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Stephanie Davidson & Mary Vaccaro

May 12 / 2022

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In the summer of 2020, Mary Vaccaro, a PhD candidate in social work at Canada’s McMaster University, reached out to architect Stephanie Davidson to see if she could work with her to “make drawings” based on the transcribed interviews she’d done with several homeless women and gender diverse individuals in the Hamilton, Ontario, region. The aim of the research was to try to identify clearly, using the women’s own words, what the women wanted and needed in long-term supportive housing. 

Over the past year, Stephanie has endeavoured to find both spaces and representational strategies that would convey the women’s spatial desires in concrete terms, while also communicating some of their backstories, which are complex, and which directly impact their feelings about personal space. Choosing to focus on four women, she has placed selected excerpts from their interviews alongside her drawings on her website.

While Davidson and Vaccaro’s collaboration is ongoing, this body of work has already been referenced in a recently released policy document. The work has fundamentally shifted how and what Davidson draws as well as the content of the courses she teaches (drawing and design studio). Her current studio course is an adaptive re-use of a motel in Fort Erie, the small bordertown in Ontario where she lives. Many residents in both the town and wider region suffer from a lack of affordable housing, and in particular, a lack of emergency housing.

 

Q >Mary, what inspired you to approach Stephanie to work on this together?

MV >I first emailed Stephanie in 2020 after finding out about some of her work through the Ryerson University website. I decided to “cold call” (email) to see if she’d be interested in working together.

I have always been really interested in the overlap between my research on housing desire and preferences and the architecture and spatial elements that women describe. I wanted to connect with someone who was doing architecture and design work. As it turns out, Stephanie had been thinking about how to use her work to bring about social change particularly for people living unhoused. It was a perfect collaboration right from the start. 

Q >How does your collaborative process work?

MV >In my research, I use qualitative and narrative methods to learn more about the ways women who experience long-term homelessness describe their ideal permanent housing. Some of my data offers really rich descriptions that offer lots of details about the kind of housing women want to live in. These descriptions tend to offer concrete examples of spatial and design elements in ways that connect to women’s lived experiences and identities. 

I began sharing some anonymised excerpts from these transcripts with Stephanie. She was able to take the descriptions provided by women and turn them into drawings that brought the narratives to life in ways that demonstrated how modest and simple the requests of women are, in relation to their permanent housing. Seeing these drawings was a really powerful moment for me, and helped me to more fully imagine the kinds of spaces and places women need in order to resolve their homelessness.

As our collaboration and commitment to this work continues, we are thinking more about how to translate this work into something that can inspire the development of new kinds of housing options for women.

SD >I’d say the strength in our collaboration is that our skills and modes of working are very different, but in this particular collaboration, interdependent and complementary. When we began working together, Mary shared with me the outcome of the [in]visible project, in the form of reports. These reports contain excerpts from the interviews with the homeless individuals she’d interviewed and some sketches they’d done as well. Reading the housing needs and desires of these individuals is so powerful and impactful. I needed to take a long time to read and re-read them, to try to appreciate the types of experiences these individuals had, that shaped their specific housing desires. When we first began working together, Mary described her need for drawings — drawings that responded to, or translated, somehow, the transcriptions. Because there are so many types of drawings in architecture and design, I took many months to consider the medium. I did not want the drawings to appear like I was trying to solve the issue in a simplistic way. Rather, I wanted to find a mode of drawing that could inherit some of the power of the transcriptions, and bring the weight and importance of the women’s backstories. Drawings are powerful tools when it comes to space-making. But certain types of drawings suppress or excise critical information. With these particular drawings, I see them as the beginning of a slow process of translation, where the women’s needs are recorded and used as spatial anchors in imagery that could become more and more concrete.

Q >Stephanie, you chose to focus on four women. What made you choose these four specifically?

SD >From amongst the transcriptions that Mary shared with me, these four women offer extremely precise, detailed descriptions of spatial attributes that are important to them, or specific furniture and appliances that they know they need. These very specific things described by the women really acted as anchors for me to translate the spaces into drawings. Each of the drawing sets have taken about a month to produce – maybe a bit longer. So at this point, time is also a factor in how many of the narratives have been translated into drawings. Hopefully we can continue to do more!

Q >Mary, which of Stephanie’s drawings stood out for you the most?

MV >The drawing that stood out the most for me was 009 — specifically the lock on the door and window and the comfortable and warm space that Stephanie designed.

This particular woman had experienced such significant gender-based violence during her life. When she described her preferred housing to me, she highlighted the importance of a space where she could feel safe. When I look at the drawing that Stephanie put together based on her narrative, it feels safe, it feels secure and it looks like a space where a woman could begin to live a life free from violence.

 

 

Q >Stephanie, you’ve mentioned that this project has fundamentally shifted how and what you draw, and has impacted the courses that you teach. Tell us more about these shifts and impacts.

SD >For a long time, I’ve been interested in the informal and unpredictable aspects of buildings. The ways that spaces are used can often defy the designer’s or owner’s intentions. In architecture, use or “program” is often digested in a slightly clinical way. But users are people, and people are idiosyncratic, unpredictable and incredibly varied. In this project, the users are highly specific, and the use is so basic: to be sheltered, to be housed and safe. It was disorienting, at first, to reckon with how modest the spatial needs of these women are, together with reckoning with glimpses into their life stories, which are powerful. They have endured a lot. The formal or aesthetic route into understanding and designing spaces was not helpful in responding to the women’s narratives. Rather, I tried to use maximum restraint, and not design, but rather, make a translation from words to space. Before working with these women’s texts, I had not researched or drawn in-detail jimmy-proof locks, for instance. Though I tried to make the drawings as close to the texts as possible, I also had personal wishes for the women, like sunlight and fresh air, uncompromised privacy and a certain quality of materiality. Ultimately this work has shifted the way that I look at, and appreciate, very mundane, simple attributes of space.

Q >Stephanie, how did you go about translating words, needs, desires into drawings and diagrams?

SD >Translating the words of the women into drawings involved some trial-and-error, in terms of how the drawings were constructed and composed. Each set of drawings began with me combing over the woman’s narrative and highlighting the descriptions of concrete spatial attributes or objects in the text. I decided early-on in the process that the spaces shown in the drawing should not be fictional. By using real spaces, I wanted to prove that the spaces that these women need already exist – it shouldn’t be so complicated to find them housing. The case studies used for the four women are an eclectic mixture of vernacular, local buildings and buildings designed by known architects. The longest part of the process, on my end, was probably going through the “match-making” process and selecting a case study space. Once I’d defined a specific space to draw, I made a set of basic orthographic drawings. I was awarded a seed grant from the Creative School (X-University) which provided funding for a student assistant, Roxana Cordon-Ibanez. We worked together to construct a 3D model for each space together with furnishings that the women mentioned in their texts. While plans, sections, elevations, and 3D views exist for each case study, for me, the drawings I was most interested in making are the interior perspective renderings. These are inspired by the children’s book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. The charcoal drawings in the book are powerful and contain a sense of foreboding, and often an element of magic realism.

Q >What can creatives, designers and academics do to address the lack of affordable and secure housing?

MV >One thing our partnership has demonstrated to me is the importance of collaborations across disciplines. Stephanie brings such an important lens to this work. Thinking about space and place and the infrastructure of housing is such an important part of my research and my advocacy work — but something I know so little about. Working with Stephanie has allowed me to think about infrastructure and housing needs differently. Through our collaboration, Stephanie was able to show how these spaces could be designed using existing infrastructure through re-adaptive reuse. Advocating for the development of affordable and supportive housing options for women through supporting non-profit developers to reuse existing space has now become an important aspect of my work.

SD >I agree with Mary. I value the work that she’s doing so much and am incredibly energised to be working in a way that combines different disciplinary knowledge, skills and approaches. In this case, with this collaboration, the drawings add an additional layer to Mary’s research, with the aim of increasing exposure on the topic and the likelihood for an impact in policy-making. The lack of affordable and secure housing is such a complex problem and before beginning to work with Mary I suppose I felt I didn’t have an in-road into navigating this complexity because a big part of it is the social dimension. If creatives, designers and researchers/academics want to help address this issue I think it’s a good idea to find an expert, like Mary, who can offer an in-road.

Q >What do you hope this collaboration will ultimately achieve?

MV >My hope is that our collaboration brings attention to issues of housing and homelessness for women. More specifically, I hope the drawings show how simple and modest the requests of women really are for permanent housing. We do hope that ultimately our collaboration will extend past drawing the narrative descriptions, and work towards realising the development of new affordable housing options for women. I am really interested in the ways Stephanie conceptualises how existing space can be reused and re-designed to meet the needs of women experiencing homelessness. It is our hope that our collaborative work together will eventually lead to the development of housing that meets the needs of the women in this study. 

SD >I agree with Mary — the drawings can be seen as spatial proposals, rooted in the women’s words — or spatial requests. These spaces are modest. Similar spaces to the ones shown in the case studies can be found everywhere. For me, our collaboration won’t really be complete until we realise a project, an adaptive re-use, and provide a home — even one, to start with — for the individuals that Mary has been working with. To create a collection of radically individualised housing opportunities, using existing building stock, is something that I’m very committed to pursuing.

 

 

Q >Who and what inspires or influences you?

MV >My work is deeply influenced and inspired by the women I have worked with, who experience long-term homelessness in Hamilton (Ontario, Canada.). I have worked in women serving shelters and drop-in spaces for a decade. Over time, I have gotten to know these women and their stories, and their hopes and desires for permanent housing. My work is driven by my commitment to advancing the right to housing for women who face multiple barriers to accessing traditional market rent housing and as a result experience multiple years of homelessness.

SD >I’m very drawn to observing how life plays-out, specifically in spaces. References that I look to again and again include the work of photographers Eugene Atget and Wilhelm Schürmann because of their unglamorous, unstaged photographic documentation of spaces, both urban and interior. I look a lot at art and illustration, and have recently been very moved by the work of Ukrainian artist Maria Primachenko. Several of her paintings were burned as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Looking at her work it is frighteningly prophetic, but also very joyful. I have a deep conviction in the power of art to create social change and really admire the fierce bravery of artists like Nadya Tolokonnikova of the Pussy Riot. My kids are the biggest informants to my way of life and moving through the world. I know that many of the participants in Mary’s research, in the [in]visible project, are mothers, and their plea for safety, for security, was something that resonated with me deeply.

 

Mary Vaccaro has over a decade of experience working in women-specific shelters and drop-in spaces. She is a PhD Candidate at McMaster University, and her research is focused on developing gender-specific low barrier housing. Mary has worked on local community-based and national research projects that focus on advancing the right to housing for women.
Stephanie Davidson is a designer and educator. Her design platform, Davidson Rafailidis, has received international recognition for its adaptive re-use, low-budget, speculative projects and drawings. Davidson has taught in Germany, the US and Canada. Work to-date on drawing the housing desires of homeless women and gender diverse individuals has been supported by a seed grant from Toronto Metropolitan University, for research assistant Roxana Cordon-Ibanez.

 

Images courtesy of © Stephanie Davidson

009 / Transcript from interview — 43 years old, 12 years of homelessness — I would be happy with like, I don’t know, say a room and a bathroom and a hot plate, I don’t care say, as long as there is a window to put an air conditioner in or in the winter time a heater you know, just my own space kinda thing... not too too small, cause I’ve had small, like that room that was on the Mountain where I could barely move and stuff but like a bachelor apartment you know, like nothing fancy but nothing with bugs or anything like that in it, but I do need my own place but I also need to work like I’ve found that I feel better and like I get through the day easier and I feel better about myself having a job. While for the assault thing like with [name], I need... I would need a phone to contact Victim Services. While I would need, like say, for the door, I would need those big bolts for when I am sleeping, like I’m not concerned about an alarm and stuff like that but good windows... like if they are old windows I could put screws in them, if I had an air conditioner, I’d have to make sure it was like the wood with like, bolted in and stuff like that, just regular safe um... measures for a place just because I don’t trust those people, just because they had keys to my last apartment.

010 / Transcript from interview — 40 years old, 12 years of homelessness — Just probably cleanliness, like a clean one bed room apartment or even a bachelor. I’ve always wanted my own bed, or my own apartment. With a little table or desk to read at. I am happy with just food, enough food to survive on and even reading, just a nice comfortable bed to be warm, reading TV, DVDS, I’d be happy. Safe, something safe too, I can’t live in a bad, scrubby rooming house. I liked (transitional housing for women)… The closeness of the group… other girls, Christmas, just working down the street, putting my little chefs jacket on and getting ready for work. That was the good part.

013 / Transcript from interview — 54 years old, 12 years of homelessness — I would need an affordable place, because I have no help with my drug plan. I would need a scooter to get around, or a walker. I would need it to be accessible. And I hope I don’t have to move into a crack house or anything, that’s what I’m afraid of, that I’m going to have to move into a real dumpy place. And you see how clean I am, I’m a clean lady, and I can’t I can’t be around a lot of different people because of my addictions. II also have to be in a disabled place, where I can bring my scooter and my walker in, ‘cause I can’t climb stairs. So it’s gonna have to be either one the main floor or have an elevator... I’m hoping to find a place where I can afford my rent.

014 / Transcript from interview — 66 years old, 7 years of homelessness — I’d like a big window, a neat kitchen, a little bit of space, it doesn’t have to be really big, landscaping and a superintendent who does maintenance. It has to be clean and that’s about it. I need to make it safe, for me and my grandkids. I’m on a list for supportive housing in [city in Ontario], a friend of mine from [another city in Ontario] got into the apartment, her whole backyard is looking over the [River name], and its absolutely awesome, and I wouldn’t mind looking out at a river.