Design gegen und für
In recent times, we’ve seen users of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook railing against a kind of urban design that sets out to create hostile public spaces, deploying architecture as a weapon against individuals. This is, however, not a new phenomenon. “Bum-proof” benches began appearing back in 1992 in Los Angeles, the outward curve of their seat making them impossible to sleep on without sliding off. Benches segmented by raised dividers are another design that can already be seen in many cities; they provide seating for individuals but prevent anyone from lying down or at least make it extremely uncomfortable for them to do so. In 2005, the São Paulo authorities installed specially developed concrete anti-homeless ramps underneath various bridges, in the hope that their steep gradient would prevent anyone from bunking there. And at UK universities, metal cages with sharply angled iron bars have been installed in front of ventilation shafts to deter homeless people who might otherwise seek respite from the cold weather in the warm expelled air. One particularly aggressive example of such practices are “anti-homeless” spikes: installed under bridges or in doorways where homeless people might seek shelter from the rain, these sharp concrete or metal protrusions call to mind the pigeon spikes often seen on window ledges, a shockingly clear case of the homeless being likened to vermin. To counter such measures, artists, designers and activists have been seeking ways to retake public spaces that have been made hostile to people, while movements such as Occupy and the protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park have raised awareness of the issue of common land – of public spaces that can be accessed and used by all.
“Scandalising functionality” causes a stir
Among these strategies for retaking forcibly cleared spaces are examples of “nomadic design” – design that uses occasionally somewhat absurd-looking but nonetheless entirely functional temporary solutions in order to draw attention to the genuine brutality of urban realities. The “Archisuits” developed by artist Sarah Ross (2005/2006), for instance, feature foam rubber implants tailored to specific architectural structures in her hometown Los Angeles. These allow the user to sit or lie down in public spaces – one boasts cubes that fit between the dividers of segmented benches, thus creating a surface suitable for a recumbent body. With their essentially symbolic nature, Ross’s highly outlandish jogging suits pursue a strategy the Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko describes as “scandalising functionality” – referring to examples of design whose very functionality offers an apparent solution to a given problem while also causing a stir. Wodiczko is a pioneer of critical design for rough sleepers. Building on the idea behind his self-powered Vehicles from 1971, he developed the Homeless Vehicles series in the late 1980s as a response to the realities of capitalist US society. Capable of adapting to a variety of situations, these mobile contraptions were designed to meet the basic survival needs of life on the street – offering a place to live, sleep and wash, but also taking into account the necessity of collecting and selling cans and bottles. In addition to these practical considerations, the vehicles, which Wodiczko developed in conjunction with homeless people, were also intended as conceptual design objects and works of “art as social action” that would highlight the presence and enhance the self-determination of homeless people in the urban economy. The futuristic, high-tech look, however, can also be seen as a kind of parody of the vehicle as a “superlative object” (Roland Barthes).
The idea of mobile, multifunctional shelters for the homeless has since been taken up or emulated by various artists and designers – although not always with the same self-reflective criticism. The German artist Winfried Baumann, for instance, has been building “housing systems for homeless people and other urban nomads” since 2001. His multifunctional Instant Housing units, which bear notable similarities to Wodiczko’s design, are based on repurposed shopping trolleys and are each equipped with a pull-out padded bed surface, a first-aid kit, a mirror, a whistle, a multifunctional tool, a torch and a plastic hood with see-through panel (I-H Shopping Cart METRO-400, 2010). The prototypes have been shown in a variety of exhibitions, but whether homeless people would ever genuinely use them on the street is doubtful. The same goes for Paul Elkins’ Mobile Homeless Shelter, a kind of movable caravan that comes equipped with a sleeping area, kitchen and washroom.
Probably the most interesting and successful take on critical design for the homeless, one that is not only striking in its functionality but also has a symbolic aspect, is Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s Parasite. Rakowitz was a student of Wodiczko at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Parasite was created in 1998 as a graduation project after discussions between student and professor. The former’s primary inspiration, however, was a 1997 visit to a workshop in Jordan, where he saw how Bedouins tailored the architecture of their tents to the wind. Back in Boston, he came across homeless people who had sought refuge from the cold in the warm air expelled into the streets by the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning) systems of public buildings. Both groups were nomads of a kind, with the difference that the latter generally hadn’t voluntarily chosen a nomadic lifestyle, and that a cold winter on the streets can kill. This gave Rakowitz the idea of making constructive use of the warm air that is otherwise expelled into the atmosphere as waste heat. His shelters are thus parasitically attached to and warmed by the building. Working closely with various homeless people in Cambridge and Boston and, from 1999 on, in New York and other cities, the artist has developed more than 60 shelters tailored to the specific needs of each resident. The basic concept is a double-membrane structure with a tube that hooks onto a building’s ventilation shaft, enabling it to be automatically inflated by the warm air. The air gives the structure a certain level of stability while also enabling the occupant to benefit from the vent’s warmth without lying directly in front of it. The Parasites, which Rakowitz made from transparent plastic sheeting and bin bags, cost just a few dollars to produce. When not in use, the shelter can be folded down to the size of a plastic bag. One of the first prototypes was the shelter created for Bill Stone, which was furnished with two rows of windows to give its occupant a view out whether sitting up or lying down – because “homeless people don’t have privacy issues, but they do have security issues,” says Bill, who dissuaded Rakowitz from using black bin bags as originally planned. He felt it was important for a shelter to allow its user to see out and to be seen. For George Livingston, Rakowitz created a Parasite with inflatable ribs made of semi-translucent plastic sheeting, between which he put plastic zip-lock pockets. These can be used for storing personal items or displaying messages to those outside, while also enabling privacy and light to be regulated by revealing or blocking out more of the window. The artist has even catered to special requests, such as a shelter in the shape of Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars, or one with two separate seating areas and a shared love room for a homeless couple.
Parasite versus Anti-tent Law
The real breakthrough, though, came with the shelter designed for Michael McGee, a homeless man working for the United Homeless Organisation who contacted Rakowitz after reading about the project in the New York Times. Together, the pair developed a design that wouldn’t fall foul of the anti-tent law mentioned in the article. This was a statute, introduced by then mayor Giuliani, stipulating that any structure higher than 110 centimetres should be considered a tent and thus an illegal encampment. In place of the original triangular form, the shelter was designed to be closer to the ground, making it less like a tent and more like a large sleeping bag or some kind of body-extension. It’s a design that soon proved its worth – when McGee was indeed confronted by the police, he was able to argue that his shelter was lower than 110 centimetres and that the law did not therefore apply, after which the officers let him be. The case hit the headlines and Parasite established itself not only as an effective way of saving lives in harsh winters, but also came to be seen by many homeless people as a means of drawing attention to their situation and ensuring public visibility. Parasite has won numerous design awards and even made it into the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); Rakowitz, though, only exhibits shelters which users have returned or which they no longer require. It should be stressed that the project doesn’t aim to be a solution to the problem, but a way of drawing attention to this social ill. Rakowitz himself says: “This project […] is not a proposal for affordable housing. Its point of departure is to present a symbolic strategy of survival for homeless existence within the city, amplifying the problematic relationship between those who have homes and those who do not have homes.”
Eva Scharrer is a freelance curator and critic working for institutions such as Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. She recently served as a Documenta 13 agent and writer, is a regular contributor to art magazines such as Artforum, Frieze d/e, Spike and /100, and has curated exhibitions in Germany and Switzerland. In 2007, she was co-curator of the eighth Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates.