The Global Free Unit is an international network of partners and projects that allows architects and students to use their skills to help address pressing social issues including displacement and migration.


Syrian refugees take refuge in an informal camp in the fields of Torbali. Izmir, Turkey. Photograph by NURPHOTO Getty Images.

Founder Robert Mull and volunteer Elizabeth Cunningham discuss bridging the gap between academia and activism and channeling resources and expertise to communities in need of help.

An extended version of this conversation forms part of the summer 2021 season of the AT Conversations podcast, which taps into discussions taking place across the profession and is hosted by editor Isabel Allen.

Robert Mull The Global Free Unit came about partly as a response to the question of how we, as architects and students, really engage with global challenges such as climate change, equality, diversity, scarcity, and displacement. There’s a disconnection between the ways in which students operate in schools of architecture and the ways they’re asked to operate when they’re faced with real life situations.

It came out of a very specific set of conversations when I was working in the refugee crisis in Lesbos and Calais. Every time people heard I was involved in education, they’d look at me rather quizzically and say, “Why can’t what I’m doing here be education?” They’d say, “I built that shelter. I dug that infrastructure. I planned the housing in Calais. I built that theatre. I did all of that. Why isn’t that education? Can you find ways of crediting this work so that I can get an education and become an architect without having to pay for vice chancellors’ airline tickets or carpets or any of those things. I can actually have an education, free of debt, embedded in real life situations, and do useful things.”

Elizabeth Cunningham For me, it was a real frustration and disillusionment with practice. I had done a number of different, slightly unusual things in an effort to practise in a different way. I’d started my career as an architect in very high-end residential work. And I really had no interest anymore in building second, third, fourth homes for wealthy people. I was seeing the migration crisis unfold and I just thought: while I sort out what I want to do next, why don’t I volunteer?

My first instinct was to go to Greece, but Robert informed me that the journey starts in Turkey. This is where people are coming over the border. And Izmir in particular is a place where people come. Some, initially, were coming here temporarily, hoping to go further on to Europe. This has become less and less true. People are settling here. So there are different types of needs.

I’m a volunteer at TIAFI (Team International Assistance for Integration) Community Centre and I’m providing local support both for Umea University’s architecture students and also for the WHIT (Wellbeing, Housing and Infrastructure in Turkey) project. Essentially, I’m the eyes and ears on the ground for students and researchers who are studying the migration situation in Izmir but can’t be here because of the pandemic. The architecture students and the WHIT team need a way to connect with the Syrian community in Izmir and my position at TIAFI enables that.

Robert Mull The basic premise of the Global Free Unit is that there is another place hosted by somebody who needs help. That could be an arts organisation, a community centre like TIAFI, a camp, a young offender’s prison … It’s a hosting model where somebody expresses a need. And then we bring different personalities, actors, sources of funding, into that classroom. And they bridge conventional definitions of research, academia, volunteering or activism.

I suppose we act as sort of jump leads between what would otherwise be quite disparate ways of working and forms of funding. We put them together, and we lock them into this long-term relationship with a classroom or with a place. And, we hope, it works to the benefit of all of those different parties. We bring funding into places, like TIAFI, from manoeuvring to get computers for people who need them and so on. But it also turns those who are involved in this form of education into people who can do something useful while they’re studying.

When the pandemic first started to impact on the activities of the Global Free Unit, we were incredibly scared that the model where one went somewhere and became engaged over a long period of time would become impossible. But in fact, remote working has had a positive effect. Colleagues within the Global Free Unit were running a project over the summer looking at the situation of Venezuelan refugees displaced into Colombia. The researchers and students working in South America linked up with students and researchers working in the UK and we had this extraordinary global community working on the same problem with total equality, compassion and generosity. It was amazing. We have to take that spirit back to the places themselves, as soon as we can.