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Home Is Where the Art Is

Together, architects and artists design dwellings

In the early '90s, artist Chris Burden was trying to build a studio on his own property. He was slogging through a bureaucratic swamp of building permit regulations when he came across a little-known section of the Los Angeles County building code. Intended for things like sheds and greenhouses, it allowed buildings under 400 square feet and less than 35 feet high to be built without a permit.

Burden became obsessed with the loophole and, taking those restrictions literally, designed a home with four floors of 100 square feet each. He even pushed his luck with a roof deck and secret underground meditation chamber. The resulting work, "Small Skyscraper," is an aluminum-frame building that looks not unlike an Erector set project.

The design for Burden's subversive domestic daydream became a part of "TRESPASSING: Houses x Artists," an exhibition at the Blaffer Gallery that presents drawings and models of houses by nine artists working in conjunction with architects and exhibition organizers Alan Koch and Linda Taalman of TK Architecture. Koch and Taalman are also the co-founders of Open Office, an experimental architectural design firm that focuses on projects that blur the borders between art and design.

Renee Petropoulos based her models on the gas station mini-mart.
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Renee Petropoulos based her models on the gas station mini-mart.

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Through March 14; 713-743-9530
Blaffer Gallery, 120 Fine Arts Building, University of Houston

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Referred to by the artist as a "modern-day log cabin," Burden's skyscraper was designed to be built from a kit and assembled without heavy equipment or specialized labor. The scale model shows floors made of wood planks, which act as both joists and flooring. There's also a one-person elevator, basically a platform, that rises and falls through the floors to save the valuable square footage a staircase would gobble up. A ladder would have worked too, but, after all, Burden is nearing 60.

In an accompanying series of black-and-white photographs, Burden visualizes the work in nature. With black Magic Marker, he's drawn in the Small Skyscraper, which he also labels a "Mini Scraper," on a mesa, in a valley, surrounded by a moat and on the edge of a cliff. Burden's wonderfully quirky drawings are much more visually engaging than the traditional architectural drawings of his design that are also on view.


You may remember seeing Chris Burden clutching his arm after being shot in '71. Or with nails driven through his hands, crucified on a Volkswagen beetle, in '74. Well, we didn't actually see him, exactly, but we saw photos of his performances in our art history books.

Imagine that same guy designing a house. It seems he's gone all soft and domestic on us, because, well, even edgy masochistic performance artists need a place to call home. But there are still echoes of his earlier self-assailing works here. For his 1971 master's thesis at the University of California-Irvine, he locked himself into a locker for five days. He's being a little more generous with space now, but imagine yourself living in a series of ten-foot by ten-foot vertical boxes -- it isn't that far from a locker or a jail cell.

Still, the concept of building your own house from simple components is intensely appealing. It reminds you of childhood building toys writ large. Several artists in the show explore the prefab idea, with interesting results. Jim Isermann came up with vaulted roof sections that rest on steel I-beams. A stack of roof section models is displayed in the gallery. You picture yourself buying a half-dozen at Lowe's and getting started on the family manse. Why can't we just buy giant Lego bricks, floors, windows and doors and snap a home together?

Julian Opie's U-shaped concrete blocks are the most Lego-like of the projects. Small-scale versions are stacked on the floor for visitors to rearrange. Windows, interior wood paneling and curtaining systems hypothetically would fit into the concrete cubes. Full-size, the blocks would be around ten square feet -- like those huge precast concrete box culverts you see lying on the side of road construction projects. Of course, with all those tons of concrete, this is no do-it-yourself dream home.

Butler buildings are the kings of prefab, but T. Kelly Mason's project improves upon them by adding prefab kitchens and baths. The pre-engineered metal structures usually function as warehouses or car dealerships, but artists and others who want cheap and vast square footage have long been buying the low-cost kit buildings and adapting them for residential use. Mason's units pierce the exterior of the buildings and alter their uniformity. It's a cool idea, and he and TK Architecture mocked up a clever brochure with an "investor/consumer" pitch that outlines the concept. Next to the working model of Burden's house, the brochure is one of the most successful artist-architect collaborations in the show.

Things should have stopped there. But Mason has thrown in building models with rocks inside and deadpan arty photographs of fruit, in which the arrangements of apples, oranges and tomatoes are supposed to stand in for arrangements of his buildings. But they're uninteresting and extraneous.

Renee Petropoulos offers one of the most provocative ideas of the show. She wants to use the vernacular of the gas station mini-mart (GSMM) as a model for residential architecture. If you think about it, and Petropoulos does, the mini-mart is a home away from home for many people. Where else do you get food and coffee and go pee when you're out of your own domestic sphere?

You look at Petropoulos's collages and realize the sculptured canopies over the Shell station gas pumps are really kind of cool, and that it would be nice to have them in your yard. And commercial glass double doors set in a wall of windows seem like an interesting element to incorporate into a residence, too.

One of the most involved but least successful projects is the only one that uses life-size elements, Barbara Bloom's "Mood Ring Home," which features a bunch of IKEA furniture arranged in a corner of the gallery. You can sit at a table or on the couch and play a board game or an equally unengaging CD-ROM computer game that allows you to replicate and rearrange furniture icons. It comes off like a lot of different takes on a convoluted concept.

There are several projects with too many versions and elements that don't really jibe. The exhibition needs editing. And while many of the ideas are compelling, the main problem with the show is visual. The artists' ideas have by and large been "architectified" -- presented in the conventions of traditional architecture and turned into clean, neat drawings and tidy models that are visually sterile. It seems like there could be another alternative, a hybridization rather than a translation. Some interesting ideas crop up in "TRESPASSING," but in the end, you want more real collaboration.

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