|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2019|
Statements Regarding the 2004 Berkeley Prize Question
In selecting this year's Berkeley Prize topic - those without shelter, the Committee was acutely aware that the subject matter raised a host of issues, some of which are often seen as foreign to a discussion of architecture. Even among academics and professionals there is no consensus as to how to discuss, let alone attack, the design issues raised by the problems of the displaced and disenfranchised. This should not and cannot prevent such a discussion from occurring. It is at the heart of exploring the social art of architecture.
As a way of demonstrating the breadth of debate surrounding these issues, the Berkeley Prize Committee decided that the Committee members should write a brief response regarding this year's Prize topic. They were asked to submit a "Statement" regarding some aspect of the Question that they found particularly intriguing or even vexing.
Alone. Uncared for. Isolated from one's own people. Lost nationality. Without family. In emotional distress. Hungry. Wet. Cold. Without shelter. Homeless and needy in the extreme. Without hope?our client.
Before architecture can come into play, there must be a social program designed to provide security, emotional support, economic assistance, shelter and hope. There must be a demonstrated will of the political process to enact the social program. The challenge of this year's Berkeley Prize Competition, as I see it, is (1) to reflect upon the goals for social and political change that will address the needs of the disenfranchised and (2) to focus on architectural responses that embrace the lost and needy in supportive physical settings.
The questions that this year's competition raises are not new. To inform their explorations, participants in the Berkeley Prize discourse will benefit from mining the treasures of architectural history to discover built paradigms devoted to this mission.
So, when does architecture come into play? Architecture is founded on principles of functional purpose, mathematical order, structure and aesthetic delight; however, most importantly, architecture is a social art. At the scale of the city, architecture can create the framework for social interaction and promote collective well-being. At the scale of the individual, architecture must also provide sanctuary for each of us to be alone.
Ultimately, what I treasure are the town square, the front porch, the city park, the building lobby, places that work where respect for the individual and collective well-being are in balance. In my view, it is everyday places that become our cultural monuments and architecture provides the timeless symbols of our culture(s).
How to these paradigms translate for future generations?
After six years of formal architectural education, I can count on less than five fingers the number of times that I was, even indirectly, encouraged to consider the many displaced people in our society, much less those individuals or facilities that assist this population. I have no doubt that our design-based studio education affords some unique insights into the way the world works--and could work better--but the sheer complexity of this social phenomenon is well beyond our training in countless ways.
If architecture is truly the solution, or even a solution, to the many social ills that we purport it to be, why is the impact of our profession on the built environment and society so nearly invisible? Why, instead, do quality architecture and design remain privileges of only the private sector? Ours is a culture born within the design studio and then perpetuated and exacerbated by our training and licensure processes. There are exceptions to this rule, like the mission of this essay competition, but the marginalization of architecture persists. What can we build on and what needs to change within architectural education, training, and practice as well as public policy and society? How can members of our profession more consistently make meaningful contributions to displaced peoples and so many others that could benefit from quality architecture and design?
Architects can do no more - nor less - then any other individual member of a community to attempt to ameliorate the vast problems of the displaced. Architects can, however, be instrumental in maximizing the goals and good works of organizations and governmental agencies whose role it is to assist those without the immediate means to help them.
In Los Angeles, the City-run Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority provides funding and guidance for a network of local, non-profit agencies. One such agency is an organization called People Assisting The Homeless (PATH). PATH's primary mission is to break the cycle of homelessness by empowering homeless people with the tools for self-sufficiency.
PATH is located in a renovated and previously abandoned three-story office building in the heart of an urban area frequented by those in need. The center provides a large array of services. These include a "shopping mall" of satellite offices of many of the city's social service agencies. In addition, there is transitional housing in private cubicles, cooking facilities, showers, a barbershop and beauty salon, a medical clinic, a legal aid clinic, a job-training program, mail/message pick-up services, and child care for "drop-in" clients.
The architect, Jeffrey M. Kalban & Associates, helped PATH develop the program for the facility and designed a tour-de-force award-winning structure that has helped attract more of the people who are in need of the provided services. The new environment says to them: You are not only welcome, but your special needs are treated in a special way and with dignity.
PATH can handle hundreds of clients a year; the need, of course, is far greater. It is, in the final analysis, the kind of "small" success that architects in their role as professionals can actually make happen.
I was in New York City during the blackout of August 14th and 15th 2003. Public life returned to the streets of Manhattan that night with people sitting on front steps to eat, drink and socialize. I heard partying all night long on 9th Street in the Village. From my historical research on parks I know that until World War II many people slept in Central Park on extremely hot nights. Air-conditioning along with automobiles and television has eviscerated public life. That night it returned. There were many temporarily homeless people who had to make use of sidewalks, parks, and lobbies. Some walked home, but others simply could not walk the long distances out to the suburbs, so they turned to public spaces for the night's accommodation. Even some of those who could reach home were tempted to sleep outside on that hot and muggy night. Others were tempted simply to join the fun on the street.
When designing for the weak, the disabled, or poor includes middle-class people, one of several benefits is that political support for commodious urban design will have a broader base. By starting with the neediest the less needy also benefit; for example, curb cuts for the wheelchair-bound made life easier for others riding bicycles, pushing baby carriages and grocery carts, or pulling luggage on wheels. In this regard, the blackout offers an excellent opportunity to rethink the streets, lobbies, parks, plazas, sidewalks-- the entire public sphere and even the semi public sphere-- from the point of view of accommodating a lot of people who might have to sleep there for the night. It suggests access to showers, toilets, multilevel platforms and other kinds of demarcation to create psychologically comfortable territories for sleeping. These same spaces would accommodate daytime workers and especially tourists who would also welcome opportunities for rest in their grueling rounds. As an Alexander teacher I know that all of us would benefit from flat places to rest our spines rather than letting them collapse in chairs. The blackout can help us think about how to make the physical environment more hospitable for everyone.
I hope the entrants to this year's Berkeley Prize competition will give some thought to what has become known as the "politics of position." The term refers to the position writers construct for themselves and their readers through their texts. All texts are written from a position: from above, as a disengaged observer; from below, as part of the grassroots; from within a specific community (academic or otherwise), to name just a few. These representations are always partial, and are shaped by the writer's cultural background, national identity, professional training, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, amongst others. Groups such as "the homeless" or "the displaced" often have limited access to the means of representation, and are frequently examined, modeled and studied by experts from above. Writing about displaced people can therefore also be an act of displacement, in which received categories and concepts push aside and silence the voices and experiences of those who are studied. Writing that is informed by the politics of position acknowledges the unequal relations of power that our texts construct between the subjects and objects of knowledge, and in this case, between "the placed" and "the displaced" in metropolitan life. This year's Berkeley Prize question is therefore double-edged. It is about the plight of "displaced people" and the politics of position that arise when the "placed" write about them. When I review the answers, I will be interested to see how the knot that joins these two conditions together is undone and retied.
Rather than take on the whole set of issues on homelessness or of some other disenfranchised group, find one person and see and understand the world through his/her eyes.
I'm most interested in what we can learn not so much from what we see and witness, but from what we can not see. That is, can't see in the sense that we are conditioned to see from our eyes, values, expectations, and experiences. What would we see if we were in their eyes, if we lived in their world, not ours?
For those that have fallen between all the cracks--all the various safety-nets, charitable organizations, services and programs--for those that have only themselves and their own worlds, the most distant and isolated of the disenfranchised, what can we in the design field offer them? Words only?? Is it possible with words, to construct real physical elements, artifacts and/or conditions?
Build through the craft of the word what this physical intervention might be that would materially enhance their lives or quality of life as is meaningful to them; that allows them to live their choice, not necessarily to merge or be mainstreamed into our choice(s).
The Krzystzof Wodiczko's "homeless vehicle project" comes to mind when I think of this challenge. In a similar manner, find ways that don't necessarily question their choices or values. This essay is a call for much more than research and investigation, it should take the form of a prescriptive and proactive work. Form physical propositions framed in words; i.e. build with words.
My hope is that as students take up this year's Proposition and Question, they would consider two things:
First, I would like to see students come to learn about the institutions (i.e., homeless shelters, coalitions for the homeless, etc.) that are likely already in place in their cities trying to address the problems of displaced persons. What are those institutions' analyses and recommendations? If students come to know what is happening on the ground, they then can craft their own recommendations in such ways as to develop, extend, and add to the recommendations already in place, and thus not simply reinvent the wheel.
Second, students' analyses of the institutions already at play could lead to a deeper inquiry about whether these institutions are acting singularly, or perhaps as a kind of social service ensemble, or perhaps even as a united front/social movement. Here I would like to see students take up the challenge to evaluate the political line of recommendations. Are the institutionally based recommendations for the displaced seeking to provide better services within the system as it is? Or perhaps they are progressive demands? To what extent are the recommendations anti-market, anti-corporate, anti-racist, or even anti-capitalist?
Displacement of people from their homes - whether it is born by economic or political oppression, violence of war, or other societal inequities - is not a design problem. The loss of necessary, secure and cherished places, the homes and neighborhoods in which people lived, cannot be replaced by any architectural intervention that I know of. But is it possible, then, for an architect to engage meaningfully in design activities intended to rehouse displaced people? What knowledge and objectives can and should guide us in these efforts? Few of us, fortunately, have personal, hence practical knowledge of the traumas of displacement, and there is very little theory to assist.
So what can we do? Perhaps my professional experiences as the co-director of a university-based community design center working with primarily in low-income communities can provide some guidance. Here's a brief list of do's and don'ts that my word limit allows:
Do not attempt to find a universal solution to the housing and community needs of all displaced people. The homeless, refugees, the poor, and other people seeking new home places are individuals, families, and communities with varied backgrounds, experiences, needs and aspirations. And the new places these people find themselves in are equally diverse. Respond to the specific context.
When possible involve to the fullest extent people in the design, plan, construction and management of their own housing and neighborhoods.
Collaborate with other professionals to broaden your knowledge and impact.
Become an activist not as a professional, but as a citizen, to root out the causes of displacement.
Throughout the modern period, architects and planners have sought to use design as a means of effecting behavior and reforming society. From the salt works at Chaux by Ledoux to the Unit?'habitation by Le Corbusier, the history of architecture is rife with lessons about the close connection between architectural ideas and design and the betterment of the societies for which they were made. Today, the migration of the poor and disenfranchised to urban centers to seek refuge and opportunity is a global issue. It is particularly challenging throughout most of the developing world, where solving the problems of providing housing and basic human services to swelling ranks of the urban populous is particularly problematic. Solutions will be found only when one considers design concepts broadly and with a social consciousness, when the architect or planner is willing to go beyond simply the creation of forms and buildings, but rather attempts to use planning principles and the creation of forms to facilitate and even bring about the creation of new social institutions and situations designed to alleviate these social ills. I would urge designers and theorists to consider history as a guide to the successes and failures of architects to confront these issues, and to look to solutions in other parts of the developing world for inspiration and ideas that could be adaptable to solving the problems of the displaced within their local community.
Concerning the plight of refugees-the subclass of displaced persons for whom Western culture is most likely to be alien-the investigative architect may find that she cannot proceed to use the tools of her discipline before calling upon the techniques of social inquiry that grow out of history, law, sociology, and anthropology. To imagine, then, that architecture may be isolated from those other disciplines in its response to the plight of urban refugees could prove frustrating.
For example, if the basic goal of the architect is to design spaces in which the homeless could literally be at home, he is going to first engage with a group's conception of being at home. This contest sets the architect in an urban environment, but the city itself may be a barrier to a refugee group's ability to feel at home. Is this a group of West Africans recently arrived to escape civil war, or did they come from Southeast Asia twenty-five years ago? Beyond that, the group's situation is going to be affected by their prior experiences with cities. Is this a group from Monrovia or Bangkok, or were they from the countryside of Somalia or the mountains of Laos? Perhaps they are a mixed group, with internal barriers of which the architect may be unaware.
Finally, the architect is going to engage with the problems of law, though not simply the kind of zoning law or laws of physics to which she is accustomed. The rules that govern a group's attitude towards public and private space have the force of law, and before an architect can begin to make a group feel at home, he is going to have to investigate that group's laws of space, while de-naturalizing his own vision of the urban environment, with its private apartments and public parks and squares.
Millions of people all around the world, due to civil wars, natural disasters, armed conflicts, oppressive governmental policies, or just bad economic situations, currently are living as internally or externally displaced people.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the recommendations concerns one might make would stem from an understanding of how local policy affects architectural solutions to the problem at hand. The term architectural solution must reflect an understanding of the technical and social role of the architect. That is what the architect is privileged to offer, as a designer, in solving complex social and physical problems.
Like many words we use as shorthand for complex ideas, refuge is ironic. Dictionaries typically define it as "a place providing protection or shelter," yet its Latin precursor meant "to run away," so refuge implies opposite conditions -- shelter and escape, containment and displacement, stasis and flight. Shelter itself harbors unexpected contradictions, for its early English version signified a shield or other armored gear. While we think of shelter as a place of comfort (home, after all, is where the heart is), the term appears to have sprung from a battlefield -- a place of conflict, not comfort. Even place is subtly confused, for we use it to suggest a clearly demarcated area, yet it originally referred to a street, a space invented for movement, not fixity.
Hence, the concepts most essential to space, place, and architecture are troubled. Upon reflection, this should not surprise us. The common understanding of shelter as "protection from the elements" assumes a clash between humanity and the environment, so the very idea of shelter implies a precarious condition, one that is unavoidable in contemporary discussions of "displaced" peoples and "refugees." How does the modern predicament of displacement -- a lack or loss of place -- relate to more general existential issues embedded in architecture? If cities, as the embodiments of community, are unable to shelter the entire community successfully, does this failure relate more to current problems or to unresolved tensions inherent in the purpose of cities?
Cities are comprised of many interlaced public and private worlds and we are expert at avoiding those that we do not belong to and have no wish to see or experience. The world of the dispossessed, the insecure and the transitory is sublimated by that of the affluent and the secure and so remains virtually invisible until we seek it out.
The problems and challenges that this shadow world poses are not necessarily architectural yet they warrant exploration, identification and recognition. The trauma of existence for the homeless and the displaced can be overwhelming and often defeats the most robust of interventions however well intentioned. Observation, analysis and reflection will prompt ideas for immediate and emergency shelter, for refuge and hostel, for the housing of support agencies that could improve the quality of life to be sustained and occasionally given dignity. The problems to be faced confront our sensibilities - how can we allow such poverty to pass unanswered within our culture of affluence and ease? How can we trespass into the lives of the poor, weak and transitory without seeming to be patronising and predatory? And finally, how can we respond through our skills and knowledge as architects?
The greatest challenge in the way of social equity in regards to homelessness is invisibility. The displaced are almost invisible. It is not a social issue the modern cities and their inhabitants are willingly facing. People without homes are taken off streets to be relocated away from the public eye. It seems they are shamefully hiding the fact that they do not tolerate other people's misery or their own hypocrisy. This attitude must change. How can a problem be faced seriously if it is invisible in the mind of others?
There are specific ways to approach this problem as an architect. The first thing is to realize the limitations of our own field. That the problem at its core is economic and sociological, but not architectural. One can only do so much as an architect, in terms of defining appropriative space, before certain privacy barriers are breached. Institutionalizing our solutions to the problem is tricky since most displaced will distrust them. The amount of help architects can offer is largely influenced by cultural differences most of the time based on climate. Some people in Rome, for example, willingly live homelessly or at least are only in need of accessible outdoor public spaces. The climate permits it. On the other hand, in Montreal where temperatures in the winter reach well below what is humanly bearable, direct action can and has to be taken to provide comfortable live-in spaces. Probably the most important action that can be taken globally is the reintegration of the practice into the business of real-estate. By having socially conscious architects within organizations buying and selling land, a more specific approach to the problem can be achieved.
This question raises issues about rights and responsibilities. Displaced persons, through circumstances beyond their control or as a result in some part of their own initiative, find themselves without a place they can call home. In an era when global institutions have declared that every person has certain inalienable rights, what would we say are the rights of these people? What conception of "common land" claims the privilege of excluding others? The notion of public land and public domain has varied tremendously over time - in some eras and places common land was available for many people to use for a wide range of purposes. Squatters and transient populations have historically used these areas for dwelling, even if temporarily. Should we advocate for a broader understanding of land tenure than freehold? What kinds of temporary, or "use" rights could be understood to be part of the common domain?
Another way to frame this question is the corollary of rights - that of responsibilities. If rights reside in the person, responsibilities which come with those rights demand certain obligations. Architects, as shapers of the built environment, make countless decisions which accept or deny responsibility for the wider uses people make of spaces. Do architects have a responsibility to consider all public activities which take place in buildings and spaces?
My experience working with homeless individuals and institutions in San Francisco showed me that the provision of food and shelter has much more to do with social and political forces than it does with architecture, so the question about the potential of design to improve the quality of living for the disenfranchised is difficult to approach in isolation from all of the other issues associated with their needs.
A paradox in our society is that we tend to believe that architecture is socially relevant when in reality only the privileged are able to make choices about their physical environments, leaving the rest to make do with whatever is affordable. Architects may choose to pursue "affordability" as a primary aim, but even the terms of "affordability" are more determined by extra-architectural interests than they are by design.
On its own, the practice of architecture may not directly provide for those in need, yet to deprive it of any social relevance is to deny the very possibilities that make it important in the first place. The question remains then, how to expand the potential power of design within the political and social structures that limit it and, in many ways, produce the actual problems to which architecture responds.
My sobering experience in a Mission District homeless shelter wasn't that better buildings were needed - just more money for food, medicine and education. I think there is a big difference between asking "what do people need?" and "what can architecture provide?"
It's a challenging issue that goes so far beyond what we tend to understand as architectural design. Students might interview staff of shelters and soup kitchens, as they are likely to have some poignant views. These staff must have a wealth of observations of the people they serve, and have had time to reflect on the problems they observe. I tend to come up mainly with questions that might be explored.
If one has a budget to spend on design and construction of a transitional shelter of some kind, will it be accepted by those for whom it was intended? What if one discovers that the displaced are homeless by choice? If homelessness is a lifestyle choice, is there a role for the environmental designer in improving the condition of their homelessness? Can the designer improve homeless "housekeeping"? Is the problem of homelessness really a problem for the homeless? Or are the perceptions and values of the more prosperous an imposition on the homeless of our society?
Any group of displaced people must have widely varying problems and needs, just as the rest of the population does. While some may be chronically angry personalities, others may have psychological dysfunction or disease (like alcoholism) which prevents them from making good decisions, or from following a productive path out of their disenfranchised situation. How does a designer of the physical environment find a way of assisting if the primary need is not shelter? What is the designer to do if one comes to the conclusion that the majority of displaced persons have psychological, emotional, behavioral, or social problems that far outweigh their housing needs? Is there a role for the designer here?
The question comes to me as I am in Paris, a world city with immense wealth, impressive expressions of social responsibility, but also the familiar legion of homeless. As I flow with the swarm of tourists from site to site, it is impossible to miss the lumps of blankets with feet sticking out, the kneeling women with their cardboard "s.v.p." messages, and the cronies sharing benches and bottles. But I am very much an outsider here, with limited ability in French, and only a beginning sense of the city as a whole. I know nothing of any shelters, any specific services, actual homeless statistics, or any of those details that might add vividness and strength to the student essays. What I do know is that there are many homeless people here who appear happy and their happiness seems to come from having a space to sit and to talk, and to observe the world. Park benches and lawns are available with shade and sun and breeze. There is some income available to provide for beer and wine and food. There is a very real sense of place. To learn from Paris, to help the homeless have a home, so to speak, we need more truly public places dispersed throughout the city, with fewer restrictions on how to use them. Beyond this, we need more free toilets and showers, covered areas with cots and privacy, and nearby health care. In short, we need to design societal acceptance with high standards of civilization.
The contemporary moment of globalization is often portrayed as one of flows, movement, and freedom. Yet, it can be argued that globalization works in and through an uneven geography, that not everyone can cross national borders, and that not everyone can stake a claim to urban space. We need to pay attention then to this differential mobility. If on the one hand globalization is marked by the privileged figure of the migrant entrepreneur, Silicon Valley transnationals for example, so is it marked by the de-privileged figure of the refugee contained within camps and other policed spaces. But I would argue that it is not enough to look at processes of displacement. We also need to understand the ways in which the displaced construct and re-construct place. What are their tactics and techniques of place-making? How are identities, even resistances, thus formed? Finally, this competition lays down a challenge for us to act as scholars and professionals on the issue of displacement. Such an endeavor, I would argue, requires us to critically think about the politics of expertise. Architecture and physical planning remain saddled by the cumbersome legacy of environmental determinism. What are the ways in which we can develop a form of praxis that allows us to tackle social concerns without the arrogance of the "expert"?"
"The difficult part of communication, is the illusion that it has occurred" ?-unknown.
The interdisciplinary approach offered by this years Berkeley Prize presents a unique opportunity in academic research. I would highly encourage entrants to explore this way of working towards developing theses which dilate our academic and professional patterns.
The contemporary shift towards collaborative practices in the architectural profession speaks to disintegration of the all in one architect. Likewise, seasoned professionals can attest to a maturation of naturally fluctuating forces at work in architectural problem solving. Design vision, technical development, and implementation in architecture, now have multiple constitutions. The momentum behind progressive growth begins on the one hand, with our mandate to research the mutability of our profession and its relationship with other disciplines. Directly addressing these dynamics with regard to social issues however, lies at the core of the Berkeley Prize.
In collecting your findings about displaced populations and developing ideas that address these conditions, see if you can break away from any fixations that may exist in your academic or applied practice. I would experiment with diversified modes of inception, and explicitly investigate the potential for broader facilities of implementation. Use the interdisciplinary approach to research and writing, as an opportunity to sponsor and discuss collisions that interfere with your architectural acumen.
It will be your job to realize the aspect of this year's topic which you will pursue. Nonetheless, your commitment to first hand research is critical before attempting to offer strategic proposals. Let your investigations be reflexive, and develop social diagrams to understand how each condition relates to the next. This will prove to be invaluable when refining your strategies and discussing your ideas.
Cultivate the tool for listening, and record circumstances as they are. Further sober your findings by consistently asking questions which may reveal deeper layers of information about social trajectories and group compositions. There are always hidden scenarios.
When examining social, economic and political networks, you should not rule out your sources prematurely. In many eastern cultures for instance, we know that tea is at the core of much social exchange. Therefore one might look towards the vendors and delivery people as potent sources for mapping social migrations and transactions. Interview pediatricians, emergency room doctors, lawyers, developers, politicians, and professionals from every discipline.
Ask yourself, are there new paradigms of poverty and displaced populations? You may find your proposals in their nascence to appear contrived, pedantic, trite, and somehow disassociated with the heart of matters. Consider why this may be, and even anticipate it. Grounding your investigations in a commitment to thinking about the identities of these displaced people, within and outside their ethos, will allow you to develop a critical debate.
"True humility is only gained through the constant imposition of ignorance" ?-G. Bachelard.
Certainly the root causes and eventual solutions to the issues of "displacement" do not reside in traditional architectural practice. Nonetheless, one natural response for students of architecture will be to examine how the designed environment can either facilitate or frustrate the ability of the "displaced" to find a "place" in the city. These physical interventions might run the gamut from foyers, residences and SRO's to social service outlets and public toilets to public art and agit prop. There is an inherent risk here of overemphasizing the ability of the designed environment to address ineffable questions of the human condition, but engaged architects try to do just that, without necessarily exaggerating the role of architecture in the process.
There is a role for design outside the production of a built artifact. An act of design can raise questions, provoke reflection, and shed light. As Lucien Kroll observes "There are designs that stir things up and others which comfort, designs that quietly encourage initiative among those who have lost the habit and others who are immobilized." The second prize essay in last year's Berkeley Prize, by Karen Wiese, discussed just such a project, where the goal was "to ignite debate about transportation and politics in Los Angeles".
Finally, as third prize winner Priyanka Shah observed last year, "If architecture aspires to be an instrument for social change it must first become a social process." Design interventions in response to social crisis are bound to be more effective when they are linked to social movements. This is the sense in which Michel Foucault argues that "[Architecture] can and does produce positive effects when the liberating intentions of the architect coincide with the real practice of people in the exercise of their freedom."
Over the past few years, in our small architectural practice, we have designed housing for a variety of homeless or near-homeless populations - disabled adults, single mothers, battered wives, adolescents unable to live at home, drug and alcohol abusers fresh out of detox programs, etc. Because of the nature of the work, with its long struggles to fund, design, cajole neighbors, and then build such projects, we rarely get to talk with the folks who actually inhabit the spaces we create. Sometimes we meet them after the fact - at an "opening" celebration-but never during the design process.
If I were a student responding to this year's question, I would venture out into the city and talk to people directly, people who are impoverished and homeless (or nearly so) and the people who are trying to serve them. I would listen to their stories; ask them, in very particular terms, what a person needs to get a foothold, a leg up, in society. I would then report what I discover, letting my recommendations - whether modest proposals or big, utopian plans (or some of each) - grow directly out of the stories I have heard, the needs I have encountered.
Students, if you imagine for yourself a professional career that includes "social practice" - designing buildings and spaces that in some way or another serve the impoverished - understand that the people you meet and talk to are both individuals, with particular stories, and representative of the human condition. In some sense they are your future clients. Use this moment to give them a face, a name, a story, and, by the very process of engaging them (and yourselves), some form of hope.
If one believes as I do that the problem of displacement is not fundamentally an architectural problem, but rather a problem of society's priorities, the question is: how can architects help solve the vexing problem of homelessness? Without diminishing the importance of the architect as designer of the built environment, it seems imperative that architects stake out a larger sphere of influence. With their ability to approach problems creatively, to coordinate teams of experts, to juggle a complex range of requirements, to create aesthetic solutions, architects are remarkably well-qualified to address society's structural problems. I would encourage the students to respond to their fieldwork with innovative proposals for political action, new support programs, creative fundraising strategies, etc. - initiatives that would traditionally be considered outside the responsibilities of an architect.