The Pacific Science Center bills itself as a place that ignites curiosity in children, fueling their passion for discovery, experimentation and critical thinking. Based in Seattle ever since the 1962 World’s Fair, it is a space where one can explore exhibits that make science fun, interactive and accessible.
When visitors walk through the new exhibit “Block by BLOCK: Innovating From the Ground Up,” they’re in for an experience centering a politically charged issue in Seattle — homelessness. It’s the first time the Pacific Science Center is addressing the topic, and they’re approaching it through the lens of technology and innovation. The exhibit delves into the BLOCK project, which aims to put a compact sustainable home on every block in Seattle. Among its features are a compostable toilet, solar power panels and a water filtration system.
Architects Rex Hohlbein and his daughter Jenn LaFreniere are behind the project. Homeowners agree for a BLOCK home to go up in their backyard and a person experiencing homelessness moves in. A little more than a year has passed since the first home went up in Beacon Hill. A second is nearly complete in Greenwood and by the end of the year a woman and her newborn will move into a BLOCK home in Crown Heights.
Vice President of Exhibits Diana Johns said it’s not just the job of the Pacific Science Center to discuss gravity, meteors, and outer space; homelessness is an on-the-ground issue they want to explore. Johns hopes the exhibit is a vehicle for visitors to soar past the polarization of the issue, and probe for solutions.
“Really our job is to get people to think. Not necessarily take away all those facts with them but to actually think about what it is they’re experiencing or feeling,” said Johns. “I know that sounds, you know, touchy feely for a science center. I don’t think so.”
“Really our job is to get people to think. Not necessarily take away all those facts with them but to actually think about what it is they’re experiencing or feeling.”
She went on to say arts, science, culture, humanities and social innovation are all connected and shouldn’t be separated. As the center evolves, Johns is interested in doing more exploring within social sciences and would like to tackle mental illness from a neurological standpoint.
Johns attended a VR meetup earlier this year, which led to connecting with Hohlbein. Their collaboration led to the exhibit.
Hohlbein, founder of Facing Homelessness, grew up on Queen Anne Hill and referred to Seattle Center as his playground. He’s proud the center is using its credibility to address an inescapable reality for thousands of our neighbors.
“It means a lot that Pacific Science Center would wade into such a contested, emotional conversation,” said Hohlbein. “There are going to be people who are going to come with their opinions and attitudes about this issue and maybe find it difficult bringing their kids or their grandkids through on an issue that they maybe have very strong feelings against.”
“It means a lot that Pacific Science Center would wade into such a contested, emotional conversation.”
Hohlbein hopes the exhibit will help people push past preconceived notions of homelessness and begin a more productive conversation. The word “homeless” purposefully isn’t in the title, so not to turn people away before they’ve given the exhibit a chance.
The exhibit itself reflects what the BLOCK project is. It looks like a backyard, complete with a garden where children can play. While little ones are busy planting an array of fruits and vegetables, the adults can read more about the BLOCK project. Visitors can also walk into a BLOCK home and watch a VR tour hosted by Bobby, who lives in the Beacon Hill home. Holbein said they are also participating in the Living Building Challenge, which is a rigorous green building certification program.
“By being off grid, we’re not only taking better care of the environment. We are taking away reasons for people to say no,” said Hohlbein. “Someone might say, ‘I don’t want to hook up to my meter or my water,’ or ‘I just don’t feel like having my sewage tapped into. I’m worried about what that might do; it might get plugged up.’ We wanted to make this as easy of a ‘yes, in my backyard’ as possible.”
“By being off grid, we’re not only taking better care of the environment. We are taking away reasons for people to say no."
Placards also dispel myths about homelessness, such as how a lack of housing creates several barriers to employment, in part because of exposure, poor sleep, hygiene challenges and general distress.
Exhibit Project Manager Jenny Gardner said bringing the BLOCK home to the center has already had an impact on staff. They have more empathy and greater sensitivity to people experiencing homelessness. Ultimately, that’s the goal for those who advocate for our unhoused neighbors.
As the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to grow and the rhetoric around how to address the problem worsens, “Block by BLOCK” is a way to reach an audience that may not be as tuned into the nuances of the issue. A solution is presented and it demonstrates that the problem isn’t insurmountable. Hohlbein believes everyone needs to be involved in the solution.
“Each and every one of us. You, your mom, my mom, me, my friends, everyone. Everyone when you go to a Starbucks should be able to stand up and say, ‘here’s how I’m involved,’” said Hohlbein. “When we get to that place, that’s when we’re gonna end homelessness.”
WHAT: “Block by BLOCK: Innovating From the Ground Up”
WHEN: Runs until Jan. 6, 2019
WHERE: Pacific Science Center, 200 Second Ave. N., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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