Posted By: Sam Schwarz|Dated: June 20, 2013

Whenever I visit MoMA in New York, my feet always take me to the Architecture and Design section on the third floor.

Whenever I visit the Architecture and Design section in Moma in New York, my eyes take me to the paraSITE homeless shelter designed by Michael Rakowitz.

Whenever I visit the paraSITE homeless shelter in the Architecture and Design section in Moma in New York, my mind always wonders: why don’t I see more of these?

In 1998, Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz initiated a project aptly named paraSITE, in which he built custom shelters for homeless people that attach on to the exhaust vents of major buildings. While the cold may not be as much of an issue in most of India, in many major western cities the winter brings the homeless populations a fight for their lives against the elements. The paraSITE project aims at keeping the homeless population warm in the winter through innovative upcyclying and creative design.

The paraSITE latches onto a building’s exhaust for internal heating, air conditioning and ventilation, and uses the warm air emitted to inflate itself and harness the otherwise unused heat to keep a person safe and warm. The deflated structures have handles and pack down into a safe carrying size so that the user can travel with the shelter, and find the next access point.

The project was not just a design solution, but also an act of protest against ‘homeless proofing’ efforts done on the part of major US cities. When the project was in its initial design phase, Rakowitz worked with a homeless man named Bill in Cambridge, Massachusetts while attending MIT.

At the time, the city of Cambridge had recently made a series of vents in Harvard Square ‘homelss-proof’ by tilting the metal grating, and thus making them virtually impossible to sleep on. Homeless-proofing efforts around the country include actions like re-designing bus benches so they cannot be slept on, installing shower heads in public parks to randomly drench anyone who would try to sleep there; and in Phoenix there where instances of restaurants adding cyanide to their garbage bags.

A prime example of the protesting nature of this project is the custom design done for Michael M. in New York City. The Giuliani administration had just put a new anti-tent by-law into effect that made any structure 3.5 feet or taller set up on city property would be considered an illegal encampment and would be removed. Rakowitz heard Michael’s complaint and custom designed a paraSITE shelter for him that worked within these boundaries. Michael was questioned on multiple occasions by the police, although in each instance, the police let him be after measuring the structure.

Since February of 1998, 30 of these structures were built and distributed in Cambridge, New York, and Baltimore. The shelters not only act as protection but also protest and empowerment against the growing anti-homeless sentiment in America. The shelters are made of materials readily available on the streets like plastic bags and trash bags, and with enough time and a tiny bit of training, just about anyone could create one of these.

The structures were designed in a multitude of variations including shelters for multiple inhabitants.

The paraSITE project is not necessarily a solution to the homelessness problems, or even a propositional design for affordable housing, but it is certainly a statement of survival, communicating a refusal to surrender, especially under the strains of new legislation and anti-homeless actions.

About the Author:

Sam Schwarz is a philosophy graduate of the University of Edinburgh.

Sam grew up in Manhattan, and went on to attend the University of Edinburgh. In Edinburgh, he became part of a community of artists and skaters with music, street art, and video production being a large part of his life during his college years. After studying philosophy, Sam went on to work in London and then Bombay, beginning a career in advertising.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

Subscribe to our mailing list

Sign up for the rise blog newsletter to keep up on new stories on Rise

Related Links:

If you enjoyed this article, keep up on new stories and conversations about Rise