Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here
Lifeform are a New York-based architectural firm, and Monica Hernandez runs the crowd the several great residential projects around the city. And that’s residential in the widest sense, including dealing with NYC’s very real homeless problem.
Consequently, their first project was the winner of an architectural competition based in the Bowery, an area with a rich and vivid history. It’s a poor, edgy place, but also full of the real life of downtown Manhattan beyond Prada and Dean & Deluca. (I’d written about the original architectural competition, coincidentally.)
Based around an existing flophouse, they decided to build on the characteristics of that rather than trying to focus on creating longer-term living for the homeless. This is a switch on usual practice, and very smart I reckon. The old flophouse model had some extremely practical functions, in terms of short-term living. Hernandez outlined the key differences between the flophouse and the shelter: the former is about something that gives the user space, a private space at that, that you can lock up. The existing flophouse building had to be re-modeled, to add 3 more floors (for existing tenants), 2 for veterans, and provide 3 for people from street.
The approach Lifeform took was one based around a ‘kit of parts’, a reconfigurable unit that homeless people can quickly assemble and personalise. Lifeform had developed 3 main use-cases, or user archetypes/personae: Loner, Creator, Collector (though the differences weren’t explained in much detail.) At this point, Hernandez passed around examples of the material used in the kit – I thought this was a great touch, and surprisingly rarely done during Postopolis!. The materials were drawn from the aviation and maritime industries, and light, durable and colourful. Assembly time is around 6-8 hours, and the “packaging contains the entire project” i.e. the crate holds all the kit of parts, and the crate itself becomes the platform. It can be shipped in a van or truck, and transported pretty much anywhere.
This kit of parts also contains the DNA of potential community, in that building your own shelter can be performed as a communal activity, and the various door on the shelter has openings onto long, narrow hallways, which can effectively become marketplaces or interior streets.
Although intended for homeless people, it’s clear that the Kit of Parts could be applied to many other situations. Hernandez indicates some visualisations of how units can be put together to make large spaces for families or different uses, like a hospital for instance. This evolution has much potential: as add-on habitats, “stand-alone writing cottages”, “children’s gazebo” etc. Hernandez fielded a question about this, as to whether this project originally for homeless men has become a project of a larger market? She notes that one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other, and that the project is still in development. Essentially, the kit of parts unit is about “dignified, ecologically responsible life”, whoever uses it. The cost of a unit is probably circa $4-5k.
Hernandez indicates another project, Re-Order, in Brooklyn, is based heavily around analysis of the different living spaces and demographics of a community. Again, the principle is one of a kit of parts, here based around a catalogue of common units, activities and materials, which builders can select and configure, according to the site in question. These are prefabricated and again enable easy construction. As with the earlier Kit of Parts, possibility for community is emphasised, here with built-in common spaces that enable outdoor activities and retail spaces, provide daycare facilities, and so on.
Hernandez notes that throughout Lifeform’s recent projects in Brooklyn, they’re trying to use low-emisson glass, and green spaces in terraces and roof gardens etc, which again emphasises that materials and finish are as important as the configurable systems. It’s also heartening to see prefab-based projects that are drawn from research into communities, such that a configurable framework can still suggest appropriate use rather than something too open-ended. As Lebbeus Woods would remind us later, architects still have a responsibility to provide direction, even in the most open-ended systems. Much closer to the practicalities and constraints of the marketplace, Lifeform’s projects seem to suggest a delicate balance between open flexibility and suggested function.
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