architecture poverty

Architecture for the homeless with the Skid Row Housing Trust

People experience buildings in different ways. A casual visitor will have a different opinion about a space from someone who works there every day. Among those who are there daily, the cleaner will experience the building differently from someone with an office job. The homeless have a another perspective on architecture altogether. It’s quite literally an outsider’s perspective, seeing opportunities around the margins of a building that the architect never intended.

The homeless may make use of a building, but it’s not usually for them. In some cases, that’s made very obvious by including subtle ‘defensive architecture‘ measures – little spikes or triangular ridges on flat surfaces. Most of us wouldn’t notice them, but to someone looking for somewhere to sleep, it’s a clear message: you’re not welcome here.

Even when you are welcome, most homeless shelters are not built for purpose. They’re fitted into existing housing blocks or industrial buildings, places that weren’t being used for anything else. Cities don’t offer the poor their best – you get whatever leftover space is available.

All of which means it’s rather refreshing to see great buildings designed for the homeless, and one of the best places to see that is the Skid Row Housing Trust. They provide housing for those experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty in Los Angeles, a city where those problems are sadly widespread. Their shelters are built specifically around the needs of their clients, and many of them are the work of an architect called Michael Maltzan.

Maltzan is a sought-after architect with museums, universities and Hollywood homes on his list of significant work. But his first ever commission was for a community arts facility at the edge of Skid Row, and he has maintained his links with that part of town ever since. Over the years he has built up a considerable expertise in building for the urban poor. Together with the Skid Row Housing Trust, a philosophy has emerged that sees good architectural design as part of the process for healing and helping people to move on.

To take one specific building, here are the Carver Apartments, designed for older formerly homeless people with disabilities or chronic disease. It has medical and support services on the ground floor, 97 apartments, and shared gardens, dining areas and communal spaces.

“One of the first things people do when they live on the street is put up walls around themselves to try to create some feeling of safety” says Maltzan. “You need to provide those walls before you can start to open things back up.” Reflecting this instinct, the apartment building spirals around an inner courtyard, with few windows opening back out onto the street. The spiral also avoids presenting a perpendicular surface to the highway, and deflects traffic noise.

Like other shelters built by the Skid Row Housing Trust, the apartment block aims to strike a balance between private and public space. Every resident needs to feel that they have their own safe space, where they are protected. Equally, high quality shared spaces invite people out into community, which is where recovery happens. It’s a building that gives residents somewhere to retreat from the world, but gives them every reason to come out again. It’s architecturally designed to overcome the sense of social isolation that keeps people trapped in long term homelessness.

One touch that I rather like is that despite that well of light in the middle, Maltzan considers the laundry room to be the heart of the building. It’s on the side facing the highway, with a wide horizontal window of sound-proofed glass. There’s a lot of waiting around involved when you’re doing your laundry, so why not give people something to look at?

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