The Shower Truck, by Li Wien – Summer 1997: Urban Assault Issue
           
           
   
 
 
 
 
       
         
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Space Speed Form

This Project uses the desire to provide showers for the homeless as a generator for creating architecture and a series of urban moments.

SPECIFICATIONS

14 shower stalls powered by 1000 sf of solar panels mounted on the back of an 18-wheeler trailer.

Each stall is equipped with a soap dispenser, washboard, and clothes dryer.

All materials are of stainless steel for ease of maintenance.

Energy is stored in battery banks hooked to generators extending the length of the trailer.

Water is supplied by tapping into the public system of fire hydrants.

Water is heated and dispersed via boiler and expansion tank methods.

Each Shower/Truck requires one attendant who will travel in the cab between parking lots.

Delivery, pick up and transport of the trailer will be by local trucking companies contributing their time for tax breaks.

Observations

When living in London, I became accustomed to taking baths. But I missed the showers of my childhood growing up in California. They seemed so much more efficient; quick, light exercises with plenty of sun through the windows to remind one that the next outdoor activity was just a shower away. But they also served as distinct thresholds: the passing of one period to another – like after a hard day of gardening, to refresh before supper. Somehow sitting in a tub was not the same as passing through a shower. The shower has a significant ritualistic place in the Southern California lifestyle.

The lack of personal hygiene is one of the most basic and pressing issues facing the homeless. It directly leads to the erosion of one’s self esteem, and with that the confidence and hope it takes for one to reintegrate oneself back into society.

In traditional cities, the sidewalk or street is the equalizer between peoples. Whether rich or poor, all share a common ground – literally the ground they walk on. But when driving in Los Angeles, one is struck by the fact that the homeless are also CARless. In the context of Los Angeles, the homeless lack the ability to travel to facilities. The irony is that they are the ones who are constantly mobile for they have no home. Cleansing facilities need to be brought to the homeless for in Los Angeles at least, they are not mobile on the scale of the city.

Parking lots for the most part seem to be such a lot of wasted space because they perform only one function. No other space in the city is afforded this luxury. The single-minded nature of parking is what makes most lots such dead places. Just as at the beach, where people play roller-hockey and sail-skate in the shadow of the Cirque de Soleil’s tent, the parking lots of Los Angeles are potential urban stages for various human activities.

A DAY IN THE LIFE

It’s lunchtime downtown. Pershing Square is teeming with visitors, workers and passers-by. Traffic is thick, the sky clear, and the noise dense. Water gushes from the Square’s fountain and splashes on the surrounding cobblestones.

Out from the corner of your view, you see a large 18-wheeler pull up to the corner of 5th and Olive, enter into the parking lot and stop with a hiss. A person jumps out from the cab, checks several dials on the trailer and flips a switch. The long walls of the trailer, which are implanted with solar panels rise on gas struts, like gull-wing doors, to reveal stainless steel innards. Curtains from within stir in the breeze. The truck attendant pulls out a large hose and attaches one end to a nearby fire hydrant, the other end to the rear of the trailer via quick-release levers. He turns the hydrant on. The hose swells with the passing of water; the needles on the dials jump as purring emanates from deep inside the stainless torso – evidence that the solar panels have kicked the onboard generators into gear. The nearby clock tower chimes 12:00.

The Shower/Truck is now open for service.

It’s almost 4:00 o’clock on the Palisades. Johnson usually doesn’t pay attention to such things; as the world rushes around, always trying to beat time, Johnson struggles to find ways to pass time. Survival is the goal, boredom and depression the enemy. Such is the life of Johnson, a homeless citizen. People avoid Johnson. He knows why: he smells but it still hurts. He really has nowhere to go but moves to avoid those who wish avoidance, and pan-handle those who seem susceptible. But today he is back here on the Palisades at 4:00 because he knows that this time every other day, it comes back.

He still remembers his first encounter. This truck as big as a ship pulling up and unfolding itself. It was cool and glistening in the summer sun. A man handed him a towel, smiled and indicated that any of the 14 stalls were available. Soon there was a small line of various friends, homeless as he, lumbering out of their afternoon slumber only to realize what he already had: he was about to take his first shower in days. 20 minutes later, he emerged clean and wearing a cleaner shirt thanks to the facilities on board. But it was the memory of water pelting down on his back, the sun gleaming through his wet locks that stuck with him. It was that memory and comfort that brought him back to the Palisades today – for another dose of hope, of self-respect.

Johnson looks down on the Pier parking lot as the truck pulls in and starts setting up. He moves towards the footbridge that will take him down to the beach. T his will be his eighth time. It was becoming a habit. Leo always arrived early. Parking his car in the garage, he walked down the stairs, across the tarmac to Hanger B, and unlocked the roll-up gate. The gate rolled up to the ceiling, the noise of its bearings echoing along the polished concrete floors. In 40 minutes the Acme Trucking Co. would be along to pick up him and his equipment. Leo moved quickly – there was much to do: stacking towels, topping off the soap dispensers, taking readings on all the gauges, wiping the stalls down.

An ex-firefighter, Leo still kept to his old habits of meticulous preparation and methodical procedures. An old injury slowed him down at times, but his fireman’s insurance and pension provided ably for him. This year his only grandchild would be entering college and the extra bonus he received to attend the Shower/Truck would be the difference.

After inspecting the solar panels, Leo sat down on the running board to review the day’s route. Hollywood and Virgil would be the first stop. Then into downtown, finishing up at the Santa Monica Pier. Leo always liked this route; the Pier was a nice place to end the day. Many users there, and since the Acme driver couldn’t pick him up until 7:00, Leo could enjoy the late August sunsets. A horn sounded. The driver had arrived. Today it was Tony who was always good to get in the morning before the day’s hassles transformed him into a grump. Tony backed his cab into Hanger B, Leo made the necessary hook-ups and climbed into the passenger seat.

The day was about to begin.

Li Wen

The Shower Truck was awarded a 1996 AIA/Next award by the Los Angeles chapter of the AIA.

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