Any Port in a Storm

For an architect to receive a brief to specifically exclude underprivileged people from a considered design outcome sounds odd – yet typically this is the case whenever architects or designers are commissioned to produce urban infrastructure. A bench, a table, a bus stop, a doorway all provide the possibility of refuge for the displaced. In a situation where there is quite literally nothing else for them, any man made structure can provide respite for the homeless from the wind, the rain, the cold. The design outcome of these structures is the result of brief, budget, site and concept just like any other project. The social flaw in the design of most urban infrastructure is as a direct result of a fundamental error in the brief. A universal component of urban infrastructure design briefs is that the design outcome must exclude the possibility of the appropriation by the displaced of the designed object. In other words the designer is briefed to be unsympathetic and exclusive.

Politicians of all persuasions get nervous if they think infrastructure design may directly or indirectly encourage vicarious use by those other than that for which the infrastructure exists. When Melbourne hosted the 2006 Commonwealth Games (an interstitial Olympic-like event exclusively for member nations of the British commonwealth) the government of the day organized a last minute but calculated ‘clean up’ of the city streets, parks and transport infrastructure to create the impression that there were no displaced people in the city. Visitors to Melbourne could leave the city tricked into believing that homelessness was not an issue. This intentional deceit was motivated by the belief that international impressions of Melbourne would be enhanced by an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ strategy and such strategies are not peculiar to Melbourne alone. Where the transient population was taken to remains a mystery but the streets were certainly sparkling… for two weeks anyway. I wondered at the time whether it had ever occurred to the incumbent government that a simple shift in philosophy could have promoted Melbourne, not merely as a city of unusually clean streets, but rather as a forward looking inclusive and highly evolved leader of first world cities whose intelligent and compassionate treatment of its underclass was to be envied and emulated.

At sea, in an emergency, any safe anchorage is welcome and port and harbour authorities don’t discriminate. ‘Any port in a storm’ remains one of the few untouchable universal truths of life (at sea. ) Projects like Park Bench House or Bus Shelter House are based on this simple observation and the analogy is obvious. City centers provide by default the most likely chance of finding safe harbor for the homeless. It is a fact that homeless people gravitate to cities because the odds of finding leftover food, anonymity and constructed shelter are better. it is also a fact that while as long as political agendas result in architects or designers being badly briefed the transient population, unlike sailors in a storm, will be regularly turned away in emergencies. In a world that has recently become capable of dethroning despots via Internet and cell phone campaigns it is remarkable to me that this situation continues unabated.


-Sean Godsell April 2012