Hospitality - a fundamental principle

Hospitality - a fundamental principle

On why we should consider Hospitality as a fundamental principle in urban planning and design

ICRC's emblematic Carlton building reimagined by urbz
ICRC's emblematic Carlton building reimagined by urbz

Is hospitality a thing of the mind, something that we should learn? Or is it innate to our human nature? Or maybe even a “law of nature”?

Skeptics and a certain brand of evolutionists believe that what defines human behavior is hostility towards each other, rather than hospitality. They believe that what brings the best out of us is competition - What Herbert Spencer called the survival of the fittest. 

Others, such as the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin believed that not only humans but all other species evolve through cooperation at least as much as competition. But maybe that cooperation and competition are not mutually exclusive. Maybe that they come together in unexpected ways. 

The social psychologist Georg Simmel says that we should not think of conflict as the negation of social relationships. Conflict can be a response to injustice or indifference. It is through social conflict that oppressed populations obtain recognition and rights. They fight to exist in society. Conflict is rarely absolute. Wars of extermination represent an extreme expression of conflict. Most of the time, conflict can be seen as the desire to change the status quo, to reset the parameters of a relationship. It can be understood as an expression of diverging interests that must find a way of co-existing. Likewise, we build solid relationships with each other not by suppressing our differences, but by allowing their expression and accepting it. 

This is why in our work, in the field of participatory urban planning, what matters most is not to reach a compromise between all the parties with a stake in the project. Our job is to make sure that all parties, the loud ones and the silent ones can express their preferences, even when these contradict each other. We call these points of disagreement creative tension points. Mapping them out provides us with a solid structure for the project. The identification of tension points is the first step towards their creative resolution. 

A view of the Carlton building from inside - with a new space for informal meetings
A view of the Carlton building from inside - with a new space for informal meetings

How does that relate to the idea of hospitality?

If hospitality is to become more than just an idea, a good intention, we must go from the idea to the practice of it. We need to draw a path from hostility to hospitality.  The host is a guest, a stranger, potentially an enemy. We can meet him or her with hostility, indifference or hospitality. According to Georg Simmel, indifference is what characterizes the mental state of the city dweller. We ignore those around us. We adopt a blasé attitude because it is the easiest way to cope with the multitude of people around us. 

It takes a special effort to offer hospitality, but it also brings special rewards. The way we structure the world around us contributes to determining our ability to be hospitable. 

Peace is one of the rewards of hospitality. Prosperity and safety are others. Securing peace, preventing conflict, or more modestly, mitigating the impact of war on the population, were some of the intentions that triggered the creation of international institutions such as the UN and the Red Cross. 

Both of these organizations have headquarters in Geneva, along with a dozens more international organizations and NGOs. The Red Cross emerged from within civil society, thanks to the humanist vision of people such as Henry Dunant and others before him. The Red Cross is Geneva’s own homegrown international organization. 

Another founder of "International Geneva" was William Rappart who, nearly 100 years ago wrote a book called, “The Geneva Experiment”, where he described the structure, the mission and the origins of the League of Nations (which later became the United Nations). In this book he traces the idea of international peace back to Immanuel Kant, who stated that one of the condition for perpetual peace was universal hospitality. Kant defined universal hospitality as the right of any individual entering a foreign land not to be treated as an enemy. 

Welcoming the stranger is considered one of the greatest virtues in Judeo-Christian tradition. Abraham was said to be providing hospitality to visitors, offering lodging for the night along with food, drink and companionship, either in his own house or in a shelter built for this purpose. Welcoming guests and treating them with care, regardless of their origins, is a duty in Islam. Hindus consider a foreign guest as no less than the expression of the universal spirit of God. To welcome a guest is a sign of high moral standards in religion and political philosophy. 

ICRC - proposed high bridge (All illustrations by Karina Armanda @urbz)
ICRC - proposed high bridge (All illustrations by Karina Armanda @urbz)

At a fundamental level, a hospitable space is simply a “safe space”. Of course it can be much more. When water is transformed into wine, the bread into flesh, a shelter into a monument, a feast can ensue. 

We have had the incredible chance and honor of working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for the past year and a half. We are helping the organization conceptualize, plan and implement a complete makeover of its HQ in Geneva. We do this through a participatory process which has led us to speak to dozens of ICRC staff. Some of the people we talked to, who had spent years in war torn parts of the world. Many of them envisioned the HQ as a “safe space”: A welcoming, neutral zone where staff coming back from the field can relax and where high level diplomatic meetings can take place between parties in conflict. 

This brought to mind images of field hospitals. A safe space, which welcomes anyone in need, regardless of which side of the conflict they are. A wounded soldier is not a combatant in the tent. It is simply a human, a guest who is being offered the most sacred gift one can give and receive: hospitality and care. In turn, for its safety on the battlefield, the ICRC relies upon the hospitality granted by the parties in conflict, which agree to leave out of the conflict every structure, vehicle, or person wearing a red cross or a red crescent symbol. Discussions with people at the ICRC along with the considerations mentioned earlier, inspired us to propose hospitality as the overarching concept guiding the planning and design of the ICRC campus. 

This fundamental and universal concept could also provide a framework for the planning of campuses, public spaces and neighborhoods in many other places. How do we create cities that are welcoming and promote social interaction rather than hostility and indifference?