Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here
Following neatly on from the trail of destruction left by Jeff Byles, Wes Janz gave a moving talk about the slow demise of Flint, Michigan, and his work there in terms of developing more effective, sensitive and sustainable ‘deconstruction’ practices on derelict houses.
Anyone who’s seen Michael Moore’s documentary ‘Roger and Me’ will be familiar with the story of Flint’s steady decline, from a town of 180,000 residents, 80,000 of whom worked for General Motoros, to the largely derelict plots in the hugely diminished current version of Flint. So the context of Janz’s work is the large parcels of open land in Flint. He shows numerous great images of vegetation reclaiming the city (akin to the Brisbane post recently?), and terribly sad images of lovely old wooden houses, gutting themselves through time’s natural destruction … or being gutted by others. They’re small WWII vintage houses, across numerous small lots. Almost perfect habitation, but completely empty, neglected, discarded.
Flint is an interesting test case. None of the buildings designed by architects as such. Everyday buildings. Akin to the Byles talk, although with places rather than buildings, it asks this question of what we are going to do with places left behind. Flint is still occuped in 120,000 people, and there are universities, hospitals etc. Much of the infrastructure is still there. And yet there are huge gaping wounds throughout the city. (Later, it strikes me that Flint would be a good example for Stamen’s Trujlia visualisation of cities in decline.)
Janz’s work as an architectural educator and architect centres around the way in which these houses are demolished, removed. Genesee County Land Bank is effectively "banking land", dealing with around 5000 properties, but looking for new ways of demolishing, re-using or moving the houses. For instance, what potentials are revealed if the house teardown process, as currently practised, is creatively reconsidered? There’s a huge amount of destruction in the current process which generates a vast amount of landfill. For instance, if we can reconfigure the teardown process to take a house apart in the reverse order to which was constructed, can the amount of waste taken to landfill be reduced, even minimally, when the house is torn down?
Janz takes us through his catalogue of ghosts – photographs of abandoned houses in varying stages of decay. He slowly and respectfully clicks through the slideshow of houses, some burnt out, some in which you can "see the presence of scrappers", who, say, strip siding off the houses. You can see where fires have been set in houses. He says you can walk around these abandoned houses, and right inside. It’s spooky (and we’ll get a spooky echo in Julia Solis’s talk later in the week, too.) These are the historic neighbourhoods in Flint, which are mostly so boarded and abandoned such that Janz says you could really do "a taxonomy of boarding and abandonment in Flint". We see houses where someone might be living in the second floor; it’s boarded on the first.
The quality of materials is very low throughout the houses; there are major problems with asbestos etc, which make re-use difficult as well as hampering the teardown process. Despite this, they’re often sturdy constructions – Janz notes that some houses in Flint resist very well, as they have such structural integrity.
Janz is developing 3 different approaches to teardown:
1. ‘Peel Off’ [This process takes only what is easily available and can be recycled locally.]
2. ‘Soft strip’ [Represents a more significant commitment to recycling and reuse. Take a good quality house, and use the windows, floors etc.. There is no re-sale market to speak of in Flint.]
3. ‘Haul off’ [This is the other end of deconstructuction process to ‘soft strip’, and is made effective by scale and industry. It takes crushed houses on to landbank, and use machines to sort what is usable there.]
Deconstruction as conventionally defined and practiced has little or no relevance in Flint, just as, as Janz puts it, "very few architects know much about how to take a house apart." In this sense, he asks, is it possible to think about ‘Deconstructing Flint’?
In response to Bryan’s question about global patterns of destruction and renewal, Janz mentions Neuwirth’s ‘Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A Urban New World’ and how much that’s shifted his thinking about building, and how much is being built without architects and contractors. He seems to be suggesting that Flint could be related, if orthogonal, to these ideas of finding inspiration in places which seem to exemplify the opposite of traditional Western boosterism and building. So he finds it an interesting moment to get involved in this – it’s an area of tremendous building activity, even if it’s buildings being taken down – and that put things into question, as architects know little about this practice, just as with Neuwirth’s shadow cities. They’re both "extreme environments", in his words.
Geoff asks a great question about the psychological effects of growing up in a place of such decay; embedded within a place so obviously dying, is there much evidence of increased violence and illegal activity, or of a psychologically-altered atmosphere? What is the collective psychological state of Flint? Janz replies by saying that before he went to Flint, he imagined that the neighbourhoods would be protesting and almost defending the city, lying down in front of ‘dozers. But actually locals want more houses torn down – they want the energy of destruction and renewal to be even more widespread; they want more teardowns. Janz also mentions a book written by a local Flint police officer, ‘Soul Of A Black Cop’, which describes the blighted everyday world often visible in Flint, describing the kind of problems Geoff was wondering about – but also how to deal with them. He suggests "we have to look outside of the design professions to find that kind of insight and inspiration."
This is distinctive, important work, and I hope Janz continues to speak about it, write about it, and do it. Bryan had previously interviewed Janz for Archinect here, with a précis on Subtopia.
Here’s the Q&A component from Wes Janz’s session:
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