As we build our city
a failed housing project
“The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call 'progress'."
– Walter Benjamin, Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Ninth Thesis
shotgun houses, Fourth Ward, Houston, 1990
Part One – anti-gravity
The Fourth Ward has been obliterated. There ain't nothin' left. It's been plowed under and covered over by the storm of progress. What was once Freedman's Town, populated by descendants of freed slaves living in shotgun houses, has now been replaced by condominiums, claptrap mansionettes, and the plague of empty architecture fraudulently identified as "lofts." The neighborhood is designated as a historical neighborhood, but there's no history left. Nor is there any visual or cultural relationship today with the Fourth Ward compared to what it was in 1990. That's when The Art Guys submitted an idea for a temporary outdoor sculpture work for LANDscapes.
LANDscapes was a resuscitated version of the Bayou Show after the semi-demise of the Houston Festival in 1986. LANDscapes would take the same format as the Bayou Show: A small selection of artworks would be placed along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Buffalo Bayou Park just to the west and at the foot of downtown Houston. Diverseworks, working in concert with the Houston Festival, was the organizer of this new LANDscapes show. They were responsible for all aspects of the exhibition.
In the winter of 1990, a call went out to artists to submit proposals for LANDscapes. Approximately a half dozen works would be chosen for this temporary outdoor show which was scheduled to be up for 90 days beginning in March. The budget allotted for each project was modest – five thousand dollars. The jurors charged with selecting the works were Jim Edwards, who was then the director of the San Antonio Museum of Art, and the artists Rachel Hecker and James Surls, all three of whom were familiar with us and our work. Believing that we had a good chance of being selected, we threw our hats into the ring and began working on a proposal.
We wanted to do something that would have an impact, something that would reverberate beyond the city of Houston. In order to do that, we thought, it had to have some scale to it, physically and otherwise. In our typical fashion, we rummaged through a range of ideas before settling on the one that we thought would work best for this situation. We whittled down numerous concepts into a vague notion of doing something with a shotgun house.
initial concept sketches for the "Landscapes" show
"Shrink Wrap Shotgun House" (undated)
Jack was particularly interested in shotgun houses as a sculptural material and already had many ideas using them. My appreciation and interest in them mainly derived from Jack, but they had characteristics that attracted both of us. More than anything, their form – an elegant combination of shape, size, and dimensions – we found most beautiful. They were so simple, which somehow made them sophisticated in the same broad American vernacular that includes Model T Fords and Shaker furniture. And considered from the standpoint of readily available sculptural material, shotgun houses were plentiful.
Jack spent a lot of time in the Fourth Ward, exploring it and getting to know its history and people. Jack was the scout. If you looked, empty shotgun houses were all over in Houston in the 1980s. Abandoned shotgun houses in every state of dilapidation dotted the city, appearing especially in the poorer, mixed-race "ward" neighborhoods immediately surrounding downtown Houston. Knowing this, we drove all around Houston researching potential houses to use. It was during these exploratory drives, bantering about ideas, that we settled on our concept.
shotgun houses, various locations, Houston, 1990
[The shotgun houses pictured on the lower center and lower right would later become "Project Row Houses."]
Our goal was to make a shotgun house more than what it was while somehow not changing it at all, or hardly at all. In other words, what could be done with the least amount of alteration and yet achieve the greatest impact? A paradox for certain, but not insoluble.
Ornamentation was out. Adding anything or decorating them in any way would only obscure their inherent nature. Why try to beautify something that already looked so good? It had a be a gesture – a singular moment that would enhance the already exquisite architectural nature of a shotgun house.
notebook studies and notes for upside down houses,1990
The solution was this: we would turn it upside down. Then, to exaggerate the wrongheadedness and enlarge the effect, we thought it far better to upend not just one, but three. They were row houses, after all. And as a final poetic touch, we would take the concrete steps in front of the houses and place them in reverse, facing the houses as if they were contemplative ready-made benches.
It was so simple, like the houses themselves, yet it had the eccentric jolt we were seeking. Because there was alarm at the white gentrification of a historically black neighborhood, we thought that placing the houses upside down could be interpreted as a signal for distress in the same way that an upside down American flag signals distress, or danger to life or property. While we both welcomed this potential political connotation, it could be appreciated solely for its unusual, discordant sculptural qualities. Regardless, our idea had all the formal, political, and aesthetic qualities we were both looking for.
proposed site of upside down houses, Buffalo Bayou Park, north side of bayou,
west of Sabine Street [GPS 29.762118, -95.376940], Jack pictured on far right
There was a location for our concept that was ideal. In Buffalo Bayou Park, just south of the old City of Houston Water Works, and just west of the Sabine Street Bridge on the north side of Buffalo Bayou, the banks rose up to form a small plateau with an unimpeded vista of downtown Houston. Today, that location is a skate park. Back then, it was an empty field. It was clear, firm, flat ground that was easily accessible for any necessary trucks or heavy equipment. Best of all, it was highly visible from numerous vantage points, both to park visitors and to drive-by traffic along Allen Parkway across the Bayou. It was perfect.
We titled the work "As we build our city, let us think that we are building forever," a quote that appears inside the rotunda of City Hall, and submitted our idea.
City Hall, Houston
The form of the proposal that we submitted for the selection committee was a spare, two-part tandem that consisted of a drawing and a model. The drawing was typical of our proposal drawings with the concept diagrammed and explained, and ancillary collage material of various kinds to further support the idea. The model was a crude, cardboard maquette made from scraps from boxes that, in our minds, mimicked the humbleness of the actual houses. Although our concept was ambitious for the venue and budget, it was accepted.
"Study for 'As We Build Our City Let Us Think That We Are Building Forever' from the project '101 of the World's Greatest Sculpture Proposals'"
(1990) graphite, charcoal, collage (paint chips, newspaper clipping, map section, photo) on paper, 22 x 30 inches, private collection
maquette for 'As We Build Our City Let Us Think That We Are Building Forever'" (1990)
cardboard, tape, model makers grass, and twigs on plywood base, approx. 6 x 36 x 30 inches (nonextant)
Upon acceptance, we set upon designing the work in earnest, devoting ourselves full-time to the project. We had a lot of work to do. Not only had we yet to identify and secure the houses we needed, we only had the vaguest ideas about how to flip them over and secure them safely. It required some engineering prowess.
Besides their small size, one of the fortunate characteristics of shotgun houses is their inherent structural integrity. They're strong. They were largely built using balloon framing, a newish architectural technique for their time, but a common one today. This, combined with their "lap and gap" siding both inside and out, makes them sturdy and relatively easy to modify.
shotgun house, Fourth Ward, Houston, interior view showing "balloon" framing and lap siding
Houses, like all things on the planet, are design-dependent on gravity, an overtly obvious of-course until one considers the opposite. Shotgun houses are built with the larger, weightier wood construction at the bottom (the floors) with the lighter parts on top (the roof). Our theory called for reversing the weight-load support system. We surmised that this could be done by first stripping away any unnecessary interior walls and flooring thereby essentially making them empty boxes, and then adding heavy supports in the roof and cross-bracing throughout. We consulted with our longtime friend and Houston art supporter, Gus Kopriva, who happened to be an engineer. He assured us this was the right approach and that it was feasible.
"Studies for 'As We Build Our City Let Us Think That We Are Building Forever' No.'s 1–3 from the series '101 of the World's Greatest Sculpture Proposals'"(1990)
graphite, colored pencil, collage on paper, 24 x 36 inches each
Locating abandoned shotgun houses in Houston was easy, but finding three in a row that looked the same was difficult. Scouring neighborhoods as well as city records, we searched.
We found three adjacent shotgun houses on Robin Street in the Fourth Ward that our research indicated were owned by the same person. We contacted him, and after explaining our project, he agreed to give them to us. A few other initial inquiries that we made repeated this same result: all of the owners we contacted were willing to give the houses to us as long as we removed them at our expense. To the owners, they were a financial burden. And the city considered them a nuisance, often posting warnings on them for the owners to fix them up or face a fine. But repair wasn't going to happen. The owners didn't want to deal with them anymore and mostly allowed them to dissolve into permanent disrepair, making them unlivable. Indeed, their presence was considered a liability that depreciated the land value, which was all the owners cared about anyway.
Jack with houses, 915, 917, 919 Robin street, Fourth Ward, 1990
While we were able to secure the three houses on Robin Street, we still weren't satisfied. For our sculptural purposes, the most ideal situation would be to use three identical houses that would produce a pleasing visual alliteration. The houses on Robin Street, while free, didn't all match. Of the three, one was slightly smaller than the others which would give the composition an imbalance that we found undesirable. So we continued to look.
Down the street and around the corner on Arthur Street were three shotgun houses that met all of our criteria. They had the correct combination of size, design, and condition. But before we could find the owner and contact them, we received a call.
shotgun houses located on 1302, 1304, 1306 Arthur Street, Fourth Ward, Houston, 1990
Part Two – tempest
Michael Peranteau, co-director of DiverseWorks, called to say the project had been cancelled.
We were told that the Parks Department would not allow the houses to be placed in Buffalo Bayou Park. Furthermore, the exhibition time would be cut in half, shortened from 90 days to 45 days
This is where the story gets hazier and crazier. With the opening of the LANDscapes show only weeks away, and in the midst of the complicated tasks of locating, moving, and altering three shotgun houses, suddenly we stopped. Apparently, the director of the Houston Parks Department, Don Olsen, single-handedly nixed our piece. And we weren't the only ones. Wendy Smith and Sharon Kopriva had their works cancelled too (Sharon, coincidentally, is married to Gus, who advised us on the engineering of our upside-down houses). This meant that nearly half of the works selected for LANDscapes would not be proceeding. When the press got a hold of this news, the fireworks started.
Our phone began ringing and didn't stop, with one call after another – from DiverseWorks, the Houston Post, the Houston Chronicle, a representative from the Municipal Arts Commission, then DiverseWorks again... Up to this point, The Art Guys had received significant media attention for whatever activities we were up to, but we hadn't experienced anything like this. It was a true squall. It was the first, but hardly the last, media frenzy of our illustrious career.
A flurry of newspaper articles appeared immediately with almost all in agreement that, at best, the process had been botched. Everyone was unhappy, most of all, us. The Post sent a photographer over to our studio who had us pose with our model, requesting that we look serious and concerned. We obliged. But in a touch of winkery in order to pollute the message with coded humor, Jack positioned a suitcase adjacent to us from one our suitcase sculpture light pieces that read "funny," a small hint that no matter the gravity of the situation, we could make fun of it.
Initially, the explanation given for cancelling the three works was because of safety concerns. Smith and Kopriva quickly resolved the issues with their works enough to satisfy Olsen and they were given the green light. But not us. We were told that our work would not be approved no matter what. And the reasons kept changing. First, as with Kopriva and Smith, it was safety. Then we were told that it was the undesired aesthetics of the disintegrating houses. Others claimed it was the supposed political message they elicited, and with the upcoming G7 summit arriving soon, three upside down shotgun houses at the foot of our gleaming city was a visual aggression that would not stand. We never could get a straight answer.
Our requests to meet directly with anyone in the position of decision-making were rebutted. Frustrated at the condescending stonewalling, and disgusted with the dishonesty of the fluctuating excuses, I lost patience and was ready to walk away. Jack, on the other hand, did not give up. He conjured a second idea as a solution.
Part Three – ghosts
Like the upside down houses, Jack's new concept was also a reflection of the condition of much of Fourth Ward at that time and how the condemnation/demolition process occurred. Often, the abandoned shotgun house would be left alone, purposefully or through negligence, eventually rotting enough with no choice left but to bulldoze it to the ground leaving nothing but a flattened, empty lot. Except for one thing. Oddly, the only remnants that remained were the concrete steps, because, we surmised, they were just too heavy for the razers to bother with. So they left them. These isolated concrete steps were far more numerous than the abandoned shotgun houses. They were scattered everywhere across the Fourth Ward.
abandoned concrete steps, Fourth Ward, Houston, 1990
Focusing on one aspect of our initial, but now cancelled proposal – the steps – Jack's idea was to place a long line of these concrete stoops that would stretch almost 1/4 mile spanning across Buffalo Bayou Park.
We titled this new piece "Phantom Neighborhood," alluding to the ghosts of departed quantities of their once adjacent structures. While "Phantom Neighborhood" was not our number one choice, we thought that it was still a great idea.
We quickly whipped up this alternative proposal and submitted it. It was approved.
"Study for 'Phantom Neighborhood' from the series '101 of the World's Greatest Sculpture Proposals'" (1990)
graphite, colored pencil, collage on paper, 24 x 36 inches each
Because of the squabbling and delays, the installation window before the scheduled opening of LANDscapes shrank to just days. We didn't have much time. Fortunately, the logistics for acquiring, moving, and installing the concrete steps, while labor intensive, did not come close to matching the complexity of the upside down houses. Still, we needed to get busy.
The first order of business was to measure and position the work. We selected a pathway for the line of the steps that we thought would be the longest and most visible. The farthest western point of this line began a few meters south and west of Henry Moore's "Large Spindle Piece" which is located on a rise between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway. It then continued eastward down the hill, straddling walkways and the bayou until it terminated at a small tributary just to the south of Sawyer thus making the entire line of steps a little more than 1/4 mile in length.
"Phantom Neighborhood" approximate position, Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, 1990 (current Google Maps image, 2019)
"Phantom Neighborhood" installation – measuring, planning, layout, Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, 1990
Satisfied with our layout, we rented an all-terrain forklift and a flatbed truck and for the next few days we proceeded to find, lift, load, move, and place the steps. There was no need to consult the land owners to obtain permission to take the steps. No one wanted them. We simply drove around the Fourth Ward plucking them from various places, stacked them onto the bed of the truck, then drove the load of concrete steps over to the sculpture site where we would unload and place them in their pre-marked locations. Working unhindered by any oversight, everything went rapidly and splendidly. It was great fun.
"Phantom Neighborhood" installation, 1990, moving steps from Fourth Ward to Buffalo Bayou Park
We positioned the steps at a distance greater than their typical spacing when they originally rested in front of their houses. This spreading format separated them psychologically further from their former locations, creating a weird geometrical accordion effect. Because they weren't that close to each other and somewhat isolated, they could be considered alone, individually. Yet, when one stood on the line of the steps and looked down the line, the perspective snapped them into a collective unit. They related. Another push/pull scaling effect happened because the individual stoops were relatively small and human-sized. But when seen together as one, it was big. You couldn't quite see from one end to the other. Because the line of steps, seen as a cohesive whole, straddled the varied topography of Buffalo Bayou Park, it accentuated the diverse characteristics of the landscape thereby addressing the specifics of the site as well as the very title of the show.
Another positive phenomenon that took place was their newfound utility. People used them as park benches where previously there were none. This interaction related to their former use in a historical sense. Just as people would sit on their steps outside their house in the evenings to catch the cool summer breeze, park visitors and joggers now sat on them to enjoy a picnic lunch or simply to rest. Although intended, we were still delighted that this happened.
As best as I could tell, the steps were enjoyed. But I'm not sure how they were perceived by most of the park users. They were odd elements. Unless you knew the story of them and how they got there, they were visual non sequiturs. Although they had a practicality as benches, their funky, homemade construction indicated that they weren't new park improvements. Unless they were considered as art, they made little sense. Or rather, because they made little sense, the only thing they could be was art. This open-ended disconnect allowed for various interpretations, or for wonder alone. And as far as their inherent history and potential associative politics, they were suggestive without being didactic. I liked that.
"Phantom Neighborhood" 1990, concrete steps from Fourth Ward, Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, approximately 1/4 mile long
At the conclusion of the exhibition we de-installed "Phantom Neighborhood" in reverse order of the installation, returning the steps from whence they came in the Fourth Ward. But we kept three as artifacts/souvenirs, moving them to our new Art Guys World Headquarters in the Heights where we plopped them around the building and used them as benches and to display potted plants. About ten years later, an image of "Phantom Neighborhood" was used in a high school English textbook. The steps in front of the old studio have long since disappeared after we departed years ago. I don't know if the English book is still in use.
"Phantom Neighborhood" steps, Art Guys studio, 1995
"Phantom Neighborhood" as it appears in a high school English textbook,
Barrett Kendall Publishing, Austin, 2001
I learned a few things from this episode, things that would inform and fuel future endeavors.
First, I learned that art by committee, i.e. public art, is often a dreadful experience. Committees and ingenuity are inversely related. The more decision makers there are, the worse it is. Art committees say they want innovation and complain when they get it. When you shave around the edges, sharpness is removed, and the result is dullness. This is a universal truth.
Another thing I learned was that the media can be an unruly beast, like a wolf that can neither be held nor safely let go. While The Art Guys had already embarked on experiments of extending our ideas through the media, we were media novices and still considered relatively new to the scene. As such, people had still not fully formed their opinions about The Art Guys and largely gave us the benefit of the doubt. Over the years, however, media brushfires have erupted. In this particular case, the press was sympathetic to us and our work. But this has not always been so. Play with fire and you can get scorched.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned that for every idea, no matter how good it may be, there are an infinite number of others that may also work. Finding a new way is not necessarily a compromise. Jack's almost zen-like patience turned what could have been a disaster into something positive. While patient persistence doesn't always work, human instigated impediments, when considered dispassionately, can sometimes be overcome.
The Art Guys have remained interested in shotgun houses and still have many ideas using them. To my great disappointment, the upside-down shotgun house piece for the LANDscapes show didn't happen. Conditions would make the project even more difficult to realize today than in 1990, including the disappearance of so many shotgun houses in Houston, especially abandoned, free ones. But the idea still exists. Who knows? It may yet be realized.
915, 917, 919 Robin street, Fourth Ward, Houston, 1990 and 2019
1302, 1304, 1306 Arthur Street, Fourth Ward, Houston, 1990 and 2019
abandoned steps, Fourth Ward, Houston, 1990 and 2019
Fourth Ward, Houston, 2019
“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, 'See! This our fathers did for us.”
July 15, 2019
*All photographs are by the author unless otherwise noted.