Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Floating the Idea of Public Art in Flint

"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.


  1. I think that the concept and idea behind this is good. However, the execution is very poor.Speaking as someone in the themed entertainment industry, if the architects had gone further afield and spoken to people in my industry, they probably would have gotten a much better final piece.
    I am very curious to see this in person.

  2. Hey, I think people often underestimate just how tricky it is to pull off an artistic project of this scope on a tight budget. The possibility of things not going as planned is what makes art — especially public art — so exciting. And if you don't like it, don't worry. It will be gone eventually. I applaud the effort.

    1. ...so you're trying to spin this as "exciting"?

      big money or tight budget, the dude overpromised and underdelivered...

      hopefully that foil is put to good use... baked potatoes for Flint's undernourished

  3. This reminds me of a tinfoil art project done in elementary school. You remember the time you tried to make a real looking star out of card board and aluminum foil for the Christmas tree? That's what this looks like. There's so much GOOD art and GREAT artists in Flint. Why?!?
    With all the artistic resources in Flint, I think it's a shame that they took a final [hideous] project from people who were not from or in Flint. Mott & UM-F's art programs are outstanding, full of young talent, and right around the corner from this piece. Why not ask locally instead of globally? Show Flint what Flint can do for itself.
    Besides, why would someone create a monument to a foreclosed house? If you had cancer, would you want a statue of a cancer cell placed in your front yard? I find that rather tasteless.

  4. Duders, this is Flint. How many times have we been promised something amazing, but received a turd instead? 'toids should know better than to get their hopes up about superfluous things like the floating house. I like the wrinkled aluminum foil reality better than the hoity-toity fantasy version. It suits us.

  5. If the the contest was to "create a metaphor for Autoworld" then this wins hands down.

  6. Should have known something was up when the guy's mockup included a 30 floor Genesee Towers and reputable lookin''toids sauntering about the mylar monument.

  7. This isn't about hard times, money not spent well, sending poor kids to college or anything else. It simply looks like hell. It would have looked like hell at any time in Flint's history--including at it's peak. It's just bad, period.

  8. This looks like my Longfellow elementary Valentine box (a shoe box covered with Reynold's wrap) save for the red construction paper heart.

  9. This looks like they bought the Meijer brand Aluminum Foil and it kept creasing.

  10. Regarding "money not spent well"...I'm under the impression that this was private funding. If a private art supporter wants to fund something, I reckon that's his/her business. Each of us non-funders may have an *artistic* opinion--in the instance at hand, mine is that the work is incomprehensible, even when accompanied by a text explanation--but how the funder chooses to spend his/her money is their own choice. My view is that we're much better off with more art, some of which is incomprehensible, than we would be with less art.

    Regarding the technical basis for the wrinkling: I have a lot of engineering experience with polyester films . It seems strange to me that the aluminized film would X-Y expand after application, under normal conditions. Maybe they heated the film, mistakenly expecting it to shrink-fit into tautness, and instead it relaxed? Sometimes art benefits from engineering support.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at www.teardownbook.com.