New York

James Keyden Cathcart, Frank Fantauzzi, Terrence Van Elslander

Storefront For Art & Architecture

Which of the many ordeals and indignities suffered by the homeless is the most corrosive to the human spirit? Pleading for money or a meal, changing clothes on the sidewalk under an old blanket, finding a place to sleep on a bitter winter night, or stalking a quiet corner in which to relieve themselves? As one of the few art outposts in New York dedicated to esthetic assaults on urban problems, Storefront for Art & Architecture aims for results.

In a recent collaborative effort entitled “Unprojected Habit,” 1992, architects James Keyden Cathcart, Frank Fantauzzi, and Terrence Van Elslander claimed Storefront’s Kenmare Street facade, cutting five large slices through the gallery wall, removing the pieces, and inserting portable toilets. Set back into the wall, all of the toilets were functional. This generous procession was a much-needed improvement in an area of the city with a large homeless population. Clearly available for use, the only obvious design flaw was their inaccessibility to people in wheelchairs; entrance required a big step up from the sidewalk.

On the exterior of the building the installation was subdued, but the effects on the interior were purposefully invasive. The molded plastic cabs of the portable toilets occupied the slender triangular gallery, impeding passage. A strong chemical smell permeated the space. Across from each toilet, the sections of wall that were removed to install each unit stood in line, ready to be put back in place at the conclusion of the exhibition. Acid-green letters on the outside surface that identify Storefront were apparent though dislocated.

It was quiet when I visited the exhibition, but there were reports and evidence of use. Without equivocation, Cathcart, Fantauzzi, and Van Elslander satisfied the expectations of art in the gallery as well as a desperate need in the local community. In a potent exchange, the indignities of being without home or bathroom were brought into an art environment. The protected province of the planned exhibition was transformed by direct display of a profoundly problematic urban condition. And the gallery extended its usual operations into the streets, providing an essential—if temporary—amenity.

New York City is considering proposals to install toilets at public sites. Recently, a book was published listing existing public restrooms in the city. Of course, this useful little guide, available in bookstores, is geared for tourists and a reading audience that does not include the homeless. In spite of the frankness of these efforts to provide places—other than the streets, sidewalks, or subways—to urinate, these gestures seem symbolic and inadequate.

Cathcart, Fantauzzi, and Van Elslander’s installation was a powerful potion of architecture as social concern. The toilets, delivered in February by Call-A-Head Corp., with weekly service guaranteed, were removed from the gallery wall in March. Storefront’s humble facade was reassembled and patched. With warmer spring and summer weather, the smell of urine will permeate the air in certain corners of the city, as homeless women and men are left to live without the most basic amenities. These architects have made a valiant attempt to point to dire social conditions. If we are lucky, the impression made by this angry, provocative project will outlive its usefulness.

Patricia C. Phillips