Dig

Un-Fucking the Unloved

Capitalism is, of course, awesome in that it inspires awe. It is also horrifically cyclical, and cyclically horrific—Tulip Mania, 1637; Wall Street Crash, 1929; Black Wednesday, 1992; .COM, 2000; Financial Crisis, 2008. For the few people that win at the game, it’s a fucking blinder. But it’s well documented that most of us lose, and in ‘us’ I mean us all, everyone: the Russians, the Belgians, the nomads, the Islamists, the Mormons, the vegans, the Beliebers, the Ukippers, you, me. All of us.


Freedom of choice is often perpetuated as the greatest virtue of all: to be able to choose what to consume. Alas, that choice is confined to those that have the capital to effect such choice. For the rest of us, we’re limited by the capital we don’t have, and the worst of us are dictated an existence by the capital begged for, living on a timeline that extends no further than the next meal. Our homeless community are continually ignored and prescribed a third-tier life, either through economic persecution, emotional poverty or political tyranny, all contributing to a mentally and physically disturbed identity.


The architect’s solution is to get architect-ing, use some big words like ‘excrescent’ and deliver an orgy of pretty pictures. But it’s not homelessness that they tackle, simply shelterlessness. Projects such as ‘Urban Nomad’, ‘Wheely Shelter’, ‘Parasitic Sleeping’, ‘Shelter Suit’ and ‘Excrescent Utopia’ undermine the values of the homeless and the potential they might offer architects, the city and society as a whole. The projects become self-reverential, with architects reaping the good feelings but ultimately misunderstanding and therefore failing their end user. They fail to deal with the emotional complexities of the homeless individual, seeking not to integrate but to enforce social segregation, while furthermore making a product so vastly unaffordable that all the projects remain nothing more than paper dreams.


Just by engaging with the homeless we can identify that their utility of the city is not confined to perching atop yesterday’s Metro in the corridors of city centres. They are bound—or rather unbound—by their creativity as an answer to desperation and necessity, finding function in benches, shop fronts and the rear seat of buses, as well as in community houses, warehouses, queues to embassies, box office lobbies, churches, mosques, public squares, private squares, pop-up structures, demolished structures and public toilets—all spaces offering unique possibility for their new nomadic tenant. While the typically held narrative of homelessness deploys architectural interventions of inane structures to cover their heads, it is questionably little more than gesture architecture. The alternate reality is that their talent for extorting the last gasps of hope from the city is a talent no architect has learnt.


It’s not wealth we should lust for, but the abundance of resourcefulness, of knowledge, of a commitment to that which is intrinsic to the lives of our roaming community. This isn’t something new. There are stories across the centuries of innovative solutions, such as the Twopenny Hangover of Orwellian fame during Victorian times, in which ropes were used to suspend ‘vagrants’ above the floor, when sleeping horizontally in public was forbidden. People traversing the city daily to occupy new spikes to find warmth at night—as they did at the turn of the 20th Century—had a working knowledge of the city arguably more intimate than any other occupation. Modern-day homeless citizens are not mere islands fighting for survival; as John Donne writes, “every man is a piece of this continent.” They act as a mobile, offline network, sharing information of the top spots to keep warm, of the finest places to get help, to get information, to stay out of trouble. It is an untapped resource discovered by the intelligent, relentless continuation and persistence of a dejected community.


To change the narrative, it might help by simply defining those living in homelessness as people part of our populous, not people enduring an alternative human existence that runs parallel, defiantly distant to our own existence. Our role in society is as important as those that have suffered for it. Therefore, the current uppity architecting of our era might be challenged if the perception of value is exchanged. Instead of the architect exuding their super-duper help-powers to those of the great unwashed, what if the homeless played the role of educator, developing the shape shifting dexterity of today’s new architects?


Architects need to think harder about un-fucking the unloved. It seems appropriate that the unrecorded knowledge that our nomadic homeless community contains is worthy of greater study, greater appreciation. The unloved mobile population is brought yet more starkly into light as British Conservative Party’s George Osborne purrs the numbers of economic growth, essentially reinforcing their position of a life fucked, and as one side-lined member of society says, a life seen through “shit coloured glasses.”


–This feature was originally published in LOBBY No.4 'Abundance' (Spring 2016). It can be found in pages 20–21. To get your copy of LOBBY, click here.