November 12, 2015

An Inclusive Seattle: Refashioning the Future of Shelter

Contributed by Sarah Chan, M. Arch candidate


Prof. Sharon Sutton’s Arch 500 studio this Fall Quarter considers homelessness and the current shelter crisis in Seattle. Students are asked to redesign a block in the Pike-Pine Corridor of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. After determining site, program and usage, this urban studio will focus on developing a building that accommodates shelter for transient and permanent dwellings as well as community spaces while addressing the following questions:

What is Seattle’s shelter crisis?

What values should underpin a shelter “institution” in the Pike-Pine neighborhood?

What programmatic elements would address the crisis in this neighborhood?

Which Pike-Pine site(s) is most suitable for developing this program?

This studio allows students to explore their definition of shelter, while also asking them to also consider the effects of gentrification occurring throughout Seattle.  Students are encouraged to design a site and program that affects the entire Pike-Pine community. This, however, is challenged by the constant influx of new development and residents, and students must respond to this.

To continue the conversation, we watched “Even the Walls,” a documentary exploring Yesler Terrace, “the nation’s first racially-integrated, public housing community,” before demolition of the neighborhood to make way for new mixed-income housing. The film focuses on the Yesler Terrace community, one that has been created through diverse cultures, similar ideals, and even the design of the actual neighborhood – porches to watch the sidewalk, low backyard fences, pedestrian-only walkways. The film features a few residents, all sharing stories about their lives and homes at Yesler Terrace, about becoming part of a community. Viewers get a glimpse into how successful and strong this community has become, with everyone looking out for each other. Most important is that the filmmakers never ask the residents what they think about the new construction and plans for the neighborhood – the plans that will leave them with no place to call home. Instead the filmmakers focus exclusively on the spirit of the people and community, while demonstrating the real hope and loss experienced by the Yesler Terrace residents.

“Even the Walls” is a striking film, shedding light on the Yesler Terrace community as plans to demolish the neighborhood come closer to fruition. It calls to attention the lack of housing for low-income residents, forcing those residents to move further and further out of Seattle, while making room for high rises and mixed-income housing. Low income housing projects such as Yesler Terrace are about more than just a place to live; they’re about the community that is formed there. Although the new housing will technically replace the existing housing, it’s still destroying the community ties and the spatial conditions of Yesler Terrace that allowed these ties to form. “Even the Walls” provides the human element to the Seattle shelter crisis, inviting viewers to face the people who are directly affected by gentrification.

Our studio will continue to explore what it means to design an inclusive community, one that addresses both transient and permanent shelter. “Even the Walls” and our neighborhood research allowed us to paint a vivid picture of who we are designing for and what their needs are. Through this studio, we hope to continue and challenge the affordable housing and shelter dialogue — a crisis Seattle can no longer ignore.

Editor’s note: “Even the Walls,” conceived and directed by filmmakers Saman Maydani and Sarah Kuck, premiered in May 2015 at the Seattle International Film Festival.  It received the Golden Space Needle award for Best Short and has gone on to win many more laurels during its festival run.  For more information, visit their website.