The Oregonian: PSU architecture grad Nada Maani pioneers public-interest design with plans for Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp
Author: Richard Read
Posted: June 15, 2015

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Nada Maani aims to challenge the notion that architects work mainly for wealthy homeowners and for corporations that build office towers.

Maani, 23, is among the first four students to complete the requirements for Portland State University's Graduate Certificate in Public Interest Design, a unique credential nationally. At PSU's commencement ceremonies Sunday, she'll receive a master of architecture degree from the School of Architecture.

Public-interest design is a relatively new concept that strongly attracts Maani. The striking young woman with flowing, curly hair was born in Jordan to a family with two faiths and two nationalities: Christian and Muslim, Jordanian and Palestinian. She speaks fluent English and Arabic, often mixing the languages into a unique blend at home.

"Public-interest design is designing for under-served communities," Maani said. "It's designing for everyone who can't afford the designer's time."

That paradox presents a conundrum for practitioners of the art. But Maani, who has a PSU bachelor's degree in architecture, is confident she'll find a path to design in the public interest while earning a living. She says her passion lies at the intersection of architecture and politics.

"It's not the easiest track," Maani said. "But you can make it work."

Maani will soon start a summer architectural internship at Estudio Teddy Cruz, a La Jolla, Calif., firm where she'll work on a community-design project along the San Diego-Tijuana border. This fall, she'll receive her graduate certificate in public-interest design, and seek a Portland job in that field so she can earn her architect's license.

"Public-interest design is first community engagement, and then making sure you're empowering the community rather than telling them what their space would be," Maani said. "It's also about the triple bottom line: environmental, economic and social."

A prime example is the project that Maani chose for her thesis. Last year she visitedZaatari, a sprawling refugee camp opened in 2012 where about 85,000 Syrian refugees live in the Jordanian desert after fleeing civil war.

Maani observed how resourceful Syrians have transformed parts of the camp to resemble living areas back home – moving mobile-home units called caravans into U-shaped formations, for instance, to create courtyards that often include small fountains or other water features. Entrepreneurs have converted caravans into shops, many of which line a dusty main road whimsically named the Champs Elysees after the grand boulevard in Paris.

"I noticed the street was very male, adult dominated," Maani said. "I wanted to focus on the women and children in the camp."

Children, especially girls, face particular challenges at Zaatari. While 58 percent of boys between 5 and 17 attend school, only 42 percent of girls do so. Parents often consider a walk between home and classrooms unsafe and unseemly for a girl unless a male escort is available.

Zaatari is an strange, temporary place that lacks established communities, regular school buildings and solid employment. Many children work as laborers. Forty-six percent of Zaatari females marry by 18, Maani said, compared to 13 percent in pre-war Syria. Poverty and crime are rife.

As Maani began sketches for her thesis, she drew her ideas from refugees' existing improvisations.

Maani wanted to include features such as street lighting to establish safe zones. She also wanted to create women's spaces, such as courtyards, along or near the Champs Elysees, to enable women to get outside of cramped tents or caravans. If more women felt more comfortable frequenting the public street, she said, it could be the safest place in the camp for them.

"That street is the most public place," Maani said. "Eyes are on them all the time. They're safest there."

Maani got the idea of building a second level above the caravans along the shopping street. She color-coded as she drew, using red for child spaces, purple for women's areas, pink for routes connecting to dwellings and green for family spaces.

Maani listed verbs describing activities in the camp: chatting, reading, napping, crying and drawing. Then she designed second-story spaces with these activities in mind, making them flexible enough for other uses.

She admires what Mercy Corps has done at Zaatari, building playgrounds, digging wells and arranging water delivery. She especially likes programs that the Portland-based humanitarian organization has operated to bring benefits such as water and sewer service to both displaced Syrians and Jordanian city dwellers, helping to reduce tensions.

But she considers Mercy Corps playgrounds at Zaatari to be inflexible, noticing that kids using play areas are often highly programmed with structured activities.

Therefore in one area between elevated structures, she drew a flexible "dangling space," with ropes for climbing. She drew screens several feet in front of shops, so customers of, say, a hookah lounge could have an area in front to smoke, as they had in Syria.

"My thesis is about how to build a new camp as the refugees build their own grassroots urban spaces," Maani said. "The physical needs to catch up with the social networks."

As a Jordanian working toward American citizenship, Maani sees her thesis project is a way of contributing from afar to a country under great strain. Jordan, an island of relative peace and security in the strife-torn Middle East, copes with a continuing influx of refugees that taxes the country's limited resources such as water and electricity.

A counter-example to her approach is embodied another refugee camp in the Jordanian desert: rigid, sterile Al Azraq. Architects actually conceived Al Azraq as an improvement over Zaatari, designing it to build cohesive communities.

But a year after Al Azraq opened, the camp built with tens of millions of dollars of international donations sits largely empty. Row after symmetrical row of white steel shelters are uninhabited.

Well-meaning architects designed the newer camp with "villages," where people from the same Syrian towns and cities could cluster near shared schools and playgrounds. The New York Times reported recently that of the more than 35,000 refugees brought to Al Azraq, around 19,000 have left, starving the camp of the thriving street life that was supposed to entice people to stay.

Aid workers say that most refuges who left settled illegally in the very cities and towns the camp was built to relieve. Only about 100,000 of the 625,000 Syrians who have fled to Jordan since the war began in 2011 inhabit camps, according to the United Nations.

The Times described life in Al Azraq as routinely harsh, with limited electricity and with scorpions and snakes that residents fear will be attracted by mice that have overrun the camp.

"Perhaps the biggest complaint is the lack of bustle that would naturally accompany a larger population," The Times reported March 15. The article said that by contrast, Zaatari's bustling Champs Elysees street market, "created and run by the refugees, has contributed to what aid officials and refugees call a sense of 'dignity.'"

It's Al Azraq's mistakes, and the inspiration of Zaatari, that Maani will take as lessons while beginning her career.

"Al Azraq is a product of the United Nations losing control of Zaatari and saying, 'We don't want this again,'" Maani said. "But with 85,000 people, they're going to have their own rules, and they're going to live the way they want to live."

Maani's dream job would be to work for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, bringing her public-interest approach to help change lives. Meanwhile, as she gets time, she'd like to interest a U.N. agency or a relief-and-development organization in her design concepts for Zaatari.

Maani plans to apply for design jobs, earning her architectural license and becoming a U.S. citizen, both of which she'd like to see happen in four years -- while retaining her Jordanian citizenship. She already has a green card.

Maani's father suggests that she apply to architectural companies with Middle Eastern offices, and consider working in Dubai. But Maani, who considers his advice with affection, has a rebellious streak.

"I would never work in Dubai," Maani said. "I want to work at refugee camps all over the world."

(Photo of Nada Maani, above, by Richard Read, The Oregonian)