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Student Finds Healing in Designing for the Homeless

Three years ago, Cristo Staedler had an apartment, a girlfriend and two dogs. He lost everything as he struggled with drug addiction.

“I was just left with my car,” he recalls. Now an undergrad in the School of Architecture, Staedler says at the time he was living in Monterey, Calif., in his Ford Focus with his dog. “Every belonging was in my car. I couldn’t even look out the windows.” Then he lost even more when he totaled his car and “was on the street for real.” He asked himself, “Do you want to get better? Or do you want to die?”

After a stint in rehab, he got sober and went back to school, enrolling in a landscape architecture program before transferring to the Academy’s Architecture School. Staedler says he doesn’t go to Narcotics Anonymous anymore. Instead, his serenity prayer has been school: “I just dive into my work.”

Now he’s a second-year student, enrolled in a class where a project for a homeless project was assigned—a shelter for up to 20 people, covering 15,000 square feet, for an existing site, which happens to be the parking lot across the street from the building where he studies.

Staedler’s instructors advised him, “If it’s too personal, take a step back.” He stepped forward instead, sharing his experiences with the class. “I told them it’s gonna be all right,” he says. Students in the class are assigned to reach out and interview homeless people to inform their designs. Staedler felt his personal experience made him uniquely suited to create a relevant design of his own.

Architecture student Artur Festugato Regalin at a recent project review

At a recent review for the resulting projects, in which all of the works-in-progress were pinned to the walls, Staedler explained that when he was living in his car, he was always cruising abandoned industrial areas in which to park. His car windows were broken, making him vulnerable while he slept.

In his research, Staedler came across a program called “Safe Parking” in San Diego. He decided to “take that idea to the next level with architecture,” he says. His concept for a 14-unit structure was a cross between a parking garage and a roadside motel, where homeless people could live in their cars, drive directly into a unit, and access private bathroom and bedroom areas.

His was just one of the many innovative designs presented in the class review. Christina Smith, a third-year student, says she spoke with a homeless man named A.J., whom she met in an alleyway. A.J. was pushing a shopping cart overloaded with belongings held down with a tarp. As Smith discovered, “He picks up stuff not just for himself but for others in the community of people with whom he is living.”

Smith’s project was focused on the 50-plus years old homeless population. She emphasized healthy eating habits and recycling, designing a garden where residents could plant and harvest vegetables while also learning about time management. Smith designed recycling bins for various materials and areas where people could take educational workshops and counseling sessions.

Smith says the interview with A.J. lasted eight to 10 minutes. “He understood what we were trying to do,” Smith recalls. It was the first and last time she’d seen him in the neighborhood.

Shadi Vakilian, also a third-year student, spoke with a homeless man named Tyrone, whom she encountered collecting bottles that he planned on taking to a recycling center in Bayview. Vakilian’s project focused on a theme she calls “celebrating imperfect,” referring to all of the imperfect fruits and vegetables that ultimately get tossed out when farmers refuse to ship them or grocery shoppers refuse to buy them. She was guided by the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic based on acceptance of the imperfect.

Not a Label, an Experience

Sameena Sitabkhan, a coordinator and ARH instructor, says the purpose of the class is to take students out of the design studio and get them engaged with the community—to have them collect firsthand narratives and stories about clients and their specific needs.

While Sitabkhan acknowledges that past design reviews were usually more formal, with a three-person panel critiquing each project—which left everyone “fried by the end”—the current salon-style discussions are more casual, “making it easier for folks to talk about their projects.

Doron Serban, emerging technologies coordinator, oversees the digital curriculum and co-teaches the class with Sitabkhan. He says salon-style discussions make students “much more receptive to feedback.”

School of Architecture Undergraduate Director Jennifer Asselstine says she’s learned “not to use the word ‘homeless’ as a noun or label but as experience.” And it’s not just about a singular experience either. She said the projects reflect an attempt to meet a set of needs “across populations—plural.”

Professional Critiques

Johanna Hurme, a founding partner of the firm 5468796 Architecture, based in Winnipeg, Canada, was on campus with her partner Sasa Radulovic to give a lecture that same day. Hurme participated in project reviews and commended students for “having a pin-up at this point,” but urged them to take this moment to reflect, offering questions she uses in her own work: “What is it saying? What is it telling me? Why? Why not?”

School of Architecture students who worked on housing for the homeless project: (back, L–R) Christina Smith, Annie Mulowayi, Shadi Vakilian, Qiyang Xu, Kyle Lanzer, Cristo Staedler, Mateo Sperry, (front) Artur Festugato Regalin. Photo by Erasmo Guerra.
School of Architecture students who worked on housing for the homeless project: (back, L–R) Christina Smith, Annie Mulowayi, Shadi Vakilian, Qiyang Xu, Kyle Lanzer, Mateo Sperry, Cristo Staedler; (front) Artur Festugato Regalin. Photo by Erasmo Guerra.

Artur Festugato Regalin, a second-year student from Brazil, appreciated the specific feedback he received on his garden-focused design from the renowned architects. “It’s very realistic,” he says, “when you need to consider real-world parameters like budgets and materials.” Despite the potential limits, he says, “You’re challenged to think out of your comfort zone to get where you need to go.”

Staedler, who says drug addiction brought him to his knees, called architecture his redemption. “Designing homes—but more than that, designing a homeless shelter—is a healing process for me.”

Article by Erasmo Guerra, a reporter for Academy Art U News

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