Facing Homelessness: SKID ROAD at [storefront], Olson Kundig Architects

With the challenge of homelessness, we think there is an inclination for most people to look away. SKID ROAD—like several of the other [storefront] installations we’ve done over the past year—asks the public to look closer. – Alan Maskin, Co-Director, [storefront]

Seattle’s Olson Kundig Architects has been offering experimental exhibitions in its [storefront] exhibit space, and the most recent is SKID ROAD. It is fitting that an architecture firm, in the business of creating houses, apartments and other buildings in which people work and live, would address the experiences and needs of the locally un-housed. Exhibit co-coordinators and designers Alan Maskin (Principal at Olson Kundig and also co-director of the space with Kirsten Murray) and Marlene Chen (an Associate at Olson Kundig) say the idea for SKID ROAD was sparked by a photograph.

On most mornings—particularly if it’s been raining—there is a homeless person sleeping in the covered doorway of our storefront—a once vacant neighborhood storefront that the firm uses to stage social practice projects… The current installation, SKID ROAD, was initially inspired by a photograph our colleague Joe Iano took of the person in the doorway. – Alan

The problems associated with poverty and homelessness have been an issue in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood for nearly a century.  In the exhibit, Lorraine McConaghy’s historical essay on early Seattle’s “down and out” (Yesler Way was Seattle’s literal skid road) and the paintings of that era by Ronald Debs Ginther illustrate this legacy. A piece of prose by local gallery owner Greg Kucera reflects on his growing consciousness of the issue of homelessness in Pioneer Square after the opening of his first gallery space there in the 1980’s.  Kucera rightly points out the present irony of numerous Pioneer Square galleries selling expensive art to the 1%, while elsewhere in the neighborhood those in poverty struggle to have basic needs met with the help of social services.

Social service and advocacy organizations have played a large role in the devlopment of SKID ROAD.  Alan and Marlene say that one goal for the exhibit has been to promote a larger awareness for the work of Pioneer Square organizations and groups.

Some are trying to ease the daily hardships for those living on our streets and others are working to eradicate homelessness altogether. Not all of the participants agree with one another’s approach—yet each is given the same platform (the exhibit) to state their beliefs, values and goals. – Alan

Alan and Marlene’s  intention was to bring together a representative mix of voices: direct service providers, groups that are self-managed and run the tent cities, those who do advocacy work and the government. While they were preparing for SKID ROAD they visited groups and organizations to see their work personally.  They have since made sure there are opportunities for each organization to tell their story through the exhibit.  In addition to large exhibit displays on the work of each group, Marlene states that The organizations continue to be heavily involved, using the space for committee and board meetings, public events, and more.

Two of the exhibit boards in SKID ROAD describing the services offered through Compass Housing Alliance and DESC.

The organizations that have been featured collaborators in SKID ROAD are:

Bread of Life Mission
Chief Seattle Club
Committee to End Homelessness in King County
Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness
Compass Housing Alliance
DESC (formerly Downtown Emergency Service Center)
Real Change
Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE)
Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL)

With help from volunteers from our office and our partner organizations, we open the space to the public every Tuesday through Thursday during lunch hours and encourage visitors to share their own thoughts on the subject of homelessness. We also extend the conversation to our Facebook page where we plan to post events and topics of discussion. – Alan

SKID ROAD is both an effort to create an educational forum around homelessness and present a public statement of partnership between individuals and organizations that want to promote and contextualize the ongoing work of serving the homeless and eradicating homelessness.  Though Alan and Marlene were the orchestrators of the exhibit, the mark of their role in the exhibit is almost invisible to a visitor.  Instead, ownership of the exhibit appears to be evenly distributed amongst a range of stakeholders; the groups and individuals that they have reached out to.

We’ve assembled activists, politicians, historians, social service providers, artists, evangelical Christians, designers, community members, and members of Seattle’s homeless community. It is a rare event when these groups end up in the same room together or that museum/exhibition spaces take it (homelessness) on as content for dialogue. – Alan

A meeting takes place at a long table at the center of the SKID ROAD space.

When I visited the exhibit, groups were gathered at long tables in the middle of the exhibit space eating lunch, talking, and conducting meetings associated with one of the exhibited organizations.  Colorful portraits of homeless adults painted by artist Mary Larson line one wall of the exhibit space. The price of one of these vibrant paintings? – hundreds or maybe thousands of toothbrushes, cans of food, socks, or any number of other essential supplies that will directly serve the homeless.  The individuals whose faces emerge brightly from the paintings are patients of Larson’s from the clinic she works at as a nurse in Pioneer Square.

On the adjacent wall, posters highlight recent data on the local homeless population. One poster points out that people of color are shown to be disproportionately over represented in homeless populations, suggesting the racism that contributes to the poverty of this group.  Another poster draws attention to the fact that the end of the ride-free zone in downtown next month will make it even harder for the homeless to utilize the bus system.  A small activity station encourages visitors to fill out a “mad lib” which, after the story is revealed, is a reminder of the privilege of being able to ride buses in any part of town at any time without worry for finding shelter from the weather.

Mary Larson’s portraits of homeless adults.

Image“Bus Rider Mad Libs” Activity.

SKID ROAD addresses itself to a privileged visitor, one who has the luxury of ignoring homelessness, but who could come away from the exhibit with a greater respect for and understanding of homelessness as an experience; one that is unjustly ridiculed, regulated and misunderstood.   If visitors want to connect more deeply to the direct services and groups represented in the exhibit, newsletter sign-ups and pamphlet resources are close at hand.  I left feeling encouraged by the work of organizations, advocates, the homeless, and formerly homeless individuals that are essential to generating the strategies our community needs to combat the root causes of poverty and homelessness.  SKID ROAD gave me a space to consider my accountability in relation to the poverty in our communities and a space to return to continue the conversation with others.

Our goal here was to convene and create a conversation.  SKID ROAD is not a complete representation of the work in the region—there are dozens of other organizations and individuals doing really innovative work. One of the main messages is that every group has a different approach, but it’s important to remember that every group is working towards the same goal—easing the effects or eradicating homelessness. – Marlene

Museums and experimental exhibition initiatives like [storefront] can be safe spaces for dialogue and personal reflection, but as Alan reflected, they too rarely address such pervasive social issues as homelessness (or directly engage with homeless or other marginalized groups.)  SKID ROAD shows that exhibits can be forums for dialogue around issues like homelessness and serve an important function in our communities if we let them.

Finally, SKID ROAD exemplifies the richness that can be derived from establishing relationships and inviting the participation of diverse community partners. Alan and Marlene didn’t want to simply throw text on a wall in hope that it would spark dialogue, they were interested in forming relationships with the various groups and allowing them space to speak for themselves.

We see great potential in this type of flexible space, whether a storefront or a community gallery in a museum, where groups are invited to share ownership of both the product and the space itself (e.g. hold meetings over lunch). What are your thoughts? Have you ever experimented with such a space in your museum? What were/are the results?

Give us feedback


  1. They are such works of art, one person did every single one of them? The extravegence held in each emotion seen in the faces of each of the persons that are known to have no shelter, and she captured them all.

    -Solomon Berkovitch

    1. Hi Solomon, thanks for the comment! Yes, the paintings have been created by a single, Seattle-based artist, Mary Larson (http://www.marylarsonart.com). She does an amazing job indeed!

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