My ‘American Dream’-house, first draft

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“My ‘American Dream’-house first draft” is the name of my sculpture out of my project class in the sculpture department. I’m really stoked about this piece and have been looking forward to writing about it for a good long while now. First things first, though, this post will be dealing primarily with the concept side of this project rather than the technical/construction aspects except for where they informed the concept. If you’d like to know about how this was built along with pictures of the construction process, I’ve written up a nice detailed account of the building process here: http://imgur.com/a/KuUpk

Modularity

This was the assignment. It was a one word assignment, simply, make a sculpture with the theme of “modularity”. One thing that I really appreciated about our professor is that she forced us to engage the idea really directly, starting with five minutes of simply writing everything that came to mind on the topic, followed by research and starting to look at material, and just encouraged us every step of the way to consider every angle of the topic and our idea.

As the son of an architect, I started thinking about modular housing, mobile homes, and prefab construction. My research got me looking into books on building your own home, or buying guides for mobile homes, and I really got hung up on the idea of a model American home and trying to craft a space which was your own even with limited means.

I decided to make something out of salvaged materials for the sake of not wanting to spend a lot of money on lumber, and I decided to only do it with hand tools because we weren’t allowed to use the wood shop in the sculpture building without certification which I couldn’t obtain.

earliest sketch of what I wanted the house to look like.
earliest sketch of what I wanted the house to look like.

In thinking about the connotations of what I was doing and how I was doing it, I kind of ended up with this idea of homelessness and trying to walk the line between shelter and home. I wanted to use only things that were available to anyone walking around who cared to take them and only use hand tools to create something that fit in this form  of straightforward wooden home framing but used only found materials, associated with “shanty”, shelter type construction. I know a small amount about how to put a house together growing up and going along with dad to job sites and talking to him about his work and construction, so I figured I’d give a go at it and let that be that.

Things got complicated and interesting.

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This thing, this little piece of wood used to join two shorter 2×4 pieces (because I didn’t have enough longer 2×4 pieces) was one of the first points at which the technical decisions I made began to inform the concept. A lot of the work I did on this project was by myself in the sculpture studio, working away and listening to music. This project was almost therapy so much as it was an art project, at least starting out. There’s a sort of visceral satisfaction of just cutting and nailing wood together that you can’t really get from anything else, so this ambitious construction project was largely a chance for me to just, build something and sweat and feel better about things in general.

This is all to say, I was largely alone with my thoughts while working on this project.

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All throughout the construction project  I was working on making something that would last. I would reinforce things not because I thought they wouldn’t last through critique, but because I actually started thinking about living in this. I wanted to build something that someone would actually live in, and after a while, it felt like I actually was. Shoddy construction that seemed “good enough probably” was frustrating because I felt like it would fall apart after a couple months of use. Which, was absurd, because this was just for a project class critique, right?

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I think the clarifying moment was a conversation I had with my professor. She came over to me while I was putting siding on one of the walls and we started to talk. The conversation went more or less like this.

“What does this project mean to you?”

“Well, I want to take these salvaged materials and fit them into this traditional building form as a way of examining the line between a home and a shelter. I want to essentially create a house as someone without one but who wanted one might build it.”

“That’s all well and good, but. Well, let me put it like this. I look at this and I don’t see a solution which anyone who found themselves in a position of homelessness might come up with. I look at this and I see the work of a dreamer, someone ambitious, someone strange”

“Well, to be honest, while I work on this I sort of, well, I have this kind of character in mind…”

F.W.

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Written over the door lintel is the title of the piece followed by “-F.W. 12.8.13”

F.W. became the name of the character in my head that was building this house, the dreamer, the ambitious, strange homeless man completely obsessed with building a home for himself. The house became sort of a half workshop half living quarters where “F.W.” (in reference to one of my favorite architects, Frank Lloyd Wright) slept and lived and stored his tools and schemed and studied.

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I went to the library and photocopied pages out of building books, annotated them, found a free map of Richmond and marked the places I’d gotten wood, created places for storing my tools and nails, and kind of projected the strange, ambitious, building obsessed part of my personality onto this space.

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Another aspect of this whole project is that, despite taking pains to make the space as livable as possible (the dimensions of the space were chosen so that I could fully lay down, roll over, and sit up), it was obviously a less than ideal dwelling. I worked to showcase this ambition and discontent through the whole piece, by physically writing on things which frustrated me (and, well, F.W.) about the space, things that I wanted to improve, and even the further plans of F.W.

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Wanting to avoid making a boring “the american dream suxxxx” piece, I debated a great deal to include the “American” in the title. Ultimately decided that I wanted this to be a piece about one of the (seemingly, to me) arbitrary distinctions of the “American Dream”: home ownership. While that’s all well and good and owning your own home is certainly a great accomplishment, it seems that American society drives this distortion of what is a very primal and basic desire, for shelter and security. It’s a fantasy and an obsession which crippled our economy five years ago, and I sort of created F.W. from this place of both trying to satirize that obsession and giving my own twist of “ambition existing outside of a clearly marked and established path”.

“You’re making art, you’re not building to build, you’re making an artwork”

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This was another piece of advice and guidance my professor gave me which really helped inform a lot of the creation of this F.W. character. I started this as a challenge for myself, I started this to flex my ambition and problem solving skills. I sourced material from housing and a sort of feeble pass at trying to talk about the American Dream. Phrasing this undertaking as, not a construction project, not an architectural work, not wood craft, but an art work, helped me sort of start thinking about how to take some of these decisions I was making just because they felt right and the thoughts I was having about why I was doing and what I was doing and really work that into the piece.

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It hurt to sit in and move around in the piece? Alright, make some flooring out of cardboard because F.W. has to live in here. I used hand tools? Put those up. Why? Because F.W. i sstill working on it? Why? Because it’s still a work in progress.  F.W. (again, even though this is an extension and amplification of some of my own thoughts, this isn’t something I’d normally do, so I’m essentially acting as a F.W.) is completely obsessed with building his own perfect home.

I don’t think that this was a perfect execution of the ideas that I was having. But what I do know is that I felt that by creating a character which is a caricature of myself, the decisions I made and the things that seemed right would seem right in the piece. For example, the “second draft” I posted a picture of above, it actually felt like it could be built. I actually wanted to start work on that next because that was the logical next step. The cardboard (which was a last minute decision made while installing) fit into the piece because it was mine and F.W.’s solution to wood being uncomfortable to sit and move around on. It fit because it made sense to me, and if it made sense to me and it makes sense to the character. I believe this “character creation” and intuitive rightness as the character is something that’s helpful in many other pieces, not just this peculiar sculpture I’ve made.

Small house (VCU)

This isn’t part of the piece but I felt it’s worth sharing what’s happening to the piece after it’s critiqued.

I feel like any piece which comes from a dumpster, gets so wrapped up in my own psychology and tries to touch on ideas of homelessness, the American Dream, and ambition can only meet an interesting and perhaps ironic end regardless of what happens. Because there was absolutely no way to get it back to Harrisonburg and nowhere to store it, my plan up until this evening was to simply take a crowbar to it after critique and throw the pieces back into the dumpster in a nice circle of life. However I got the idea to post it on the free section of Craigslist because I was quite proud of how solid the piece ended up and knew that it could probably serve some use to someone.

I was astounded to receive over twenty replies in the four hours it was up and I decided on someone to give it to. The purposes I heard for it were, bike shed, children’s play house, dog house, and starter chicken coop. All in all, I’m just glad to score one for recycling, because it would’ve been both a general and personal downer to send all this wood back to the dumpster.

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