Art House

How one architect is attempting to reimagine Detroit’s blight

A rchitect V. Mitch McEwen unlocks the front door of her southwest Detroit house. It’s an otherwise normal act that at the moment seems somewhat pointless, given the tarp-covered hole in the side of the building. In fact, McEwen knows the house is already home to at least one squatter.

“There’s a cat that’s sometimes around here, so watch out,” she says.

In addition to the wall, McEwen has also removed the entire second floor and gutted the interior down to its beams, giving the building a barn-like feel. The young architect calls her project House Opera, which she envisions as an alternative performance space for the neighborhood. The missing wall serves as a stage, opening up to the side lot, where benches built from joists removed from the second floor form a semicircle for the audience.

Outside, the house has been stripped of its aluminum siding, and is covered in an angular black and white custom Tyvek pattern. This represents what McEwen calls House Opera’s “subtractive phase”, “curated demolition” that is step one of her vision for the public arts space. Eventually, she plans on constructing a sturdier, more secure wooden stage that can fully open and close.

Of course, House Opera is not Detroit’s first abandoned home to be repurposed for art. With its oversupply of vacant properties, the city has a long history of such projects of varying degrees of legality.

Most infamous is Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, which for the past 30 years has seen the artist transform his derelict childhood neighborhood into a colorful and controversial art installation that earned the local government’s ire and tourists’ awe.

Since 2009, artists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert have transformed several properties around Detroit’s Banglatown neighborhood through their nonprofit Power House Productions, including Play House (another house-turned-theater) and Sound House (an experimental sound studio).

Other projects have been more ephemeral. In 2010, architect Matthew Radune and photographer Gregory Holm gave a new meaning to “underwater house” with Ice House Detroit, in which the artists encased an abandoned home in a block of ice. And last year, florist Lisa Waud transformed a Hamtramck home into “Flower House,” a temporary indoor garden that was open to the public through a ticketed tour before the house was razed.

When asked if the neighbors on what is otherwise a normal southwest Detroit block are on board with her unique vision for House Opera, McEwen pauses in contemplation. “I hear things. People in Detroit are really polite, but they’ll talk s*** behind your backs. That’s fine. I get it,” she says. “I hear that people are wondering if it’s Satanic.”

But she points out that plenty others are on board. One neighbor let McEwen run an extension cord through a window to draw power. Then there’s the teenager down the street that McEwen hired to help with landscaping.

When he started, he had little experience. Now he works for a landscaping company. McEwen says she hopes by next summer, House Opera will be in a place where the neighborhood’s different priorities can be met “like, folks who want to see the neighborhood stabilize, folks who want some paid work, and folks who don’t really care, as long as it doesn’t bother them.”


Bonding With Detroit

A Washington, D.C., native, McEwen lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., for a decade, working as an urban designer for an international New York-based firm before eventually deciding to split to go her own way. She says she became interested in Detroit when she was curating exhibits in New York and Los Angeles.

“I started doing a little thought-piece project about Detroit, thinking about reparations, actually,” she says. “What would 40 acres and a mule look like in the 21st century? Detroit seemed like a good place to test that out.”

Eventually, McEwen’s interest in Detroit led her to working on collaborations here. She first brought an exhibition to Detroit in 2011. And that’s when “things got really weird,” as she phrases it.

A local artist who worked with her on the exhibit was shot and killed (McEwen politely refuses to discuss this in detail). The tragedy was enough to forge a more powerful bond with the city.

“For me, it was a personal catalyst,” she says. She ended up taking part in a fundraiser to raise money to help out the child of the killed woman, and McEwen says the experience of seeing local artists supporting each other gave her momentum. “And that kind of made what had been loose connections more personal,” she says.

So McEwen started looking for property around southwest Detroit’s Clark Park, a location chosen due to its connection to her fallen friend. In 2012, she bought a house through the Wayne County foreclosure auction for $1,200.

The outside was stripped of its aluminum siding and covered in a black and white Tyvek pattern. McEwen plans to construct a sturdier wooden stage.

McEwen says when she first bought the house, she wasn’t sure exactly what she would do with it. At first she thought she would live there. Then she got the idea to reimagine it as a public space. “It really evolved into a bigger idea that these houses can operate for the public, rather than trying to push them back into this private market idea of an individual house for an individual family,” she says.

But first, there was unfinished business. Only after buying the house did McEwen realize she was now on the hook to pay some $2,500 in delinquent taxes. Then, the city attempted to sue McEwen when she didn’t get the house up to code for occupancy within its six-month deadline.

“It’s kind of crazy. They can’t even demolish houses in six months,” McEwen says. “How do they think a private individual is going to demolish or bring a house up to code in six months, especially if you don’t have a big loan behind you?”

McEwen says she’s since worked it out with the city, and points out that the city’s attitude regarding alternative uses for Detroit’s vacant houses has shifted since then. Now, the vacant properties are under the authority of the Detroit Land Bank, and Mayor Mike Duggan has made it a priority to find ways to work with citizens who want to reclaim abandoned homes and vacant lots. “It started off very binary. Like, either you demolish or you rebuild as a single-family home,” McEwen says. “I think the people of Detroit have educated this authority.”

One of her goals has been to create transparency around the whole process behind House Opera. She’s documenting her experience for an exhibit at MOCAD and also inviting the community to submit ideas through workshops. “If the public just kind of sees a rendering at the end of a process, it’s like, where did that come from?” she says. “To me, it’s a failure of the discipline when folks don’t know what goes on in the kitchen.”


The Language of Blight

Last summer, House Opera hosted the first Sigi Fest, a two-day celebration of science, art, and music curated by Afrofuturist Ingrid LaFleur. McEwen says next year, the festival will return to the completed House Opera, with new programming meant to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 civil unrest in Detroit.

For McEwen, House Opera isn’t about creating a refined space — she says she’s more concerned with how architecture can help realize emerging social practices. “I’m more interested in the kind of ways of living, sharing, and engaging that maybe we figured out on our cell phones, or we figured out in poetry, but we haven’t figured out in terms of a building or a place,” she says.

McEwen removed the second floor and gutted the interior down to its beams, giving the house a barn-like feel. 

Though she cites architectural theory throughout our talk, McEwen equally references the realms of literature and film as inspiration. “Generally, architecture theory, I respect it, it’s great, but it doesn’t give me a lot to pull from in terms of what I’m concerned with,” she says.

She calls House Opera a “Methexis house.” The term is derived from ancient Greek theater, referring to audience participation.

At a recent MOCAD exhibit, McEwen displayed other plans for other Methexis houses. Much of Detroit’s vacant housing stock, she says, was made using a method known as balloon-frame construction. “It’s part of how the Midwest expansion in our country happened so quickly,” she says. “Detroit was like a lumber baron city. ”

What that means is the houses are constructed in a way in which the walls are structurally independent of the floors, it’s what allowed McEwen to create House Opera’s dramatic stage cut-out without compromising its structural integrity.

To that end, she has begun to digitally document Detroit’s balloon-frame stock. It’s an attempt to answer the question: How can Detroit better utilize something that it already has in excess?

McEwen says it’s all part of redefining the idea of “blight.” She stresses the concept with her students at the University of Michigan, where she’s an assistant professor of architecture. “There’s this whole kind of language of blight, which is coming from disease,” she says, pointing out that the word “blight” has its origins as a way for farmers to describe sick crops. “How do we build another language, another suite of possibilities, into what’s already all around us?”