600 refugees in a former prison

Architects Arna Mackic and Lorien Beijaert from Studio LA, and visual artist Robert Glas, are investigating the residential quality of the temporary refugee housing complex, ‘ Bijlmerbajes’, a former prison that, since its closure in June 2016, has been used to house 600 refugees, among them 100 children. This project, as part of ISHF research project ‘Amsterdam Arrivals,’ will be presented and discussed at the ISHF Opening Event, at the ‘Migration and Mobility in cities in the West’ meeting, and exhibited in Museum Het Schip. We asked Arna Mackic why they focused their project on this particular refugee housing complex and what they would like to achieve in presenting their work at the International Social Housing Festival.

Why are you taking part in the ISHF research project ‘Amsterdam Arrivals’?

The project provides us the chance to research a specific group: refugees that acquire a place in the city via social housing. We are currently researching the specific case of the Bijlmerbajes, a former prison that will be used as temporary refugee housing until December 2017. Therefore, it is crucial to conduct this research now because, otherwise, all knowledge of these current issues will be lost. We aim to learn a lot from this case and address these matters during the festival and open them up for discussion.

What is your background? What is Studio LA?

I live in Amsterdam and currently I am the head of the architecture department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. With Lorien Beijaert, I founded Studio L A to initiate projects and debates that address specific questions concerning the inclusiveness of public space and public buildings. We start from social and societal themes and observe the world around us to see how we can contribute to this by means of architecture.

You moved your office partly for this particular project to LOLA LIK, a creative hotspot in the Bijlmerbajes, which is integrated with the refugee housing complex. How does this environment influence your work?

The environment influences us a lot. It becomes more confronting every day. A lot of people are not aware of the huge influence of the dominant function of the architecture. Refugees are placed in a former prison without considering or researching if this is, in fact, the best moral option. It seems like there is no money, time or urge within organisations that decide about this, to discuss the matter, while it is about people that are welcomed into this city. The longer this takes, the more normalized and critical the issue becomes. In future it is crucial that these organisations include specialists from different fields, like psychologists, architects, urban planners, sociologists etc, to research these locations and the potential influence of the function of the architecture beforehand.

What would you like to achieve with your research project?

With the short documentary, we aim to research what architectural elements give one a sense of freedom and what elements feel restricting, like in the days when the building was functioning as a prison.. In this way, the documentary will uncover where the problems lie and why something needs to be changed.

We find it alarming and concerning that there has been no societal debate about housing refugees in buildings that were initially build for another function, like prisons. With our project, we aim to encourage social and public debate about this issue and learn from the case of the Bijlmerbajes for future situations.


Interested in the results? The project will be discussed at the ISHF Opening Event (13 June, WesterUnie, Amsterdam) at the ‘Migration and Mobility in cities in the West’ meeting (18 June, Het Schip Museum, Amsterdam), and exhibited in Museum Het Schip.

(This project is part of ‘Amsterdam Arrivals’ and is supported by the Creative Industries Fund NL.)

(photograph by Sanja Marusic)


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