Music & Arts Centre in northern Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, developed by to.org, and designed by Hassell, in partnership with Arup, will debut at London Design Biennale 2023 this June. Bidi Bidi Music & Arts Centre is an interdisciplinary project led by to.org, a platform operating in venture capital, philanthropy, and the creative space, in collaboration with leading international design practice Hassell, Kampala design studio LocalWorks, and global sustainable development consultancy Arup.
Currently, under construction, the center will provide a space for creative expression, training, and performance in Africa’s biggest refugee settlement, which is currently home to over 270,000 refugees who have fled violence in neighboring South Sudan.
As part of a larger mission to reframe the narrative around the word ‘refugee’, the Bidi Bidi Pavilion at London Design Biennale will showcase the unique process, architectural elements, and technical solutions exemplified by the Bidi Bidi Music & Arts Centre building, with stories from the refugee and non-refugee communities whose collaboration is bringing the project to life.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a panel talk on 20 June at King’s College London to mark World Refugee Week as part of the London Design Biennale talk series at Somerset House (1-25 June).
Bidi Bidi is the largest refugee settlement in Africa, the second largest in the world, with a population of nearly 270,000, 65% of whom are under the age of 18, who in recent years were forced to flee their homes in South Sudan due to ongoing violent conflict in the country.
Nachson Mimran, Co-founder & Creative Executive Officer of to.org. said: “The word refugee should refer to a status, not an individual’s entire identity. We regularly see demeaning rhetoric around the existence of displaced people. When words are used to ‘other’ the most vulnerable among us, we have a shared responsibility to reclaim and reframe those words. By creating opportunities for the refugees we work with to shine, to have their voices heard and their creativity amplified, we hope to de-slur the word ‘refugee’ and turn it into a status that inspires universal respect.”
Bidi Bidi Music & Arts Centre’s construction uses low-cost low-carbon local building materials, with a labor force comprising refugees and host-community Ugandans. The walls of the building employ compressed stabilized earth brick, as opposed to fired brick, using soil excavated from the site itself. This traditional local technique offers lower construction costs and dramatically reduces the impact on the environment, as the blocks are pressed in situ by hand and cured in the sun, with no need for fuel.
The structure further benefits from a large lightweight funnel-shaped roof, naturally cooling the inside of the building and collecting rainwater which is then filtered to provide potable water to the community. This elliptical plan allows the building to have two centers, one allowing for daylight and rainwater and the other forming a stage for the amphitheater.
Xavier De Kestelier, Head of Design at Hassell said: “The Bidi Bidi Music & Arts Centre has been designed to empower refugees, providing the community with a space that encourages musical talent and creativity. We wanted to use knowledge and techniques gathered from designing for extreme climates and large-scale arts centers in cities around the world and apply this to Bidi Bidi to develop spaces that are both environmentally conscious and harness talent from the community.”
Nachson Mimran, co-founder and Creative Executive Officer of To.org, said: “To.org brought together architects, ethnographers, musicians, and activists – some refugees, some not – to find innovative solutions for creating opportunities and infrastructure for the most vulnerable. Because of this collaboration, the Bidi Bidi refugee community will have a space to play, learn, perform, create, and share, with music and dance programming, focused on reducing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and building community, setting a new precedent for how we think about, talk about, and create opportunities for displaced people.”
Tateo Nakajima, Director at Arup, said: “The Bidi Bidi Music & Arts Centre has been a passion project for Arup – and is one we are incredibly proud to see come to fruition. Cultural spaces are incredibly important, taking people who happen to live in the same place and bringing them together. Working in partnership with to.org, Hassell, and LocalWorks, we have created a valuable place of gathering for the community, one which has been built safely and sustainably using materials found locally.”