A sense of shelter

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Architect Sean Godsell’s controversial calls for more humane forms of public infrastructure are garnering attention at home and abroad, writes Madeleine Hinchy.

A park bench or bus stop can’t have political views, but, according to architect Sean Godsell, they can certainly reflect those of the people who commissioned it. “Contemporary designers are typically briefed to provide public seating that is vandal-proof and that discourages people from lying down,” he says. “This is done is with armrests, studs on seats and so on, which are ways of saying to the homeless, ‘Don’t come here’. The irony is that this is constructed public space, so that design directive is a judgment decision.”

Godsell has an international reputation as an architect of one-off built works, but all the while he has continued to initiate and fund projects which advocate a more empathetic attitude toward the homeless and displaced.

His first prototype, Future Shack, designed while he was still a student at the University of Melbourne, adapted a shipping container into a prefabricated emergency housing unit. Since then, he has produced three other prototypical designs in which street furniture – a picnic table, a park bench and a bus shelter – transforms into rudimentary temporary accommodation for one. Typical design devices include seats that lift to reveal somewhere to sleep, places to store clothing, food or blankets, solar-powered security lights and frames to protect the head from assault.

Godsell’s designs are controversial and their exhibition typically provokes a flurry of debate. The most common gripe is: why should public bodies invest in temporary shelter for the homeless when the money could be used to create permanent, long-term solutions? It’s an argument Godsell decries as naive and off-point. “Regardless of whether you provided housing for everyone on the planet, there would still be a transient population who weren’t living or sleeping in that housing. That is the group that I am interested in.”

For almost a decade, his studio has worked with councils and governments in Australia and abroad to implement the designs in public spaces, but while he says negotiations have come close to fruition, there is yet to be any actual construction. “I have lost hope of ever engaging with any government organisation on that level,” he says.

A disheartened Godsell won’t give up on the idea that a patron or philanthropic body may yet appear. “As a tiny firm of architects, we don’t have the wherewithal to start manufacturing,” he says. “Those projects need people to ride in on a white horse and say, ‘I can see what you are trying to do and we can help you do it.’ So far, no one has done that. Which I find intriguing. I wonder if that’s an indictment on what a selfish country Australia has become.” A provocative and impassioned call to arms.

This story was originally published in Vogue Living May/June 2011. Subscribe to the magazine today by visiting here.

Text: Madeleine Hinchy

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