Architecture With Purpose: Designing For The Needy

When I first started getting into architecture and interior design, I just thought it was cool but I didn’t really know why I thought it was cool. I wanted to design sexy high rise buildings in cities like Dubai and New York. I realize now that I was naive,  and since then I’ve been enlightened and I realized that architecture is more than just designing overly priced sexy high rise buildings. It’s about designing with a purpose.

Rural Studio

In one of my classes, I learned about the Rural Studio started by Sambo Mockbee at Auburn University. I’ve posted the video below so that you can watch it, but it describes how his architecture students design homes for low-income families in Hale County Alabama that they can afford to live in. After watching this video, it became apparent to me that everyone should at least have decent housing. We keep building these cookie cutter houses that run $100K  and up. As a society, I think we fail to realize that not everyone can afford the lifestyle we have come to live in and we keep building these houses that a lot of people can’t afford. I also think that with inflation, it’s getting harder to make basic ends meet even for those of us that can afford it.

Rough Neighborhoods and The Projects

Over the years there have been numerous “solutions” for what most of us would consider rough neighborhoods to try and fix them up. A solution I have seen in the past is very opposite of Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio. What I’ve seen is, they (the city, architect, whomever) will take a rough neighborhood,  redesign it, slap a higher price tag on it so people with more money move in. This doesn’t work because it pushes the people that originally lived there away because now they can no longer afford to live there. Where do they go? I think that if we want to better a neighborhood, we shouldn’t redesign them in ways that displace the people already living there although I know this was probably their intent. So then the city has to deal with the ‘where do they go’ aspect, and they develop low-income solutions such as the projects. Low-income solutions are good, but I don’t see why we couldn’t have just designed everything to be more affordable in the first place.

This leads me to the Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Pruitt-Igoe was a housing project developed here in Saint Louis in the 1950s to give low-income families a decent place to live and to try and solve the destruction of the urban community caused by the slum lords. There is a movie on Netflix that is streaming if you want to watch it, but it goes into detail about how after World War II people moved to the city hoping for a better life and were forced into distressed neighborhoods called the slums because that was all they could afford. These communities were ran by the slum lords, and basic needs such as running water and electricity couldn’t even be met. The government ultimately decided to buy slum property and build Pruitt-Igoe, a large scale modern housing project. When they designed it and built it, however, they failed to calculate in costs to maintain buildings of that size. After years of neglect, Pruitt-Igoe became just as ran down as the slums before it had been. After the building was closed and had been vacant, Pruitt-Igoe became a rendezvous for drug deals and crimes you couldn’t even imagine. In 1976, the city demolished the last building of Pruitt-Igoe. Below are photographs of Pruitt-Igoe before, demolition, and today.

pruitt_igoe_1955

Before

Pruitt-igoe_collapse-series

Demolition

Today

Homelessness

All of this leads me to my next topic: homelessness. I see homeless people a lot in the city and it breaks my heart, probably more than others, because I am a part of the building industry and I realize the importance of having an affordable home. I can never bring myself to just hand out money because I never know if someone is going to reach out and grab me, but I do what I can in other areas and I hope to start some volunteer work soon.

I’ve recently read a book called The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls that has shed a new light on homelessness that I’ve never thought of before. I never realized it, but maybe some people choose to be homeless because they don’t want to conform to the world which we define as the norm. It’s hard to describe what I’m talking about here unless you’ve read the book, but “choosing” to be homeless is something that has never entered by mind up until now. The other day I gave a man $2 for a magazine that supported homeless people, and it had all kinds of tips and tricks in it for the homeless. I realized homelessness is possibly a society within our society, with its own infrastructure.

One of my teachers happened to post this video today about Excrescent Utopia, a structure for homeless people, which was what got me really thinking about all of this.

I don’t completely agree with everything he says in this video, such as a generation of homeless people 10 years from now that might have smart phones. To me, that’s kind of like those people on welfare that have nicer things than I do like nails, hair, phones, etc. I don’t want to design for homeless people to teach them how to not pay bills so they can get smart phones and other nice things because then I think we all lose track of what is important. I do want to design for them to give them an identity so they can be integrated back into society, and I do want to design for them to help them, and to possibly teach them to be self sustaining. I am okay with that.

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