Private/Public: Rethinking Design for the Homeless in New York - part 2
Architects work on better design for homeless shelters
Part two of this article on design for homeless people in New York city shows the limitations the architects had to struggle with by designing a homeless shelter in a intensivly used building.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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
Deborah Grossberg Katz and Terri Chiao are founders of Katz Chiao, a design and research collaborative based in New York City and Philadelphia. Deborah teaches architecture and urban design at Temple University / Tyler School of Art, Penn Design and Columbia GSAPP, and Terri is a designer at 2×4 Inc. All images courtesy Katz Chiao.
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.
First published on URBAN OMNIBUS
Teaser Photo: Homeless Hoarder von Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious / flickr commons, some rights reserved