For many of those who regularly navigate the streets of Los Angeles, seeing at least one homeless person is not only common, it’s expected. So normal is the sight of homelessness in the city that residents can easily become desensitized to it, making them less likely to question it, and at its worst, making the homeless population effectively invisible. Local designers and Colorblock partners Sofia Borges and Susan Nwankpa wanted to address this in their co-curated photo exhibition, “HOME(less)”, currently on display at the University of Southern California. The photos raise awareness of L.A.’s glaring homelessness crisis, while simultaneously highlighting the impactful relationship between people and their personal spaces in the urban environment.
During one weekend, Borges and Nwankpa snapped around 40 photos of various homeless people living on the sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard, one of Los Angeles’ most prominent east-west arteries. Each subject is framed in what Borges and Nwankpa originally intended to be an impersonal, non-invasive perspective, to communicate a general social commentary on the ubiquity of homelessness in L.A. As the creative process unfolded, they then overlaid drawings of familiar housing typologies on the photos, wherein they “house” their subjects in imaginary A-frames, Case Study Houses, thatch roof bungalows, tranquil landscapes, or a French topiary garden.
As Borges and Nwankpa applied the drawings, they both noticed that the photos began to reveal more about the transient lives their subjects led, as well as small clues that hinted at each subject’s idiosyncrasies, including: colorful blankets, a 2016 puppy calendar, and even the same shopping cart constantly relocating along Wilshire. The minimal lines and transparent walls of the overlaid drawings suggest the blurring of physical boundaries between private and public space that homelessness produces.
The project is 'not trying to find a slick contemporary solution; it’s about creating one that really responds to the idiosyncrasies of life.'
“We are so much related to our environment and our context, and shelter is a primary need of everyone, “ Borges told me in a phone conversation. “One of our goals was to try to change the context the homeless are in every day. They are always in search of shelter and their entire lives are spent on the move. They’re just looking for a moment of respite...They end up having these very informal and very exposed structures where they have to create a personal space [that is], in a way, from their imagination, because they are always exposed.”
“We literally imagined, ‘Where else would this person be, if they weren’t here?’” recalled Susan Nwankpa during another phone call. “[The photos make] you put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a little bit...” To add to that, the project points out that alleviating homelessness doesn’t come with a simple one-size-fits-all architectural solution, just as L.A. County’s estimated 44,000 homeless people didn’t all end up as such because of one predictable reason. The project is “not trying to find a slick contemporary solution; it’s about creating one that really responds to the idiosyncrasies of life,” Borges explained.
Some may consider the photos as too optimistic or as some “folk political” response to a dire situation, but they aren’t trying to mask the harsh realities of living rough in a big city like L.A. What they do emphasize is that people without homes are, first and foremost, people. They are human beings who all came from somewhere — people who should be treated like family, as Borges described. Having witnessed her older brother’s homelessness, to whom the HOME(less) exhibition is dedicated, Borges spent much of her childhood wondering how she could have helped him.
Drawing from such a personal experience, Borges firmly believes that the generally complicit attitude toward homelessness needs to shift to one that is more positively determined and aware with the urban environment — and that includes more attention from the architecture community. “Part of why I wanted to do this exhibition is because I feel that in architecture school, [homelessness] isn’t a topic!” she said, in a tone of surprise. “I never see studios devoted to this topic. I never see people in school thinking about it, and it’s right in our backdoor.”
People without homes are, first and foremost, people.
Similarly, Nwankpa thinks more architects could take advantage of the visual platform they have to start advocating more for the homeless. In her opinion, it all starts with being more attentive to one's urban environment. “Not only are we working for wealthy people, we are working for super wealthy people, so it’s far outside from what we normally pay attention to.”
The exhibition has elicited positive reactions from visitors since it went on display at USC, Nwankpa recalled. “A lot of people do understand what we’re doing and have been affected by it,” she said. Once the exhibition is over, Borges and Nwankpa intend to snap more photos in different parts of town and continue to explore how to expand their project.
“By starting at the basic level of humanity, it’s about recognizing someone as existing and as a valuable member of society,” Nwankpa said. “Which I think, generally, that’s not how people consider people that are homeless.”
HOME(less) is on display until Friday, January 22.
All images courtesy of Sofia Borges.
Editor/Writer for Archinect + sister site Bustler. Leans toward: community-based art + design, illustration, graphic design, history, and general pop-culture geekiness. Enjoys a good bowl of noodles.