2005 Annual Design Review Concepts Best of Category

Urban Nomad Shelter
First off, note that Cameron McNall and Damon Seeley didn’t call their submission a homeless shelter. In name and form, the vivid inflatable contradicts a stereotype of cardboard-box vagrancy. The two partners of the Los Angeles?based Electroland conceived the Urban Nomad Shelter as both a “humanitarian act and as a social provocation.” They created a cushion from the ground that also serves as a census taker for an itinerant population that is hard to count and even harder to countenance.

If Electroland’s activist agenda captured the jurors’ attention, it was their strategy that kept it. McNall, an architect, and Seeley, an artist/designer, have taken one of the most potent forces of the private-sector economy—brand identity—and redeployed it on the street. The Urban Nomad Shelter uses a self-conscious “design culture” aesthetic (think Target or Ikea) to re-brand the homeless and re-map urban real estate. The neon-colored cocoons work like soft pushpins on a city plan, making it impossible not to see the homeless and not to see them as human. As Kennedy put it, “The design makes a complex issue visible with the added virtue of operating on multiple platforms.”

It is easy to imagine the shelters in contexts closer to what most Americans call home. With their retro, biomorphic forms and colors to find your way home by, they could be tents for space-age scout troops or hot-ticket items for the backyard sleepover set.

Beyond suggesting market possibilities, the larva-like shelter subtly makes the point that this is transitional housing—so transitional that it doesn’t allow for any kind of personalization. These walls would collapse if you tried to pin anything on them. But no one on the jury defended makeshift construction or confused personal liberty with decor. Instead, unanimous kudos went to McNall and Seeley for creating an effective advocacy tool, something that no acreage of tent cities, no mass of embarrassing boxes, has been able to do. That they offer a compelling alternative without losing sight of individual comfort and dignity makes theirs a project of scale. And not just metaphorically. Sellers particularly liked that the pods were “portable and easy to mass-produce.”

McNall and Seeley have literally inflated form with meaning, without, as Rockwell noted, “being preachy or losing a sense of humor.” All too often refugees, the displaced, and otherwise homeless persons are not afforded the luxury of laughter. The Urban Nomad Shelter slyly undermines that assumption and, in the process, returns a measure of humanity to an inhuman condition.

Urban Nomad Shelter

Design Electroland (Los Angeles): Cameron McNall, Damon Seeley, partners
Materials Welded PVC plastic with inflation neck and valve
Software Alias Maya

Q+A with with Cameron McNall and Damon Seeley
Electroland

Was the Urban Nomad project self-initiated? What led you to design it?
The project grew out of our frustration with the regressive political events in our nation and the failure of the design professions to address social issues. We focused on the homeless because of the profound nature of their problem: They sleep in makeshift cardboard shelters at night, and in the morning their shelters are swept away by cleanup crews with dumpsters and water hoses. It is a shocking thing to witness.

The Urban Nomad Shelter is designed to re-brand the homeless. We decided that our shelter had to be extremely cool, enough to attract significant attention and to make the cleanup crews hesitate before destroying them. “Homeless people” are invisible, but “Urban Nomads” are real people who can distinguish well-designed objects from trash. The shelter is designed to be inexpensive, portable, and transparent. Why transparent? In our research we found that invisibility is bad for Urban Nomads. When you are out of view of the police or other people, bad things happen to you.

Do you have a particular site in mind for implementing it?
We would like to distribute thousands of these shelters and have them spring up everywhere, like mushrooms.

When will that happen, and whom are you approaching for assistance?
We hope to attract a patron, be it a foundation or a design-aware and socially conscious corporation, to underwrite the costs of production. There are many “street-level” organizations that could guide the distribution effort.

You estimate a total retail cost of $24 a unit. Is that really feasible?
The design is evolving, and in a newer version using single-stamp construction with no interior baffles the price will be quite low. We believe we can balance quality construction in the spirit of our design with whatever budget is available.

The jurors were impressed by the friendly visual language of these shelters. One juror even imagined seeing them for sale at Toys R Us for sleepovers. Did you envision a market that cut across economic classes?
We envisioned an object that would cut across perceptions. We would love it if your daughter saw an Urban Nomad Shelter on the streets and requested one just like it for her birthday.

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