aA Shelter is a 1600 sq. ft. interior space on the street level of a church building on the Upper West side of New York City. The church was established in 1830 to minister to the needs of the city's poor and homeless. This mission continues today. The room is multi-purpose; it’s used for gathering and dining (up to 100 people eat a sit down meal there at least once a week), as well as sleeping, social, medical and psychiatric services for the itinerant community. But it had become dilapidated. The homeless in New York City are constantly on the move and the architecture of the renovation sought to acknowledge and “write” their transience into the surfaces and structure of the space.
The space is laid out using an unfamiliar measuring system that places the homeless, visitors and shelter workers on an equal footing. As the space has very limited access to daylight, and no direct sun, the design fills the space with fluorescent light, paints the existing surfaces of the room white, then suspends a laser cut perforated ceiling below the light source. This has the effect of changing the light quality as people move around the room. The new ceiling, floor and walls are in a honey-butter color.
The back wall is contoured and movable so that it can accommodate items that need to be stored behind it, while not blocking a window on the western wall. The geometry further relaxes the vertical so that visitors might lean up against it, sit on it, and move around it. A pattern of lines articulates the changing geometry on the wall, and these reverberate through the ceiling and floor until, at the entryway, they return to parallel.
aA Shelter is primarily built from construction-grade plywood finished in an industrial grade epoxy and is a contemporary version of an adjacent historic wood paneled room. Every piece of the new construction is a specific and different shape imprinted with information about what it should connect to, so that volunteers can assemble the pieces as they would a puzzle.
The design used scripting and digital modeling to generate the forms, patterns, lines and details. Each piece of the floor, wall and ceiling was modeled for fabrication and drawn for assembly by the architects. A community of workers, ranging from high-end technologically-sophisticated fabricators to homeless men, came together to execute the design and create the room, many of them donating their time.
When System was designing this project, it seemed to us that many lives were converging on this space in the city, and these lives were often lived without stable co-ordinates. So we developed a coherent geometry (without a grid), that used lines in a single continuous direction, meandering through a created topographic space. The pattern of these lines tell stories of the space and articulate the divisions within the material of the project. At the plane of the ceiling, the lines turn to perforations, diffusing the light across the space. The continuous change in the pattern affords a textural intensity to build up and subside, and we choreographed this to pre-figure an imagined use of the space. Each project detailed in this chapter similarly has its own textural creations rendered in light.