House Opera: Reimagining Detroit’s Vacant Homes as Vibrant Public Spaces

Architect Mitch McEwen’s project follows a rich tradition of local artists reclaiming Detroit’s abandoned spaces as public commons or art pieces for the community.

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As the city of Detroit continues to ramp up demolition of its thousands of vacant homes, other members of the community are imagining a parallel future for Detroit’s blight. One such vision has arisen from architect Mitch McEwen of the New York–based firm A(n) Office. The project House Opera involved the conversion of a vacant Detroit home into a public community arts and performance venue, which has continued to evolve both architecturally and programmatically since the project began.

As Hour Detroit points out in a feature on House Opera, McEwen’s project follows a rich tradition of local artists reclaiming Detroit’s abandoned spaces as public commons or art pieces for the community. These efforts have been an attempt to cultivate a more sustainable solution to Detroit’s blight than the thousands of demolitions currently underway in the city.

For McEwen, the project is also an opportunity to urge the city to think more broadly about the future of Detroit’s neighborhoods, to develop a consideration for the city’s social function alongside its commitment to housing. “It really evolved into a bigger idea that these houses can operate for the public, rather than trying to push them back into this private market idea of an individual house for an individual family,” said McEwen in her interview with Hour Detroit.

McEwen purchased the property back in 2012 through a public auction for $1,200. Since then, she has received grants from the Graham Foundation and the Knight Foundation to fund the renovation of the derelict home into a performing arts venue. McEwen also ran a successful crowd-funding campaign in 2015 to continue to raise funds for the home’s transformation.

The most prominent architectural gesture engendered in the new arts space is the stage, created from removing one of the side walls, opening up the house to the outdoors. McEwen also removed the second story of the home and stripped the interior down to its timber foundations, creating a tall, gabled space. Outside, the home is covered in an abstract black-and-white pattern on Tyvek.

Mitch McEwen discusses living and working in Detroit with urbanNext.

Last summer, House Opera hosted Sigi Fest, a two-day festival of programming curated by Afrofuturist Ingrid LaFleur from the organization AFROTOPIA, an event described as “a time to heal and celebrate using spirit science, art, music and performance.” House Opera intends to continue the festival in the summer of 2017.

For McEwen, the project will continue to serve as an experiment for the roles architecture can play in facilitating new modes of community engagement. “I’m more interested in the kind of ways of living, sharing and engaging that maybe we figured out on our cell phones or we figured out in poetry but we haven’t figured out in terms of a building or a place,” she said.

Follow House Opera to learn more about its evolution and upcoming programming.

All images via Hour Detroit

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