As designers weathering a recession, many of us spend a lot of time chasing work – clients, competitions, grants, teaching gigs – anything that might provide a way into an interesting project. The chase feels proactive, but in fact is fundamentally reactive: we end up allowing others to set the terms of our practice, spending a lot of time working on projects we’re not particularly excited about, just trying to stay afloat. What would happen if designers took a truly proactive position? What if we stopped pursuing pre-designed scenarios, and instead leveraged research as a tool to develop our own briefs? What if we took control of our work – not only serving clients and designing spaces, but working to design design itself?
Research as Design Tool
Research is often conceived as a luxury for designers – since it doesn’t typically pay the bills, it’s seen as a secondary aspect of practice, particularly during a recession. For established practitioners trying to maintain and strengthen a clearly defined role within the field, this model leaves larger questions of urban problem-solving and design provocation in the hands of management consultancies and developers. For younger designers like ourselves, research acts as a way in, a way to define and design our future practice, and a long-term strategy for continually questioning and challenging our role. This proactive approach offers a way to skip straight to the point, to address the issues we’re interested in rather than shaping our work around someone else’s agenda. It’s also a way to ask bigger questions, to expand the realm of possible outcomes, and to put greater agency in the hands of architects and designers.
Developing a Brief
For the past three years, we have been researching the systemic cycle of homelessness in New York City. We began the work in a housing studio at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and we have continued the project through a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. The research has evolved into a project we call Private/Public: a design brief that connects the spatial issues faced by small-scale homeless service providers to questions about the overlaps and boundaries among private and public spaces in the city. As developers of the brief, we are working to collect a catalog of spatial and architectural responses. In addition to our own work, we want to field responses from other architects, planners, designers, public advocates, community members – in short, we want to hear from you.
Constituents of Homelessness
On any given day, about 36,000 people are homeless in New York City. We began our research by mapping these constituents to identify the spaces people occupy before, during and after the process of becoming homeless. Our mapping revealed a number of surprising insights:
• Less than 10 percent of this population resides in the public spaces of the city typically associated with sites of homelessness: the street, the subway, abandoned lots.
• The majority of New York’s homeless are families living in the city’s shelter system, invisible to the public.
• Sixty percent of New Yorkers who become homeless in a given year cycle in and out of homelessness, spending at least part of the year living in the homes of friends and family, or transitioning from prisons, hospitals and foster care.
These factors make it very difficult to delineate the boundaries of homelessness in the city. How can designers address such an invisible institution?
Beyond Housing: Rethinking Design for the Homeless
For decades, New York City’s plan to combat homelessness consisted of temporary solutions—funding emergency shelters and relief initiatives in the hopes of easing the discomfort of life on the street. A surge in the population seeking emergency shelter following 9/11 provoked the Bloomberg administration to reformulate the city’s homeless services system. The 2002 plan focused on permanent solutions for those currently homeless and preventative measures for those at risk of becoming homeless.
While policy responses to homelessness have shifted in the past decade, designers have continued to focus a majority of architectural action on spaces occupied by a minority of homeless constituents, designing temporary shelters for those living in the street and single room occupancy (SRO) housing for the chronically homeless. While these responses can have great power for the individuals involved, they fail to address the needs of the majority of the homeless population: the thousands of men, women and children cycling back and forth between unstable housing and homelessness or currently navigating the city’s homeless service system.
The policy changes enacted in the past decade have led to the construction of some new models of supportive housing, but designers have, for the most part, responded to competition briefs and RFPs, rather than helping to define the issues involved. We are interested in how designers can work alongside city organizations and homeless service providers to identify the kinds of issues beyond housing that design is well-equipped to address. For instance, what would happen if designers refocused attention on shelters, drop-in centers, and the multi-use spaces occupied by small-scale service providers? How could designers address the issues faced by these organizations, improving the effectiveness of service and outreach as well as the quality of the spaces themselves? How might their efforts help to end chronic homelessness?
The basement of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem has served as the research case study site for our project. Like most homeless service providers in New York City, the organizations at St. Mary’s are tucked away in a marginalized space, operating at odd hours, in a room used by many other groups. The space houses the Columbia-Harlem Homeless Medical Partnership(CHHMP), a non-profit provider of medical services to the homeless, and the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS), an organization providing a range of homeless services including supportive housing placement, legal aid and psychological counseling. In addition, the space hosts a food pantry, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and various church, community, and civic events.
St. Mary’s basement consists of a 2,200-square-foot room with a dense program schedule. The space accommodates a variety of groups and programming over the course of the week and even over the course of a day. In this context, flexibility is crucial to maintaining efficiency. Each group uses the space of the basement differently, rearranging the furniture to suit its needs. Furniture is shared, and must be easily movable to allow for smooth transitions between programs. Storage space is limited, and dedicated furniture and supplies must be packed away in locked cabinets for security reasons. CHHMP’s storage space consists of a 2.5’ x 4.5’ x 8’ closet that is packed so full that only a few people know how to fit everything in. These spatial constraints present a clear design problem: a need for program flexibility, ease of use and multiple functionalities, all on a tight budget.
Privacy in Public
Perhaps the most pressing issue faced by small-scale homeless service providers is the need to engage in very private interactions in very public spaces. In the case of the clinic, patient histories, physical exams and diagnoses all take place in one open room, where flimsy screens and a noisy environment serve as the only buffers offering any sense of privacy. On the other hand, the clinic’s open model maintains visual connections among staff, doctors and patients at all times, creating a less intimidating environment for patients. Building openness and privacy simultaneously is one of the main design challenges of the project. Additional challenges include creating a sense of permanence and solidity for users who are cycling through a variety of unstable conditions; providing clarity and legibility in a complex system of unfamiliar interactions; and employing the politics of shape, scale, material and color to transform a dismal, leftover space into a comfortable and inviting environment for users and staff alike.
A Public Dialogue
The issues facing small-scale homeless service providers reflect a much larger dialogue on openness in institutional settings and privacy in public space. For us, this project has served as a laboratory in which to explore how small-scale design and minimal spatial choreography can address these large-scale social and spatial issues. We are currently developing a web-based, print-on-demand catalog of designs addressing these issues, including furniture, curtains, screens, signage, graphics, and print materials. We hope to engage the design community at large in the creation of this catalog by posing this design brief to a larger audience. We are interested in how this brief may be interpreted by others, how it might catalyze a larger discussion on homelessness and the public and private spheres. To start, we are running a workshop at Columbia’s architecture school inviting students to respond to our brief. We hope to expand this dialogue to other models of design collaboration: salons, charrettes, round tables, pin-ups, and more. In publicizing our brief, we hope to operate in the spirit of open source development, to create a platform for collaboration rather than competition. In the meantime, we hope to establish a model of practice that begins with the design of design itself.
Public/Private is a research and design project funded by the New York State Council on the Arts, with sponsorship from the Architectural League of New York, Columbia University GSAPP Fabrication Lab and the Spatial Information Design Lab. Special thanks to Laura Kurgan and to our collaborators at St. Mary’s, CUCS and CHHMP.
This project was supported in part by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. To read more from other NYSCA Architecture and Design grantees, check out our ongoing series of NYSCA Project Reports.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.