The Sixth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2004
Berkeley Prize 2004

Dylan Sauer

(Dis-, Mis-, Re-) Placement in the Urban Realm

As a Midwestern student temporarily inserted into the flow of Manhattan's workforce, I began a rapid adaptation. I learned, among other things, that the frenetic pace of urban life requires certain things to be passed over - there simply isn't time. The presence of the city's homeless became just another element I learned to circumvent. Selective ignorance became a necessity in order to participate in a world whose structure and pace hardly allowed for such considerations.

To be homeless is to remove oneself (or be removed) from a broadly accepted network of social relations, economic transactions and other ritual activity by which we define public life. It is inherently an isolating condition, exacerbated by a deeply emplaced stigmatization. We have come to view the homeless as a marginalized mass of "symbolic poor," rather than a group of individuals from different backgrounds, at different points in their life, with different destinations.

The scope of our involvement with the homeless is often equally marginal. As with other pressing social issues, our collective consciousness is eased through unnamed bureaucracy. Government and charity organizations handle problems with an analytical smoothness that precludes open participation. Monetary contributions, though valuable, remain discreet and indirect, disconnected from the psychic existence of the dispossessed. I believe architecture is intertwined with this estrangement, and has the potential to open up a supportive infrastructure that includes communities and community structures in the rehabilitation of the displaced.

Anti-graffiti laws, a new smoking ban, strictly enforced cabaret laws and removal of homeless people from public spaces all point towards an increasingly antiseptic vision of the city. A November 2003 article in the New York Times described a Bronx area frequented by the homeless, where a waste removal truck accidentally crushed a homeless man to death. The tragedy had particular relevance when put in context with the increasing difficulty for street-dwellers in the area: "people who once slept under the overpass are now afraid that they will be arrested or that their belongings will be confiscated." This typifies the overzealous mentality to "sweep" people off the street, and into shelters. Indeed, the shelters are bursting, with some 40,000 homeless recorded in 2003 (roughly 3/4 being served in shelters), a figure that triples the recorded census in New York for 20 years ago.

The city has, justifiably, begun to recognize that its prescriptive action must shift from management to prevention. It should no longer be acceptable to rush people to the city's shelters and expect the problem to be mended, their presence forgotten. Architecture, as a mediator between individuals and society, can begin to initiate change through transformation of the current insular, short-term shelter typology. To begin to understand architecture's potential, however, it is important to understand the limitations we have imposed on it, and their relation to homelessness.

Homelessness enters the architectural realm every time the displaced begin to occupy built space. This impromptu habitation reminds us of a fundamental role of construction and its inherent capacity for occupancy. When a church entrance, a subway terminal or an abandoned warehouse is inhabited by a person seeking refuge, a new dimension of architectural meaning is given to the structure. Yet, a complex set of social norms has determined values to accompany these spaces, deeming only certain ones habitable, only at certain times, for certain uses, by certain people. The categorical limits in the way we conceptualize buildings and public zones have led us to ignore the nascent multiplicity of their use.

City dwellers could begin to augment these conditions through an intermittent network of recuperative facilities inserted into the existing fabric of the city. The theoretical requirement for "curing" homelessness - architecture, already exists, and in cities, there is always a surplus. When building or designing homeless shelters we have considered them as essentially large storage units for people. The mentality has been to efficiently provide the most basic services to as many people as possible at one time. Dependency, or "comfort" within the system has been discouraged, seen as setting up the potential for users to abuse services when they are capable of independent living. The homeless are supplied with shelter, with the contingency that they leave, find work, and recover as quickly as possible. Opportunities for work or responsibility within the shelters reinforce the closed circuit of rehabilitation. Small responsibilities are answered with small rewards, with none of the satisfaction that might be gained from doing work that directly affects other members of the community. These autonomous constructions, while bringing people together, sustain the isolation of the group from the vitality of the city.

An arrangement of architectural extensions onto existing facilities would secure an inherent interaction with an existing system. To guarantee that the relationship would become symbiotic and not parasitic, some kind of services would have to be offered in return. The suggestion of this concept is that by fusing community interaction with the provision of basic sustenance, people would begin to feel a sense of empowerment, and see themselves as having a set of options. Each station, facility, or shelter would have to include an organized infrastructure of options for re-entry into society with a position of autonomy. More importantly, however, the very nature of the program would be an inclusive one, drawing on mutual energies to organize a beneficial scenario.

Implicit in this suggestion is emphasis on a localized strategy in dealing with both existing homeless and the poorest classes existing on the fringes of homelessness. If these supportive facilities were deeply rooted in their respective communities, they would have a firmer capacity to support their own residents before being released into the nebulous of placelessness - wandering, begging, feeling always unwanted.

Where and how these insertions are made demands the strategic prowess of an architect, but requires a new proximity to society, a relationship with the user of the building, opposing the usual condition of all primacy given to the client. Studying existing conditions, patterns, dangers, and potentials through a dialogue with the actual users of a building could inform new ways of considering our designs.

From my own very simple observations of homeless life in the city, it is possible to begin to imagine a number of scenarios where a solidification or structuring of existing patterns of survival could begin to yield a new program of active rehabilitation. A recycling center could become a very logical example. The average city dweller's refuse, in the form of aluminum cans, glass bottles, jars, and other recyclable materials has become an important source of income for many homeless people who recycle them diligently. This process of collecting materials from streets, sidewalks, and garbage cans for recycling is an economical and beneficial service, but for the collectors, the process ends there. The profit is accepted at local drop-off facilities that then pass the materials on to recycling plants.

One could imagine an alteration of the process, in which homeless people not only salvage materials and return them to mechanized drop-off centers, but begin to take part in the entire system. It would seem a natural addition to also allow homeless people to participate in aspects of the actual drop-off and processing facilities that benefit from their patient collections. From this, a multivalent extension to an existing center could be proposed that provides food and shelter, but is intimately connected with the recycling process. This type of operation would allow for varying levels of responsibility and participation in the center, so that a smooth transition from disengagement to responsibility could be made for those who want it and are ready for it. The center would also achieve a connection to the public realm that could help to transform our perceptions of the homeless population by associating them with a beneficial service.

While public spaces in American cities achieve varying levels of success and vibrancy, the most successful and well-kept public spaces are those that the public has a vested interest in, and is willing to actively support. Central Park's revitalization has been driven in part by massive public movements, initiated and maintained by volunteers throughout the city who are more than willing to show their support for the park. The idea of members of the public taking responsibility and tending to their own spaces is one that could have meaningful implications to the spaces that the homeless occupy. Providing individuals with the infrastructure and training to enourage these maintenance procedures in the public zones they occupy would help us to see them as members of the city who belong and contribute to the public realm.

In some cases, the mere presence of the homeless might begin to take on a positive connotation through their intimate knowledge of happenings in a particular area. Street dwellers are perhaps the most informed people anywhere in their knowledge of streets, parks, and neighborhoods. Many homeless are connected to the pulse of local activity in ways that the rest of society is not, and this may prove to be an underutilized resource. The information could take on value if we consider the homeless as potent resources for identifying trends, dangers and activities within given territories. It might also be recognized that their presence in certain areas has already discouraged unwanted activity from taking place. Various neighborhood organizations, from public safety groups to local businesses, might take an interest in clarifying this role and loosening their own demarcations to accommodate members of the local homeless population.

Many of the residual spaces in the city, such as derelict buildings, freeway underpasses, and abandoned lots have been determined to be useless by all members of the city except the homeless. Again, the conceptions of where and how habitation in the city is possible have been expanded through the ingenuity of the displaced seeking shelter. Studying these patterns and recognizing how a loose organization could be formed and networked to the public realm could greatly increase the possibilities for individuals who have chosen to settle in such areas. These places could also begin to undergo transformation through receiving the waste material of local neighborhoods. Left over food from restaurants, building material from constructions sites, and other "flawed" material could be gathered by the homeless and members of various institutions in an organized way to find a common destination. A "home base" providing shelter in which people could learn basic skills and then begin to take part in these and other volunteer construction projects across the city would be a vital way to establish community involvement.

Exemplary projects achieving an interactive relationship between designers and the homeless population certainly exist. A fitting one to look at is the artist Krzystof Wodiczko?s "Homeless Vehicle Project," done in New York City in the late 1980's. A longtime advocate for exposing issues society is reticent to discuss, Wodiczko also established a close involvement with underrepresented social groups, particularly the city's population of homeless. In his project, Wodiczko aimed to create a "personal shelter," a vehicle that provided people with basic needs, while still supporting the migratory lifestyle necessary for homeless survival. Carts were manufactured that provided homeless individuals with security during sleep, storage space, basic shelter, and the possibility of conversion into a venders cart. Wodiczko stressed the importance of involvement with the users: "Both parties will have to play roles in the design and production of future versions of the vehicle, with continued adaptations in the design made in response to the survival needs of users and additional strategies devised by designers." Published discussions between Wodiczko and the people for whom he designed indicate a humble willingness to receive input and consider problems and ideas for improvement. For Wodiczko, this is the fodder for any relevant, meaningful design.

No one knows more about the challenges of homeless life and obstructions to recovery than the homeless themselves. Opportunities for their engagement in the design and construction of new facilities could become extremely useful in the constant improvement and reevaluation of rehabilitative strategies. Of course, many of these types of tasks would only be suitable for certain sectors of the homeless population. The hope is that the benefits from these scenarios would be universally felt, and the tasks for those that did participate would provide them with a critical and proactive involvement in their own supportive structures.

As new programs, these types of amalgamations would have to be supported by new or augmented building types. The projects would not distinguish closed, protected zones of safety, but rather attempt to involve the community, with carefully designed access points and visible public zones. In the case of architectural extensions to existing facilities, the relationship with the "host" structure would provide for new and provocative ways of articulating the symbolic relationship between establishment and public aid facilities.

All of us are architects of our cities in that we decide what is to be celebrated and what is to be hidden. Our beliefs and postures form the cultural substratum from which buildings rise, and walls are erected. Architectural structures, however, contain the additional capacity to help us reconsider the ideological structures and boundaries we have already consciously and unconsciously erected. Our relationships with the poorest members of society are framed by architecture and the ways in which we allow and define access. The preceding suggestions in this essay have been made to help us begin to re-determine the proximity between various districts and members of the public realm. Recognition must be made that the more we distance ourselves from each other and attempt to hide or "wipe clean" the "ills" of the city, the more and more stratified and misinformed our culture will become.

It is the responsibility and designation of architects to remain constantly aware of these shifting relationships and in what ways they are contributing to them. An increased scope in our conception of why and for whom architects design our buildings is necessary to make designs that are intimately connected with the current conditions and resurgent energies of the city.

Key Resources:

Lykes, Brinton, Myths about the Powerless: Contesting Social Inequalities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Wodiczko, Krzystof, Critical Vehicles. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS)


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Dylan Sauer, University of Cincinnati, USA
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