Olson Kundig Tackles Homelessness

General / People / Places / August 14, 2012

Five floors beneath Olson Kundig Architects’ offices on Occidental Avenue South in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, the firm has leased former retail space that it calls [storefront].  It’s used to make a number of cultural statements, from art to music to its most recent iteration: SKID ROAD, an exploration of the issue of homelessness. A+A recently interviewed Alan Maskin, partner in the firm, and Marlene Chen, an associate there, about the installation.  Their responses will run in two consecutive segments, today and tomorrow.

Why focus on the homeless here, and why now?

Alan: On most mornings—particularly if it’s been raining—there is a homeless person sleeping in the covered doorway of our storefront. The problems associated with poverty and homelessness has been an issue in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood for nearly a century. An undercurrent of the installation seeks to promote two parallel tracks: some of the community members who are trying to ease the daily hardships for those living on the streets in our neighborhood and others who are working to eradicate homelessness altogether.

Who are the intended audiences?

Alan: With each public [storefront] installation we are interested in seeing what occurs when people from diverse backgrounds overlap in our space—and the results have been remarkable. For SKID ROAD, we’ve assembled activists, politicians, historians, social service providers, artists, evangelical Christians, designers, community members, and members of Seattle’s homeless community. These groups rarely end up in the same room together. Typically, each group of people that we partner with to make these installations tends to bring their “world” along with them—as was evidenced by the hundreds of people that attended our SKID ROAD opening event.

Marlene: For SKID ROAD, we didn’t set out with an intended audience, but if people who work in the neighborhood can learn more about the organizations and people, many of whom are located in this same neighborhood, then that would be a tremendous learning experience.  We sought to bring together a representative mix of organizations including groups that provide direct services, like Bread of Life Mission and Chief Seattle Club, those who provide housing and shelter, like Compass Housing Alliance and DESC, organizations that are self managed and run the tent cities, like SHARE and WHEEL, to those who do advocacy work, like Real Change and Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) and also bring the voice of the government, like Committee to End Homelessness (CEHKC).  These groups do not often have an audience with the general public, so bringing these groups together with people who may not be as familiar with their work is so worthwhile.

What are the main messages and what do you hope to achieve?

Alan: With the challenge of homelessness, we think there is an inclination for most people to look away. SKID ROAD—like several of the other [storefront] installations we’ve done over the year—asks the public to look closer. I’ve known about artist/nurse Mary Larson’s work (in art and philanthropy) and the work Tim Harris created at Real Change newspaper (providing jobs to the homeless community) for a long time. Much of the resulting research of the other organizations was either a superficial understanding, or entirely new to me. This work blew me away. We assumed this would be illuminating to others as well—so
on some level, we hope it will both educate and inspire visitors to dig deeper and consider ways they might engage the issue of homelessness personally.

Marlene: One of the main messages is that every group has a different approach, but it’s important to remember that every group is working towards the same goal—easing the effects or eradicating homelessness.  Our goal here was to convene and create a conversation.  SKID ROAD is not a complete representation of the work in the region—there are dozens of other organizations and individuals doing really innovative work.  During our research phase, we visited each of the organizations to see their facilities and staff in action.  A shelter or a day center is a theoretical concept until you walk into one and face the number of people who are waiting for these spots or services.  To have a safe, quiet place to rest during the day is invaluable.

Tomorrow: Architecture and art as part of the solution.

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Mike Welton

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