Ernest Beck | Projects

Emergency Response Studio

Trailer exterior
Emergency Response Studio installed at Wesleyan University's Center for the Arts. Photos: Olivia Bartlett Drake

Victims of Hurricane Katrina who were forced to live in FEMA trailers, in some cases for years, say they were exposed to toxic fumes emitted from the trailers’ formaldehyde-laden materials. That claim was recently rejected by a jury in the first lawsuit brought by a number of victims against the trailer manufacturer, Gulf Stream Coach, Inc., and Fluor Enterprises, the installer. The jury concluded that the trailers were not “unreasonably dangerous” in their construction, a notion disputed not only by the plaintiffs but also by Paul Villinski, a New York–based artist whose project, Emergency Response Studio, was inspired in part by the trailer controversy. “Why is temporary emergency housing like this?” Villinski asks, recalling the shoddy construction and off-gassing he found while creating the ERS, which involved redesigning and reconfiguring a trailer into an environmentally friendly shelter. “Why can’t we do it with a little more care and build something that is aesthetically pleasing for the occupants and also safe?

Trailer interior
The original FEMA-type trailer was stripped of anything remotely toxic and endowed with solar panels and a geodesic skylight

Villinski’s ERS was inspired by a visit to New Orleans a year after Katrina. There he found “a disaster area” of gutted homes, streets strewn with rotting processions, still traumatized residents and a lack of manpower and resources for reconstruction. Asked to create an art project for an international art exhibition to be held in the city, Villinski, whose work focuses on repurposing found or discarded materials into beautiful objects, decided to use the notorious FEMA trailers as a way to “understand what I was seeing and what was occurring, what people were feeling and responding to, and to add something positive,” he explains. Artists, he believes, could use such trailers — made into rolling, off-the-grid workspaces — to embed themselves in emergency situations and contribute, with their creativity, to relief efforts.

Trailer bed
Studio's sleeping area

Unable to obtain an authentic FEMA trailer from the federal agency, Villinski bought a similar model through an online auction for $5,000 and set about transforming the ripped-out interior with bamboo cabinetry, recycled denim insulation, zero-VOC paint, floor tiles made from linseed oil, and reclaimed wood. He installed solar panels, a deck and a geodesic skylight. Aluminum siding was replaced with a clear polycarbonate sheathing. After towing it to New Orleans from New York, he parked the revamped green trailer in the Lower 9th Ward, where it was a hit with local residents. (ERS was later seen in exhibitions in several cities and is on view through November 8 at the Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.)

Wesleyan exhibition
Accompanying exhibition at Wesleyan's Zilkha Gallery

The ERS isn’t a production prototype, but it does function on several levels. It’s a political critique of how the recovery effort was botched by the government, and an example of what emergency housing could be with thoughtful planning and sustainable materials. It has raised consciousness, both in New Orleans and elsewhere, about the city’s revival. And it can serve as a model for how artists and designers can participate in the process of social change. “My work tends to veer in the direction of hope,” Villinski says. “It’s an exercise in what is possible.”

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Health + Safety, Social Good

Comments [8]

He shows up a year after the disaster and calls his idea an "Emergency Response Studio'? I think not. 'Katrina Cottages' by new urbanists were also designed for some glory and PR, too. Not a real prototype? Another 'designer' thinking design or posters or some pretty museum installation can change lives for the most needy, invisible and desperate after disasters. They don't need retro fabric-covered pillows and curtains.

Ditto "real." But it is an 'art' piece and as an 'art object' it is far less offensive than the Katrina Cottage whose 'political critique' is null and void by design. Want info about people doing good work on the Coast? http://www.gccds.org

I don't think Villinski was trying to "change lives" exactly, since he was using his creativity to comment on what had been done to help and change the lives effected by hurricane Katrina. This wasn't made to replace anything, he was asked to make a work of art. It functions to spark dialogue about how the recovery effort was "botched by the government" which, while not as important as the immediate needs of the desperate, may be enough to spark change and hope for the next people who suffer disaster. Or at least help get people thinking in the right direction. It was a response, not a solution.

I don't know if this work had the impact is was going for, but if it got at least one person to take some action or ask some questions I think it is a success. Of course a real solution would be the best thing but that wasn't the goal here. Design can't immediately change those lives affected, but I think it can help create a system that would better serve them and environment, which is important. It's going to take more than an artist to solve the problem of dangerous emergency housing but in the meantime art/design can get people talking and propose the kinds of solutions we really need.

K. Boehme

A very cute studio. I like this! Thanks for this post! beautiful images!

I love this transformation of something that was so toxic before into something that looks inviting. It would be wonderful if something like this could have been massed produced.
Seattle Architects

I thought it would be worthwhile to mention that, while a jury did recently rule in favor of defendant Gulf Stream Coach, the largest manufacturers of travel trailers commissioned by FEMA for Hurricane Katrina survivors, the trial was actually a bellwether trial, and its outcome does not affect the possibility that other trailers did harm their residents; the trailer in the trial was also built significantly before Katrina and was probably not one of the rush jobs done thereafter. There are a minimum of five more such trials scheduled into 2010. In the Vioxx MDL case, Vioxx won 10 of 15 bellwether trials and then settled for 4.8 billion.

Finally, as a resident of New Orleans, I cannot help imagining how Katrina survivors would have reacted when presented with such a construction. The memory of the trailers would have been a much more whimsical and lexically interesting history for this city, let alone wherever they happened to travel thereafter.
Benjamin Geary

While this isn’t a product made for production, it does lead the way in providing a home to those struck by natural disasters. By making temporary homes more aesthetically appealing, it makes it easier on the psyche of those living in disaster areas. If they had to live in something drab, it would have a major effect on how they would handle the situation. Designs have to think about a solution to the problem, but also the feelings of those who have to use the product. The solution has to do more than answer a problem. It has to mentally help those who have to use it as well as physically. Sometimes the people are neglected for the idea when they are the ones that we need to design for as they are the ones who have to use this product.
Stacie Budek

The design of the studio looks nice and the artist is expressing the recovery of the survivors through the work of art. The transformation is also worthwhile and it is not impossible that will be implemented in the future.
Bruce H.

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