Aaron T Stephan: Cement Houses and And How To Build Them
September 9 - October 7, 2017
Locust Projects, Miami
Locust Projects presents Cement Houses and How to Build Them, a scale reproduction of a home façade constructed by Portland-based sculptor Aaron Stephan. The structure was assembled from over 350 cement blocks molded by the artist himself during a three-week residency at Locust Projects. This labor-intensive process—of both building a dwelling and the medium for its fabrication—develops a complex dialogue around the idea of the American Dream, homeownership, and the collapse of the U.S. housing market at the beginning of the 21st century.
Cement Houses and How to Build Them is seeded by the history and promise of American homeownership during the 20th century. The project takes its name from a book published in 1909 by The Radford Architectural Company of Riverside, IL, a firm specialized in creating stock floor plans—adapted to different levels of affordability—for would-be homeowners to self-build a home without the added costs of architectural fees. This catalogue described the process of building one such home from start to finish, including cost estimates, tips on cement mixing and reinforcing, waterproofing, and how to best lay out architectural elements such as foundations, floors and stairs. Stephan’s home façade, built within Locust Projects’ main space, is based on a slightly modified version of Design No. 8201, a 440 sq. ft. home from the same publication.
The dream and accessibility of homeownership are ideas at the center of the instructive approach behind the book “Cement Houses and How to Build Them”; the widespread availability and demand for this kind of publication presumed that anyone with the desire and determination to own a home could, with hard work and perseverance, build one from the ground up. This assumption was similarly mirrored at the time by the department store Sears, Roebuck & Co., which advertised and sold a one-man, cement block-making apparatus called The Wizard. Describing this machine as “speedy” and guaranteeing satisfaction, Sears’ advertisements suggested that a man could produce a staggering number of blocks a day in lieu of purchasing them commercially, thereby saving a substantial amount of money in the home-building process. Stephan modeled his own cement block-making machine after these units, constructing his from mahogany and stainless steel, and tailoring his mold and cement mix to fashion blocks identical to those sold in stores today. Ultimately, however, Stephan’s laborious block-making efforts reveal the inefficiency and impracticality of the process: it never caught on due to the slow, burdensome work and the fact that buying mass-produced blocks was, even in the early 20th century, more cost-effective than fabricating one’s own.
In this exhibition, the homebuilding process is approached as an act of détournement (a phrase coined by French artists in the 1970s to describe something that is created for a reason counter to its original purpose). Stephan builds a flat façade supported from behind by a wooden scaffold; this a superficial mock-up not unlike a stage set that is a home only in forward appearances and can house no family within. Stephan’s façade is in every way a criticism of the barriers for entry of homeownership both at the beginning of the last century and today. Cement Houses and How to Build Them treats the home and the cement block as powerful symbols of American idealism, particularly in light of the country’s shifting economic landscape in the fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession. This work looks to homeownership against the long legacy of financial booms and busts, white flights, real estate bubbles, and gentrification that have unfolded along the 20th century; an uncomfortable history that troubles the myths of ready-access to land and home, and brings into question the validity of the presumption that, to succeed, one need only tug at their bootstraps.
“Cement Houses and How to Build Them…” by The Redford Architectural Company is hosted digitally in its entirety on the non-profit, online library The Internet Archive. Design No. 8201, on which this project is based, is featured on page 130.