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February 10, 2010

American cities are not short on abandoned houses, but for great swathes of residential vacancy, Detroit takes the cake. There have been a variety of responses to the motor city's blight, from the small-scale and practical to ambitious and conceptual, and over the last few years, some interesting art has also emerged, expressing the struggles and neglect suffered by the once-mighty metropolis. One such creative endeavor came about through the collaboration of photographer Greg Holm and architect Matthew Radune, who last year proposed Ice House Detroit—a temporary installation that would involve freezing a vacant, foreclosed home bound for demolition, then deconstructing it and salvaging viable building materials for other Detroit projects.

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Holm and Radune both live in New York, but Holm is a Detroit native and has watched the city evolve (or devolve) over the years. The pair were insired to freeze the house after seeing an image of another house that had been completely enveloped by icicles after a pipe burst. Naturally, the idea of freezing a foreclosed house speaks to the state of housing and the economy, but the creators were as interested in this approach for its visual effect and practical challenge as for the symbolism of the medium. They worked in 24-hour shifts during the coldest weeks of winter, continuously spraying the two-story structure with a firehose to build up the layers of ice.

The cost of producing this installation has not been negligible. In order to raise the funds they needed, Holm and Radune utilized the relatively new Kickstarter—an online crowd-funding system that allows internet users to make micro contributions to projects they find worthy of support. They raised $11,000 through the contributions of 53 backers, with final costs rounding out a bit higher than that.

Last week, Holm and Radune did a photo shoot of the Ice House and now they have scaled back their round-the-clock work schedule and resigned themselves to the effects of warming temperatures. They don't purport to have instigated a groundswell of change in Detroit's housing crisis but they did gain attention for their work and they also gave back, not only through the forthcoming demolition of the home but by also paying the backtaxes on another house in foreclosure, allowing a Detroit resident to hold onto her home.

We spoke with Greg Holm and Matthew Radune about the project.

All photos were taken by Holm, with the exception of his portrait, which was taken by Jeff Williams.


You grew up in Detroit and only moved away fairly recently. Can you tell me a bit about how the decline of housing in Detroit looked and felt to you, as a native and someone who watched it happen gradually?
GH: One of the most interesting aspects of visiting a place like Detroit every three to five months is that you have just enough time to notice the changes. I feel that sometimes the full time occupants miss the gentle collapsing which happens all around them. I was lucky enough to be standing at the old Tiger Stadium a few months back when the bulldozer was piling that last few square yards of concrete in a pile from the site. And although I have seen a greater dilapidation in the last two years than ever in my time in the city I call home, I have been astonished by an equal sense of resilience in terms of the community efforts which have come together to reinvent the modern grid which remains. I have been living in Brooklyn for several years now, and this last stay has really made me reconsider moving back to Detroit. The possibilities are endless right now.
What prompted you to want to freeze the house as opposed to, say, letting it grow over with wild foliage or wrapping it in some other material or any number of other things? What is it about freezing and ice that is significant?
MR: Freezing a house in solid ice was an idea that I came upon years ago while doing research at Rice Architecture School. I have always been fascinated by images of architecture at the mercy of nature (frozen houses sprayed by the fire department in the winter time), or architecture intermingled with nature in extreme ways (abandoned houses grown over with kudzu, greenhouses). Modernist architecture and much contemporary architecture has had the goal of placing glass buildings within beautiful natural settings and setting them apart. I was always interested in challenging this dynamic - creating combinations of architecture and nature that were more messy, to put it simply. In the end it was also an ecological decision. The ice would disappear after the project was complete, leaving no waste for us to dispose of.
GH: It seems that any number of materials could have been used to make a similar statement. It is true that the ice makes an obvious reference to the economic factors and which seems to have struck a national chord. The reference tended to get played up by the press as the irony was somewhat uncanny. But more, using ice as our medium, there was no mistaking the dedication and struggle which was involved in our efforts when someone might have visited us while on 24 hours shifts for 10 days. It was a very difficult experience, and mentally taxing. I tend to believe that the reward after having made it through such an endeavor is far greater than if we had used cake icing.

photo credit Jeff Williams

I read that you intend to demolish the house later in the year (it was already slated for demo) and salvage reusable building materials. Is there any concern that some of the building materials that might have been salvageable before your installation have been damaged by the extensive water and ice? What materials do you anticipate salvaging?
GH: Salvaging the interior structure isn't a question. The timbers are all oak, and little to no water damage exists. We are interested in having Detroit's Architectural Salvage Warehouse come by to get a better sense of the exterior damage due to ice, but looking at it I see no damage. The ice was on the house for no longer than the duration of what a typical ice storm might leave—ten days and nearly all of the ice has now melted.
MR: The wiring and plumbing materials in the house had already been "scrapped" by local entrepreneurs looking to make a living off of Detroit's high level of abandoned architecture. The structural oak in the building is the main salvageable material. The exterior wood cladding could be ground up for use in new pressed wood products- thus nullifying any slight effects the ice had on it during the freeze. The concrete foundation can also be ground up for reuse. The Ice House Detroit house will be one of the first houses in a new program of deconstruction rather than demolition that the State of Michigan Land Bank has recently started. With over 20,000 abandoned homes to potentially deconstruct within the City of Detroit, one would hope that they are rigorous in their review of these structures.
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Your agreement in using this house involved paying back taxes on a different Detroit house that would allow another local to keep her home. Tell me about her and about your relationship with her.
GH: Yes, we met Laveda Hoskins a couple of months ago she was the perfect recipient for our gift. As a single mother she is also a community activist and her efforts are geared towards single mothers. The Michigan State Land Bank had become aware of Laveda while trying to help her family find a home that she could afford. And our agreement with the State Land Bank was such that they allowed us use of one of their homes on the list of deconstruction as long as we made a donation of some sort in good faith.
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Clearly this project has been a powerful statement but like all installations, the statement itself will be gone once spring arrives. What kind of lasting impact, if any, do you hope to create with the Ice House and what kind of change do you hope to see as a result of work like yours?
GH: It is somewhat naive to think that our project will somehow live on and influence some policy change. Although If the State of Michigan is held accountable, they are obligated to us and our donors to train early release prisoners in the trade of deconstruction. Otherwise it is the large corporate demolition crews from the suburbs that get the million dollar contracts to come into these parts of Detroit, without any sense of community responsibility or recycling conscience, taking down these homes and sending the remnants to the dump. More so, If our project and it's temporary beacon of communal interaction could have inspired just one young mind to consider the possibilites outside the box and what is possible through a somewhat unorthodox imagination, that would be more than enough for me.
MR: The Ice House Detroit project, which we described as an architectural installation and social change project, has been incredibly successful already in serving as a starting point for discourse on the future of the urban center of Detroit, and in relation, other urban centers around the country. Detroit is a place with a lot of potential at the moment, and there are a lot of individuals there working on innovative projects, such as the re-prairie-ization of inner city Detroit, urban farming, materials reuse and redistribution, densification of certain areas, and widespread architectural reuse. The project is an extended conversation piece. It is also about providing the local community - the children, the teenage photography students, the working folk, the bus drivers, and the drug dealers with a bit of science fiction. It's a project that's visually meant to inspire people, that's not about the bottom line of paying rent, or mortgage, or getting by.

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