The outside window ledges on the 13th Street side of the Sheila Johnson Design Center along West 13th Street, which are built at an angle to the ground, which makes leaning on them possible, but works against sitting properly or lying down on the ledges.

Shana Agid

Disagreement:

I would like to think that I first noticed the gentle downward slope of the outside window ledges on the 13th street side of 2 West 13th Street when the plywood construction walls came down. I imagine I would have noticed it the same way I notice other outdoor architectural details that subtlely (if only in aesthetic terms) inhibit lying down, sleeping, and staying too still for too long: bus seats on a horizontal swivel; arm rests on long public benches; the elegant and otherwise useless metal fins and button shapes that interrupt the surface of stone walls that hold in the flowers and shrubs of urban building landscaping. I imagine that the sloping ledges, a design feature in a then newly remodeled New School building, would have stood out to me, one of many strategies in the city designed to displace or disallow people without homes to stop, especially overnight. But instead, I can only say for sure that it really came to my attention when juniors in a collaborative design class proposed to build a wedge the length of one of the sills that would flatten the angle to 90 degrees.

Their concern was a different one than mine. As students who spent the majority of their time in 2 West 13th Street, and used the space outside the building for pausing, eating, and hanging out between classes and on work breaks, what they noticed was that the slope of the sill made it impossible to really rest. The ledges require a person wishing to use them to prop themselves up and to hold onto their coffee or lunch or sketchbook. (A bag, which can maybe grip the surface, does a little better.) The ledges, according to my students, were designed to keep them uncomfortable. Or, perhaps, were badly designed, and therefore were not as comfortable as they could and should be for the use to which so many put them. The wedge they imagined was meant to right a wrong, or introduce the voice and actions of users into the design.

The design of those ledges, wide metal pieces cut back into the wall of the building, makes a space that, I think, is clearly intended for use of some kind. Based on my years so far at The New School and Parsons, I’m going to also guess (I’d argue, safely) that this planned use might have been intended to create stopping points in order to engender community and a bit of “campus.” But, as my students noticed, and as homeless activists and advocates have argued time and again, private exterior spaces, as good looking as they may be, are sometimes designs against use, or, against sharing space with the city at large. Designing against anti-homeless design is, of course, not the same as working to end homelessness or the conditions that produce it. But it might be a productive refusal, as a start.

Questions:

What does it mean for The New School to be "at home in the Village," as a window decal in our newest new private building asserts, when we design public-facing details that declare otherwise?

What would it look like to open university buildings to a range of publics, and what shape might a design process take- especially a human or user centered on like those we teach - to facilitate that?

What would the school look like if students redesigned spaces to meet their / your needs? What would be prioritized? What lost? What process would you / they undertake? What would the university allow, accommodate, desire?