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Out At Home

Two exhibits take different looks at housing

Two current exhibits are about housing. One about housing past and present, one about present and future. The past and present exhibit is by Buffalo photographer Jean-Michel Reed, at Studio Hart in Allentown. The present and future exhibit is by UB architectural student Nate Cornman, at Hayes Hall on the South Campus.

Grungy house interiors, tacky décor, and tawdry furnishings are motifs of the Jean-Michel Reed photos. The exhibit is called Housing Bubble, and the photos are superb, but made to carry more theoretical weight than they can properly bear, as the artist attempts to expound the vast matter of the national housing/economic crisis through a dozen or so works. The exhibit totters somewhat under the burden.

There are no people in the photos--except in one anomalous case, which I will come to--just quiet, candid, dismal depictions of rooms usually at a moment of occupant transition. Rooms stripped down or being stripped down. Beds without bedding. Sofas without cushions. Dingy carpets strewn with the junk that had disappeared between the cushions over the last months or years. Painted plaster walls needing a new coat to hide the blemish areas exposed by the removal of the sofas and chairs and TV stands no doubt previously placed to conceal them.

No people, but people are implied. Their hopes and dreams and disappointments. A central element of the dreams—the American dream being home ownership. Which is where the artist tries to tie into the current housing/economic crisis.

In a written statement accompanying the exhibit, he traces the current crisis back to the creation following the 1929 stock market crash of the Federal Housing Administration and development of the modern home mortgaging product and practices, in combination with the post-war economic boom that focused on the goal of universal or near universal home ownership.

“But then in the never-ending quest for more,” the statement says, “the American home became not a physical thing but an international financial instrument that...had only a theoretical relationship to a physical object. Values and debts were derived, multiplied, divided, bought and sold so many times that...proof of ownership often no longer exists...

“What had...changed in the process was that the mortgage envisioned by the 1930s FHA was inverted...The mortgage was no longer a product working for the person, but for the house and the loan investor.” That is to say, the banks, the lending institutions.

The “victim was the middle class.” And the dilapidated conditions shown in the photos are the “detritus” of the home ownership program run amok.

What does the detritus tell about the people present by implication? According to the written statement, these “photographs of places and things...are...portraits of the psychology of failure...The act of getting up and leaving is desperate, hopeless, promising, and uniquely American. It is, in its own way optimistic, brave...” What? Which? Desperate and hopeless, or promising and optimistic and brave?

The simple lucidity of the photos contrasts with the overreaching and sometimes opaque argument of the prose statement.

The anomalous photo is of part of a page of the Buffalo News, November 22, 2009, showing a photo of an unidentified “person of interest” in a series of larcenies (purse stealings, mainly) in area churches, and accompanying brief story. The woman is shown getting out of her car at a gas station, an image from the gas station surveillance camera. I don’t get it.

The Nate Cornman exhibit is about computer techniques that directly link architectural drawings to building fabrication tools, to assure accurate translation of the architectural idea to the physical structure, as well as to save time and money.

By way of demonstration, there are some essentially relief sculptural works produced using a router (a kind of grinding tool for producing a three-dimensional surface on a two-dimensional plane) controlled by computer instructions in x, y, and z coordinates.

The main example is a vertical wall section of panels contoured in various relief patterns and to various relief depths to facilitate water runoff (low relief toward the top, to facilitate sheet runoff, apparently, gradually deeper relief in more complex patterns toward the bottom, to promote pooling of the runoff). Very beautiful and technologically very interesting, in the concept (the different relief configurations for the different water runoff conditions in the different wall areas) and the physical realization of the concept.

Other examples of such computer-controlled, router-produced relief panels feature regular patterns, such as a kind of stylized floral pattern. They look more decorative than functional, like three-dimensional wallpaper, but Cornman said they were not originally intended as decorative but were early attempts to develop a pattern to facilitate water runoff. He said they failed in that regard.

There’s a nod to history in this exhibit, too. Because the drawing-to-fabrication techniques constitute a new wrinkle in pre-fabrication, there’s a thumbnail history of milestone examples of pre-fabricated houses. From dismal looking concrete blocky mid-twentieth century examples to spectacularly lovely recent examples such as the Chameleon House and Loblolly House.

Along the way, there’s a round aluminum house with a roof that looks like a Disney version of a near-eastern princess’ headdress, by the great Buckminster Fuller. Strengths and weaknesses of these historical examples are listed. Among the strengths listed for the Buckminster Fuller house is that it was an improvement over his previous version. Among the weaknesses was that people don’t like to live in round houses.

The Jean-Michel Reed exhibit continues through August 9. The Nate Cornman exhibit continues through August 14.

—jack foran

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