this project began thirty-five years ago, inversely and vicariously; by which I mean I was a spectating participant at housing’s top, not bottom. We had funding to make Credit Card: Earth, a documentary on Man’s use of the planet…too much ‘Nature’ was becoming ‘natural resources’. We could ‘make a statement’. We interviewed dozens. Kristy Comstock, the nine-year old daughter of the mayor of Palo Alto, summarized and clarified:
“We have a house is as much bigger than we need,
but we like it, and that’s the problem.”
I opened the film with that quote. Skip forward thirty years.
I am doing a magazine series on small residential architecture: house boats, tree houses, gypsy wagons, etc. Jeff and Samara, my Oregon building and brewing local knowledge suggest I go to Portland’s Rebuilding Center. “They know eco-conscious small home owner-builders using recycled material.” I go. They know. And that afternoon I’m a couple hundred yards west of Portland International Airport.
On an acre of asphalt parking lot, squeezed between the city’s dusty composting facility, a jail, United Van Lines’ warehouses and Sunderland Avenue…a confusion of tarped 2×4 and plywood 10’x12’ “boxes” cuddle inside a chain link fence.
A sign says, Dignity Village.
Tim, a Village co-founder, escorts and informs me as I photograph the embryonic architecture. A motherly woman sitting on the steps of a crowned 12-foot cube waves a “Hi.” I talk with her about her 12’x12’x12’ building. “It’s my wonderful story. I was walking across the Burnside bridge” (a homeless favorite) ”and this homeless man hollers, ‘Hey Babe, come shack up with me!’ I fire right back, ‘I only shack up with people who live in castles.’” I look again, for the first time seeing parapets and gargoyles. Unmistakably “castle”. Yes, oh wonderful. She smiles. Yes and Yes again.
Architecture becomes just scene-setting language. My story is people’s stories.
A twenty-something with ‘NY’ baseball cap, a college student using his overseas-study year “to experience homelessness in the US” offers a vignette: “A while back I met an extremely attractive co-ed and asked her out. For our first date I took her dumpster-diving for pizza.” I smile and ask how long the relationship lasted. “Oh, maybe a year. It lasted until she didn’t need to rebel against shouldn’ts, wouldn’ts and what ifs”
On the Village security shack blackboard
white chalk spells, ”It’s drama, not trauma.”