Project Brief

Renovate the deteriorating Plattenbau in Neu Olvenstedt, Magdeburg, to better suit its former refugee residents

Thesis Advisor

David Ruy




with thanks to

Rafa Tarabichi
Yuanqiu Feng
Grace Teng
Kevin Ng
Yizhan Zhong
Yunki Cheung
Yujue Wang

Intense pain is world-destroying…the absence of pain is a presence of world; the presence of pain is the absence of world.
— Elaine Scarry, "The Body in Pain"

syrian refugees arriving on the greek island of lesvos
Source: the New Yorker

Plattenbau blocks in Neu Olvenstedt, Magdeburg
Source: buergerinitiative olvenstedt

CONTEXT: the Global Refugee Crisis

In 2015, at the height of the global refugee crisis, Germany took the unprecedented step of taking in over one million asylum seekers. Over 350,000 of them originated from war-torn Syria.

Housing soon became a major logistical issue. Pragmatism trumped stigma, and truth became stranger than fiction as absurd situations arose. Refugees were housed in Oktoberfest beer tents and even the herb gardens of the Dachau concentration camp

In city of Magdeburg, refugees were settled into Modernist prefab apartment blocks known as Plattenbau. Constructed during the Cold War, they had been emptying out and falling into disrepair in recent years. Most have been slated for demolition.

Seeking Solutions

The vacant blocks in the neighborhood of Neu Olvenstedt were the perfect solution to Magdeburg's refugee housing problem. Indeed, most of the issues faced by refugees worldwide have been treated as logistical or design problems that can be tidily resolved if one is creative and clever enough.

Can it be so simple? The loss of one's homeland and the forced embrace of a totally foreign culture has to be one of the most existentially challenging experiences undergone by any person.

Is there an alternative way to approach and tease out the absurdisms of this experience?

I welcome the problems and exploit the uncertainties…An architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation towards the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.
— Robert Venturi, "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture"

Renovating Neu Olvenstedt

The project brief is a non-structural renovation of the existing Plattenbau buildings, so as to better integrate the cultures of Syria and Germany. Supported by the local Cultural Office, the neighborhood is transformed into a cultural tourist attraction.

Misappropriating Symbols

Instead of attempting to seamlessly blend two worlds together, I took the approach of misappropriating symbolic content from both cultures in a wholly incompatible manner. I am interested in how the blending of incompatible signs ruins meaning, while bringing forth new meaning.

The juxtaposition of incompatible regimes aims to maximize the effect of tension in the observer.

I argue that this sustained state of tension is far more interesting than a resolved solution.


Axonometric of the building complex

Orientalist imaginations

Section through buildings, additions and courtyard

Social media imaginations


This thesis was extremely difficult to carry out. Frustrated with the calls for easy solutions to highly fraught situations in our world today, I wanted to invent a new approach that does not flinch from the absurdisms of real life, and would not hesitate to meet impossible contradictions head-on. At every step of the way I grappled with questions of good taste, cultural sensitivity, and the weight of symbolic meaning. The resultant project, Ruined Meaning, is - I hope - fresh, political, uncynical and points a way forward in how we treat the complex, unsolvable problems of the world.