A few weeks ago, my wife and I became, for the first time in our lives, patrons of the arts. By this I don’t mean customers or ticket-buyers but patrons in the old-fashioned sense. We commissioned an artist to produce something of worth to the larger art community and the city as a whole (if I do humbly say so myself). As my wife put it when she was interviewed by our local paper, we became “fleeting Medicis.”
The commission was deliberate but its impact on our community and our city was unintentional, unexpected, and wholly delightful. It taught us two valuable lessons about city life and urban sustainability: the latent value of temporary, flexible urban space and the importance of granting permission. We learned – as I’ll explain – the true worth of a condemned house.
First, though, the backstory: Last year, some friends of ours bought the house right next door to ours. It’s a century-old bungalow with several generations of home-reno oddness and asbestos shingles to boot, and they were about to marry with two kids from a previous marriage and thoughts of more, so the house was going to have to come down.
As their wedding approached this spring, my wife had the notion of getting an artist friend to do some sort of fun installation type thing for their wedding day. Maybe something out on the front lawn to greet them that morning or something. But we decided in all the wedding hubbub that there was no real use to that, so instead we commissioned this artist friend – the wondrously multitalented Caitlind R.C. Brown – to do an installation of her choice on the site of the condemned house just before its demolition.
We had vague notions of maybe something built of the random pre-demolition detritus in the house or a projection on the empty walls or something. Instead, Caitlind ran with it. She roped in seven colleagues, dubbed the thing “The House Demolition Project,” and turned the entire building into a gallery space. They were in there at all hours for a couple of weeks. They installed a salvaged playground slide in the living room and a sort of whirlpool wishing well in the kitchen. Some polyurethane fish swam in the breeze of a pair of fans in one basement room and a multiwall gallery of household ghosts and demons was painted on the walls of another. String and black lights created a laser-light planar effect in one ground-floor space, and another sprouted a wood-plank tumor like it was imploding, a portent of the building’s looming fate.
The pictures and blog posts over at the project website speak for themselves, and local media coverage was thorough and laudatory beyond our wildest dreams. (See in particular the fantastic multipage spread from Swerve magazine, featuring an expansive gallery of photos of the work-in-progress.)
The art was great in itself, by turns surprising and whimsical and quietly monumental, but I’d argue the real lesson the project taught us was that the sum was much more than its parts. There was a kind of urban alchemy to it. For the three days it was open to public viewing, we created a new kind of flexible urban space.
I should clarify: we – my wife and I – didn’t create anything. We simply gave permission. We gave permission to a group of artists to use a structure in any way they wanted, which turned out to be like handing them a great big ball of clay and a stack of blank canvases. Like many cities, our hometown – Calgary, Alberta – is perpetually lacking in inexpensive studio space, and there are never enough galleries for all the latent creativity floating around. Pretty much by accident, we created a flexible, short-term studio-gallery and gave a temporary art collective carte blanche. And the result was truly magical.
We estimate more than 1,000 people came by to see the House Demolition Project, which would be very good for an established gallery and is a runaway blockbuster hit for an independent non-gallery show with a total budget smaller than the catering tab on most gallery openings. People came with their kids – who pretty much universally could not get over the idea of a slide inside the house! – or dragged their parents along. The former owners of the house came one afternoon with their son and grandson, and they all sat on the porch as the grandson played fiddle and the son played guitar in a sort of contented requiem for the old house they'd known.
As many of the artists noted happily, the audience was not the usual hipster gallery crowd. This was the other kind of permission we inadvertently granted: we told the neighborhood and the city that art could be as accessible as a house party and as fun as a playground.
The great urban philosopher Jane Jacobs talked often about the vital role serendipity plays in the life of a healthy city. She revelled in the random encounters between disparate lives and ideas on the streets, the spontaneous interactions in the shops and cafes, the alchemical products of art and commerce and daily life on a bustling city block, the unexpected use and re-use of spaces. Entirely too much of our unsustainable urban status quo involves top-down masterplanning, overly fussy zoning and bylaw application, the needless micromanagement and programming of urban space.
Small wonder, then, that any effort made to loosen the definition of an urban space produces such surprising results. We ache for the unanticipated consequence and the accidental happening. We rush toward it in droves when it emerges. Let a food truck park on a staid city block or put some chairs down on a wide sidewalk or let a condemned house be an art gallery for even just one weekend, and watch urbanism bloom.
It really is that simple. Provide space and give permission. Become a fleeting Medici. It cost us less than you’d pay to buy a few place settings off a wedding registry. Worth every penny several times over.
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