Detroit’s empty blocks have been well documented over the past 30 years, and with few exceptions focus on the spectacularly negative moments, unforgettably among them the annual Devil’s Night arsons in the late part of the last century. The prevailing message of this imagery is that the city comprises a majestic collection of Art Deco skyscrapers and modernist residences, which are officially preserved amidst chaos. The story goes: Once the country’s fourth largest city, the landscape of contemporary Detroit is blighted with shells of former glory that have become a playground for nefarious activities. America pays for its hubris at the expense of local community. Two Detroit artists recognize the importance of documentary imagery and look more productively at the city’s architecture.
This winter, architect Matthew Radune and photographer Gregory Holm began a social architectural project, Ice House Detroit, which involved entirely encasing an abandoned two-story house within a thick layer of ice. The ingenuity to beautify and repurpose everyday materials, or in this case an eyesore, intended to create a dialogue around the city’s tens of thousands of vacant homes and the effects of the foreclosure crisis. The procedure recalled Rachel Whiteread’s monumental House, 1993, a ghostly concrete cast of an East London Victorian terraced house. The simple subtraction, the shedding of the physical bricks and mortar, transformed the home into a solemn time capsule but also as a hopeful distillation of absence, sealing in the life before its family’s displacement.
The vacant home they covered with ice was a grimy white house with a broken chain fence, plywood-covered windows, and shrubs reminiscent of something Gordon Matta-Clark might have chosen to deconstruct. For several bitter cold weeks, often from dawn to dawn, the duo could be found circling the house with an industrial hose system hooked up to either a water tanker truck or the street’s hydrant. The visual result was stunning. Spraying the sharply pitched roof, the water flowed down the sides, freezing the porch, the front steps and the unruly horticulture around the house. The landscape glistened in the reflection of the sun, and icicles formed like stalactites, with the emotional indexical resonance of a Pollock drip or immersive vertical of a Barnett Newman zip. The ice was so thick that blades of grass began to resemble stubby, glassy fingers.
Neighborhood residents flocked to have their photos taken in front of the house. The architectural installation morphed into a destination, an informal gathering spot for a cup of hot chocolate and conversations. It is easy for exhibitions in blighted areas to feel condescending, and this one took great risks by looking like the outsider art intallations-cum-tourist attractions that dot the Midwest. But Holm and Radune ingratiated themselves early by opened lines of dialogue and funding a food and clothing drive for those in need. Consummate hosts, neighbors responded by serving as community liaisons, quick with an account of the districts heydays and a verbal tour of the surroundings.
Using Kickstarter, an online fundraising incubator for creative initiatives, Radune and Holm raised $11,000, primarily from private donations. That sum went toward acquiring the proper permits from a local organization devoted to redevelopment [Ed. note: See correction below], and paying a hefty water bill (an estimated 20,000 gallons).
Detroit has a history of architectural interventions that could not be contained within a traditional museum. In 1986, Tyree Guyton began adhering salvaged toys, stuffed animals and painfully bright polka dots to vacant homes. Withstanding time and exposure to the elements, his Heidelberg Project has become a visionary art landmark on the roadside oddities circuit. The tactical reclamation of space to provoke dialogue was the goal of the four-artist collective known as Object Orange. In direct opposition to the apathy of decay, the collective coated the shells of sixteen abandoned houses in blazing neon Tiggeriffic Orange from Home Depot’s Mickey Mouse color wheel. Greater exposure to the general populace often brought the wrecking ball. Most recently, Mitch Cope, whose $1,900 house-turned-East Detroit PowerHouse Project will be an architectural experiment in creating an art center completely off the grid.
Come spring the Ice House will melt; it’s slated for deconstruction, rather than demolition. What can be salvaged will be recycled, and Radune and Holm have pledged the land to Earthworks Urban Farm, a sustainable agricultural organization. This temporal project has built its legacy on the exchange of aesthetic and social experiences and showed us how to create by visualizing dismantling.
THE ICE HOUSE PROJECT IS LOCATED AT 3920 MCCLELLAN STREET, DETROIT.
CORRECTION: A PREVIOUS VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE INDICATED THAT THE ARTISTS PAID THE FORMER HOMEOWNER’S BACK TAXES, AND PAID FOR ANOTHER HOUSE TO BE PURCHASED AND REDEVELOPED. THIS IS INCORRECT.
THE ARTISTS PAID A FEE TO MLBFTA (MICHIGAN LAND BANK FAST TRACK AUTHORITY), THE PUBLIC AUTHORITY DEVOTED TO ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF BLIGHTED AND TAX-REVERTED PROPERTIES THAT CONTROLS THIS PROPERTY. THE FEE WENT TOWARD THE PURCHASE AND REHABILITATION OF ANOTHER MLBFTA-OWNED PROPERTY. THE ICE HOUSE PROPERTY AT 3920 MCCLELLAN IS STILL OWNED BY THE MLBFTA, WHICH WILL DETERMINE ITS REUSE.