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Could Charlotte’s Homeless Build Their Own Homes?

by Meg Freeman Whalen

May 2, 2013

Editor's Note:  Favelas: Architecture of Survival was organized by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art of the School of the Arts at the College of Charleston, SC, and curated by Mark Long, Professor of Political Science at the College of Charleston.

The exhibition currently in the Projective Eye Gallery at UNC Charlotte Center City is spawning new conversations about homelessness and its solutions. Favelas: Architecture of Survival is a collection of large-format photographs that depict the shantytowns in Rio de Janeiro, the longest-lived squatter settlements in the world.

Rio de Janeiro is home to more than one million favela dwellers, whose complex self-built communities long ago developed a rootedness that suggests permanence. Award-winning Brazilian photographer Pedro Lobo embedded himself in the favelas to document what he calls an “intense search for dignity in the midst of adversity.” His images are stunning; richly colored and startlingly clear, they present shelters both ill-kempt and well-scrubbed – layer upon layer of impromptu constructions that have become homes. One image shows bright Christmas lights strung across a dingy façade. In another picture, a vase of fresh flowers sits on a table topped with a clean yellow tablecloth.

At the opening of Favelas: Architecture of Survival on March 22, Lobo initiated a panel discussion on the issue of homelessness and transitional housing. Organized by gallery director Crista Cammaroto, “Negotiating the Gap” brought Lobo together with UNC Charlotte professors David Walters and Lori Thomas and Urban Ministry’s Director of Neighbor Services, Barbara Thomas, in a conversation that examined a variety of approaches to ending homelessness.

By far the most provocative of the solutions was David Walters’s suggestion that Charlotte’s homeless should, like Rio’s, be allowed to “build oneself out of a problem.” Walters, a professor of architecture and the director of UNC Charlotte’s Master of Urban Design program, cited the work of Swiss-born architect William Segal, who promoted “architecture in the service of human dignity” and created a system of self-built housing. “Incremental housing” in India, Walters also noted, establishes a situation in which the government provides land and basic infrastructure, such as water and sewage, and the households construct dwellings that meet their needs.

“We could have people building stuff right now if we could get society to deem it acceptable,” Walters said. “We could fill this whole room with reasons why we can’t do this, and homelessness would still exist.”

Certainly one objection might come from studying the favelas. As Lobo noted in his opening lecture, gangs and drug lords have replaced civil government there, creating a world of extortion, fear, and violence.

Dr. Lori Thomas, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, advocated for “Housing First,”  an approach that is demonstrating success nationally and is in its first year in Charlotte. As its name suggests, Housing First provides those experiencing chronic homelessness with a permanent home as the initial step in service. Urban Ministry Center’s Moore Place, an apartment building that opened in February 2012, is a Housing First initiative that is providing permanent supportive housing to Charlotte citizens.

With its 85 units, Moore Place can serve only a fraction of the nearly 1000 chronically homeless people in Charlotte. But solving homelessness, Barbara Thomas suggested, is accomplished “one person at a time” and begins with individual relationships.

The architecture class made 14 models for housing.Building those relationships prompted Crista Cammaroto to pair students in the School of Architecture’s “Dilemmas in Modern City Planning” with artists in the Urban Ministry’s Artworks 945 program. Each of the class’s 14 students was charged with designing a dwelling for a partnering homeless neighbor. Using the favelas as inspiration, Cammaroto’s only requirements were that the houses fit on a 10’x10’ lot and be off the grid. Beyond that, the students were to take their cues from their clients.

The Artworks 945 artists painted or drew their “dream” homes, then met with the students to discuss their designs. Some of the concepts were articulated in great detail. Nat Heyward’s homeless partner was a former drafter and supplied him with a precise floor plan. “Architecturally, he knew just what he wanted,” said Heyward. Others provided more poetic guidelines: “A place of security, a place to escape, a place to paint, a place to perform...” The students “left with an idea and came back with a finished product,” said Logan Creech, who is pursuing his master of urban design.

There were certain commonalities among the Artworks 945 artists’ visions, said Cammaroto. “Almost all of them wanted a place for meditation; almost all of them wanted security – a place where they could sleep where no one could get them.” But what the final models, now displayed in the front window at UNC Charlotte Center City, demonstrate is “that every one of the neighbor’s needs and designs were exponentially different,” Heyward said.

Heyward’s drafter admires Frank Lloyd Wright, so Heyward followed that aesthetic, stacking horizontal planes as part of the roof. Creech’s client is an environmentalist and loves the redwoods and sequoias, so Creech covered his model in tree bark. Gina DeMatteo’s partner is a Star Trek fan, so, although not a Trekkie herself, DeMatteo did some research and designed a spiral staircase in a tube so that he could “beam up” to the house’s loft. Her model sports a Spock figure inside, as well as a miniature version of the watercolor of his “dream” house that her partner gave her at their first meeting.

Thomas Coggin’s client had played the cello as a child and thought he might pick it back up. “The thing he kept saying over and over was that he wanted a place with good acoustics.” Coggin researched some opera houses and was impressed with the Casa da Música by Rem Koolhaas. The roof of his model has cut-outs of musical symbols so that when the sun shines, notes move across the room. “Hopefully that will inspire him musically.”

The students completed their models in just two weeks. “All of us were really concerned that we wouldn’t be able to satisfy what they wanted,” Coggin said. But when the models were presented, the clients were thrilled. “We had listened so closely and gave them what they wanted. They seemed really impressed that we had taken them so seriously.”

The project forged the very kind of relationships that Barbara Thomas claims are necessary to address homelessness. The students learned that “homelessness is not a choice” (DeMatteo) and that it “comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes” (Heyward). And it convinced the architecture students that, whether self-built or provided by professionals, there really is an architecture of survival.

“We looked at so many really cool, almost guerilla ways of sheltering the homeless,” said Heyward. “Maybe what this project shows is that there is a way to do it.”

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Tags: Pedro Lobo, David Walter, William Segal, Lori Thomas, homelessness, housing, Charlotte

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