When Design Meets Ethics

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Final model for homeless shelter by Lamiae Ameziane. Photo by Doron Serban.

Much goes unnoticed in the hectic noise of the city. Even the homeless—some of whom are desperate to be noticed—tend to be pushed to the background of what society chooses to acknowledge. 

San Francisco’s homeless population is a unique one, but while many are aware of this rarely do many choose to participate in its alleviation. We share the city with the homeless but we pay little attention to them. 

The same could be said of architecture. We live, play, transit and work in the built environment but many hardly notice the buildings that frame every moment of each day. Homeless shelters tend to be just as forgettable, or even avoided by the public. A decade ago, San Francisco had 1,910 shelter beds, which has since decreased substantially despite an increase in the homeless population (Heather Knight, SF Gate, 27 June 2014). 

When architecture decides to do better—when we decide we ought to do better—design and ethics merge into exceptional statements about who we are as people and what we’re willing to do for others.

Such were the projects that came out of (un)SHELTERED, the most recent theme for the ARH 250 design studio. This spring, second year architecture students designed prototypes for communal homeless shelters. The site for their building designs was in the heart of homeless San Francisco, wedged between Market Street and Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin district. 

Led by co-instructors Doron Serban and Sameena Sitabkhan, the students’ work was exhibited, fittingly, at the Tenderloin Museum. The projects on display embodied much more than gallery artifacts, however. 

One student, Kathleen Agonoy, said the project “was very hard, but the interview was helpful.” Each student was required to interview a homeless person living in San Francisco. The interesting thing, she said, was figuring out “how to accommodate their needs and break away from the typical barrier between public and private space."

After their interview, students were tasked with designing an Individual Guerilla Sleeping Unit (IGSU) for this person. Serban and Sitabkhan asked the students to “design one story for one person; it could be one night or many, portable or permanent.” These were the seeds for the homeless shelter designs, to which other more public spaces would be added. 

It has been a constant in the ARH 250 studio to integrate an outside program, or alternative function, within the design project. In the past, Serban and Sitabkhan have seen student designs that mixed a fire station with a women’s clinic, an elementary school with a children’s refugee center, and a library inside a BART station.

“We wanted to challenge the students to rethink their primary user group while inserting public uses that would not typically be found in a shelter in order to allow diverse groups to interact,” said Serban.

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Drawings for Individual Guerilla Sleeping Unit (IGSU). Photo by Naomi Rojas.

The students benefit from their intimate studies with the homeless while negotiating sometimes tenuous semi-public programs within their design work. Bringing in “other programs was beneficial because others in the public wouldn’t usually go to homeless people,” said Agonoy. “We tried to make the public more knowledgeable about the homeless, so they wouldn’t neglect them on the street.”

It is a case of the process being more important than the product. “I feel that architecture is about those opportunistic moments where people meet,” said Agonoy, who designed her homeless shelter woven within a transgender health clinic. 

More than the final designs themselves, the students have taken lessons from their research that will have lasting effects. They have not only learned that design can embrace ethics; they have experienced how design can act ethically.