Azra Akšamija’s Displaced Empire

2020-21 CAST International Exhibition and Performance Fund

The portable palace of the Displaced Empire is made of humanitarian textiles and discarded clothes. The MIT Future Heritage Lab team produced the T-Serai tent for the Co-habitats exhibition at the Arsenale as a traveling exhibition piece. Image courtesy of the MIT Future Heritage Lab.
T-Shelter, the standardized humanitarian shelter designed for the Azraq Refugee Camp. Image courtesy of the MIT Future Heritage Lab.
The Imperial Banner depicts refugee designs as a conduit for heritage and cultural reproduction at Azraq. Laser burned drawing on denim. Image courtesy of the MIT Future Heritage Lab.
Living room made out of humanitarian textiles. Displaced Syrians at the Azraq Refugee Camp reveal the cultural, emotional, and aesthetic needs of refugees within a context of scarcity, war trauma, constraints of confinement, and struggle for a future. Image courtesy of the MIT Future Heritage Lab.
The modular system and decorative structure of the tent panels are inspired by historical precedents of the mobile architecture tradition of the region: the Ottoman and the Khedival khayamiya tent panels. Image courtesy of the MIT Future Heritage Lab.

How does Al Azraq Refugee Camp live together?

About the Project

The MIT Future Heritage Lab, in collaboration with displaced Syrian refugees, humanitarian workers, and host communities in Jordan, presents Displaced Empire at the Co-habits section of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia curated by Hashim Sarkis.

Focused on the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, one of the region’s largest camps sheltering more than 35,000 displaced Syrians, the large-scale installation speculates a near-future world in which the majority of people have been forcibly displaced. In this scenario, the Azraq Camp has become the capital of the global Displaced Empire.

The 1:1 scale textile tent, the T-Serai, is the Empire’s HQ–it is a portable palace to reflect on the surplus and scarcity in the architecture of displacement. The T-Serai introduces a culturally sensitive, socially inclusive, and environmentally conscious framework to humanitarian design:

  • The modular textile system references the mobile architecture tradition of the MENA region. The design is a hybrid of the portable Ottoman palace and the contemporary standardized humanitarian shelter of the Azraq Refugee Camp, the T-Shelter. The installation outlines a cultural approach to humanitarian intervention, bringing forth issues of lacking cultural infrastructures in refugee camps. 
  • The design process speculates a framework for distributed production and textile storytelling to personalize humanitarian spaces. People from 12 countries participated in Future Heritage Lab’s educational workshops in Sharjah, Boston, and Zaatari, Jordan. The multi-directional knowledge exchange between participants of different generations and backgrounds offers a possibility for creative expression, self-determination, and the advancement of pluralism.
  • The tent’s materiality explores different aspects of textile architectures, from their iconographic and ornamental expressions to physical insulation properties and their social, economic, and environmental footprint. Each tent panel is made from upcycled discarded clothes and humanitarian textiles. The design probes how the overproduction of the global textile industry could provide a resource to support the social revitalization of communities affected by war.

Displaced Empire builds on and learns from the creative work of displaced Syrians at the Azraq Refugee Camp. Laser-burned Imperial Banners on the tent’s exterior depict everyday life at the camp through the residents’ creative production. The refugee-design lens enables an accessible, bottom-up, and participatory discussion of camp politics today. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of these refugee inventions reveal the discrepancy between available aid infrastructure and the real needs of displaced people within a context of scarcity, trauma, confinement, and struggle for a future. By altering and domesticating the standardized humanitarian T-Shelters, Syrian refugees humanize humanitarian architecture using art and design as a medium of self-determination and world-building.

For full project credits, see project web page.

This project is on view in the Arsenale at the Biennale Archittetura 2021 (Venice Architecture Biennale 2021) May 22-November 21, 2021.


Upcoming Events

Biennale Architettura 2021 (Venice Architecture Biennale 2021)
Displaced Empire
Venice, Italy
May 22 – November 21, 2021


Natalie Bellefleur is an architect and designer based in Cambridge, MA. She is a Lead Design Consultant at the MIT Future Heritage Lab and designer at Perkins + Will, Boston. Bellefleur is also a co-founder of SomeThingsWeMade, which explores the future of craft through the marriage of machine automation and the handmade.

Stratton Coffman is an artist and architect based in Cambridge, MA.  Coffman works with scores, props, performance sets, videos, and texts to examine overlooked spatial histories of the subject. They are half of the research initiative Proof of Concept with Isadora Dannin and Research Associate at the MIT Future Heritage Lab.

Jaya A. Eyzaguirre is an MIT alumna and former design researcher at MIT’s Future Heritage Lab.  Currently based in Chicago, her independent work focuses on endemic approaches to resiliency and how architecture and design is adapted and transformed by its users.

Lillian P.H. Kology is an artist based in Boston, MA. In addition to her studio practice, Kology is an Assistant Professor of Sculpture at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA, and Lead Artistic Researcher at the MIT Future Heritage Lab.

Catherine Lie is an interdisciplinary artist and designer from Indonesia. Her work critically engages time and temporality to unfold the everyday entanglement of the materials she investigates. She recently received her Master of Architecture from MIT with her thesis “Sourdough Architecture” and has practiced in New York, Indonesia, Chile, Puerto Rico, Jordan, and Berlin.

Zeid Madi is an architect and urban researcher based in Amman, Jordan. His work focuses on patterns and networks of formal and informal settlements via critical cartography, GIS, and spatial data analysis. Madi directs the Cluster Labs in Amman, Jordan.

Raafat Majzoub positions his work at an intersection between politics, intimacy, and futurecasting—exploring fiction as a tool for individual and collective agency and as an arena to construct new worlds. Majzoub is the founding director of The Khan: The Arab Association for Prototyping Cultural Practices and Lecturer in the Architecture and Design Department at the American University of Beirut.

Mary Mavrohanna is an architectural designer based in Cyprus, with a degree in Interior Architecture. In addition to her first degree she is currently studying Architecture at University of Cyprus.

Dietmar Offenhuber is a media artist and urban planner based in Cambridge, MA. He is an Associate Professor at Northeastern University in the Departments of Art + Design and Public Policy, where he directs the graduate program in Information Design and Visualization. Offenhuber currently holds visiting appointments at Princeton University and Harvard University.

Melina Philippou, an architect and urbanist, is Program Director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab. Her work explores the agency of spatial practices in the context of forced displacement. She is the design research lead of the work presented in the installation.

Calvin Zhong is a multidisciplinary designer based in Brooklyn, NY. His current work examines issues of media, representation, and technology in architecture. He is currently pursuing the MArch degree at MIT.


Azra Akšamija is an artist and architectural historian, Director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab, and an Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Architecture, Program in Art, Culture and Technology.

Rooted in the history and theory of art and architecture, Akšamija’s artistic practice and academic research explore how social life is affected by cultural bias and by the deterioration and destruction of cultural infrastructures within the context of conflict, migration, and forced displacement. Her work explores creative responses to conflict and crisis through transcultural aesthetics and artistic approaches to preservation and, in so doing, provides a framework for analyzing and intervening in contested socio-political realities.

Akšamija authored two books, Mosque Manifesto (2015) and Museum Solidarity Lobby (2019), and edited the volume Architecture of Coexistence: Building Pluralism (2020). Her artistic work has been exhibited in leading international venues, such as at the Generali Foundation Vienna; Valencia Biennial; Gallery for Contemporary Art Leipzig; Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art; Museums of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, Belgrade, and Ljubljana; SculptureCenter in New York; Secession Vienna; Manifesta 7; Stroom The Hague; the Royal Academy of Arts, London; Jewish Museum Berlin; Queens Museum in New York; Design Week Festivals in Milan, Istanbul, Eindhoven, and Amman; Qalandiya International; and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, as a part of the 54th Art Biennale in Venice. Most recently, her work has been shown at the Kunsthaus Graz, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, and Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, and is part of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2020.

She received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2013 for her design of the prayer space in the Islamic Cemetery in Altach, Austria, the Art Award of the City of Graz in 2018, and an Honorary Doctorate from the Monserrat College of Art in 2020.

More at the artist’s website: Azra Akšamija