STANLEY TIGERMAN'S NEW HOMELESS SHELTER, the Pacific Garden Mission, probably won't win any awards for aesthetics. To be perfectly candid, it's rather spare, if not down right ugly. I think Tigerman would agree. "This is not a home," he says of the mission. "It's an institution. You're trying to get people back into society."
There's a world of thought behind that simple statement.
In the mid 18th century, Jesuit priest and architectural theorist Marc-Antoine Laugier wrote his famous Essay on Architecture. In it, he famously posited the concept of the primitive hut, a hypothetical "original" structure that looks like the beach huts on Lost, minus the airplane wreckage. He also posited the idea of architectural bienséance, or propriety. In Laugier's rococo worldview, a design that's suitable for the palace of a king would be overkill in a merchant's house, and what suits a merchant makes little sense for a peasant.
Laugier's sense of propriety might come across as pure snobbery, and in a senseit was-in prerevolutionary France, it certainly was good to be the king. Too bad we can't all wear crowns. By contrast, I bet most of us know someone who has hit some kind of bottom, be it due to financial hardship, substance abuse, mental illness, or another strain of personal misfortune. In certain such cases, it's easy to recognize that the right medicine is apositive change of circumstance, an opportunity for uplift, which architecture can provide. Just witness the success of Auburn University's much-touted Rural Studio in creating a positive sense of place in one of the nation's historically poorest communities. Perhaps the contemporary definition of propriety has changed for the better.
In other cases, paradoxically, beauty is the very worst possible solution to hardship, because it creates a false paradise; it actually eliminates an essential element in the process of recovery: an object of desire, a goal. Why rebuild your life, slowly and painfully, when you can find everything you want at a homeless shelter?
Tigerman was brilliant, if slightly unorthodox and wildly unsentimental, in recognizing that the Pacific Garden Mission required nothing more or less than a clean, well-lighted place (to borrow a phrase from Ernest Hemingway)-a place where people who live on the streets can check in, find help, and move on, ideally to bigger and better things. The mission's social philosophy suggests that a homeless shelter is not a place for pampering, or luxury, or flights of architectural rhetoric; it's a place for redemption, with dignity. The building matches the idea beautifully.