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Film: Houselessness – A Museum Responds

Mike Murawski
Director of Education & Public Programs, 
Portland Art Museum

Stephanie Parrish
Associate Director of Education, 
Portland Art Museum

From exorbitant rents and spiralling property prices to a growing houseless population, issues around affordable housing and homelessness are some of the most pressing problems faced by those living in Portland today.

As part of an exhibition on Oregon-based architect and environmental activist John Yeon, the Portland Art Museum embraced its role as a public forum—advocating for social change and action around housing issues relevant to our local communities. The Museum partnered with Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design and the community-based Village Coalition to explore how the power of design could play a part in creating shelter solutions for houseless residents in Portland through a recently piloted POD Initiative (Partners on Dwelling).

The work represented through this phase of the project built on significant steps made by the Portland architecture community in the POD Initiative’s inaugural project in the fall 2016, which resulted in 14 built prototypes for tiny houses called sleeping pods. Those sleeping pods now provide shelter for 14 women in a new village in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood.

For the most recent phase of the project, architects and designers from across Portland responded to this challenge by submitting new designs for prototypes using plywood as a primary material. These designs were displayed at the Portland Art Museum in an exhibition developed and built by Portland State University students, accompanied by action-oriented resources. In August, the Museum also hosted a free event that brought partners and community together to build a select number of these sleeping pods. Overall, the exhibition and programs invited the public to reimagine the visionary ways architecture and design might inform the creation of new villages in Portland neighborhoods as one approach to a larger array of solutions necessary to respond to the homeless crisis in the city.

Contributor 1:       We really were amplifying an existing, incredible and powerful change making initiative happening in the city. So, I’m so glad that Todd is here with us today to really take the bulk of our presentation time and share the incredible work that he’s facilitating around this coalition. I wanted to give a little bit of a broader context around, is this just a random project that we did or does it fit into a little bit of a broader context and Stephanie can narrow it down within the exhibition and developed it within. So, you sort of get the framework and packaging as well. Here at the Portland Art Museum, we’re really striving to envision this institution as a place to bring community together, as an amplifier of marginalised voices, stories and lived experiences, thinking about it as a platform to raise awareness and advocate for change. I’ve been trying to show slides that only show images of the people that we work with and people in our community, because we’re really striving to become a human centred institution that’s growing and listening and learning the power of truly letting your community [unintelligible 00:01:16] and thinking about what community ownership and community involves means here at this institution.

So, we’re going to take a minute and while we talk just look at a tiny slice of artists and community members and activists, part of the indigenous community and people with dementia and Alzheimer’s and human rights advocates and storytellers and people that have reached out to connect to this museum or people that we’ve really reached out to connect with. So, I wrote these notes maybe 15 minutes ago and I was thinking that when we gather at conferences like this and even just through hearing some of the amazing presentations already, we sort of celebrate our successes, which is so essential, so important, but it makes it all sound so easy and effortless, because people get up here and it’s like, “Yeah, we did this amazing thing and there were no problems.” I just wanted to make sure that we … because within the context of this project, I feel like the work that … and maybe I’m alone in this, but I feel like this shit is hard. This work is so hard and we have an incredible community, a growing community of change makers within this institution, but mostly I think we still feel like a toddler learning how to walk or just constantly trying to grab hold of something.

I think there are days where I feel like a 16-year-old with the keys to a brand-new car and I’m just peeling around the neighbourhood without a care in the world and then there are other days where I feel like I’m in my terrible twos and screaming is the only option to this work. So, just to acknowledge the work that Todd will talk about that he’s doing has even greater and more complex challenges than I can even wrap my brain around to get the stuff done and working with civic institutions and city governments and neighbourhood associations. So, I think acknowledging how hard and challenging this work can be is an important part of the process as well. So, last thing is just framing this all within the Portland Art Museum context. All of you received this document called The History of Engagement, and if you didn’t there are copies available or come and find me. This is a document that the museum created through at artist project about four years ago and we reinvigorated it this year for our 125th anniversary.

Yes, we’ve been around for 125 years, which blows my mind that this institution way up here in Portland has existed that long. When you flip through that book what you’ll notice is, this museum has had, I feel like, a pretty unique dedication to really responding to the city and the place in which it exists. So, this is not just a brand-new recent thing that this institution is thinking about. There are some real surprising moments in The History of Engagement that show the values that this institution has had historically, but recently there has been an explosion of really thinking about the values of this institution and thinking about why we’re doing what we’re doing and how we can be a place that matters within our community. Seven or eight years ago, we kicked off artist experimentation with Shine a Light, storytelling and community voices in the institution around [object] stories, which you can go over and see in the galleries.

Recently, we dedicated an entire gallery to contemporary indigenous art and have really tried to work closely with native artists in the native communities here to let them tell their own story and stop telling it for them. We started, last year, working with Black Lives Matter activists and [unintelligible 00:04:43] Portland and other groups here in Portland. We have been working with the [Museum of Impact] and [Monica] and hopefully we can work with [unintelligible 00:04:51] and all the communities and projects [unintelligible 00:04:55], we did an Upstanders Festival and the future of projects here at the museum shows intent to continue to strive for these values of inclusion and accessibility, openness and trust. So, within that context, in a lot of the projects that we’re doing in exhibitions, like the one that Stephanie’s about to speak about, we ask ourselves, why here? Why now? And, I think the big one is, so what? So, I want to turn it over to Stephanie and we’ll dive a little more into the context of this project fit in and then we’ll hear from Todd.

Contributor 2:       Thanks Mike. I just have a few slides here to create a backstory for the project and what Todd will talk about. What you’re looking at is a marketing image for an exhibition that we just closed a few weeks ago, called Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon and this is an exhibition that the museum organised itself, which is sort of unusual for the Portland Art Museum. We typically take shows from other institutions and this was an exhibition that originated here. It was a story about an Oregon figure that had this amazing history and who had really shaped how we experience our region, who very few people knew about. Unless you are an insider architecture nerd in Portland, you probably had not heard about John Yeon. You might have passed the Yeon State Park somewhere out in the Columbia River Gorge, you might have seen the Yeon Building downtown, but chances are you had no idea what this person you’re looking at, the remarkable life he led and how he really shaped our community. He was not only a proponent of Northwest modernist architecture using local materials, he was also a great landscape conservationist.

He was one of the founding voices to [unintelligible 00:06:58] Columbia River Gorge as a national scenic area to prevent it from being developed and he was an art collector and he served on the board here at the museum back in the early 20th Century. He was pretty much self-taught. He did one year at Stanford, or one semester at Stanford, I think, and decided it wasn’t for him. He came back to Portland and dedicated his life to this community in all these different ways. Again, his story had not been told, so the Portland Art Museum spent the time to tell the story. The exhibition took about two years to plan and it was really looking at his architecture and a lot of the grand gestures that he’s noted for. This is an exhibition shot from the final show. The Watzek House is right here in the foreground. That’s the house he’s maybe best known for, which is up in the hills, just behind us.

He was also known for some quieter projects and in particular he had used a material that was developed here in Portland called plywood. Plywood, that little thing that is everywhere today was innovated … plywood has existed for thousands of years, but really what we think of today as the 20th Century invention of mass-produced plywood is thanks to Portland and our great timber stands that were turned into manufacturing boards here in the early 20th Century. John Yeon, at the tender age of 28, after he had built the Watzek House up in the hills in the late 1930s, started to address affordable housing in our community. This was coming out of the Great Depression, there had not been a lot of building and he decided to use his design mind to address housing and these houses still stand, the one up there on the right is up in North Portland, and these were low cost homes. I think they’re 1,200 square feet and about £3,000.00 dollars in 1937 money.

So, as we thought about the show, we thought, “What is it about Yeon and these stories that we’re going to tell about him that we want to amplify at the museum and how is Yeon relevant to Portland today? We know the history, but let’s think future. What might John Yeon, today, be thinking about?” That led to a conversation about affordable homes and housing in our own community. In 2015, the City of Portland declared a state of emergency around housing and homelessness. So, very much in the forefront of the lives of lots of us who live here. We looked around the community and said, “How can we amplify these ideas using Yeon and his innovations to amplify the stories that are happening around us?” So, made a quick email to Todd Ferry here and he joined us for a cup of coffee and we started talking and trying to understand some of the work that’s happening in the community and ways that this project could really be a spring board. So, I’m going to hand it over to Todd to take it from there.

Contributor 3:       Thanks. I’m going to fly through a lot of slides, because we’re covering a project that’s kind of complex. Also, designers love images. Museum nerds, I assume, are the same as [unintelligible 00:10:51]. This is a diagram of our Centre for Public Interest Design at Portland State. We do a lot of things, but at our heart we see design as an incredibly powerful tool and we want to see how it can serve traditional [unintelligible 00:11:05] populations and we do that all over the world. Here in Portland, most recently I’ve been spending my time on how we can address houselessness. A note about terminology. I’ll be using houseless or houselessness. It’s a preferred term by our colleagues in the houseless community. Essentially, their home might be their community they live with, their friends, Portland. They might have a home. It really emphasises that’s what’s needed is a house and there’s stigma around homelessness. So, that’s the reason for the terminology and we used it in the exhibit that we’ll be discussing.

So, this is the POD initiative. You can’t see the diagram, but you will see pieces of it as we go. It’s to emphasise that it’s a kind of ongoing complex process and so this first part will talk about how this came out of a need [to have] a Village Coalition. This was a group that formed after the state of emergency on houselessness and it’s led by houseless folks, both advocates and activists. The designers in the room, such as myself, were being asked for designs to help support emerging villages, communities that people were making for themselves. For the most part in Portland, communities, when people start to form, they get swept. It’s kind of state policy. In a few cases, they’ve been allowed to stand. So, how in this state could we promote the village model. So, we were being asked for designs for tiny houses and we thought, “Well, this is something we could do. We could easily do some drawings,” but what became clear quickly after spending time listening and getting to know the villages and some of the residents was that there was also a need to change public perception.

We could design whatever we wanted, but unless we changed things systemically we weren’t going to get very far. So, this is an imagine of Hazelnut Grove. That’s one of the villages that was created by houseless folks. We went and we wanted to learn from them. They’re the experts, designers and architects. We saw ourselves as the professionals, but really looked at them as the experts and we decided to bring them together, learn from what they were doing and bring them together with the architecture community and see what role design could play. So, we decided to hold a design [unintelligible 00:13:22], which is like a large teaching workshop. So, here downtown at Mercy Corps, we had over 100 people, with architects and advocates, sitting down with houseless folks, hearing from members of the Village Coalition, people with lived experience with houselessness, before diving into design solutions. We framed it around village making, which would be small PODs, and we called them PODs to get around expectations of building codes associated with ADUs or tiny house [unintelligible 00:13:50] things.

And, so they would be tiny living structures that would have shared amenities like kitchen and bathroom facilities and in the end, came up with a series of [provocations]. We invited them there. This the former Mayor, Charlie Hales, and when he saw in the room, all these people activated, including some of the principles of firms that were designing some of the biggest towers downtown, suddenly he started to take this really seriously and for the first time the City began to invest directly in this model and he offered up £2,000.00 for each team for materials. It’s a tiny amount per POD, but it was a huge step because it formalised an investment of financial support. We asked teams to then submit designs and as part of this changing perceptions idea, we exhibited them downtown. So, each team, the [14] teams, that came together, here are three architecture firms, three different boards, submitted designs and then they were displayed. We held a press conference downtown to let the public know that this was happening and we wanted feedback and we held it in City Hall and invited people to come look at it.

In the meantime, we needed to build these things. The [unintelligible 00:15:12] was on 1 October last year. So, we’re just hitting a year anniversary. It’s happening quickly. The designs were submitted on 15 November and we began, as a group, building next to one another in what was easily the coldest place in all of Portland in an old warehouse in the centre and all the designs were completed by 9 December. So, incredibly quickly. Then, they were delivered in the first snowstorm of the year. So, there was nothing easy about this process. We moved them downtown to be displayed at PNCA, so that we could invite people to come and see these, so that it wasn’t simply a concept, that they could see something tangible and imagine them in their neighbourhood. We needed to defeat [unintelligible 00:16:02] as best that we could. So, the PODs were displayed for several weeks and people were invited to come and see these. Here’s an example of several of them.

I like this image, because the A frame that we see was by a great firm in town called Holst Architects and they also designed the large building you see in the background, which is the largest investment in transitional housing in Oregon, Bud Clark Commons. So, just a few pictures. These are ones that were created with students at PSU, who are trying to create the next leaders. So, this was one I did with students. These are students working on different proposals. Whenever we had questions about what we should do and if that or one or the other, I would say, “Take it to Hazelnut Grove, take it to one of the villages. They’re the experts.” So, here are residents of Hazelnut Grove helping us decide which direction to go and then some of our friend from Hazelnut Grove seeing the final product. So, around the time that they were being displayed at PNCA, a site was established and it was in the Kenton neighbourhood, which is in North Portland and the City had every right, technically, to put a village there, to move these PODs, but what we needed was we wanted this to be a model, a replicable model and we didn’t want to just drop an unwelcome village in.

We wanted it to be part of the community ideally. In this circle, you can see all the different agencies that were involved and we decided to do this crazy thing, that we would offer the neighbourhood a chance to vote on whether to allow it into their neighbourhood or not. We would work with them, as long as it took with the neighbour association, the business association and otherwise, and when they were ready to take a vote we would respect their wishes. Had we taken that vote on day one, there’s no way that this thing would pass and most people thought it wouldn’t. In the bottom image you can see, there were 300 people packed into a room to vote and I’m glad to say that in mid-March they voted yes to accept the village into their neighbourhood. This is it going in. This is the kitchen. So, the Kenton Village is now active and that was just June. So, from October to June, this thing moved really, really quickly, but it needed to to respond to the urgency of the situation.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a model that we’re growing and we’re learning from people who are doing it themselves in existing villages, like Dignity Village [unintelligible 00:18:38] to Hazelnut Grove here in Portland. So, when the museum approached us to think about how we could start to tell this story or expand upon this initiative, we were really excited and this was the space that was identified. Kind of a small space not much bigger than a POD itself, but we thought that there was a lot of opportunity and how we would begin was how we began the overall process, which was reach out to partners. So, that included students at our centre, the museum, other architects and residents of Hazelnut Grove and the Village Coalition. So, through a series of meetings, we knew a few things that we would emphasise. The use of firewood, we wanted to link it to this amazing history of John Yeon.

We knew that we wanted to lean on some of his design sensibilities to kind of have that come through and then we had this really activated architecture community and we wanted to lean on them again to continue this dialogue about the role design could play to address houselessness. So, we asked them to submit new designs, in this case utilising firewood, and we got 15 new designs, one of which we decided we would build as a proof of concept and display at the museum. So, once we got all these designs one of the first things we did was take it back to the folks at Hazelnut Grove to see what they thought. If we were going to choose one to build, which one would they want to see built and which should we display? Then, based on some of this feedback our design team got to work. We decided to utilise a grid based on Yeon’s ideas and then to think of something [unintelligible 00:20:26] display boards.

Here are some of the drawings. Here are some of the ideas. We could have additional signage. Building. Students. This was all done in about three weeks or about a month. Then, here’s the installation. There was a video that accompanied it to tell the story and then you can see images in the wall. So, we wanted to amplify the voices of the folks in the room, but we didn’t want to do standard tokenism or we didn’t want it just to be about their houselessness, so we decided to represent them as they are, which is partners in a process. So, some of these folks are people who gave us feedback, from Hazelnut Grove and otherwise, with accompanying quotes and some of them are designers and some of them are activists. The point is, that this is how we decided and debated how we would bring the voices into the room. It was through the partnership and some of them happened to be villagers as well.

A few more pictures. Here you can see some of the images and quotes. Then, it was designed with the thinking that it could be repurposed, so it’s going to become a library at one of the villages, which we’re excited about. So, this was an installation that was in the museum for several months, May to September, and then there was also an additional outreach that was done on one particular day and I’ll let Stephanie talk about that.

Contributor 2:       So, in addition to the installation, which was right in the main entrance of the museum … you came into the space and you could not avoid it. The niche space was overflowing on a continual basis [unintelligible 00:22:30] and to reflect on these issues. We decided to hold one of our [unintelligible 00:22:36] free days around this issue of houselessness and the POD initiative. So, what you see here is, we activated the courtyard. This was 19 August, the day before the eclipse. We were little worried that no one would show up, but we had about 2,500 people that came to the museum that day and we built parts of one of the PODs. The POD that was selected is this plyPAD by SERA Architects and it’s a [unintelligible 00:23:08] house. So, it’s designed and produced with a CNC machine and there’s some technology here in Portland, some very affordable CNC technology, that made this possible.

So, we had CNCs going, we had the architects here, we had members of the Village Coalition and houseless folks talking about their experiences. We had an area to reflect on the idea of home. These things were all happening simultaneously between 10.00am and 6.00pm that day. Just some images of the CNC. It was interesting to watch people walk through these spaces and to experience what a small POD feels like. It was humanising, I think, what they’re trying to get out of these designs. We had all the designs up, very publicly displayed. They came down a corridor and we had members of the Village Coalition speakers bureau. The Village Coalition works with residents to train them on public speaking and to come out into the community and talk about village experience and the coalition building that’s happening around these villages. So, they were here on-site just talking to passers-by. It was really important that this was outside and anyone could join.

We asked people to design their own PODs throughout the day and they could document and [unintelligible 00:24:43]. Then, here’s some more images about the POD. This is the veterans’ village. We had a scale model of what’s [unintelligible 00:24:53] to be the next tiny house village out in Clackamas County and Todd and his team did a remarkable job on creating prototypes for this, but we asked people, “How would you perhaps design what a village looks like and how would you orient these and how can you get involved?” This is, again, not in the City of Portland, but a little bit outside of the City, but the housing crisis is very much all around us. It’s not just a City issue. We had members of the Village Coalition Speaker Bureau do a panel discussion about their own experience in a full house for this and it was really powerful and it was very humanising. It went to this idea of, how do you change perceptions around houselessness?

So, the museum became this conversation space, this dialogue space where you could ask questions and you could listen to folks in a way that you don’t always have that opportunity in kind of a low-pressure environment and a humanising environment. It was just a very sweet day, a lot of good feeling and a lot of good conversations. People came by and could take one of the 15 designs. I think a lot of people could see themselves living in these PODs and, again, that goes to this point of humanising the ideas.

Contributor 3:       I just want to say, thank you for listening and I’m really grateful to the museum for giving us an opportunity to partner on this. So much of what we were able to do to meet our goals of changing perceptions and get a voice out there … we did things like [unintelligible 00:26:55] and invited people to come there and we had a few thousand people, but it’s estimated that around 80,000 people saw the exhibit and got to learn about it. So, in terms of changing perceptions and getting information out there, it was an incredible experience for us and I think our partners in the Village Coalition and otherwise.

If you enjoyed this talk, you might enjoy these articles on Museums Helping Homeless People and Museums working with Veterans

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