What do you get when you mix a doomed duplex with a truck, a trailer and three healthy helpings of good ol’ conceptually motivated muscle and sweat fortified with endearing idealism? Answer: “The Extraction of a Suburban House,” now on exhibit at (and, for some pieces, forever part of) the Tangent Gallery in Detroit. Jeff Rawlins, Bradford Watson and Michael Zebrowski, three master’s of architecture students at Cranbrook Academy of Art, put their structurally sound heads together, and it panned out in a permanent way.
It all began with a timely intersection of desire, aesthetic disturbance and opportunity, according to Zebrowski: “It basically came out of a discussion that we were initially having with Mitch Cope [Tangent Gallery director] about doing something within the gallery that would be permanent. Then this other opportunity came about.”
Zebrowski has been a Birmingham resident for more than a year.
“Every single day you see the trees get wrapped with yellow caution tape,” he says, “and a week later the house is gone. Three weeks later, there’s this brand-new monstrosity that gets built in the place of this house that, to begin with, was fine.”
Late last fall, he discovered that the house next door, also owned by his landlord, was destined for demolition and negotiated with him about doing something with the building. “Initially, we had no idea what was going to actually happen with the house. He [the landlord] came back to us and said he wanted it gone by December 31, which moved things along very quickly.”
Inside the gallery, major parts of the demolished duplex are paired: two bathroom sinks sit side by side; two bathtubs hang on the wall; two arches are now combined into one solid structure standing on its own, and two offices are connected into one entity. Black veins of electrical wiring exposed through the cracks of thin wood planks — now naked of plaster — rest on rollers in the center of the gallery like a surreal rib cage. These segments have been reconfigured, reinforced, recontextualized and, in Watson’s words, reprogrammed:
“The way in which the pieces are kind of sutured-secured and given a new integrity, there’s a sensitivity to not wiping out what was there.”
Extracted pieces have been reinforced, but not gratuitously: “The pieces we add are very strategic to bring back the integrity without heavy-handedly denying what the house was, and what was still of value.”
According to Rawlins, the three architects focused on reclaiming the portions they considered symbolic of the house as a whole. “The arches were somehow very strong in the composition of the house, and played an important role ... so they became important to take. Taking the four corners of the house somehow became important, because it sort of framed everything that we were doing.”
Just outside the gallery sit the two front facade corners, sutured together and easily misinterpreted as a parking attendant booth. Another corner frames the Tangent reception desk, and the fourth rests in a cubbyhole on the main floor, with its window, formerly looking out on Birmingham, now viewing the Hastings Street Ballroom stage.
What really pulls the pieces together is a video documenting the extraction, strategically placed on the mezzanine and overlooking most of the show’s first floor contents. The film plays like an architect’s version of the surrealist classic The Andalusian Dog, condensing 10 days of sawing, crunching, tossing and hauling (and 56 hours of footage) into an 18-minute documentary of the demise, edited by Zebrowski.
The film is both entertaining and crucial to understanding the weight of this undertaking. It puts the pieces into their original context — what and where they used to be — in order to help us grasp their transformed identities. This is a literal deconstruction, an architectural dissection, that doesn’t so much analyze the interrelation of the building’s structure and parts (although that knowledge seems to have come with the process) as explore its anatomy, first taking it apart, then experiencing a process of regeneration-reintegration.
For Rawlins, the “Extraction” project continues to explore certain themes in his graduate work: “What’s permanent, what’s temporary, how does ‘building’ change, how do things have new lives? It’s not a matter of erasure; it’s more of taking this raw material, this building, and sort of reprogramming it. And it retains a level of history — it has a past.”
In Rawlins’ perspective, this was a literal way of bringing the past into the future. It ends up being a type of archeological reincarnation, complete with a display of loose objects left over from the duplex’s previous occupants: storm windows, a vintage porn magazine, unopened mousetraps, old beer bottles, an unopened Kool-Aid pack (Tropical Punch), etc., all collected and placed as if they were unearthed remnants of an archeological dig.
While watching the video, I overheard a spectator say, “It’s sort of sad when the roof falls down. I mean, emotionally, it’s different from the walls.”
A sense of great respect permeates the show. It’s a reflection of the careful attention given to every step of the project, a reverence for the building shared by all three men.
Watson: The roof was that symbol of shelter, but I think more so it was sad seeing the two facade pieces roll down. That was the end of the presence.
Rawlins: It was very powerful how much we had to remove to get to the pieces that we wanted. It was literally like going in after a heart from a person’s body. If you have to remove the whole body to get to the heart, it’s a lot of work. In a way, we had to do that because we couldn’t just go in and pull the room and leave the house.
Zebrowski: I think during every single step of the project, there was always something that was worth experiencing through doing this — and on the way to becoming more sensitive to all these issues — more open to really being able to understand why this is happening.
Watson: This has implications for what’s happening in Birmingham, but implications for what’s happening in all parts of America ... not in relation to just “the house.”
The Tangent installation isn’t a criticism of class relations and restraints; the focus is wider than that. It’s about throwing out things of value for an illusion of something better, or bigger, triggered by Birmingham’s disturbing trend of tearing down the “old but still good” to build the SUVs of houses. But at least one house will live on. In Watson’s view, “Somehow the house made its home here in the gallery. It’s comfortable here now.”
And it’s true. At the opening, two girls sit and talk on the inverted front steps; wine is served off a door on its side, as if it’s always been that way. And the permanent piece of wall installed on the mezzanine will be absorbed into its new home – a literal transference of history from wall to wall – the immortal outcome of a determined, and very successful, extraction.
“The Extraction of a Suburban House” is at Tangent Gallery (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit) through April 19. Gallery hours are Wednesday-Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Call 313-873-2955.Anita Schmaltz writes about film and performance for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]