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Alternatives to hostels: No. 1 - paraSITES

May 21 2009
Bedouin technology meets modern urban environment in Michael Rakowitz‘s collapsible dwelling "Parasitism is described as a relationship in which a parasite temporarily or permamently exploits the energy of a host," as it says on Michael Rakowitz's website. Rough sleepers are sometimes accused of being leeches on society. Michael Rakowitz believes that within architecture a parasitic relationship can be beneficial to both the host and the parasite. Having spent one month in Jordan on an architectural residency, Rakowitz returned to his home, Cambridge, Massacusetts, USA, inspired by the nomadic life of the desert-dwelling Bedouins. He had noticed how the tribal people would work with the way the wind blows across the desert when creating their homes, so that each structure was built that wind would move around it and within it, to stop the tents from collapsing, and to offer ventilation during the night. Once home, he realised that what he had seen in the desert was not so dissimilar to 'urban nomads' - people sleeping rough in the city. "Walking down a street that winter, I noticed a man sleeping just beneath the street-level exhaust fan of a building's HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) system," says Rakovitz. "This was another kind of wind, a wind that was being wasted by the city, a byproduct of a comfort system, recycled." He enrolled in a Nomadic Design architecture studio class in 1997, and began working on a prototype design based around what he had noticed. Each paraSITE is like a big sleeping bag with a tube that attaches to any air vent, expanding or contracting to fit, with hooks to keep it on. The expelled air goes into the paraSITE, both inflating and warming it, leaving it comfortable for the owner to sleep in at night. After use, it folds up into a portable case, either a backpack or hand-held. He showed the design to some rough sleeping friends for feedback. "At the time, I was working with black plastic binbags. While the guys were in support of this project as an intervention, they made critical observations. One noted that he would never want to live in black bin bags because of security issues. He wanted to see potential attackers and to be seen. Others told me that they felt it would make them more visible, and visibility is some kind of equality." Rakovitz also realised that "one size does not fit all," and in order to create something people could use, it would have to be built on an individual basis. "Each of the shelters were custom-built to the specifications of each inhabitant, broadcasting each individual's needs and desires. They are constructed from rubbish bags and weatherproof packing tape, on a material budget of less than $5 (about ¬¨¬£2.60) per unit." Since then, 36 paraSITEs have been built for people living in Boston and Cambridge (USA). Michael describes himself as being "interested in engaging and enlisting design, urban planning and architecture as subjects and media in my work." Not only does he design conscientiously, to provide affordable and practical alternative housing, he also hopes to draw attention to the subject matter. "While I received funding for my very first prototype to be professionally manufactured, the subsequent shelters have all been built by on my own," he says. "They are, of course, distributed for free and the project is self-financed." As each paraSITE is constructed on an individual basis, Rakovitz has spent time assessing not only the individual's needs, but also the impact the city makes. "I would be very interested in possibly instituting the project in London...[however], each city and its homeless community have distinctive conditions and properties, and the project may not make sense in certain contexts, or some other intervention might be needed and could be developed anew. But as most buildings have intake and outtake vents as part of an HVAC system, paraSITE adapts to most urban environments." However, Rakovitz does not see this as a long-term alternative to housing. "While the shelters do function, it is important to note that this project does not present itself as a solution. It is not a proposal for affordable housing. Its point of departure is to present a symbolic strategy of survival for homeless existence within the city, amplifying the problematic relationship between those who have homes and those who do not have homes." His newest public project, (P)LOT, uses fabric automobile covers and tent poles to produce an 'urban tent' for use in a parking space. "There are often no concrete laws determining what can or cannot exist on those plots. The tents are meant to playfully address this, providing camouflage in its appearance as a car or motorcycle, but to also inspire those who observe this strange use to ask questions about legitimate participation in city life which almost always mandates that one pays rent (in NYC, it is exorbitant) per month to acquire shelter and all necessary amenities."
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