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

John Rea

Let's have dinner

The past few weeks have been unusually warm. Tonight, however, the temperature has dropped thirty degrees and a nor' easterly wind whips across the lake, cutting its way through the permeable city. Although I am new in town and only a visitor, I have found a place to escape from the confinement of my current living conditions. It is a popular spot. A well lit corridor, formed by an arcade of massive stone columns four feet in length, provides protection from the busy street while suppressing the violent wind. Elevated above the sidewalk plane atop a six-inch stoop, a man is resting his worn body, and lays shielded by the deep jambs of an entranceway clad in marble. Dude you need some gear? Huh? What? Okay I'm up! Sorry man. Please don't get up. I didn't mean to wake you. Oh, I thought you was the cops. Glad to see you ain't. No, I'm no cop.

Although he was on his feet quickly, he fumbles while folding his newspaper and corrugated mattresses into a plastic Marshall Fields bag. Another bag, which already containing paper, had previously served as his pillow. Lay back down, and I'll leave you alone. No I need to get up. Well then, I'm John. What's your name? I'm Steve, nice to meet you John. Steve's grip is rough and scratchy, the agony in his life is apparent in his handshake. Where you from? Not around here, huh? I'm from Virginia. How about you? Right here in Chicago, never been nowhere else. You need some gear! Aren't you cold? Nah, John. It's not cold yet. Steve, wearing a white sweatshirt, brown pants and brown boots, has a new Miami Hurricanes' cap lying loosely on his head. He stands there scratching his scraggly beard with one hand, and rubbing his squinted eyes with the other. Excluding the hat I am dressed similarly, and also have a scruffy appearance. The only difference is that while the cold makes my teeth chatter, Steve is accustomed to the weather and is unscathed by the chilling conditions. Where are you heading John? Well I thought I'd follow you around for a while. Is that okay? (Laughingly) Yeah I'll give you a tour. Let me put this in here. Why are you throwing your bag in the trash? Don't you need that stuff? Ah don't worry about it. They don't pick up 'till eight-thirty. What time is it anyway? I don't wear a watch, but I think it's around three. Good, I can't carry these bags all the time. I got a bad shoulder. I'll put this other one behind this dumpster and get it later.

Trash cans and dumpsters for many of us constitute finality; once something is thrown away it vanishes. Steve sees the can as a temporary storage container. His actions make me consider a more sustainable notion of receptacles and what is put inside them. The recycling process necessitates an appropriate bin. Publicly separating trash into categories allows people to redefine its use. At least separate the garbage from the trash in an attempt to improve the sanitary conditions. Hey John, Let's get you warm. I know a good spot...this is State and Van Buren, that was Wabash. That up there is Jackson, but come on we go this way. You really know your way around don't you. I grew up down in Morgan park. Been around a long time, I guess. You know where that is. Not really. It's south of the city, straight down state under the Dan/Ryan. What brings you to Chicago John? I'm a student.

Talking to Steve is easy. I am not sure what his education is but his words are plain and well spoken. He has a very gentle disposition that makes me feel comfortable being around him.

Here we are. Steve this street is darker than the others were. This is Federal. It doesn't get much traffic. This is spooky. Why are there no streetlights? It's like an alley. I would never think of this as a place to rest. The shadows make me feel uneasy. Yeah but they can also keep us safe. They provide a place for us to hide. I guess your right. The entire street is warmer than it was around the corner. Yeah. Well then sit here and warm up. These giant metal vents must be the exhaust for this skyscraper, huh Steve. I think so. And the ledge formed by this foundation wall makes a perfect seat. It's a good place, huh?

The vents warm the street by exhausting hot air from the mechanical system of the tower. This also warms the protruding stone ledge below it, and creates a nice place to sit. Using the bi product of energy consumption, or heat, I am able to feel comfortable in the cold, but although the louvers warm the temperature of the street, they do little for warming the experiential quality of the space. What the street offers in temperature it lacks in lighting. Steve says the shadows provide us protection. I agree in certain situations, but he was just sleeping in a colder spot, that provided the security of light. A properly lit environment offers more protection than a warm one.

Steve this is fine in this weather, but what will you do once it snows and gets really cold? There is a place to the south I can go.

He hesitated and seemed uncomfortable with this question, so I changed the subject.

Hey Steve, what can a lowly architecture student do to improve your current living condition? Shit John. There's nothing you can do for me. Well I know from my short time here that it's nearly impossible to use the bathroom anywhere in the city. You only have two options for a washroom. The library or the mission. The library has a washroom? Oh yeah, and it's nice. You can lock the door and use the sink without people bothering you. Oh okay I've got it. You're talking about a public bathroom. Yeah. A washroom. I clean up in there when I can, but they close at eight so sometimes I have to use the washroom at the mission instead. The mission, where's that at? It's right there at State and Congress. It's the building with the neon cross on it. I'm not familiar with it, sorry. Don't worry you ain't missing much. Man, what if the city builds public washrooms that provide proper facilities for both residents and visitors to use? That's a good idea, but they'll never do it.

To most individuals public restrooms are a convenience, but to Steve they are a necessity, because issues of hygiene divide our society. Hygiene separates the clean from the dirty, the pretty from the ugly, and the good from the bad. People with poor hygienic practices are shunned. They become associated with a lower class: A classification nearer the animal species than the human standard. In order for Steve and individuals to exist in a modern society they require decent places to clean themselves. Steve demonstrates the minimal amount of complexity required in the facility. He only needs a sink and a toilet, but the quantity and quality of these facilities must remain at a level comparable to typical citizens standards.

Hey Steve, will you take me to the mission? Hah! What do you want to go there for? I want to see it. It's after four so everybody's coming down. What? At four they wake everyone up so they can set up the chairs. What do you mean? There is a worship service at seven. If you're there sleeping on the floor they want you to help get the place ready for the service. So if you stay at the mission you have to wake up at four in the morning? Seven days a week, John.

As we turn the corner the glowing neon cross suspended over the entrance becomes visible.

Wow Steve, I can't believe I've never seen it before. That thing is lit up like Las Vegas. It ain't Vegas, that's for sure. I don't think you really want to go. Do you? It'll be packed full of guys at this hour. Everyone will be awake and moving around. Why? Should I not go? Is it safe? Will they mess with me? No, but you're going to stick out like a sore thumb. Well, if you walk me into this place, walk me out, all right. Please don't leave me stranded up inside this place, okay? Yeah I'll look out for you. You'll be fine, but they'll know you don't belong.

The closer we get to the doorway the more intimidated I feel. The knot in my throat makes swallowing difficult, my palms are sweating, and my stomach is churning like a cement mixer. Worst of all I am scared to look anybody in the eyes, partly because I am ashamed, but primarily because I am shaking under my skin. I am scared that if I look eye to eye with someone they will see the fear in my heart. I remember there is three dollars in my pocket. I grab it reassuring myself that it is still there and nobody has taken it. Will they beat me up? Will they take my money? God, please do not let these people hurt me.

Steve, why are all these people standing out front in the street? They're not allowed to smoke inside, so they come out here where they can. You ready to go in? As ready as I'm gonna get.

We squeeze our way through the crowd toward the first set of aluminum framed glass doors. Pushing through the vestibule and past another set of identical doors, I am entering another dimension. I am overwhelmed. It becomes increasingly more difficult to breathe. I am not sure if it is the smell or my anxiety that shortens my breath. Standing in the lobby, Steve is gone. I feel helpless and alone. The sound of expired fluorescent bulbs buzzing in the background explains the flicker of the lights. The room is well lit, but a confusing haze fills the space, and it is difficult to see. Finally getting the courage to look up, I see a tall, athletic man sitting at a counter. He appears to be in charge. He looks back at me, but quickly I turn away. Ashamed and scared he may question my belonging, I locate an empty seat on my right. I sit here with my eyes to the floor occasionally glancing up to inspect my surroundings. There are about twenty men talking in this small space, but even though it is loud and confusing some sit here and attempt to sleep. Ahead of me is a larger room, which must be used as the sanctuary. Inside it there are twice as many people. A loud scratching comes from inside. On the left chairs are un-stacked and slid by one man to another across the concrete floor into position. On the right of the sanctuary the chairs have already been spread and people begin to pick their seats. I am uncomfortable sitting in this lobby with people coming in and out, but I am not going in there. Damn, there is the bathroom, and I really need to go. Crossing through the door-less opening, the stench of urine singes my nasal cavity and burns my throat. Seeing the urinal from the doorway does not help. The smell disorients me. It blinds me, so I spin around and walk back to the lobby.

John you can't piss in there it's disgusting. You ready to get out of here? Please. We bust back out to the dark and cold street. Man I can breathe again. Ha! Yeah, you can't breathe in there. You got a smoke? (A man said from behind us.) Sorry, I don't smoke. Steve and I walk a couple of blocks, shake hands and say good-bye. My only regret was not inviting him to eat dinner with me.

Solving social issues with architectural solutions, especially one of so many variables and such magnitude, is a difficult if not impractical venture. The real solution requires overcoming our fight or flight mechanism and fear of the unknown. Fear stimulates hate, which in turn, work together to keep us separate from each other. This reality is apparent in the situation involving Iraq. The United States is scared, and when they are scared they eliminate the cause of their fear. This lesson has been taught by proceeding generations of many cultures. When I was a kid, if a bee, spider, fly, or any bug got close to me my mom squashed it. The same principles are applied to displaced individuals. Unfortunately, most people are afraid of what they cannot understand, and it is hard to understand displaced persons from a fixed position. Eating a meal together is an excellent way to break down this barrier and establish a rapport with anyone. I pose this as the only solution to the problem. I can, however, offer a few architectural suggestions that I believe will better the environment for both the displaced and the general public. Imagine a sidewalk where children play safely away from the dangerous road or one where you can nap on your way home from work. You can stay all night and its okay, because you are welcome there. Urban environments need streets we can sleep in. They also need adequate public facilities, because in this society a person deserves to bathe under appropriate conditions. Give them some dignity by letting them clean themselves. These cities also need to adopt responsible recycling agenda?s. This recycling practice should exist in several facets. Public receptacles designed to accept several material varieties, and warming spaces with exhaust heat are only two examples of the many beneficial possibilities. Lastly, the environment must have proper lighting. This involves developing lighting strategies for both interior and exterior applications, because improper lighting, both psychologically and architecturally, generates more problems than it solves. I hope the narrative, the solution, and the suggestions demonstrate my understanding of how to stimulate a propensity for a better environment, and thereby increase the integrity of our society. Although it may take several generations before mankind can trust each other without fear, the suggestions I make for alternative public amenities are credible and realistic approaches to enhancing the quality and future of urban settings.

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John Rea, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, USA
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