uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Regina Viljasaar. For the Single Unpretentious Person: Redefining Homelessness.

The Japanese are cultured. Western art critics recently discovered that homeless people in Japan build lightweight little houses founded on the principles of traditional Zen Buddhism in parks and on the banks of rivers. During the periodic raids conducted by the police to clear them out, they roll up their dwellings, they take their camellia plants and bonsais along and wait until they can once again put their houses together again.

Approaching Bucharest, the first sign of the capital is shanties put together from indescribable materials on trembling foundations. These are followed by the garbage dump, gypsy camps and slums, and finally colossal concrete buildings and the bleak city centre.

Homelessness and the degeneration of areas into slums are problems that are ever growing [1] Approximately every seventh person in the world lives in slums nowadays. According to UN forecasts, this number will increase to every third person in 20 years. This does not include the countless number of people who do not even have a ghetto to return to. There are those who this kind of lifestyle suits. There is talk nowadays of a “homeless way of thinking” and the right of every person to choose whether he wants to live in an apartment or an abandoned woodshed, or in a bunker in the woods, wishing only to be left alone. Social workers know that a large proportion of those who have ended up on the path to degeneration do not even want to return to normal life and refuse to accept jobs and places in welfare institutions, even rejecting shelters for the homeless.

For some reason, though, most people are not nomads, hunter-gatherers or hermits who have retreated into solitude. Even nomadic peoples carry one and the same tent along with them. People do not “maintain” their own home only out of convenience, rather it is also psychologically necessary. Home means a sense of security, routine and privacy that is familiar in advance. Knowledge of one’s nest is a firm source of support for people. Home is not a wish or a need; it is simply the basis for everything by default.

The most widespread practice in doing something for the good of the homeless is to establish large shelters for them in the more marginal parts of the city where they can have a place to spend the night. People in need of assistance themselves call these places human warehouses. Considering the constant increase of the number of people in the world without shelter, soon there will not be sufficient bed spaces in such institutions. Maintenance costs for these buildings and the associated utilities expenses are constantly increasing. People, however, do not receive sufficient energy from the system of shelters that is by its nature inert in order to move forward and rise higher.

The belief that the life of the homeless is made too easy by the provision of a roof over their heads is also widespread in society. Even if they do get into a warm room temporarily, one can presume that it is still no picnic to be homeless. A stable dwelling place would be the prerequisite that could perhaps subsequently be followed by ascent and a return to ordinary life.

I recall homeless people I met in Amsterdam. Somewhat downcast but very good people. If you put your things down on the lawn in a park, someone behind you will soon politely ask as a way of starting conversation: “Oh, so you are going to sleep here tonight as well, yes?” During the week that I spent with them both out of need and in the framework of a little urban experiment, they took care of me, sharing all sorts of information with me about how to cope as well as their food. Only one of them declared that he does not even want to live in an apartment. The others did not touch the subject.

The non-profit organisation Mad Housers Inc., located in Atlanta, erects among other things temporary shelters for the homeless. They believe that by having a secure shelter, people will in the future be more capable of doing something on their own for themselves. Thus they build little wooden houses (1.80 x 2.40 x 3 m) intended for a maximum of a couple of years, but sometimes they last even a fifth year. This question no longer involves the builders. They provide the means; everything else from that point onward is up to the recipient of the assistance.

Margit Mutso has spoken in the media of her wish that in addition to providing the necessities for life as a tenant, dwellings being built for the homeless would also add colour to the city’s urban space. “They should look good and catch the eye, […] you have a place to lie down, you do not feel cold, you are not kicked out onto the street in the morning, you have your own little home. The construction of this kind of dwelling should require minimal energy, minimal money and it should offer elementary living conditions.”[2] In the city, these would be attractions that can at the same time also be used for housing. The homeless do simpler work and the city takes care of the costs. Considering the primary reasons for homelessness – long-term poverty, the lack of family and social ties, education and job skills, domestic violence, serious illnesses, alcoholism and drug addiction, the scarcity of cheap dwellings and jobs providing enough income to live on, and a policy of spending reductions in the social welfare system,[3] this option has sufficient potential to offer solutions. Why not try it then?

Amy Wright received one of California’s conservational development awards for 2006 for the Garden of New Beginning made for the homeless. Gardens were built adjacent to a shelter for the homeless with the help of volunteers. There the residents grow vegetables for themselves on their own and teach each other to tend the garden. This project has attracted nearly a million dollars in donations.

In his book City of Quartz, Mike Davis describes how American cities are making public space ever more homeless-proof. Seats at bus stop shelters are uncomfortable for sitting, to say nothing of lying down, watering systems are installed in parks, restaurants and cafés seal off their garbage behind iron gates. A proposal was presented in Phoenix to add cyanide to garbage.

In Spain, which startles with the amounts of food that are sent to the garbage dump daily, young people who were sorting through garbage containers were recently fined 120 euros each for “manipulating with garbage”.

In 2000, eight homeless people founded Camp Dignity in Portland, Oregon, which soon grew to become Village Dignity. This is a clean and peaceful community, the goal of which is to create a secure, self-supporting autonomous village that observes conservationist principles. It is built by the inhabitants themselves using recycled materials. They also grow their own food.

The skills for building temporary shelters have been tempered by the major natural disasters that have taken place in recent years. After Hurricane Katrina in the USA and the tsunami in Southeastern Asia, hundreds of architects sat down with local residents to seek ways for housing as quickly as possible millions of people who had been left homeless. The houses should be built of recycled materials, their assembly should be quick and it should be possible to easily reconstruct them as more permanent structures. One factor that spurred on volunteer activists was also the obstruction of large construction companies from taking control of the enormous construction market that came into being overnight.

One economist has proposed the idea of also building up New Orleans as quickly as possible using temporary dwellings. He finds that it is more important to bring people back to the city quickly, even though this would require significant concessions in construction standards and the ignoration of the entire planning system. Inexpensive dwellings would bring the place back to life and perhaps this would also bring back and/or attract more artists and musicians. He finds that this kind of experiment would be an opportunity for New Orleans to be innovative again.[4]

Homeless people are very costly for society. Leaving them on the streets will cost more than building shelter for all of them. They constantly require expensive social services – first aid, salvage and rescue units, psychiatric treatment, hospital and prison space. Expenses continue to grow because people get caught in a cycle where crisis and assistance alternate endlessly. They are dependent on a system, which is intended for emergency situations only. Slums also waste enormous amounts of resources and are major sources of problems. Therefore, projects that bring people in off the streets and give them something to do would be important in the name of an economically responsible future. Instead of wasting people and state money, local manpower could be used to prepare products and services that conserve nature. A system that would function and grow without coming at the expense of anything else could clearly be built up on a voluntary basis by giving people opportunities.

Estonia’s slums have in many cases evolved from the cottage districts of the old days. There is a sign in Russian on a hut in the underbrush in Tallinn behind the airport: “Please don’t break in here anymore, there is nothing more to steal here!” There are reportedly some twenty thousand “dachas” in the so-called shingle village near the village of Ülgas. Internet commentaries bluntly declare that whoever sets fire to that abomination will get a hectare of good residential land in return from the owners of the land.

Three design students from Holland built a shelter beside Tallinn’s Linnahall within the framework of a school project and spent the night there themselves. During the night, they attracted neighbours in the form of two figures wrapped in blankets and a dog. In the early morning hours, however, a noise woke them up. They peeked out through an opening in the wall to find themselves staring straight into automobile headlights, which shortly started moving towards them. The boys scattered in different directions and one had a BMW at his heels. They nevertheless finally all made it back to the hotel.

The exhibition Less Alternative Living Strategies is presently on display in Milan, organised by the British Council. Here 18 artists examine the “idea of living”, the chance for a more conservational future through micro-architecture and macro-design.[5] Among others, the work ParaSITE by Michael Rakowitz from 1998 is on display, consisting of an inflatable tube that attaches itself to the side of a building; Dré Wapenaar’s tents that can be hung from trees; the Homeless Vehicle by Krzysztof Wodiczko, with a sharp front end resembling a thick log; Andrea Zittel’s A-Z Living Stations,[6] with which the artist has experimented for quite some time already.

Generally speaking, assignments for the creation of temporary shelters are very popular in both design and architectural schools. At the end of May, Designboom.com announced the results of the competition Shelter in a Cart.[7] The assignment was to design a cart that would be good for both gathering things and for providing its owner with shelter. Austrian students, for example, worked on a similar assignment in their school where they designed a triangular pyramid that fit in the corner of a shopping cart when folded up and could be set up in two minutes.

Competitions, exhibitions and workshops on the topic of temporary shelters have become very popular. On one hand, this is a good exercise for students in working out a solution for a minimum surface that is useful in consideration of their future work as architects. On the other hand, however, it indicates that the topic is in the air. They are being designed for the homeless as well as for all “nonconformists”. Lightweight residential units, something similar to Loftcubes[8] that can be lifted onto the roof by helicopter, are reportedly becoming ever more popular on the market. It is both desirable and possible to be independent in how one lives.

The exhibition Paradise for Parasites that took place in 2003 at the initiative of the Utrecht municipal government in Holland was accompanied by a voluminous catalogue that connected the exhibition with a broader theoretical background.[9] A little village with all various functions was made up of 26 lightweight architectural objects – from an observatory to a bar built in to a rocket, from a mobile farm and a theatre built on boxes to a meeting place for artists by the group Nomads in Residence. They found their niche in Holland’s excessively planned environment in order to make something small – comfortable, humane and of adequate size to remain feasible. Sufficiently unusual considering (to use the words of architectural theoretician Catherine Slessor) the “ardour for size of our era” – business, money, ideas, persons, the stage and buildings all have to be large. Scale has never before been as important, yet a direct and depressing connection applies between size and stupidity.[10]

Theoreticians who have spoken of small scales and the virtues of an economy and social relations based on common property, local resources, small employee staffs and small transactions have remained Utopians to this day in the opinion of the public. Spontaneously generated villages in Spain of Italy that are home for hundreds and thousands of people which are not marked on maps and which support themselves from their own produce and leftovers from the rest of the world remain “hippie communes”. The invention of better shelters within the framework of exhibition projects continues to be considered as “games” of artists or is viewed as a deal between themselves that has no real place in the “real world”.

Greater freedom and smaller, denser, more humane scales appear to offer much greater possibilities for experimentation and improvisation. For example, slums and other similar self-organising social models have frequently proved to be altogether more creative than the stable urban fabric. Some of the best Brazilian music comes from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro; reggae music originated from the slums of Kingston, Jamaica; the heyday of New Orleans was the early 20th century, when it was filled with slums. Cultures intertwine into one in populations with a high density, creating something new. People who have little money generate more social capital to compensate for it, where a large circle of people to interact with makes up for the lack of purchasing power. Since the poor are also forced to be less mobile and more resourceful in order to survive, they invest their time and social-cultural capital in their home neighbourhood.[11]

Japan’s homeless people meet in the park and discuss each other’s haikus. One certainly can never know in the case of this country, they would likely also write poetry if they did not live in portable little huts under the bridge.

An anonymous group of Los Angeles architects, artists and planners organised against monolithic gated communities that are in contrast to the fragile “grass roots level” erects orange observation towers outside the walls of real estate villages to see what is happening inside the walls. Is there still anyone alive in there?[12]

And Estonia? The constant rise in the price of residential space is pointed out in the analysis of Tallinn’s real estate market since mass residential construction has ceased. Instead, quality construction and the building of small dwellings, that is private dwellings, are continually growing. The Tallinn 2025 Strategy describes how “at the same time, the immigration of socially problematic elements, so called “fortune seekers” could lead to important problems – a decrease in the social quality of city residents, an increase in the growth of slums in certain areas, and so on”.[13]

It is estimated that there are 10 000 homeless persons in the capital. More unidentified corpses without any signs of violence are found each year. More people spend the night in homeless shelters than there is capacity for.

Many of their clientele gravitate to those parts of the city that have degenerated into slums. Their residents form “a relatively closed circle with their own subculture. Here criteria of fairness and justice comprehensible to them rule along with their own morals that to a great extent are in contradiction to the moral convictions of the majority of society and the established legal order of the nation”. “An additional source of social tension has come into being” in the city “generating crime and disease (tuberculosis and others), fostering the spread of drug addiction and prostitution, and disturbing or impeding the everyday life of the residents of the settlement”.[14]

Architects believe that this situation can be changed through good design and public information. The Estonian Association of Architects organised a workshop in the autumn of 2005 “for finding attractive architectural solutions for ordering the life of the homeless”. Proposals were sought for temporary living spaces where all the basic means for human existence and security would be ensured.

Two scenarios evolve from the seven completed entries: either futuristic projects – living space for the (unrealistic) super vagabond – that will obviously remain somewhere in the hemisphere of good ideas waiting for society to catch up, or solutions that change or improve some already existing necessity. Many bring the homeless person onto the street into public space together with his new home, where he fills the void that had thus far existed – like with a kiosk for selling flowers or a public lavatory in the impressive entry entitled City Kiosk by Laila Põdra, Tricia Stuth and Marko Järvela. Alternatively, objects are covered by large advertising banners that remind passers by of the existence of this side of life. This is not parasitism but rather symbiosis.

The modification of billboards situated in the median between highways by Katrin Koov, Kaire Nõmm, Heidi Urb and Siiri Vallner, where the 1.1 m wide space between two billboards becomes a place to spend the night for one or two people, became the most charming of the entries. “In the middle of the city, with good views, safe, cleaning is done by the street cleaning company”, is how the authors describe it.[15] If such shelters were to be spread out beyond the city centre, drunkards, stranded hitchhikers and lovers would probably also be happy on summer nights.

Indrek Saarepera’s mobile temporary residential unit “for a single unpretentious person” is also externally similar to the previous entry. Sometimes completely open to the surroundings, sometimes packed up into a dense burrow, this solution seems to have the most perspective because it can be used the most extensively. As the author himself points out, it can be used in disaster areas, for example. It appears that demand in this sphere will not decline and that it also can no longer be as easily ignored as homeless people.

The designer can bring homelessness into public awareness, exhibiting it in its misery, peculiarity and inviolability. Others keep solutions intended for them separate from the rest of the world for the peace of mind of both society and homeless people themselves, offering a quiet life and if they are willing, rehabilitation through work. Architects alone cannot solve the problem of homelessness but it is good that they have started trying to help.


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  1. See also Mike Davis. Slummide planet (Planet of Slums). – Ehituskunst 41/42 http://www.ehituskunst.ee/et/12/4142/mike_davis_slummide
  2. Madis Jürgen. Eluase kodutule kui efetkne atraktsioon? – Eesti Ekspress, 28.09.2005
  3.  http://www.cchealth.org/topics/homeless/pdf/10_year_plan.pdf
  4. Tyler Cowen. An Economist Visits New Orleans. – Slate. 18 April 2006 http://www.slate.com/id/2140224/entry/2140206/
  5. http://www.comune.milano.it/pac/intro_eng.html
  6. http://www.zittel.org/
  7. www.designboom.com
  8. www.lofcube.net<
  9. www.beyondutrecht.nl
  10. Catherine Slessor. Small is Human – Architectural Review, September 2002, pp. 42-43.
  11. http://heavytrash.blogspot.com
  12. Tallinn 2025 Strategy, § 1.4.2
  13. Tallinn 2025 Strategy, §
  14. Karin Paulus, Kodu kodutule. – Eesti Ekspress, Areen, 19.10.2005.