The Irish architect determined to defend the ‘Jungle’

Gráinne Hassett has designed key structures at the Calais migrant camp, including a women and children’s centre. Their destruction would impoverish its people even more

It is not every architect who fears the accidental or deliberate demolition of their work within a few weeks of its construction. But this week's images of raging fires and riot police overseeing the dismantling of migrant shelters in the Calais "Jungle" elicit responses on several levels from Gráinne Hassett.

As a professional, Hassett wants to see her work stand. And as someone who is “embedded” in the Jungle she is worried about the impact on several thousand residents.

Hassett, an award-winning architect and senior lecturer at the University of Limerick, designed some of the key buildings in the Jungle, including a women and children's centre, a therapy and community space, a vaccination unit and a youth centre.

Along with the camp's Good Chance Theatre geodesic dome, where the Globe Theatre company last month staged Hamlet, the structures are protected by a court order. But Hassett is unsure how effective this is in the current volatile situation.


Hassett first visited Calais last August. She was upset by the continuing loss of life in the Mediterranean. And, although the Irish Naval Service rescued thousands of migrants from the sea last year, she was disappointed by the size of the Government’s offer to accept refugees.

Hassett knew that what she was planning could be a nightmare in a situation of survival and desperation. “But I got very bold at asking for help from contacts in the Irish building industry,” she says. “I got tarpaulins at a significant discount from Clonmel Covers, for instance, and some of my clients were very generous.”

Volunteers from Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity (the organisation formerly known as Cork to Calais) and several British and French NGOs were supportive, she says. And so a “heady mix” of Irish, British and other European volunteers worked alongside Sudanese, Pakistanis, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and many others.

The "Calais Builds" became a type of rolling research for Hassett, who stresses that she did all this in her own time and is not an official university project.

“In UL we do believe in research in the field,” she says. “There is currently no prototype for building large refugee camps in northern Europe, within a six-month time- frame, in constantly changing weather conditions and with grassroots volunteers.”

The structures were designed by two of her former students, Kris Kelly and Stephen Bourke, and made at FabLab Limerick.

The women and children’s centre, completed last October and run by Liz Clegg, offers space, support and essential supplies to women and children.

Alice’s Therapy and Community Space, named after its supervisor Alice Kerr, extends solace and food to traumatised women who may have arrived at the French port town in the middle of the night.

Early on, the Jungle was largely comprised of men, but Hassett says that the numbers of families, and of women and children on their own, have grown. “There are young Eritrean women who may have been raped, for instance, and who have no access to counselling.”

In November Hassett and her colleagues in Calais completed a flu and measles vaccination centre, which is being run by Hands International, a Pakistan-based medical charity.

“Médecins du Monde has been working in Calais for months, with voluntary medical students,” she says. “But one refugee nurse from Pakistan, who has recently left, provided much of the out-of-hours cover. A lot of people have been extremely ill, with chest infections and the effects of gas and police beatings the main injuries.”

Hassett’s most recent project, and the one she is perhaps most concerned about, is Baloo’s Youth Centre.

“There have been fires raging around it all this week. It caters for 295 unaccompanied minors, mainly boys aged from 12 up to 18, and a high proportion of 14- to 16-year-olds,” she says. “The French authorities made no provision for these children when they planned the evictions.”

NGOs went to court when the prefect of the Pas de Calais region ordered the evacuation and demolition of the seven-hectare southern part of the camp last month. They failed to protect the makeshift shelters, but a protection order was issued for “common areas”, including the theatre dome, the Eritrean church and Hassett’s structures.

“It is the social impact that I am most worried about,” she says. “How a 13-year-old Egyptian boy who travelled solo across Europe, and several hundred other young lads like him, will cope if a common safe space is gone. They are the most vulnerable of all.”