The Nineteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2017
Berkeley Prize 2017

[ID:1868] Architectural Altruism

United States

Following the Tsunami, various newspapers carried a picture of a certain giant tortoise and a baby hippo. The tortoise named Mzee, over one hundred and thirty years old, adopted the small hippo named Owen after it was separated from its family, stranded on a coral reef, and relocated to a ranch in Kenya. Many people were amazed that an older animal, seemingly set in its ways, could open its heart to a creature so very different from itself. The animals were not of the same species or of the same habitat, but in the wake of disaster, their differences were truncated. One needed a home and a family, and the other had a home and offered it along with its companionship to the orphaned child.

Even though most media outlets hailed this as an extraordinary act, scientists routinely observe animals aiding other animals. Some act with the promise of reciprocal help in return. Others act to ensure the well being of their social group. Some animals are even known to put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of another. Dolphins will physically lift other members of their pod up to the water’s surface so that the injured party may breathe. Vampire bats will regurgitate pre-consumed blood for another bat that is unable to feed itself. And in numerous cases, as was the case of Mzee and Owen, animals of different species commonly adopt other animals that are either abandoned or homeless.

Animal altruism is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as, “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but benefits others of its species.” Being that humans are animals, one might assume that the natural persuasion to altruism is somehow inherent to our make-up. If humans are the victors of evolution advancing beyond the relative ignorance of the common mammal, we should be able to perfect altruism and provide for our own species with ease. Of course, if a mere monkey can practice altruism, the creators of the wheel and personal computer should be able to practice it as well.

Rather, today’s society is a Darwinian coliseum founded on the principles of ‘us versus them’ and ‘every man for himself’. Altruism has become a distant memory as the welfare of the individual has championed over the welfare of the collective whole. No example of this shift from primal biological instincts for compassion to self-absorbance is clearer than in society’s response to victims of homelessness.

USA Today has quoted alarming statistics concerning homelessness across the United States, with almost ninety thousand people living without permanent shelter in Los Angeles alone. Aside from a general crisis of homelessness, more ‘newsworthy’ accounts are derived from the many instances of natural disasters that societies have faced in the very recent past. We have experienced the tsunami of South East Asia, the earthquake in Pakistan, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast, and most recently the wildfires in Southern California. Almost two million were left without shelter after the Tsunami. More than one million people lost homes because of Hurricane Katrina. These numbers are staggering, and many argue that as our planet continues to warm, the number of natural disasters will only increase, leaving millions homeless in their wake. Unfortunately numerous individuals, professionals, and news broadcasters have deemed this issue overdone and defunct. But how can a problem affecting more so many people in such horrific instances of tragedy ever be passé? Homelessness, especially after natural disasters, requires society to return to our biological and moral instinct for altruism. Even if one does not directly experience tragedy, we have to rally our resources and skills to benefit ‘them’, because we are morally and ethically required to do so.

I fled New Orleans two days before Hurricane Katrina. Fortunately, I had somewhere to go that was safe, a home that put a roof over my head and allowed me to wait out the storm in relative comfort. We didn’t know if we had a home to go back to or if the intoxicating city that was New Orleans could ever recover. Following that tragic day at the end of August in 2005, thousands were left homeless without the basic human need of shelter. The Superdome became a decrepit excuse for temporary housing as thousands merely subsisted in deplorable conditions.

Natural disasters, by nature, are overwhelming and unexpected events, limiting readiness to a certain extent. However, there is no excuse for temporary housing to be inefficient and inaccessible. In times of crisis, when the human spirit is in its frailest state, the design of temporary shelters must allow the displaced to regain their dignity. Individual dwellings must allow for privacy and basic functions such as personal hygiene and comfortable places of rest. The dwellings must be quickly transported in mass numbers and able to be constructed at almost inhuman speeds.

The artist Krysztof Wodiczko explored this concept in 1988 by creating the Homeless Vehicle Project. A modular, mobile cart was designed to accommodate all activities commonly undertaken by an individual living on the streets including cooking, sleeping, and even defecation. It was exhibited in art galleries; but also in the streets where the homeless of New York were given the product in an effort to ease the trauma of having no permanent shelter. It was revolutionary, offered concrete solutions, and most importantly brought visibility to a problem so easily hidden from view. The architectural competition herein proposed aims to do just that. If an artist can make such impressive strides, imagine what a collaborative team of technically trained designers would be able to accomplish. Unfortunately the Homeless Vehicle Project constructs were completely outlawed because the vagabond users did not have proper city permits to have the vehicles on the street. This exercise should hopefully not have such issues.

A competition for university students in architecture would call on their newly acquired skills to produce plans for housing that could be sent to areas devastated by natural disasters, in record numbers and at breakneck speeds. One could argue that their inexperience would allow for solutions deemed improbable or overly optimistic by seasoned professionals. It is only through seemingly naive eyes that truly innovative solutions can be created by students so eager to make their mark on the world outside of their campuses.

First and foremost, the social dilemma of homelessness is a vast, global crisis. The competition entrants are not superhuman, so the proposed task will not require them to be so. No one competition can address all the various aspects of the problem; therefore the undertaking needs to be limited in scope. Seeing that the organizer’s college would host the event, Pittsburgh would become the canvas for the project. The city has not experienced a significant natural disaster; therefore a dwelling suitable for Pittsburgh is somewhat irrelevant. Subsequently, a detailed ‘situation’ would be conceived. The brief would include all necessary information to create a design specified to a climate and geographic location as sustainable practices are intrinsically connected to the climates they serve. The design prompt would also include how many occupants are to be housed in a specified square footage allowance. Climate factors such as cooling degree-days would create a framework for the design’s sustainability requirements. The design problem would be circulated to every architecture school with the understanding that the exercise would require at least one semester with a moderate amount of work during the school week.

The competition would bear no resemblance to the common trend of a competition being solely an opportunity for architects to get published. It would be entitled “Architectural Altruism”, reiterating the unimportance of the individual designer throughout the proceedings. The entrants’ individual names would never be required. Broadcasting one’s collegiate affiliation would be left to sweatshirts and bumper stickers. True altruism never requires a congratulatory pat on the back, but as it is a competition, the winning designs would be celebrated, but only in the context of design excellence and not personal praise. The competition would assign simple numeric ids to each proposal upon its submittal that would be the only sign of authorship on each design from the judging to public exhibition.

“Architectural Altruism” is not merely a conceptual challenge, nor an exercise strictly bounded by accepted norms and construction practices. In the spirit of the Homeless Vehicle Project, entries are expected to focus on innovation and feasibility concurrently, as the most promising paper architecture is just that, paper architecture. The competition requirements would reflect these two domains. The end product would most visibly be a built, easily constructed product. Along with the structure, a detailed and extensive plan for the project’s actual implementation would compliment the tangible construct. The accompanying final presentation board would be sized at no more than eight feet by eight feet. By all means, it should not take an architecture degree to understand the representation of the design strategies. Plans, sections, and axons would be required, but they would not be the focus of the public presentation. Perspective drawings would be more useful in allowing a non-architect to understand the physical qualities of the space in different locales. Most importantly, the presentation board should be a realistic roadmap of sorts that would morph the singular construct into a colony of dwellings. Included on the board, each team would prepare a detailed list of all necessary materials, as well as a budget for a singular dwelling. A scheme illustrating how many units could be packed into one standard tractor-trailer would also accompany a master plan for an entire community of each team’s units. Due to the conditions of the areas where the dwellings would be needed, allowances for generators and basic water supplies would need to be addressed. All projects must also assert which national or international organization would be best suited for the design’s distribution and how such an endeavor could be executed. The competition based in Pittsburgh would be focused on designs for FEMA.

On a chosen day, a pre-packaged kit of parts for a single unit would be transported from one location to another and assembled. If the competition would be executed in Pittsburgh, the competition would start at the large greenspace of Schenely Park directly adjacent to Carnegie Mellon’s campus. This park mediates the connection between CMU’s campus and the large University of Pittsburgh population. The urban park also is a central node for the larger community of permanent residents giving it the desired visibility. The structures would then be moved to Point Park in downtown Pittsburgh at the confluence of the city’s three rivers. This would allow a whole other demographic of people to witness the competition and also verify each design’s transportability.

Designs would be judged by architects and laymen once displaced by a natural disaster alike based on economy, assembly time, the overall elegance of the design, and the unit’s transportability. If four individuals would need to be chosen that would be exceptional jurors for this competition, they would all have to be passionate and involved in architecture’s social possibilities. Three jurors in the profession that would be recommended are John Cary of Public Architecture, Reed Kroloff as former Dean of Tulane’s School of Architecture during the immediate aftermath of the storm, and Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity. In a perfect world, Brad Pitt who is working on a residential project in New Orleans and is a self-proclaimed architecture nut would offer unbelievable star power. Beyond these four jurors, the general public in reality would offer the most beneficial critique.

“Architectural Altruism” on a local scale would offer a specified design programme based on geographic location and climate. Ideally the competition would not only occur in Pittsburgh, but would induce a ripple effect across the country. Different segments of the nation would be asked to design for different specific cases. City Park in New Orleans, Millennium Park in Chicago, and Central Park in New York City could all house exhibits of student work while provoking reaction from the afternoon jogger and dog-walker that unknowingly happen upon the designs. Media coverage would be key, as the competition could again shine a light on the living conditions of communities we have so easily forgotten. The work needs to transcend the pages of professional periodicals and enter the common psyche, and the architecture should be judged not only by trained eyes, but also by the people the designs will serve. The invisible line in the sand between practitioner and public will be eliminated, as the architectural inquiries invade public greenspaces, outdoor markets, arena lobbies, and, yes, even your local shopping mall. The designs are only sacred because of their purpose, and it is time to take them out of the hallowed halls of pristine galleries allowing for the public to have a say. If all the stars align, this competition could even occur internationally at the same time, allowing the college students to stand in solidarity against the global crisis of homelessness and acknowledge that they have acquired the skills necessary to affect change.

This competition engages students in an exercise designing for a real world dilemma with extensive real world constraints. It may seem overly optimistic, but if we as architects are to consider ourselves innovators, we must respond to large-scale social crises with no apparent solutions with vigor and enthusiasm. Designing mobile housing for individuals displaced by natural disasters transcends political affiliations and national borders, becoming a truly social art.

Altruism is not defunct. Rather it is in hiding, waiting to be infused by new energy. This competition would give a face to a concept that is neither novel nor revolutionary, but a simple motto that every kindergartner would recognize as the golden rule. Our society can take cues from our evolutionary ancestors and fellow mammals that so eloquently help each other. Of course, monkeys also regularly eat their own feces, so there must be hope for us yet.

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