The best of architects is not that they can use cool software or design buildings, or even that they can help create interesting spaces. If you think back to your school days, the best of architecture was problem-solving. You were given a challenge and then you had to think of good ways to address those challenges. That included addressing social, cultural, racial, environmental, and not least, spatial, needs. Given the opportunity, architects use a myriad of tools and critical thinking skills to solve many different problems, not just strictly spatial ones. In fact, years ago, Guy Horton and I discussed the possibility of starting a round table or a colloquium, to brainstorm on different issues with others both in architecture and other academic fields, and to offer possible solutions. More after the break.
It never went anywhere. But a recent Economist Schumpeter column suggests that academics and corporations can do a lot when they combine their minds towards “frugal innovation.” This includes things like the $300 house (which, significantly, was not meant for architects’ consumption but instead was a challenge in a business school blog, Harvard’s, to be specific) and a $24 water purifier that works for a year. It is in short, high-powered innovation directed at solving some very basic social issues and problems. Admirable as many of these projects are, they ironically neglect problems of poverty and homelessness in developed nations. This seems a gross oversight. Of course, those populations haven’t received as much attention because, frankly, it’s less “sexy” to talk about urban poverty in, say, the U.S. So what about those people? Well, for developed nations like the U.S. and Britain to give a few examples, people of non-Euro/American racial and ethnic groups predominate. In the U.S., Census Bureau statistics show that 19 million Americans live in extreme poverty (> $11,000/year income), and of these, children are disproportionately represented. So while people under 18 comprise 25% of the U.S.’s general population, according to the National Poverty Center, they form 35% of the impoverished population.
Another interesting fact is that whether discussing poverty in the U.S. or in China, it is proportionally over-represented in urban areas, not rural ones (where the population density is a lot less). So again, taking the U.S. as only one example, about 70% of the homeless are located in urban zones, and of those, 30% are families. Additionally, those with mental illness comprise anywhere from 1/3 to ½ of the homeless. With such a glaring statistic, perhaps we can turn frugal innovation’s eye towards housing homeless families rather than criminalizing them. Obviously, a group of critical-thinking architects (along with economists, engineers, and social historians, to name a few) aren’t going to solve this trenchant problem tomorrow. However, architects do know a lot about creating space while taking into account social, economic, and environmental factors. There are obvious architectural interventions. For example, one year I worked along with Guy Horton on a SCI-Arc class project to build a sun shelter for the Lamp Community in L.A.’s Skid Row. The project included milling the pieces, painting, and installation. While it was successful, I kept wondering if there was something more integral one could do, from an architectural perspective which does not, however, become a forum for merely showing off one’s design “chops” at the expense of the intended consumer (as some argue occurred in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward when architects were brought in to help rebuild).
So for that 30% of the homeless population comprised of families, is it possible to design a home that is inexpensive and avails itself of the newest technological advances so that it’s upkeep costs (as well as its carbon footprint as an added bonus) can remain relatively low? That automatically excludes [FEMA-]trailers and shipping containers. As for a number, everyone knows by now that the whole $300 for a house was an attention-grabbing gimmick. What’s more, it was for developing nations. So what is a fair figure for housing the urban poor homeless families in developed nations? How about $5,000?