Fast Company

No Place Like Home

Two New York architects are using design to address pressing social challenges -- for the homeless, for war refugees, even for public-school kids. Here's their blueprint.

Since September 11, architects, like so many people, have found themselves reassessing their work. But for Deborah Gans and Matthew Jelacic, the attacks confirmed what they already believed: Design can serve as a powerful antidote to despair, destruction, and displacement.

Currently in their 10th year working together and their 5th year as partners in Gans & Jelacic, the pair is in the midst of several cutting-edge projects that share the same goal: to deliver practical and pleasant living spaces for people who need them desperately. Those people include the urban homeless, refugees in camps around the world -- even schoolkids in Staten Island, for whom a desk is a sort of home away from home. "We're looking to make a humane environment for people who don't normally have a voice to ask for it," says Jelacic.

Call it "extreme housing": design that answers Gans's question, "How do you shelter large populations quickly with dignity and quality at a reasonable cost?"

To house the homeless, Gans and Jelacic teamed up with a third architect, Marguerite McGoldrick, to design temporary units for a nonprofit group in New York. The modular units, which exist within a larger, enclosed space, are built from inexpensive materials and contain little more than a bed, a desk, and a closet. But they are not without aesthetic or personal touches.

The units include front porches for a sense of community plus name tags and mailboxes for individuality. They also take advantage of natural light. For the roofs, which must ensure privacy and meet safety requirements, the architects decided on a diaphanous wire screen. Their approach was affirmed when the units were displayed for an audience of Manhattan sophisticates. As Gans recalls, "Everybody said, 'These are great. I want one for my loft.'

"Isn't that ironic?" Gans continues. "But we didn't mind at all. Why should architecture be less beautiful for poor people or less useful for rich ones?"

Jelacic agrees. "A lot of people would say the homeless are lucky to have anything," he says. "We think that what they do have might as well be as beautiful as we can make it. It just takes somebody paying attention."

The benefits of paying attention soon became apparent in the design of a state-of-the-art elementary-school desk. Originally hired by the New York City School Construction Authority to create a desk with space for students to both write and use a computer, the architects uncovered a host of other pressing issues.

Their research resulted in a 24-inch cube known as the Workbox, which has storage space for books (to alleviate the burden of carrying gigantic backpacks), steel casters (due to overcrowding, many students have to set up camp in, say, the cafeteria), and built-in whiteboards and chalkboards (on which the students can personalize their space). "It's a piece of furniture, but it's also an environment for kids," says Gans. "It's a nomadic house."

In their most ambitious project, Gans and Jelacic have turned to the global challenge of disaster-relief housing. The duo hopes to invent an entirely new approach to the current model: a sea of tents set up far from refugees' former homes. The architects have designed units that can be transported back to the city or town where the refugees previously resided (as basic dwellings) and ultimately turned into the infrastructure around which permanent homes would be built.

In 1999, their housing proposal won an international competition sponsored by USAID (United States Agency for International Development), Architecture for Humanity, and War Child. And last November, they received a grant from Johnnie Walker's Keep Walking Fund. For the international competition, the guidelines were stringent: Designs had to allow for structures that could go up in 24 hours and stay up for two years.

Gans and Jelacic have found that their training gave them a unique perspective. "The aid agencies think about emergency supplies to stop human devastation," says Gans. "As architects, we think about homes. The agencies want to take care of certain physical needs in certain physical ways, but displaced people have all kinds of other issues: What are their cooking habits? Where do they go to the bathroom? If you take care of those problems, the physical environment will be easier to manage." Such questions might seem basic, but they are often overlooked until, say, a cholera outbreak occurs.

In all of their work, Gans and Jelacic combine a sense of pragmatism with a respect for the power of design. "You don't want to force architecture to take care of problems that it isn't good at solving," Gans says. "But displacement is an architectural issue."

Curtis Sittenfeld (csitten@soli.inav.net) writes from Iowa City, Iowa. Contact Deborah Gans and Matthew Jelacic by email (dgmjarch@aol.com).

Sidebar: Simply Chic

Architecture is chic. Head lice isn't. But, as Deborah Gans and Matthew Jelacic have discovered, the two are more connected than you might think.

The New York architects do take on traditional assignments, but they spend the bulk of their time on fringier work: housing units for refugees and the homeless and cutting-edge desks for kids. And when your clients are on the fringe, sometimes you have to address pretty unchic issues.

While designing the desks, Gans and Jelacic learned that the preponderance of head lice meant that teachers had to keep students' coats in sealed bags -- so they gave the desks individual coat hooks. "It's gross," Jelacic says. "But there it is."

The architects' latest unfashionable enterprise is the television -- or, more specifically, trying to allow for TVs in the refugee-housing plans by providing tarps with a photovoltaic laminate. "All over the world, the one thing that everybody wants, no matter how little they have, is a television," says Jelacic. "It's amazing how consistent that is."

While Gans's and Jelacic's highest priority is to give their clients what they want and need, the architects emphasize that they're still far from indifferent to issues of style.

"In a certain way, we're arrogant, because we figure we'll just do our work so well that it won't matter whether we're chic or not," says Gans. "If we do it well enough, it will become chic."

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