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|Deconstruction in Detroit|
A group of young architects recently gave new meaning to the term "Deconstruction." The architects, all former Cranbrook students who have worked together in previous collaborations, were invited by the Willis Gallery, an alternative exhibition space in Detroit, to show some of their work. Instead of presenting models and drawings, the group took apart a house in one of Detroit's many blighted neighborhoods. Jean-Claude Azar, James Cathcart, Frank Fantauzzi, Terence Van Elslander, and Michael Williams bought the condemned house from the city for one dollar, then dismantled it by had and stacked the pieces in the Willis Gallery space.
Unlike the indiscriminate destruction of the bulldozer, theirs was an ordered demolition. The component elements of the house were reorganized and classified in an alternative taxonomy. We are presented with an entire house, yet we see only rows of doors, piles of rafters and flooring, barrels of broken plaster arranged according to their paint colors. The disconnected parts are without identity as a whole, no longer arranged as space. It is architecture in reverse, the reductive transformation of house to diagram, like a fallen tree, which is sawn and sorted. As a entropic gesture the installation may be closer to the true spirit of analytical Deconstruction than are the chic curves and angles of the D-Con architects.
Aside from the formal and transformational aspects of the exhibition, the political content is hard to miss, given the social context. In Detroit the destruction of a house becomes a highly politically charged issue. The destruction of a house signifies the large scale eradication of the city itself. The urban structure and fabric of Detroit has for decades undergone its own entropic decline. The inhabitants of the inner city live between politics and big business in neighborhoods, which spring up at the convenience of the factories and are just as quickly discarded. The plant closings leave behind only skeletal remains. I drove through wasteland neighborhoods in the Soweto that is Detroit. There is always the promise of some new factory, of hope and reconstruction, but the realities are foreclosure and eviction. The official response has been slow, systematic erasure of the city. The environs
of public buildings are simply cleansed and sanitized of the human detritus, the crack houses, the discarded neighborhoods. The great westward expansions of the 19th century have come full circle. Growth has ebbed and the city reverts once again to the wide-open spaces from which it rose.
In the 1960s and the 70s, society looked to the architect for solutions to social ills. The reality of Detroit belies the ultimate failure of this Urban Determinism. Even the subsidized housing project of the 60s and 70s are now abandoned and boarded up. The problem was never purely architectural.
The Willis exhibition does not pretend to judge; it is more stance than solution. Yet it is striking against the backdrops of a "Kindler Gentler America" and homelessness. The installation flies in the face of the gilt-edged optimism and slick graphics of the Urban Studies and Master Plans. It is an architectural gesture for the non-productive economy in the age of the Leveraged Buy Out.
For Detroiters, the Willis installation may hit uncomfortably close to home. In most cities on the 31st of October, pranksters wrap trees in toilet paper. In Detroit, the tradition is to burn houses. Once on Devil's Night, over 800 buildings were torched. The architects wanted to place burning barrels outside of the gallery for the opening, but this was quickly vetoed by the gallery directors as too provocative. In Detroit, the "thousand points of light" might be as many fires.
Stanley Mathews is a sculptor and architect who lives in Oberlin, Ohio.