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When Los Angeles-based architect Chantal Aquin was asked to design a new service center for the Skid Row Housing Trust, she was faced not only with a low budget, consisting entirely of a HUD grant, but limited practical experience as well. Not willing to sacrifice design, Aquin turned these limitations into assets, mixing resourcefulness with ingenuity—and a lot of plain old hard work.

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The Service Spot provides a fully functional and well-designed service center for the residents of Skid Row.

Jim Bonar, director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, an organization that provides permanent housing and supportive services for residents of Los Angeles’s Skid Row neighborhood, wanted something different for its new Service Spot. Located on the ground floor of one of the organization’s single-resident-occupant hotels, Service Spot was to be a “user-friendly” center
that would offer case management, support-group meetings, educational opportunities, and service referrals. Having just completed work on another nonprofit project with Aquin, Bonar knew she would be the right person to turn Service Spot into that “something different” he was looking for.

“When it comes to designing for the homeless or mentally ill, there’s typically a very distinct separation between public and private spaces,” explains Aquin. “There is a sense of fear there, since it’s sometimes difficult to anticipate their behavior—so many of these centers are designed with barriers. Instead, Jim wanted users to feel a sense of ownership of these spaces. We also wanted the residents to feel as though they were given something precious, not just services contained within blank walls.”

To stretch her limited budget as far as it could go, Aquin, just a couple of years out of SCI-Arc, enlisted help from current students as well as fellow alum Rocio Romero and former SCI-Arc instructor Randall Wilson.

Wilson led an intensive summer studio in which students designed and built the seating, workstations, filing trolleys, and cabinets for the refurbished storefront. Though Bonar was skeptical of their ability to furnish the space, students received material donations from Home Depot, Anderson Plywood, and Häfele and were able to outfit the entire 2,000-square-foot space.

The reception area is designed as a light box visible from the street to welcome visitors. Inside, the standard syntax of public-to-private space confronted by users of most public service agencies is twisted to create an interweaving of private with public spaces—allowing users to walk freely from one activity to another with no physical obstacles. Transparent and translucent materials allow users to see the activities in which they will ultimately participate with no fears of being engulfed by authorities or institutions.

Service Spot is included in the current exhibition “Communities Under Construction” at the Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles, which features projects low on financing but high on inventiveness as they attempt to use design as a powerful tool to achieve change. The exhibit runs through July 1, 2004.

For more information on this exhibit:

By Josephine Minutillo

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