Claiming Public Space and it’s Community Impact
James J. Schloemer, Iowa State University

In attempting to study impaction on public space, many parallels can be drawn between general public space and studio culture. The construction, and eventual dismantling, of a personal shelter in studio (and within the studio dynamic) has allowed for the study of certain cultural issues, and a unique understanding of certain issues of homelessness - through the actual process of material collection and assembly, and through the impact on (and reaction of) the studio community. I do not presume that this aspect of my diploma project (and many elements of the discourse therein) can be drawn equivalent to the construction of a shelter necessary for an individual’s survival. However, the glaring differences that arise between an academic discourse and an underclass struggle for protection do help to tease out useful similarities.

Mode of transportation is an obvious issue in the collection of building materials, and, in the interest of time, I could not afford to replicate the process of this collection. A vehicle was used in obtaining the materials for this construction – but I do not feel this issue detracts from the overall discourse, and did provide considerable insight. Embracing the understanding that someone homeless is forced to acquire and transport all material by foot (inevitably forcing them into a considerably smaller canvas area), this initial exercise showed first how difficult it is to locate acceptable building supplies, and second that it’s even more difficult to relocate the materials.

Once acceptable materials are attained and in the proper location, an individual is forced to be simultaneously extremely creative, resourceful, and conservative with the materials at hand during the construction process. Any level of failure in this regard costs vital time and energy in reconstruction or the collection of more supplies. Obviously, much of the material available to scavengers is flawed and, in many cases, incongruous for construction. With no means to cut wood efficiently, I was forced to compose beams (either for longer spans or requiring very specific lengths) of multiple fragments nailed together.

It was interesting to hear some of the misconceptions people have of the homeless during the construction process – what homeless people are believed to be capable of obtaining (i.e. tools, hardware, electricity, etc.) and constructing (the cardboard box fallacy). Conducting a fair amount of research into the construction possibilities among the homeless, I learned a great deal of their creativity and resourcefulness. Many would probably be surprised to learn of homeless having access to building materials, electricity, tools, running water, furniture, cooking utensils, etc. These backdrops are partly what make the photographs of Margaret Morton so powerful. The imagery of homeless individuals, in their built environment, has considerable impact when the viewer isn’t expecting that imagery to include such conveniences.

The bulk of construction was completed over Iowa Sate University’s Homecoming weekend. Knowing the construction process would be extremely disruptive to the work of others; this weekend was chosen to keep interaction to a minimum. I wanted to avoid the presence of others having any influence on my claiming of personal studio space or its impact on the studio dynamic. The claim would then be what I and I alone deemed fair personal space; whether or not that is the space the final erected partitions define in the eyes of my classmates. This swift, uninterrupted production allowed me then to clearly gauge the reactions of members of my community to the sudden intrusion.

Another issue then comes to light: the right of an individual to claim personal space in studio. Clearly, a homeless individual has no rightful claim to the spaces they occupy within a city. The spaces they inevitably claim; be it in public parks, subway tunnels, vacant lots, boardwalks, etc; are paid for by tax dollars and other government monies. As a “non-citizen” of sorts, they do not pay taxes and thus have no claim on the public properties to be shared by all Citizens. But, within the studio environment, each individual is allotted a certain amount of personal space for project work. These personal spaces are somewhat defined by each individual at the start of the semester, but, since no solid partitions are implemented, generally any space in the studio environment is easily violable. That is to say, all spaces are open to intrusion regardless of “owner.”

Thus, studio as a whole is perceived as public space, regardless of the individual sectioning at the beginning of each semester; and an individual’s truly private space is dwindled down to lockable bins and supply cabinets. Architecture studio is a community; a rather tight community considering all the time that is spent together over the course of a semester. The social atmosphere is designed to encourage sharing, collaboration, and criticism openly between the members. Boundaries are invisible and negotiable, and the erection of very physical and permanent barriers would understandably be seen as the theft (i.e. inequitable personalization) of inherently community/public space.

What then happens when an individual takes it upon themselves to impenetrably partition their workspace inside the studio setting? How is it perceived when someone truly privatizes what is recognized as public space? The hope is that the reactions of members of a “closed environment” such as architecture studio exhibit traits similar to a community in defense of its public properties, and the reaction of the governing body over studio (The Dean’s Office of the College of Design) would exhibit traits similar to a government in protection of its community.

The negativity projected towards the intrusion, upon community reception of the structure, was surprisingly minimal – at least initially. Peers seemed more curious than upset, and I received no direct complaints regarding issues of space occupancy. Problems first arose when two of the sections were given a project to open up the wall between two architecture studios – granting both studios a greater amount of natural light and joining the rooms through a narrow doorway. At that point, the barrier between the two studios was functioning as one of the walls for my structure. Tension mounted a bit at the conception of fairly time-consuming group project; a project further complicated by the presence of my construction.

This project also forced the displacement of anyone who had claimed their space along the wall dividing the two studios, in particular the space around the portal between the studios. In light of this forced relocation my project quickly became unwelcome, as everyone else would have their personal space reconfigured while my space remained undisturbed. There was expressed resentment from the group assigned to the project of opening the partition at my permanently claiming private space (the act itself and the amount of space taken) and vocalized desire to remove a portion of my project to ease the completion of theirs.

It became clear that the introduction of the construction itself was not inherently a problem. The problems arose at the inflexibility of my personal space when the studio environment was called upon to reorganize. That is the point at which the presence of my project became an inconvenience to the community, because that is the point at which other members of the community desired the space which I occupied.