Mary Ellen Carroll, prototype 180
The Guardian // November, 2017
On 11 November, a group of approximately 150 invited guests gathered on the lawn of an abandoned single-family house in the Houston suburb of Sharpstown to watch it be destroyed in the name of art.
The event was a performance titled Daringly Unbuilt, by the New York–based conceptual artist and designer Mary Ellen Carroll. Exactly seven years earlier, on 11 November 2010, Carroll had executed a 180-degree rotation of the Sharpstown home on its lot. The action marked the dramatic climax of prototype 180, a multiphase art project begun in 1999 that, in Carroll’s words, is an “urban alteration that makes architecture perform”. Daringly Unbuilt would be the final on-site performance of prototype 180.
Carroll’s audience included architects, visual arts professionals and patrons. The crowd made a striking contrast with Sharpstown’s casually dressed residents and the crowd playing sports at the adjoining Bayland Park. Minutes before the architect Charles Renfro would introduce the performance, an irate man in jeans appeared on the edge of the property, calling the art project “a disgrace to the neighborhood”. Unaware of what was about to happen, he urged the people in charge of prototype 180 to tear it down. Over the next two hours, his demand would be satisfied.
Carroll conceived prototype 180 as a grand gesture bringing public space, art and architecture into conversation. For its final performance, she unbuilt the structure herself. The action served in part as a homage to the victims of Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked about $200bn of damage in Latin America and the southern United States over two weeks in August and September. The storm particularly devastated the metropolitan area of Houston, although the prototype 180 site in Sharpstown was not severely affected.
As Carroll explained in a recent talk at Columbia University, she began thinking of policy as a medium for her artwork in 1991. (A list of her other unconventional materials includes radio frequencies and resemblance.) Eight years later, while living in southern California and sitting in traffic on the freeway, she developed the idea of moving a house as an artwork in the public realm that would defy the normal. She penned the following description of prototype 180 on an index card:
“To make a work of art, and in the process, to make architecture perform in the age of the political, and to treat policy as a readymade. The catalytic moment will be the revolution of a structure that is surrounding property 180 degrees. Following the rotation, everything about the building and its surroundings as a system will be reconsidered, and if necessary, redesigned and manufactured, as the work of art.”
Over the next few years, Carroll says that “Houston selected itself” as the site for prototype 180. The city of 2.3 million people is the largest urban area in the United States without a formal land-use policy. Such lack of restrictions would not only make the rotation of an abandoned house possible, but would instigate a conversation about urban policy.
Carroll zeroed in on Houston’s ageing, first-ring postwar suburbs as a policy blind spot. She decided on Sharpstown, the first master-planned community in Houston, as the site for the work. Named after Frank Sharp, who achieved infamy in the 1970s because of a stock-fraud scandal, the development was dedicated in 1955. Designed for middle-class residents, complete with a shopping district, schools and parks, the orderly subdivision of Sharpstown differs substantially from the free-enterprise architectural landscape of Houston without zoning. Sharpstown became a high-crime area in the 80s and 90s, but today its profile has risen as a desirable alternative to high-priced residences in Houston’s city center. The diverse neighborhood includes communities of east Asian and Latin American residents.
Carroll explained that her intention with prototype 180 was to raise questions about land use while “avoid[ing] the snare of the artist as displacer, gentrifier or developer”. Conceptually, it exists somewhere between the Land Art pieces of the 1970s – like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels – and novel architectural constructions for cultural destinations, such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Yet Carroll designed the work as an intervention that would respond organically to the neighborhood, rather than a static monument that would cultivate an audience of outsiders. She describes the building’s destruction as part of an evolving artistic process.
In 2007, Carroll established a limited-liability corporation and purchased a deserted property for prototype 180, on a plot of land that straddled the city of Houston and Harris County. By lifting the house off its foundation and reorienting it from the back to the front of the property – where it would face Bayland Park – she would transform it into a public building on private land. In October 2010, Carroll and her crew attempted to rotate the house, but encountered a snag when the foundation cracked – possibly due to cost-cutting measures in the construction of the neighborhood. After completing the house rotation in November 2010, Carroll and her collaborators used the site as an “innovation territory” to workshop infrastructural solutions and design ideas.
Carroll partnered with various institutes over the next several years, including the architecture school of Rice University in Houston, where she was teaching. Though the house’s interior remained empty, Carroll designed porcelain cladding for the facade of prototype 180, retrofitted the water system, designed a hydroponic curtain wall for the property and, in partnership with the Rice University professor Edward Knightly, helped develop a super wifi system using unused television frequencies. She would launch a super wifi network, called Public Utility 2.0, in New Orleans as part of the art biennial Prospect 3 in 2013.
As the architect Charles Renfro stated in introducing the conclusion of Daringly Unbuilt, reactions from the neighbors in Sharpstown to prototype 180 over the past decade spanned anger to delight. But he added: “Whatever the reaction, prototype 180 had already succeeded in one of its core missions: to prompt people to think and converse.” The conversations included public forums on land use in Houston, as well as more informal discussions among local residents.
Following Renfro’s remarks, the experimental vocalist Joseph Keckler climbed on to the roof of the house to sing a fragment from a baroque opera and a pop song. Moments after he scrambled down, Carroll drove a 1974 Caterpillar excavator on to the property. Elegantly clad in sneakers, dark glasses and a suit, she guided the vehicle toward the house. A performative dance ensued as the artist maneuvered an encounter between human, machine and house. The antique Caterpillar’s jaws closed around the tip of the roof first, wrenching a sheet of shingles with it. Carroll worked around the perimeter of the structure, snatching pieces in the tool’s dangling basket, occasionally backing the Caterpillar up and “pirouetting” with pieces of shingle, board or installation. Over the course of approximately one hour and 15 minutes, she had taken the house down piece by piece. She emerged from the driver’s seat to wild applause from her supporters.
As Renfro explained, the remains of the prototype 180 house will be interred. And if the city plans to follow his suggestion, the scraps will be piled somewhere within the city limits as a manmade Mount Harvey, “as a tribute to those victims of Harvey that lost everything”. He added, “This discourse will live on. The act of prototype 180 is just a beginning.”