"Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong."
— Oscar Wilde
"The best that one can say of most modern creative art is that it is just a little less vulgar than reality."
— Oscar Wilde
The floating house in Flint as the designers originally envisioned it.
It is with some trepidation that I wade into the controversy over Flint's floating house, which, depending on who you ask, is either a bold artistic reflection of the Vehicle City's current reality or a high-profile example of money poorly spent. It currently resides in the parking lot across from the soon-to-be-demolished Genesee Towers and the Art Deco splendor of the Mott Foundation Building in downtown Flint.
Regardless of what you think of this paean to plywood and Mylar, one thing is clear — Flintoids are a very tough audience. And they aren't shy about voicing their opinions. Can you blame them? Given the misfortune that has befallen the birthplace of General Motors, residents have a very short fuse. And the tragedy of a shrinking city is that the allocation of precious resources is the fundamental issue that animates civic life. There simply isn't enough money to go around.
It's hard for residents to embrace a $40,000 public art project when budget cuts have forced the closure of the police station on weekends in a city that's considered the most-dangerous place in America, according to FBI crime statistics. Even though the project was funded with outside grants and an online fundraising campaign — not money from the city — it's easy to imagine how else the money could have been spent. This isn't a very creative example, but that's enough cash to demolish four abandoned, burned out houses in Civic Park. It's also enough to put a few Flint kids through Mott Community College and provide a shot at a better life.
Blake Thorne, who has been covering the story for Mlive, details how the floating house was built in a city that has lost more than 100,000 residents over the last 50 years:
The project is the result of the first ever Flat Lot Competition, a design contest that launched last fall, organized by the Flint Public Art project and the Flint chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Founded in 2010 and headquartered in Flint's Carriage Town neighborhood, the Flint Public Art Project was launched and headed up by Flint native and New York City resident Stephen Zacks. The group has been building momentum by putting on art projects and events, like lighting Genesee Towers for a dance party and hosting an art fair at the abandoned Chevy in the Hole site.
According to the rules of the Flat Lot Competition, the winner would get a $25,000 budget to make a temporary structure that met three stipulations. The design needed artistic merit and to be aesthetically pleasing; the team behind it needed to be able to build the structure within the awarded budget; and the piece needed to interest and engage the public.
About 220 entries from more than 35 countries poured in. But to the organizers, one stood out.They called it "Mark's House."
The plan was for a piece that told the story "of an imagined Flint resident named Mark Hamilton whose family loses his home to foreclosure. The pavilion appears as a Tudor-style house that appears suspended in mid-air, reflecting the city that surrounds it....The pavilion is a literal and figurative reflection of the city it is located in," Zacks said at the time.
The winning design came from a London- and Madrid-based firm called Two Islands, founded and composed of William Villalobos, Cesc Massanas, and Tom Selva.
“The city of Flint and the competition organizers have given us a great opportunity to create a forward-looking project,” Villalobos said after their design was chosen.
The wrinkly reality of the completed floating house in downtown Flint.
On a superficial level, it doesn't help that the real floating house looks decidedly less polished and impressive than the original proposal that won the prize. Instead of a sleek house of mirrors, Flint residents found a lot of wrinkly Mylar. Things got even dicier when photos surfaced on the web that made the house look a lot better than the real thing. Once again, Blake Thorne explains:
With the project complete, the structure began getting attention. Architecture and design blogs began picking up the story, even the popular technology website Gizmodo ran a story.
But Flint residents noticed something odd about the photos in these sites. The house in the online pictures didn't look anything like what they'd seen in their own town. One commenter on the Gizmodo site wrote, "Here's what it actually looks like ... pretty wrinkly."
The questioned photos were taken for FPAP and Two Islands by Linden-based photographer Gavin Smith in late August.
Smith said he didn't do any post-production work on the photos, an assignment he described as basically a favor.
"I just took the photo," he said.
After looking at more recent, unprofessional photos of the piece, Smith said he agrees there's a big difference.
But the structure did look much less wrinkly in person when he shot his photos, he said. He thinks maybe the weather that day had a way of smoothing out the Mylar.
"It was heated up and had snapped back into place," Smith said.
The floating house looking suspiciously wrinkle-free in a publicity shot for the designers.
If the goal of public art is to spark discussion, then the floating house is a huge success. (Check out the comments on this story about the project by Mlive's Scott Atkinson.) And there's no denying Stephen Zachs' devotion to his hometown. The Flint Public Art Project has brought inspired outsiders to the city to collaborate with local residents and foster a creative spirit in a city that at times can feel cursed by fate and complex global economic trends. As a Flint Expatriate who has struggled to figure out a way to contribute something to the place where four generations of my family lived, I'm thankful that so many artists and designers have come to Flint to try and help. Zachs deserves credit for working so hard to be a part of the place where he was raised. He never gave up on his hometown.
My primary interaction with the floating house came last Tuesday on a hot, sunny day in Flint. I'd just delivered a somewhat rambling talk to a group of creative writing students at U of M. I couldn't help worrying about the future of these would-be writers who were learning a challenging, often discouraging craft in a troubled city. I got takeout at Blackstone's and was cutting across the steamy parking lot to my car when I decided to stop under the floating house to eat my late lunch. No, it didn't look like the sleek images of the proposed project I'd seen online. It was a little worse for wear and parts of it were pealing off in the heat. But it was a shady, welcoming spot. And even though I was well aware of all the alternative ways the money could have been spent, it was gratifying to sit in the middle of downtown Flint and know that the house was a very real sign that there were a lot of people out there who still gave a damn about Flint. It wasn't perfect, but the house was a reminder that the city I love isn't dead yet.