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Elisa Iturbe & Laurence Lumley

Studio Pier Vittorio Aureli

Spring 2014




REFUGIO is a combination of living and workshop spaces for Houston that house documented and undocumented immigrants in the interstice between suburban subdivisions and private lots. The buildings take advantage of Houston's vastness in order to frame a new productive landscape organized around an informal market, thereby rethinking the subservience to capital perpetuated by the contemporary city. By focusing on a subject that is in a state of juridical exclusion (the undocumented immigrant) and by situating the project in the liminal and otherwise inaccessible parts of the city, our project investigates the possibility of subsistence, not as a resistence to the city but as an integral part of it, thus granting both solidarity and visibility to a population otherwise considered invisible.


The undocumented immigrant arrives at the border uprooted and in a state of homelessness. They have transgressed the boundary of the territory and are thus denied access to capital, juridical structures, and the right to work. Many come seeking refuge and asylum, but without citizenship, their rights are displaced. They must learn to operate on the periphery.


With the expansion of neoliberalism, our society has become characterized by global labor migration and job instability. Within this tendency towards transience and the resultant struggle for a right to place, the immigrant (both documented and undocumented) can serve as a paradigm. Through their plight of placelessness, we see that contemporary society does not grant a right to place, but rather merely promises, and often denies, legal recognition. 


Because of this, REFUGIO provides the possibility of urban subsistence and self-sufficiency, ways of life that rely less on juridical recognition or capital gains, but rather require access to space and resources. This is the potential of Houston, a city where space dominates form, where sunlight and water abound. And this is the potential of the undocumented immigrant, who begins outside of this cycle, therefore with the chance to remain, to some extent, outside. We propose a new ethos of communal living and self-sufficiency, based partly on the labor of the land. New covenants must be written to create a deregulated space in which documented and undocumented immigrants can live as organized cooperatives, open to the informal economy.


REFUGIO is a project for political recognition.


REFUGIO supports alternative forms of livelihood, claiming space for agriculture, open workshops, informal market activity, and self-sufficiency.


REFUGIO is not a utopia, it is situated in Houston's worst food deserts, dignifying agricultural labor and allowing a population otherwise shunned by society to sustain itself autonomously while alleviating urban hunger.


REFUGIO, relying on cooperative ownership and shared labor, is a new urban typology.




Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States and yet has no zoning. The urban fabric is patchy and fragmented. Autonomous subdivisions form Piranesian figures and connect along roads that act as spines, aggregating into "ladders." This is the spatial condition of the suburban city.


In some cases, the order of the subdivision falls away, and buildings haphazardly scatter along the side of the spine, with no connectivity between them. REFUGIO exists in these gaps, in the interstices between subdivisions and private lots. These lacunae -- the excess space of a vast American city -- are captured for agriculture and open spaces, providing support for the informal economy. 


An ethos of shared housing and labor will require a new urban typology, a new archetype, one that will provide autonomy as well as a space of solidarity for the sustaining of immigrant cultures.


The project offers two building types - both with the same form. These low-bar buildings frame the vast openness of Houson and claim it for agriculture or other informal uses, such as the collection of scrap metal and old cars. These spaces are managed collectively and all residents are granted right of use.


The first building type consists of open workshops, the specific use of which is determined by residents, depending on their labor needs. These spaces support informal labor and might contain canning facilities, woodshops, storage spaces, or remain empty for communal use. 


The second building type is residential, containing compact residential units that, like the Greek temenos, delimit an inner place of belonging. All units face shared open courtyards which straddle generous shared kitchens and living spaces. Following a monastic logic, where private space is minimized in order to maximize shared space, REFUGIO provides only one kind of private unit - a 3.5 m x 7 m room, which includes storage space and a private bathroom. These units house only one or two individuals, but families are allowed to claim as many units as they may need. The organizing principle of the project is the relationship between the individual and the collective. In other words, REFUGIO rejects the single family as an organizing unit and supports the organization of individuals into a larger collective.


All bar buildings are organized along a spine lined with market arcades, where agricultural produce can be sold. The market stalls are integrated into the structure of the project, providing a point of exchange with the city and dignifying the labor of agricultural workers. 


We also wish to embrace the thrilling and distancing scale and horizontality of Houston, that sense of exposure. So the walls will be kept low and the inner courts huge and empty, open to the weather. This archetype attempts to create a state of mediation between dislocation and belonging, a place in which one can cast shallow roots.

Residential building - ground floor

Residential building - second floor

Labor building - ground floor

Labor building - ground floor

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