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Artists Get Practical—and Political—About Housing

By Jeff Huebner

Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses (PRH), was making billboard-sized political paintings in his Houston, Texas, studio in the 1980s when a visiting high school student challenged his work. As Lowe recounted to the New York Times in 2006, “If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”

In 1993, Lowe and other artists and community activists bought 22 shotgun-style houses slated for demolition on a two-block site in Houston’s Third Ward, among the city’s oldest—and poorest—African-American neighborhoods. With seed funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and other foundations, the activists transformed the row houses into a new form of socially engaged art.

Since then, they have revitalized a blighted neighborhood—and preserved an historic one—with affordable housing for low-income residents, including artists and young mothers, and spaces for visiting artists, exhibitions, performances, and offices as well as a park and gardens. The group’s programs have involved local children, churches, schools, and community groups. More recently, PRH started a community development corporation to buy and renovate properties for mixed-income housing, artists’ spaces, and public uses to help slow gentrification in the adjacent Fourth Ward, another historically black neighborhood.

PRH is among the earliest and best-known examples of creating community and housing through art. The project is not easy to categorize. Is it art? Development? Social do-gooding? The project’s public art director Ryan Dennis says PRH was doing “social practice” before anyone knew what it was or what to call it. “The important thing about Project Row Houses,” says Dennis, “is that we’re constantly trying to respond to the needs of the community.”

Housing as Action

In recent years, increasing numbers of artists have developed housing or assisted in its development. Among them are public artists, cultural producers, and activists who identify themselves as artists, and their body of work is both physical and theoretical, pragmatic and utopian. It blurs the boundaries of everyday life and public art, and it can be made of sculpture, objects, and architecture, as well as ideas, action, and education.

This work also addresses some of the more persistent and perplexing issues of our time—poverty and privilege, homelessness and affordable housing, power and resistance, notions of public and private space.

Such projects can be hard to differentiate from the work of architects or landscape architects, writes design historian Victor Margolin in the 2005 catalog for Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art. (The show included works like Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE, portable, fold-up, tent-like structures for the homeless that can be inflated with waste heat vented from buildings.) Yet, Margolin continues, “Artists who call attention to social or environmental problems sometimes garner more notice and public interest than the people who are engaged directly with such problems.”

One example is sculptor, urban planner, and activist Theaster Gates, who’s renovated a series of buildings on Chicago’s South Side—several on his own block— and transformed them into spaces for artists, residencies, performances, and other communal and cultural activities. “I actually no longer use ‘art’ as a framing device,” he told the New York Times Style magazine earlier this year. “I think I’m just kind of practicing things, practicing life, practicing creation. I’m making a café … and a café isn’t art necessarily. But if I were an entrepreneur, I would definitely do that differently.”

Houses as Places of Relational Art

“Relational art” pioneer Rirkrit Tiravanija is the globetrotting Thai artist (currently in New York) best known for museum performances that involve preparing, serving, and sharing Thai food. But he’s also known for building architectural structures in spaces usually reserved for art viewing, transforming them into rooms for living, socializing, and performing. He’s said that his work is about bringing people together to participate in shared activities—to create a sense of community, however transient.

In 1998, in an effort to reimagine that communalism on a vastly expanded, long-term scale, Tiravanija and fellow artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert helped acquire a 15-acre plot of land in northern Thailand. They called it The Land, which has been described by the Guggenheim Museum as an ongoing “collaborative artistic, architectural, and environmental recovery project.” The Land Foundation was set up to manage it, though The Land isn’t technically owned by anyone.

Over the years, Tiravanija has invited a dozen local and international architects and installation artists, including Tobias Rehberger, Philippe Parreno, and the Danish group SUPERFLEX—as well as local residents, activists, and students—to create housing structures, alternative energy systems, farms, and other projects, with the goal of developing an ecologically sustainable community. Anyone is invited to the cooperative space to help cultivate rice, pond-raised fish, and vegetables; food is donated to local villages. Some of the “houses” are made with renewable materials, like Markus Heinsdorff’s perpetually regrowing Living Dome, made of bamboo. The structures can be used for living as well as cooking, communing, instruction, discussion, and meditation.

The Copenhagen-based N55 has taken the concept of “free” land even further. The noncommercial art and design collective is known for its experimental space-age modular home building systems, as well as for making its manuals freely available on its website. In their project LAND, begun in 2000, property owners can register and title parcels of their land with N55, which then makes the “dis-used strips” available for free to anyone who wants to use them. There are at least 17 small plots of land throughout Europe and in the US, a single entity unified by the concept of open access. (Parcels are located via geographic coordinates and marked with steel “cairns.”) Calling the ownership of land “pernicious,” the group writes in its N55 Book that “people are encouraged to donate land they own to add up to a LAND, a global non-nation.”

Houses as Places for Free Housing

Squatting—unauthorized occupation of an abandoned building—can be a political protest against (and practical solution to) policies that produce an abundance of vacant buildings but lack of affordable space. In the US, where the Occupy movement has refocused attention on the practice, squatters include artists taking over and fixing buildings and activists occupying foreclosed homes. Many major European cities have squatting traditions dating to the 1960s; although it’s illegal in most countries, it’s legally protected in some places. (See, for example, Freetown Christiania, in Copenhagen.) More recently, according to the Squatting Europe Kollective, activists, anarchists, and anti-authoritarians of all kinds have created “social centers,” offering free shops, services, and culture.

In 2004, the husband-and-wife team of Kim Kang and Kim Youn Hoan founded a collective called Oasis, a socially engaged squatting project. With a focus on artist spaces and access to urban space, the Kims, Seoul-based curators and artist-activists, have organized a series of “creative actions” at locations in Seoul, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. These have included workshops on the history and mapping of squats, as well as actually occupying abandoned sites. While its actions didn’t always produce long-term results, Oasis’ initiatives educated and empowered community organizers and citizens to take control.

Reached in Seoul, Kim Kang wrote that Oasis has folded into (the rent-paying) LAB39, a project space and focal point of the Mullae-dong “artist village” in the South Korean capital. The former foundry area is home to workers’ and artists’ squats, threatened with demolition.

Houses as Places for Community Research and Development

Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, winner of the 2011 Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, facilitates interactions among people in (and often about) public spaces. In the Blue House project, which ran from 2005 to 2009, she collaborated with architect Dennis Kaspori and artist Hervé Paraponaris to take a newly built three-story house in Amsterdam off the market for more than four years. They turned it into an international center for community research, urban planning, and artistic and cultural activities, a place for exchange and dialogue about the surrounding planned neighborhood. The villa was part of IJburg, a new residential district begun in 1996 and still under construction on six artificial islands in an Amsterdam lake. When complete (any year now), the neighborhood will have 18,000 homes and 45,000 residents, with shops, schools, and restaurants; Block 35, the location of The Blue House, was one of the first finished sections. As van Heeswijk wrote in an essay about the project, the Netherlands’ tradition of centralized planning and large housing developments—“devised in the conference room and on the drawing board”—doesn’t allow residents to have input into the development of their living environments.

Van Heeswijk invited artists, architects, designers, writers, and scholars from around the world to work and sometimes live in the house for broken or continuous six-month periods. They engaged with IJburg residents and the public, devising ways to humanize the rigorously regulated zone. Discussions, debates, and design sessions fostered a participatory spirit among inhabitants. Many of the ideas generated were eventually implemented; these included a flower market, an outdoor theater, a children’s library and book exchange, community and youth centers, public gardens and landscaping, and boat and bike services. Van Heeswijk has called the project “an acceleration … of the process of developing a cultural history,” and indeed, a plaque now identifies the (now occupied) house as the first historical landmark in IJburg.

Houses as Works of Community Art and Design

And what are we to make of shelters, dwellings, domes, and homes—all manner of handmade human habitations and built environments—that blur the lines between public art and “organic” architecture? Designed and/or constructed by artists, builders, visionaries, or architects, these structures are unconventional yet functional and often combine aesthetics and ethics.

The burgeoning design/build movement may be instructive. (In design/build, the same person or group provides both design and construction.) Examples include Rural Studio, an Auburn University program founded by the late Samuel Mockbee and based in largely black rural western Alabama, and Jersey Devil, a loose-knit group of renegade builders formed in the early 1970s. Their structures are rooted in socially responsible, if radical principles: They’ve built sui generis private homes, public buildings, and community amenities that are not only artful, and often sculptural, but also collaborative, eco-conscious, craft-oriented, site-sensitive, and, in some cases, downright funky. Jersey Devil’s founders—Steve Badanes, John Ringel, and Jim Adamson—attended architecture school but never got licensed. Fueled by countercultural ideals like those of the avant-garde utopian Ant Farm art/architecture group, they lived a nomadic existence for decades, sleeping on-site in tents and trailers as they built a number of whimsical structures across the country that challenged accepted notions of architecture.

Badanes, who now leads students in the Neighborhood Design/Build Studio at the University of Washington-Seattle, has given some thought to art/design divisions. (He’s married to the public artist Linda Beaumont, and their house has been a 15-year collaboration.) “We don’t consider design/build art,” he said. “If you do nice work, I guess it could go to the level of being art. But typically when it has a function—and many functional requirements—it becomes more design than art. The goal is to make it inspiring, and to make it beautiful.”

Rick Lowe working (center)

Photo courtesy Project Row Houses

Project Row Houses, Houston

Photo: Eric Hester

N55, SNAIL SHELL SYSTEM, 2001

A dwelling that can be rowed on water or carried/rolled on land.

Photo: N55

N55, LAND, Chicago, 2000

Photo: N55

N55, LAND, San Diego, 2000

Photo: N55

Jeanne van Heeswijk, Hervé Paraponaris, and Dennis Kaspori, The Blue House, 2005-2009

Photo: Irene den Hartoog

Blue House Cinema at The Blue House

Photo: Casper Rila

Rural Studio, Yancey Chapel, 1996

Photo: Timothy Hursley

Jersey Devil, Football House, 1976

Photo: Steve Badanes