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Michael Rakowitz’s (1997) paraSITE homeless shelter is a direct response to the evolving needs of the urban homeless population. Inspired by the nomadic traditions of the Bedouins and the architecture of their tents, Rakowitz designed a series of tent-like plastic shelters to take advantage of the warm air exhaust emitted onto the street by the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems inside urban buildings. Thus like a parasite, the structure adapts to its host by utilizing its energy—the paraSITE shelter is inflated and warmed by HVAC exhaust that otherwise would evaporate into the air.
Beginning when he was a Masters student in Visual Studies at MIT (and a student of Krzysztof Wodiczko), Rakowitz worked with a group of homeless men in Boston to design a shelter that offered warmth and protection for sleeping out on the streets (Thomson & Sholette, 2004). Rakowitz’s first prototype incorporated opaque plastic in an effort to provide a degree of privacy and anonymity for its inhabitant. As Bill, one of the homeless collaborators he worked with soon informed him, however, privacy is not a practical concern for people living on the street. Security, on the other hand, is paramount—making the tent transparent would thus allow users to see if someone intended to threaten or steal from them. As for anonymity, Bill assured Rakowitz “they were already invisible enough in the world” (Rich, 2007, April 6). Accordingly, Rakowitz ensured that subsequent iterations of the paraSITE shelter included translucent materials, windows and skylights.
Over the last decade Rakowitz’s paraSITE has given way to other related projects, the most recent being (P)lot (2004), a participatory public intervention that utilized portable tent-like frames and nylon car covers to create shelters that resemble (from the exterior) parked cars adorned with protective covers. Citizens in Vienna, Austria were invited in 2004 to loan these structures from the Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK) and to then re-assemble and inhabit them in municipal parking spots around the city. Rakowitz provided five different structures to choose from, ranging from a common Sedan to a luxury sports car or motorcycle. This work artfully questions taken-for-granted sanctioned uses of public urban space. As Rakowitz (2007) explains, rather than using municipal parking spots as storage spaces for vehicles, this project proposes “the rental of these parcels of land for alternative purposes.”