
After defending my thesis, I went to the Philippines to work with Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative (EMI-Manila) on natural disasters and how we can increase the resilience of Eastern-Asian cities to be able to face natural hazards in a better way.
Then I moved to Jordan to work with UNHCR (ACNUR) as a Development and Research Intern on Refugee Camp Planning and Shelter design of existing Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.

Did you have job search problems? What advice could you give to new grads?
Yes, I had to wait about six months before I got the job I was planning for with UNHCR.
I do advise new grads to firstly work in the private sector to earn experience and improve skills, then move to the public sector or the humanitarian field.

What are you doing right now? What are you working on right now? And what are your future plans?
After finishing my work with UNHCR Jordan, I started working on a PhD research in Architecture at UIC Barcelona, analyzing different forms of existing refugee camps and defining new models of emergency settlements that will suit the refugees conditions and minimize their suffer.
As for my future plans, after working in different fields with refugee crisis, I’m planning to become a professor and be able to share the knowledge and experience that I went and will go through travelling around the world where rethinking refugee camps is needed the most.

Why did you choose it? Do you think it might be an interesting opportunity for new grads?
As I used to say many times before, this master program is a shift of life, and will definitely create a lot of interesting opportunities for new grads. All they have to do is to choose topics that they’re most interested in, and are willing to work with on daily basis after they graduate.

What would you like to do as an architect?
As slums are being dominant in many countries and cities in the world, I would like to be a part of the next vision and improvements of different developing countries that have slums including mine. As an architect from Lebanon I would definitely like to work on new sustainable, efficient and cheap housing systems to upgrade slums so they would offer their inhabitants better living conditions and better relation and integration with the context and environment.

In the current situation of the crisis in the sector, how do you think the profession should be positioned? What kind of solution could be proposed?
In Spain there’re many unemployees who’re in need to work. In my opinion, the solution starts with decentralization by focusing on each sector alone mainly in agriculture and industry to see how many people each needs or can absorb. Whenever both are full, as an architect I suggest creating new job opportunites in different public areas in the city by designing and upgrading them differently. Public areas such as squares, parks and gardens can play a multifunctional space, first as recreational features and leisure facilities and last as opportunity spaces. The city is already built up while open spaces can still solve the city’s problems.

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