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Martín Ruiz de Azúa, “Basic House” (1999). (via MoMA)

If, like Woody Guthrie lamented, you’ve got no home and are just roaming around, you still need shelter from the storms of spring, the scorching summer heat, the autumn winds, and the chill of winter. In the Applied Design exhibition that recently opened at the Museum of Modern Art, a giant golden cube that caught my attention turned out to be a rather creative solution to portable shelter.

Called “Basic House,” it was designed by Spanish artist Martín Ruiz de Azúa and is a very compact tent-like structure that is intended to be inflated with hot air from grates in the city sidewalks, and then stay inflated and heated inside with its reflective material. A later version of the “Basic House,” aptly called “Basic House II,” can be inflated with body heat or the sun alone and features reversible fabric to account for temperature. Azúa has made tackling new approaches to living, and death, part of his practice, like designing an urn containing seeds that can biodegrade into the ground, a chair that is also a garden and a home for your pet turtle, and a “Nest House” for an unobtrusive one-night habitat in the wilderness. The “Basic House” is, basically, a giant emergency blanket, and it’s an incredibly simple idea, but it’s still an innovative way to tackle the ongoing problem of shelter on the streets.

Chasing down a skyward “Basic House II” (courtesy the artist)

Sure, calling it a “house” is a stretch, and there are immediate questions about where you would inflate something that big on a city sidewalk and the attention it would likely draw, and how you would keep the lightweight structure from billowing away with the slightest wind like in the photograph above. Still it’s an example of design using something basic and cheap to fix a basic problem. Yes, there’s frequently approaches to affordable housing and compact living. However, the “Basic House” is turning one of the most material things in life, a home, into something that’s practically immaterial.

“Basic House” in the  “Applied Design” exhibition at MoMA (photograph by the author)

Applied Design continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 31, 2014.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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