Willis Gallery

According to The Detroit Free Press, there are 3,500 to 3,800 vacant houses in the city of Detroit scheduled for demolition in the upcoming year. Ironically, the abandonment of the “Motor City” has been facilitated by the automobile, which has made possible the great number of bedroom communities that comprise the outlying suburbs. Detroit is certainly one of those “zones of disintensification,” cited by Jean Baudrillard after his recent tour of America, which have become “dumping grounds, wastelands, and new deserts for the poor,” as post-industrial society contracts to eliminate anything not of service to it. A bungalow left in the wake of this mobile culture was “de-built” by architects Jean-Claude Azar, James Keyden Cathcart, Frank Fantauzzi, Terrence Van Elslander, and Michael Williams as part of their project, P9/9119/53699, 1989. The piece was named after the various tracking systems—map coordinates/street number/demolition-permit number—used to identify the building in official archives. The structure, typical of the city’s working-class housing stock, was disassembled with basic handtools over a nine-day period, then transported piecemeal to the gallery, where it was installed in piles according to material. Like its former inhabitants, the building was literally “dis-placed”—removed from one site to another.

The installation functioned as an index of the building—recording, for example, that the combined volume of plaster from all the rooms could be held in twelve 55-gallon drums. In deconstructing the house and exposing its layers of structure, the architects performed an act of archeology, revealing sedimentations of time—the time of the most recent occupancy, the last time the house was painted, the time of construction, and, ultimately, the time before a building was there—thereby adding a materially-based narrative that registered the nostalgic evocations of historical revivalism.

In addition to neutralizing stylistic pastiche, the installation also raised other topological issues. Modernist utopias receive architectural expression in the eternal future of steel-and-glass towers whose pristine surfaces are meant to remain always new. This “illusion of permanence” (Peter Slavcheff) is well-suited to the ideologies of corporate-states, which demand the surrender of individual will to a structural metaphor transcending human finitude. Private thought, lying outside the zone of production, becomes disqualified and subject to impoverishment. The “generic” house used in the project is one such site of disenfranchisement. Found in the house, and contained in a battered tool box as part of the installation, were artifacts—snapshots, doodlings, and unpaid utility bills—providing fragmented testament of ruined lives in a city marked by post-Modern entropy.

The installation phase was followed by the disposal of the structure at a nearby landfill. Another grim statistic recorded as part of the project was that the entire building could be interred in a single 35-cubic-foot dumpster. On one level, this might seem to imply a Spenglerian interpretation of history as a continual process of decay. However, besides evoking a new apocalypse for a new fin de siècle, it also acknowledges that new cities arise from the rubble of old.

Vincent A. Carducci