Architecture that makes a difference

South Oakland Shelter

In this studio, students often find themselves facing problems which, while urgent, are daunting in magnitude.  In such situations, it becomes necessary for the student designer to ‘find a pressure point’, where a focused effort can yield potential benefits.  In some cases, the result is a scalable solution which can be adapted and applied to address the components of a larger problem at a reasonable level.  In others, students discover that by refocusing upon a sub-constituency of a problem, they are able to make a contribution to a larger effort.  The latter example is illustrated by the work of Justin Shafer.

Justin’s investigation began with one simple question: Was the homeless population of metro Detroit increasingly reliant on the public transportation system?  This perception was formed by his observations of the propensity of the homeless to congregate near the bus station in Royal Oak, Michigan.  To gain a better understanding of the situation, Justin contacted the South Oakland Shelter, a local organization that seeks to help the homeless.  Through the course of his investigations, two things became immediately apparent to Justin:  first, that the homeless did not necessarily utilize public transit more than anyone else, and secondly, that it was SOS that actually needed his help.  Justin recognized that he could make a larger impact on the situation not by attempting to directly intervene on behalf of the homeless, but by offering support to an organization with the means and experience to tackle the issues of homelessness directly.

SOS volunteer kiosk

Justin’s resulting project was designed to aid SOS with its outreach and volunteer recruiting efforts.    His proposal utilized a ‘kit of parts’ approach to provide the South Oakland Shelter with the means to tackle many programmatic elements they need to be successful.  The proposed tool kit can be used to create signage, interview space, even shower facilities.  With a few custom pieces, and found or salvaged objects, the users can begin to ask themselves, “What can we create that will help us carry out our mission?”  The end result was a project that doesn’t necessarily render one single architectural solution, but focuses on providing the necessary means to carry out any architectural solution.  In addition, rather than proposing a closed narrative, where the architect’s vision becomes the sole arbiter of the project’s usefulness, Justin instead placed the toolkit in the hands of the user, trusting their collective intelligence to make the end result even more effective.

Kit of parts

“The studio was an eye opening and fantastic experience”, says Justin. “It ingeniously combined the ability to apply well thought out design orientated problems to real world ‘boots on the ground’ issues.   The process of arriving at a design conclusion was that much more informed because of the contact I had with the change agents at the South Oakland Shelter.  It was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in architecture to date.”

Justin is an example of a student who has maintained a relationship with his studio change agent.  “While this specific project has not moved forward”, he says,” it has led to the opportunity to help SOS in a very real way.  We’ve began working on the SOS “Dreamspace.”  This project is an architectural design and visualization of the ideal space that the South Oakland Shelter would have in a perfect scenario.  Plans and renderings will be created of this ideal space, and used in marketing situations to not only negate false perceptions about the shelter and the work it does, but also promote volunteerism and increase donations.  This tackles the original concerns of the project which were a lack of volunteer force, and negative perceptions hurting the image of the organization.”

SOS 'Dreamspace' lobby

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