Good Shelter

The Los Angeles Men’s Project (LAMP), a housing program for mentally ill homeless men based in the heart of the city’s Skid Row district, needed a way to set itself apart from the activity of San Julian Street. They had a small budget of $10,000 but didn’t want to just throw up a spiky jail-yard fence. Councilwoman Jan Perry, known for her dedication to good design and community projects, brought the problem to the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where new professor Alexis Rochas—a native of Buenos Aires and a recent Cooper Union grad—formed a semester-long seminar to tackle the proposal.

Rochas was familiar with the area, where the sidewalks are crowded at all hours with people arguing, talking with friends, huddling in sleeping bags, canvassing for change, scavenging for food, or just hanging out. “This street is a social base,” says Rochas, who lives around the corner. “There’s a dynamic when you come here—people are living on and really occupying the street.”

It was essential that the structure respect the microcosm of the street while providing LAMP with security and a sense of shelter. “We wanted it to be the front yard between one realm and the other,” Rochas says, “to keep the space open but contained.” Instead of creating a traditional fence, the class took note of the “violent” sunlight and came up with an undulating form that provides shade to both the street and the LAMP courtyard.

To start, Rochas divided the project into a series of problems: transparency, shading, outdoor furniture, landscaping, security, and water systems. The class of 12 was split into pairs, each focusing on one problem. “In the beginning it was a pastiche,” Rochas says of the programs they developed. “We realized we needed one material system.” He came up with flexible ribbons of poly board—recycled waterproof polyurethane panels—that could be woven over a wood structure supported by a steel frame. Once the students started manipulating that system, he explains, it became clear the results would be better if they began to think as a group. “At some point their own intuition told them that if we work together we can create something different than we are used to,” Rochas says.

On a sunny December day a few months after the sun shelter’s unveiling, a row of people sit street-side on a ledge that extends out from the sun shelter and others lounge on bleachers—formed by curves of poly-board ribbon—in the courtyard. Outside at eye level, an arresting series of hand-drawn portraits, by an artist who is an occupant of San Julian Street, depict some of the area’s denizens. As Rochas walks in, homeless men greet him with handshakes. “It’s a very small structure, but sometimes really minute interventions can trigger changes—you don’t necessarily need to build a whole housing complex,” he notes. “Sometimes it’s just about the little patch of shade.”

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