Architectures of the Humanitarian Front, 1915-1930 The American Red Cross and the Refugee Settlement Commission of the League of Nations

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Pelkonen, Eeva-Liisa


This dissertation examines a period around WWI when conflict, displacement, and territorial insecurity provoked the reconfiguration of humanitarian operations –their spatial organization and ethical imperatives. Between the 1910s and 1930s, a flurry of humanitarian activity emerged, old institutions were restructured, new institutions were formed, and new methods of action crystalized, entrenching representations, languages, and practices that have stayed with us ever since. The dissertation begins with an examination of the American Red Cross (ARC, 1881-), as it transformed from a relatively unknown philanthropic society into the only recognized relief organization responsible for administering foreign aid on the country’s behalf. Contingent on the geopolitical and commercial ambitions of the U.S., these foreign aid programs unfolded over strategic locations around the globe, culminating in the refugee aid and resettlement programs in Europe during WWI. From there, I trace the rise of an international refugee regime and the creation of the League of Nations (1920-1946) in the aftermath of the War by focusing on the League’s Refugee Settlement Commission (RSC) operations in Greece between 1924 and 1930. Objects of study are material traces, plans of settlements, drawings of shelters and construction details, stipulations of housing assistance loans, letters between humanitarian workers, official reports, and publicity campaigns from the archives of the two organizations and the localities of their respective interventions. I posit that spatial production –from institutional headquarters to emergency shelters– was a central concern of these organizations. As soon as they systematized their modes of operation, they sought the knowledge and technical expertise of architects, who, in turn, conscripted to the humanitarian cause. Within a period of two decades, renowned architects –including Chester Aldrich and Fred Forbát– led technical departments, mapped destruction and displacement, and managed the organizations’ building activity, shaping the very notion of humanitarianism. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that modern definitions about space and citizenship emerged from these projects and debates, and, thus, provide a critical window into understanding today’s relation between humanitarianism, displacement, and architecture.

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