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How will migration influence architecture and the city?


 Image 1 :The emigrants of the globe – Charles Minard 1858

Image 2: Early Human Migration

Jeannette Kuo

From global cities to local countries

The fading of national borders is not a new phenomenon. Although the fluidity and mobility of the global citizen is much easier today than ever before, migration for work, for better standards of living, for love, or simply for better opportunities, has existed for as long as recorded history. The difference today is not even necessarily the scale of migration—think of the mass exodus propelled by European colonization, by the Irish famine, or by the Vietnam-American War. My own family was part of the latter. The difference today is the double-edged sword of global visibility and social media tribalism, leading to greater anxieties and polarization in an atmosphere of greater alienation.


The greater design issues lie not so much in cities as in their peripheries where social infrastructures are few and far between. We forget that cities are inherently artificial collectives. They are a social mix of people, not always in their natural habitats, not always alike, brought together by abstract systems of exchange—work, trade, leisure—that profit from the diversity of offerings and economies of scale. They thrive because of the mix and because of their dynamism. And they exist because of certain unspoken pacts – the tolerance for compromise, the capacity for sharing—that enable coexistence despite the differences. These characteristics are enhanced by the quality of the social infrastructures that enable exchange. Public spaces, playgrounds, schools, markets, parks – these are all important anchors for a collective culture. Our greater challenge is to reconceive collectivity on spatial terms in contexts defined by individualism: the rural peripheries where the single-family home and private property still reign as the predominant logic.


Today, as the political pendulum swings to the over-defensiveness of our national borders, it might be good to remember that these cartographic lines are imaginary. And if they are imaginary, then they are also mutable and even erasable. In fact, they have been defined and redefined throughout history and they are traversed daily in the many trades and exchanges that inextricably bind us to each other. Today, we are all global citizens. While local culture and heritage are important in defining our common histories and social fabric, they do not have to be sacrificed in the acceptance of difference. The question isn’t how migration will influence architecture and the city but how we can transcend the differences and face each other as humans to design with empathy, openness, and optimism. 

Jeannette Kuo received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture at U.C.Berkeley (1999), her Master of Architecture with Distinction at Harvard University (2004), and her Master of Advanced Studies at ETH Zurich (2010). After working for Barkow Leibinger Architects in Berlin and Architecture Research Office in New York, she started teaching in 2006 with the Maybeck Teaching Fellowship at UC Berkeley and went on to teach at MIT (2007—2009) and at the EPFL Lausanne (2011—2014). Since 2016, she is Assistant Professor in Practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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