Worthy Lives and Building Homes

Grace I-An Gao

Taiwanese architect Hsieh’s installation during Helsinki Design Week 2017 changed my views about the racism debate and the imagination of borders. Although the installation has ended, the implication is profoundly valid and still worthwhile to help us discover the power embedded in the community. It engages people to ponder the important questions from the refugee communities: ”Whose life is worthy? Whose suffering is recognized? Who counts as human?” (for related discussion see Näre, 2018). There is no one universal answer to these profound questions, but a constant attempt to engage, negotiate and redefine. Specifically, Hsieh’s architecture installation enables me to get to know the people from the Right to Live demonstration.

Whose life is worthy? Whose suffering is recognized? Who counts as human?

There were two demonstrations that took place in the central Helsinki in 2017. One was formed by the refugees and the human rights activists, called Right to Live (Oikeus Elää in Finnish). They were formed first on 10th February 2017 in front of the Modern Art Museum Kiasma, then moved to the railway station square right across the street to Atenum museum. You can read more about them here. The other demonstration was formed as a protest to the Right Live. They set up a tent on the other corner of the railway station square and they called themselves Finland First (Suomi ensin in Finnish). Their statements and behavior indicate that the actions are built on far-right and racist ideologies (see Migrant Tales and 16.4.2018 news from Finland’s national public broadcasting company).

I passed by the railway station standstill demonstration (Right to Live vs. Finland First) almost everyday but did not stop to get to know what is going on. Perhaps it was a sense of fear of not wanting to stand out, especially as a visible non-white foreigner. The collaboration with Architecture for People and the Right to Live group allowed me to get to know their stories, aspirations and resilience. Their views and stories form a kind of refugee epistemology that can be important resources to disrupt the egalitarian facade of Finnish state.

Hsieh advocates for a ’transitional shelter’ (中繼屋) and it has a solid philosophical ground. Transitional entails that no one owns the land permanently, land does not belong to anybody. As humans, we always stay temporarily and transitionally during our journey. Through participating in the project of Architecture for People and getting to know Hsieh’s thoughts, I am reminded that temporality of common humanity as well as everyone has the right to produce, live and thrive regardless their circumstances.

Hsieh’s installation during Helsinki Design Week 2017 advocated for a concept of worthy lives through building homes, through a collaboration of locals and people of foreign backgrounds.


Hsieh’s architecture installation prompted me to rethink the dynamic relationship between architecture and people, as well as an aspiration of rights for all people to live with equal respect in the society. It is not a physical quest, but more a mental, psychological and spiritual expedition.

Hsieh’s architecture points to a dynamic relationship that is actualized in the building process: through an open system that allows architecture process to be an exhibition of several different ideas. The commercial-oriented ‘one-size-fit-all’ modern architecture process, unfortunately, does not have an open system. Architecture seems very difficult and means exclusive skills reserved only for professionals. Hsieh’s architecture is the antithesis to this trend. He wants to change the phenomenon that the absence of the open system has excluded people from participating on an equal footing. Therefore, he simplified the technology to lower the threshold;, in so doing, he created an open system so everyone may participate if he or she wants.

Hsieh and the panelists of ”Environmental Justice, Indigenous People & Architecture with Local Material” on September 11th , 2017.


What was “People’s Architecture” exhibition about?

“People’s Architecture” exhibition was an art installation that took place in the center of Helsinki next to the three blacksmiths in front of Stockmann last year. The temporary pavilion was part of the Helsinki Design Week HOP City Installation 2017 (check website for more information). The project was featured by architect Hsieh and his team, curated by Chiu and accomplished by a group of asylum seekers, international students/communities and Finns with immigrant-background.

During the Design Week, a variety of workshops took place and a range of issues were discussed, including morality of contemporary architecture, commercialization, environmental justice, civic involvement, post-disaster healing and rights of indigenous peoples, just to name a few. I was entrusted to host one of the workshop relating to Indigenous peoples (11th Sept, 2017) and the exhibition opening (15th Sep, 2017). This installation, however, did not just stop at being a venue to exchange ideas. Instead, it turned out to be a place of political performativity. Helsingin Sanomat reported on this installation entitled ”This man put a stop to troublemaking at the statue of Three Blacksmits – the passionately proclaiming Chiu Chen-Yu tells what the installation that upset the Finland Strikes-demonstrators is about” (Tämä mies pani stopin häiriköinnille Kolmen sepän patsaalla – intohimoisesti julistava Chiu Chen-Yu kertoo, mistä Suomi iskee -mielenosoittajat pillastuttaneessa installaatiossa on kyse in Finnish, see the news here). This article reflects on Hsieh’s idea of architecture in relation to the people based on my first-hand involvement in the project.

My involvement with AfP began one year before Helsinki Design Week 2017. I heard about it because I was contacted through the Taiwanese community network in Finland. They were excited about two famous architects coming to Helsinki and asked if I would be interested to host them. In 2016 two world-renown Taiwanese architects travelled to Finland—architect Huang and architect Hsieh—for their respective architectural projects. Although I did not know anything about architecture, I willingly volunteered to assist architect Huang’s visit as well as exhibition around famous Alvar Aalto buildings in Helsinki and Jyväskylä (for more, see the news in Helsingin Sanomat), while our team assisted architect Hsieh to collaborate with refugees at Aavaranta Reception Center. To be honest, I did not know much about Hsieh’s notion of architecture, other than that he has been politically active and has been helping people rebuild their homes after disasters.


I was fortunate to participate in the “People’s Architecture” exhibition, which was based on Hsieh’s idea to further his architectural principles.

Socially engaged work to rebuild homes

”We wanted to encourage local people to join the reconstruction…The best therapy is activity. House-building takes a lot of energy as well as a lot of cooperation. Being involved in such an activity helps to eliminate the suffering caused by the disaster.” (Hsieh)

Who is Hsieh, exactly? He is a Taiwanese architect who is famous for his socially engaged work to help people rebuild their homes. In 1999, his reconstruction project for the Thao Indigenous people gained him international recognition. Hsieh’s architecture principles consolidated during the years when he worked with the disaster-ravaged Indigenous villages, which are developed from two challenges: (1) the whole building process needs to be extremely economical, often 25%-50% of the market price; (2) the building projects have to stand firm on the notion of sustainable construction, green building, cultural preservation and creation of local employment opportunities. In the following year, he continued to engage with the local communities for post-disaster reconstruction with the same principles. The reconstruction sites are many, from the earthquake-ravaged villages in China to the post-Tsunami Southeast Asia communities.

Hsieh returned to Helsinki in 2017 to carry on the project he started a year before with the refugees. The “Architecture for People: right to live house” was confirmed as the name for Hsieh’s work during the Helsinki Design Week. Hsieh and his team were at the construction yard day in and day out, helping with the technically tricky parts. The group of asylum seekers, international students/communities and Finns with immigrant-background worked at the yard to construct the house, through which they participated in what Hsieh and Chiu called ‘building as performance’. Check out this short clip about how Hsieh conceptualize this project here.

Building as performance, building resistance

‘Building as performance’ is one of the themes that Hsieh’s architecture brought forth; there are basic concepts that need to be unpacked Hsieh’s view on architecture. I will briefly introduce three core aspects that are central to Hsieh’s postmodern vision about architecture.

The first and most important concept is open system. It was often the case that Hsieh had to build thousands of houses in one go, while aiming to include all possible desires, hopes and aspirations of the local community. He came up with the philosophy from the thought that post-disaster projects should “do as little as possible” (做越少越少). It is quite the opposite to the dogma embedded in the contemporary architecture education.

His first vision is contending the usually taken for granted consumerism assumption embedded in architecture education. Hsieh recalled his experience of building a house in the post-disaster rural Nepal, where he had only USD$2000 per house as budget. He utilized the open system and successfully built the houses within the budget—the key was to include all the labor force of local people and the materials that are available locally through recycling.

The second concept is appropriate technology. Hsieh is an activist in enabling everyone to participate in the building process. In order to do that, he tries his best to lower the bar and simplify the tools. ”Everything (concerning the building process) should be simplified, so people can participate.” Hsieh said thoughtfully in the lecture entitled Architecture for People: Building Homes for Victims in Disaster Zones in Asia that took place in the University of Helsinki on the 13th of September 2017: ”modernization, industrialization and consumerism have excluded most of the people (from the building process).”

The power coming from participating on equal terms is enormous.

The third concept is digitalization. Hsieh emphasized that in order to produce a lot of houses within limited time frame, it is necessary to combine a kind of object-oriented design as a way to normalize the above mentioned two concepts. In doing so, the knowledge of how to build a house affordably and locally would be available to the communities.

In many ways, Hsieh is more than just a humanitarian architect. To put it metaphorically, Hsieh is more like a shaman that aims to transcend the modernity through ”architecture of sociality” (see Huang, 2014). He traverses the axis mundi through the open system and enters the spirit world, where he sees the consciousness of real sustainability.

The real sustainability is not the green architecture, nor is it high-tech architecture. The real sustainability for Hsieh is a structure that honors marginalized groups’ human rights and living rights; the real sustainability for Hsieh is a re-construction of civilization where peoples’ wisdom—for example Indigenous peoples and the asylum seekers—are valued and local knowledge are cherished.

To conclude

Hsieh has abundant experience working with Indigenous peoples in Taiwan. His architecture evolved through dialectical reasoning with the local communities and on which he has assisted the process of resurgence of Indigenous epistemologies. In a similar vein, perhaps Hsieh’s project is a window to allow us to probe the dynamic relations between post-disaster narratives and epistemologies of the refugees.

Grace I-An Gao  is of Tayal (one of the Austronesian Indigenous Peoples in Taiwan) ancestry. She is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN), Swedish School of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. 


Näre, L. (2018, 20th of April). The Importance of Post-Colonialism to a Global Sociology. Keynote at the Mid-term Conference of the European Sociological Association’s Research Network 15: Global, Transnational & Cosmopolitan Sociology, Helsinki, Finland.

Huang, S.-Q. (2014). Three Contexts, Three Methods: The Sociality of Hsieh Ying-chun’s Architecture. Retrieved from http://heterotopias.org/archives/1137