FutureShack: A Home for the Displaced
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2004; Page C02
In prosperous countries, architects design dream homes on enviable sites for wealthy clients. That's not the world Sean Godsell had in mind when he designed "FutureShack," the rusted but compelling structure that opened to the public Friday at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
Godsell, an award-winning Australian architect, conceived of FutureShack to shelter the world's displaced -- homeless refugees, victims of natural disaster or the survivors of war. The architect has created his share of houses for private clients. (He calls them "bespoke architecture.") But he also talks forcefully about the need to design for societies where "freedom has been ripped away by force," where "nature has devastated whole cities," and where "generations of minority groups have been forced into a life of poverty because of a political philosophy."
For those situations, his answer is the recycled shipping container now stationed on the museum's lawn. The basic unit, which once carried cargo from China, is a steel box 22 feet by 8 feet and 8 feet tall. The interior has been lined with plywood and fitted with spare kitchen and bath facilities. The dramatic touch is a peaked roof that provides more than shade. It turns the industrial box into a child's-eye image of home.
"To be displaced is traumatic enough," Godsell said during a tour on Thursday. "The ability of people to feel like they're in a home is very important."
Godsell, 43, is part of a vanguard of architects considering global needs as well as individual wants. He designed a park bench that doubles as cover for a homeless person and is working on a bus stop that would also shelter the needy. But it was FutureShack that persuaded the Cooper-Hewitt to host a one-man exhibition, the second in a series called "Solos."
Cooper-Hewitt Director Paul Thompson calls Future Shack "an extremely critical exhibit for 2004." He mentions the Bam earthquake late last year in Iran and an unfolding refugee crisis in Sudan.
"This has been a year of some fairly shocking natural and man-made disasters," he said. "I don't think anyone wants to see on a TV screen people sitting in squalid conditions in sub-zero temperatures for months and years on end."
The exhibition is perfectly timed to catch the wave of designers, retailers and manufacturers in Manhattan this weekend. The 16th annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair opens today and runs through Tuesday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
Godsell dreamed up FutureShack in 1985, when he was a student. The idea lay dormant until 1999, when the nonprofit group Architecture for Humanity launched a contest to design housing for refugees returning to Kosovo. Godsell entered FutureShack. The design won praise but was never deployed. Godsell had to raise $28,000 to build the prototype. With mass production, he believes the cost could drop to $15,000 per unit.
On Thursday, the architect strode up a ramp to the container cabin. After a day of setup, a hinged flap of steel on the front end had been raised like an awning to expose the front door, which is glass. A skylight had been cut out for daylight and ventilation. Inside, Godsell folded a plywood table into one wall to make room for two single beds, which dropped neatly from the other wall. White cabinets denoted kitchen space. A narrow doorway led to a shower and stainless steel toilet. The back of the container had been folded back to expose a wall of translucent glass and two doors for ventilation.
Critics have questioned the appropriateness of a steel container in tropical climates. Godsell said the skylight accommodates an air-conditioner, which would run on a generator. Solar panels would provide about 12 volts of power.
At home in Melbourne, Godsell is recognized as a new wave designer with a minimalist bent. His Web site, www.seangodsell.com, shows luxurious beach houses made chic with inventive use of cheap timber and rusted metal.
The architect has been less smooth at framing opinions. Last year, he took issue with several prominent public buildings, describing the work of Australian colleagues as "smart-arse architectural one-liners." The Royal Australian Institute of Architects is now investigating whether to expel him for breach of civility.
On Thursday, Godsell was too engrossed in fine-tuning his structure to do more than shrug his 6-foot-6 frame.
"There's a tribunal," he acknowledged. "It's pathetic."
Earlier this week in the Melbourne newspaper the Age, architect and professor Norman Day defended Godsell's right to free speech, but found fault with the underlying concept of FutureShack. It would put a clever roof over people's heads, Day agreed. But by offering a ready-made industrial structure, he wrote, the architect was failing to offer displaced people the empowering opportunity of rebuilding for themselves.
Godsell dismisses the criticism but admits to frustration. He has had more than 1,000 requests to build FutureShacks, but not one has come from a relief agency or government. Instead, queries have come from private individuals considering recreational shelter. He has agreed to produce five for an eco-tourism resort in the Australian Outback.
After the bus shelter project is completed, he says, "that's it" for social projects. "I'll just go back to doing the hand-stitched bespoke buildings I'm known for."
FutureShack will remain on view through Oct. 10 at the Design Museum, at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company