refuge in the present, past, the internet, and in space

Isaac Mathew
16 min readMar 15, 2024

As a place of life, work, and play, the city is a post-industrial construct. The urban area facilitates the aspiration that working in industrial regions provides refuge from the burdens of countryside living. The erratic natural conditions imposed by farming, when left behind, make for better living in the city.

As the global population grows and cities bear the strain, it is urgent to question whether it is responsible to continue depending on older modernist frameworks to find answers to living in the post-information age. Does the city continue to provide refuge, or is it a lost aspiration of the past to which we cling?

Considering the recent migration crisis unfolding worldwide, even New York, the epitome of the just city that has given refuge to everyone, is turning people away. When compared, the traditional, polarised modern living conditions in Indian metros indicate that cities present newer problems previously inconceivable in the village or the town.

Rather than the physical limits of the city or constraints imposed by the north-south divide, I attempt to answer the question of the refuge city through the theoretical framework of {planetary urbanisation} proposed by Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, where urbanity is a spatial condition.

I begin with the {present}, where I review the United Nations Network on Migration’s project, Kampala for All, as a case study on contemporary refugee infrastructure today. For the {past}, I review the ideological City of Refuge in biblical times, where six cities were allocated in the Levitical towns so those who had unintentionally committed murder could go to escape blood revenge. Y Combinator is a physical network that has created an ecosystem for entrepreneurs to build multi-million-dollar virtual communities of practice for the {present}. Finally, I discuss Gerard K. O’Neill’s Bernal sphere in {space}.

The study compares spatial institutional networks that provide refuge because of the resources they invest. Within frameworks, the work identifies stakeholders and their distinct roles. As learning from them, the proposal recommends that institutions reimagine themselves as systems facilitating refuge instead of depending on the city to do the needful.

PREMISE/ technology, its impact on architectural imagination

slide 01, title

I am grateful to the symposium organisers, conveners, and advisors for the opportunity to present this research. The abstract concerns human spatial occupation at various urban scales and its impact on interpreting concepts such as refuge. To close, I briefly examine related concepts that facilitated what we have understood as the city till now that will require reconsideration to explain the urban condition better as it unfolds on a planetary scale.

slide 02, practice mandate — annual observations

As part of my research practice, I am developing a knowledge system to document how architectural imagination in and from India has transformed in its contemporary past and continues to evolve into the future. The last 25 years have seen significant technological advancement that has broadened access to information and reshaped the production and consumption of knowledge work.

The 1980s in Indian architecture is not understood well, nor it is studied. There is a marked gap in knowledge about how architectural imagination has shifted and is projected to change. Though the idea has taken multiple forms since 2010 as a publishing initiative, the project began in 2019. With the surge of services-driven hype cycles, consolidating a form of the deliverable has taken more resources than expected.

slide 03, book 07 — a place in the lights, the old landscape and other essays

The research is from the book < A Place in the Lights, the Old Landscape and Other Essays >, a then-and-now study. A then, which is from the early eighties when contemporary Indian architecture began and now 40 years hence. It is a comparison of past and present possibilities in the profession. Since I had a minor role in compiling Correa’s anthology of essays, it seemed reasonable to use it as a foundation to build.

The working title of the essay is < Land as a Resource >, an extension of Correa’s < Space as a Resource >. One observation is Correa’s proposition to solve the housing crisis in urban areas by reconfiguring the house not as an insular space but as a network of shared public utilities. The imagination of space has changed, and so has how we see cities and their futures. The new physical landscape of the city is now a brand-new information landscape.

ARGUMENT/ economies of information landscapes

slide 04, shifting information landscapes

The city in the 80s was a lived experience. This changes when satellite images are introduced. Open data adds new perspectives and IoT devices make the data accessible in real time. Every service introduced increases access to distinct information layers, transforming our perspectives and imagination of the world. Sources of information dictate our methods of interpretation based on the tools available to us, both in the past and present.

Our perception of a city determines how we view and navigate it. The problems we can solve are based on available information sets that define a city and how it operates from a particular viewpoint. The ability of professionals to engage at various scales is thus dependent on the availability of city information products, such as official services or open-access material sets sourced from private citizen initiatives.

slide 05, economies of today

Akin to the industrial cities of the past, which first built factories and then housing for workers, the Internet and atmospheres above the Earth are sites of work, play and leisure for now. These are initial stages, but if we are paying for any services, we are renting online, and unlike in the past, we exist through an interface on a server farm.

This exchange is made possible due to the constantly expanding internet economy. Because of worldwide internet connectivity, the space economy is made possible, too. Most research on and about space is available as open-access information sets, thus making an early-stage entry into the marketplace imaginable, even if it is theoretical.

METHOD/ spatial discourses and their stakeholders

slide 06, the evolution of spatial discourse — 1993 2016

Conversations around architecture and space have partially reflected how technology has changed how we see cities and the urban condition. Space as a transacted product is subject to information that facilitates its commodification. The listed texts are not an extensive exploration but identify the key themes of spatiality as an object, product, practice, and theory that offer architecture conceptual frameworks to build as a discipline. Architecture knowledge has also changed owing to varying scales of data access.

I present these ideas to emphasise that it is no longer feasible to cling to one theory as the sole truth when multiple perspectives exist. {Planetary Urbanism} is but one position to discuss the urban condition. By questioning previous precedents, the theory critiques the everyday experiences of urbanity as we understand it through the lens of modernity. When the city form gets questioned, the culture making the city possible is subsequently revised. Up until now, scales of intervention guide spatial imagination. This review considers land type to discuss urbanism and its various programmatic layers.

slide 07, city and environment

How we use words and locate meanings forms our knowledge and imagination of concepts and ideologies. To note, the title of the symposium, < REFUGE City: Towards a New Urban Perspective in the Global South >, city and urban are used interchangeably and mean the same. A city in the past is a fortified town with a distinct form. That is where the city begins as a discourse. {Refuge city} here can be considered a dated term as there are newer — {inclusive city}, {just city}, {open-ended city} and concepts such as {right to the city} to contend with.

The walled city has helped define what we first understand as a specific human settlement with a particular program for an area of resource extraction. This model still guides our understanding of the city today. In a skirmish on who gets to be the most appropriate, ideal interpretation explaining the urban condition, there is significant resistance to Brenner and Schmid’s attempt to be the only encompassing theory. Ignoring its faults and discrepancies, my interest in this conceptualisation is that they have discovered new land in the process. Previously, travel had limits; today, we can reach every corner of the world and the universe, finding ways to settle even without gravity.

slide 08, an assortment of positions and stakeholders

Contemporary imaginations of the city as a refuge are viewed by a migrant arriving from another country. The concept of cities providing refuge for refugees is an interpretation of the term {Refuge City}. Notably, in the recent past, we have witnessed many manufactured and natural disasters that necessitate viewing cities as refuge sites. New York City’s attempt to suspend its Right-to-Shelter Mandate due to its inability to fulfil its obligations indicates our current times. In addition, cities with policies accommodating migrants are more concerned with city planning initiatives than national refugee policies. A combination of a national policy and a regional city-wide one needs implementation to make an {Inclusive City} possible. This is in addition to international support.

Cities providing refuge is a lived experience, but the refugee crisis that arises or must be addressed is a national emergency when a country faces such a situation. This varies from country to country and even among cities within the same country. After independence, India has provided refuge to migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, notably Tibet, Sri Lanka, and most recently Myanmar. Internal migration in India is also high. In the past, many from the South used to go to the North for work, especially in government jobs, and now this trend has reversed, with a population from the North coming down to the South in search of work. Now, manual labourers seeking work on construction sites travel across geographies. Especially in the country, our cities lack basic infrastructure to facilitate the ease of navigating cultures and linguistic barriers.

Even though the city does not have walls, it is always enormous and incomprehensible for an outsider. Anyone arriving in it from anywhere else will always feel distant. Broadly, the stakeholders of the city are its officials, those who keep it running, the residents who live within its limits, the tourists who come seeking spatial consumption, and the refugees, either from the countryside or distant lands, who have different levels of access and, therefore, distinct instances of access. Castells would outline the condition as a sum of administrators, exchange sites, producers, and consumers. As the city’s programming changes, its form adjusts. This does not reflect changes to its hierarchy. There should be a dedicated attempt to build and maintain infrastructure which enables inclusivity. The situation could improve as these get incorporated into the plan and become part of city culture.

DISCUSSION/ Kampala, Levitical towns, Y Combinator, Bernal Sphere

slide 09, the present — Kampala

Providing refuge requires setting apart provisions and services. A rule to adhere to is to audit if an urban area has adequate resources to accommodate an incoming people group while sustaining the population already living within your jurisdiction. If Kampala succeeds where New York fails, it is based on which policies are working towards making it successful. As it is landlocked, Kampala can receive international funds to allocate to displaced groups from neighbouring countries. Paying a city to accommodate refugees is the strategy that has worked for it. Most incoming aid seekers often need a job, and everything else will follow. Providing sensitising programs to city residents to keep their racial prejudices in check is a requirement to be addressed. A point noted here is that all cultures are racially biased, and any outsider seeking claim to assets a resident asserts a right for will encounter resistance.

slide 10, the refuge city is also an inclusive city

{Refuge} is often misunderstood as something the poor need. Therefore, most city participatory planning initiatives have a rich vs poor narrative. If you do not speak the language of a resident in all cities, you will find people who do not want others who are not like them. To be a < Refuge City > is to have a mandate of inclusivity. How to plan for inclusivity is a parameter that any urban area needs to revisit, such that the aid provision does not lead the city into crisis. What crisis means for the city, too, needs consideration.

Administrative lethargy is almost always why an administrative area lacks the necessary resources to accommodate asylum seekers. A new problem seen after successful institutional resettlement is the inability of the settlers to assimilate into their designated neighbourhoods. This latest development requires a case-specific investigation, as most incoming people groups tend to retain the nationalities of their homeland, wherein they keep their sense of cultural belonging. This shift requires revisiting what refuge can mean for the present.

slide 11, the past — Levitical towns

In a literal sense, a {city of refuge} is an ideological concept. A review of the subject will locate histories of Kadesh, Golan, Ramoth, Shechem, Bezer, and Hebron, found in various states of preservation in modern Israel and Palestine. Then refuge was granted to someone who unintentionally committed murder, allowing them to escape blood revenge (References: Exodus 20:12–14; Numbers 35:9–28; Deuteronomy 4:41–43, 19:1–13; Joshua 20; 1 Chronicles 6). This practice is described as refuge, asylum, and sanctuary. All listed cities had these labels, leading to differing interpretations of these sites’ intentions. The legal issue is the distinction between intentional and unintentional killing. Those who kill unintentionally, e.g., death by accident in a duel, will relegate themselves to escape from the relatives who now want them dead.

slide 12, imprisonment or asylum

Evidence of allocating refuge sites and granting asylum within these sites is found scattered throughout time. Though the note is brief, it is plausible to locate instances in the ancient Indian past where a {City of Refuge} existed among people groups.

An extended note to consider is both Australia and America originated from asylum seekers trying to escape British rule. Lands have provided them refuge but at the expense of the natives. Over time, refuge evolved from a place to a region and eventually extended into self-governance. A minor detail here is settlers came voluntarily to America, leaving what they considered oppression by the Crown. At the same time, prisoners were forced into Australia when the prison system began to implode.

slide 13, the Internet — networks

In the early days, technology was a distant knowledge base. Even up until around 2010, everything was bulky and often broke. The possibilities of the Internet started to formulate around 2016 when streaming services and binge-watching became popular. Gaming transformed with the Bitcoin and Metaverse hype of 2021, made viable due to the 2020 Covid pandemic. Most applications we use now are virtual environments where we live, work, play, or use to navigate the real world. In addition to safety, the ease of use of digital spaces is why we spend at least eight hours a day online.

Though it is feasible to bootstrap an internet startup, access to an accelerator program like YC provides founders with a community to guide their development process and financial advisory. SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) is one of the available funding frameworks. The critical point is its easy access, which can help navigate the brutal process of sourcing money for a business idea. However, access to this funding is through a validated idea, like what it would take to assemble a physical space, such as an offline clubhouse. YC has only a 1% acceptance rate; therefore, even with a broad outer circle, those with access to actual benefits are relatively small.

slide 14, communities of practice

The traditional architectural practice is comparable to a technology startup. On the internet, its presence directs its patrons towards the building services it provides. The web is 35 years old, therefore who is an architect that offers spatial services is a potential space of discussion to engage with. The patron of the past is the community that the practice develops around their discussion online. This position requires clarification because architects need more guidance to establish a successful business in digital lands and lived reality simultaneously. It is essential to factor that architects form a virtual community registered with the Council of Architecture. It is comparable to YC, a professionally run body with a financial stake in the businesses it invests in. Like any tech startup that needs to bring in paying customers for their digital services, architects operate in principle the same way. Digital businesses like Amazon, Airbnb, and Uber are examples to examine as case studies.

slide 15, in space

Any discussion about habitation in space is an extension of constructed ecologies, environments, and landscape architecture. The simplest example of this is a botanical garden. The question of how to artificially assemble an island for humans in space leads to the < Space Settlements: A Design Study >. Project facts are: Nineteen professors from various fields, including engineering, physical science, social science, and architecture, collaborated with three volunteers, six students, a technical director, and two co-directors for ten weeks. Their objective was to create a credible proposal for supporting life on a larger scale in space and devising a system for space colonisation. The study is one of the earliest conclusive studies that present the possibility that life can happen outside Earth’s atmosphere.

It was inspired by Edward Everett Hale’s 1869 novella titled “The Brick Moon”, which gives the first imagination of a human colony in space.

slide 16, life in space

Inspired by the publication in 1977, the {Space Settlements }study is conducted. Built to accommodate approximately 10,000 people, this “Bernal Sphere” space colony would serve as the residential area of a space manufacturing complex. The inhabitants would conduct various manufacturing activities within the structure, others in nearby reaches of space.

2023 is when interest in space in the country peaked thus far because of funding made possible by the Government of India. There are between 140–190 startups in this sector. Although it is a discipline of heavy engineering, the role that architects can play here is subject to interest by practice.

FINDING/ from the ordered city to institutional networks

slide 17, exclusivity

Refuge for all is desired as a socialist position, but its capitalistic alternative exists in all four states. The city is reserved for a select few instead of a potential collective. This is an extended perspective worth probing.

Alexandria, the city of learning in the past, could be likened to a modern-day university campus. Unlike today, education is accessible only to a select few.

Neom is heavily criticised, even though its concept is widely applauded, and many popular architectural names have found a site there.

Vertu is a private concierge service marketed as a phone and is available worldwide.

Virgin Galactic is the most comparatively accessible option on the list, with ticket prices costing $450,000 for a 90-minute trip.

Money can buy you refuge as a private individual, whereas when the city allocates money for inclusivity, it is made accessible for all. Leisure as a refuge costs extra.

slide 18, there is land, but who provides the refuge — present, past, internet, space

Refuge in Kampala is treated as an enabling policy.

The refuge is granted as a barrier between two contesting individuals or groups in the six biblical sanctuary cities in its Levitical towns.

The Y Combinator Startup School provides access to knowledge for all who aspire to build internet businesses and financial refuge for those who qualify.

The Bernal Sphere is an intellectual refuge where possibilities are evaluated.

Land to address is a shared collective in principle.

Although it is available for all, access is limited. {Refuge City} is a state granting land access to a refugee displaced from a place they call their own.

It can manifest in various forms depending on the materiality of the ground on which it is defined and who pays for the access.

Today, it is also possible to decide where refuge is found based on the type of land that has displaced you.

slide 19, spatial forms of refuge

Though often interchangeable, < city > and < urban > are distinct spatial constructs. One has a definite form demarcated by its limits, and the other is a condition. As we start seeing them differently, our imagination of them changes. All spatial discourse can exist in one of two forms: a pyramid (sphere) or a labyrinth. Once these models are defined, the intersection of architectural and urban theory can help better articulate settlement types where human habitation manifests. This spatial duality exists today in four fields, defined by time and data limits, unlike only space and time before. The more types of information sets vary, the more we can imagine how we see our lands and, therefore, human habitation in them.

The images list how to see the sphere and the labyrinth as forms in the four states. Examples are a beach resort and the beach for the present. Representations of Rome as a fortified city then and today, for the past. In the walled gardens of the internet, Netflix is curated, while YouTube is user-submitted. Finally, for space, the black hole, and the galaxy.

slide 20, architects of history, now, internet, and space

Charles Correa’s position in < Land as a Resource > suggests an outline for a spatial strategy for refuge specific to a housing need in Bombay. From a modernist perspective, what works in one place is possible in another. It is an age of optimism. The proposal is about sustainable access to resources required for living. To augment limitations created by space, he reorganised the home from its lived limits of a house to a neighbourhood. These principles, he then extends the idea to that of a city.

Revisiting a time when space is considered a resource, only physically delimited land is available for architectural imagination. With time and data added to the mix, alternate dimensions and occupancy of sites emerge. Institutions, therefore, cities can now find themselves in history, the present, the internet, and outer space. The city governing body is the institution that decides to what extent the city can occupy itself, where its resources are drawn from, and, therefore, the status of its inhabitants.

If the analogy of institutions as cities is extended, they thus occupy varying scales, sites, and programs. Refuge and inclusivity can also be found where it is deemed necessary to accommodate, in addition to what it means. If an institution does not have a past, how does it occupy history? What role does it play on the Internet? How can visions of occupying lands outside of Earth reimagine how it decides on the land it physically exists on? Architectural and spatial planning services can extend into new land types, thus extending the domain discussions. A state of information flows now guides horizons and, therefore, futures.



Isaac Mathew

i think #architecture #art #planning #design #engineering