Provocative Objects / Spaces

8 February 2024 -

Provocative Places: paraSITE project

Designed by the Chicago-based Iraqi-American conceptual artist Michael Rakowitz, the paraSITE project seeks to provide temporary shelter for homeless people across cities in the United States. Known for his artworks outside of the traditional gallery context, Rakowitz focuses on current events and social problems through his interventions. He describes his work as ‘redirective practice’ involving crossover with other disciplines: in this case a fusion of art and architecture. The paraSITE project, originally begun in 1998, now features in MoMA’s Architecture and Design collection.

The paraSITE project consists of temporary plastic constructions which inflate using the warm air discharged from Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) units across cities. Inspired by parasites in nature, the shelters attach on to larger constructions to work, by reusing existing resources created by their ‘host’. The warm air leaving the larger building simultaneously inflates the shelter and provides warm, cosy and dry conditions. The shelters were initially built out of recycled plastics such as bags and packing tape, with polyethylene eventually being used due to its flexibility and toughness. It is also a cheap material, with each shelter costing around $5 to construct. At first, Rakowitz used black plastic to provide privacy for the shelters’ inhabitants, but switched to clear plastic following feedback that they would prefer to be able to see out in case of attack and also wanted to be seen and recognised by passers-by. Rakowitz’s responsiveness to comment highlights how collaborative the project is: a custom-made piece of architecture brought about through conversation between designer and client.

Inspired by his own family’s history as Iraqi exiles, Rakowitz sought to use the paraSITE project as a way to address the problems that displacement and dispossession bring. Following visits to refugee camps in Jordan and Palestine, Rakowitz began to see the homeless community in Chicago as refugees in a social and economic form. The odd-looking nature and visibility of the shelters serves to highlight the homeless whilst also providing relief, in the hope that such intervention will act as social protest and stimulate policy change and a more permanent housing solution. Rakowitz described the project as ‘a bandage [that] can simultaneously heal and broadcast. It heals a wound but it also broadcasts something that is unacceptable’. Initially implemented in New York, Boston and Cambridge (Massachusetts), Baltimore and Chicago, the project has grown and the inflatable shelters are now distributed every year.

How do projects such as paraSITE serve to highlight social and economic problems? To what extent can design really accelerate change and increase social awareness? Are policy makers, as Rakowitz describes, ‘the real designers’? How can architecture act for social change by helping those in need in the short-term but also addressing and publicising wider issues?

Started by the DHS Ambassadors in 2022, the Design History Society’s Provocative Objects and Places blog series looks at spaces and objects that challenge and confront us as design historians.

Past topics have ranged from the ancient Colosseum in Rome to the ultramodern Antilia in Mumbai; pink razors and Barbies to Lalique’s Bacchantes vase and nineteenth-century asylum photography. The full collection of previous posts can be found here.

We invite submissions for guest blog posts from students, early career researchers, and established academics to those with a general interest in design history. Posts can be on any object or place from any era, anywhere in the world, which in some way incites discussion and debate.

Posts should be 500-800 words in length, accompanied by at least one image with associated credits and clearances, and a short bio. Please send to the DHS Senior Administrator, Dr Jenna Allsopp


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