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Originally published February 2, 2013 at 8:00 PM | Page modified February 4, 2013 at 11:11 AM

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Decorating with debris

A New York artist reconfigures trash into a home's structure.

The New York Times


BUFFALO, N.Y. — In 2009, Dennis Maher, a professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, bought an abandoned property from D’Youville College for $10,000. It was a Buffalo double house, built just before the turn of the 20th century, as common a sight here as a maple tree.

Its ramshackle and orphaned condition was familiar, too. With the city’s vacancy rate at more than 15 percent — one of the highest in the state — it seems that every block in Maher’s West Buffalo neighborhood had at least one empty house. (Like that of many Rust Belt cities, Buffalo’s population peaked at midcentury and has been declining ever since.)

In response, the city has pursued a policy of demolition, frustrating preservationists, in a program that aimed to raze 5,000 buildings over the last five years (to date, the number may be closer to about 3,000).

Maher, this year’s artist in residence at the Albright-Knox Gallery, has been making sculptures out of the byproducts of that demolition, using materials like ductwork, plywood, lath and PVC pipes in huge, dangerous-looking pieces that resemble photographs of explosions caught by a high-speed camera. He is interested, he said, “in exploring the space between erasure and reconstruction.”

For many years, Maher, 36, worked for a local construction company, which made it easier for him to harvest building scraps. He recalled sneaking back into a “significant mansion” after work to make ephemeral art from the refuse, which he would photograph and then carefully disassemble, “so no one would be the wiser,” he said.

When Maher began working on his own house, his methods and concerns were not exactly those of a typical renovator. After he sorted through the junk he found inside, he began to build, reconfiguring the pieces of things like a home entertainment center, old deck chairs, fish tanks, dollhouses and dollhouse furniture, model train set pieces, jewelry boxes, brooms and silverware.

He attached the structures he created to the floors, walls and ceilings, like Joseph Cornell sculptures run amok, and he began aggressively collecting objects to add to those structures, scouring flea markets, Dumpsters and thrift stores. “I look for anything house-like, or things in miniature or objects that have an inside, like jewelry boxes,” he said.

Once the neighbors figured out what he was up to, they began leaving their castoffs on his front porch. As a result, he said, “I now have an abundant collection of things like bird cages.”

As these interior structures grew and multiplied, Maher sliced open sections of the second floor to give them more room and to let in more light. In an upstairs room he has fitted out like a library, the objects, he likes to say, cling to the bookshelves like mold. “It’s getting tougher to reach the books,” he admitted.

There is seating, of a sort: Half of a black leather Breuer chair has been spliced to a midcentury Danish chair.

“Most people when they’re working on their house say, ‘I’m going to work on the kitchen,’” he said. “For me, it was more like I’d find something that needed to go in a spot, so a room was never really finished.”

Picking your way through the carapaces of old chairs with cigar boxes, globes and tools grafted onto them, you do feel like the house is sprouting tentacles, generating its own cities and landscapes. It’s hard not to think about vacuuming.

Maher, an energetic man who vibrates a bit as he speaks, and pulls his hair into tufts when he’s excited, which is often, invoked the Surrealists. “They had a good attitude about dust,” he said. “To them, it was patina, a veil or a vapor, signifying the passage of time.”

You can sense dust bunnies everywhere swelling with importance. Nonetheless, Maher said, this kinship with the Surrealists is not to suggest the house doesn’t require maintenance. “I have to go out every day and look for things to add to it,” he said.

He visits flea markets the way the rest of us shop Costco for supplies. Without this influx, he said, “the house would become static,” he said. “Stuff goes out, and sometimes it comes back, and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, it’s really important to me what happens when use and function aren’t the primary things we design for: Could other roles for a house emerge once we suspend our attachment to everyday use?”

The reader will not be surprised to learn that Maher’s girlfriend recently moved out. “To share a space with someone while the whole environment was constantly collecting and reforming was, at a personal level, inspiring but also destabilizing,” he said. “I really respect the amount of time she was able to last here.”

Maher would like his house to question the functionality of architecture. “Think of a warehouse that gets turned into apartments, these things are shifting all the time,” he said. “Function is fluid.” (Take that, Modernists.)

Still, he has assigned labels to various rooms. (The capital letters are his, and recall Hogwartian terms.) Downstairs, there is the Entertainment Core, so named for the entertainment center he took apart to make his first collage, as he calls his structures. Above, watch your step in the Bridge Room, as whole sections of floor have been removed to let the aforementioned Entertainment Core bust through.

The Room for the Image and Reflected Image is a kind of mezzanine space whose walls are covered with mirrors, medicine cabinets, cigar boxes and cutup postcards. Maher opened a medicine cabinet and showed off a little stash of postcards and scissors. “I can add to it at any time,” he said.

In the two years since Maher moved in, his house has become something of a local celebrity. He gives tours to friends with out-of-town visitors, civic groups and schools on a regular basis. “It’s been a challenge to my privacy,” he said.

Mark Goldman, an urban historian and author who has been a frequent visitor to Maher’s house, said that when he first saw the place, he was overwhelmed.

“I saw it as a self-indulgent arts project,” Goldman said. “But then I began to understand there’s an idea behind it. We have a whole genre of work I like to call Rust Belt porn, a fascination with rust and decay for its own sake. People love taking pictures of rusty structures. But Dennis is trying to make a larger statement about regeneration and renewal, and bring an artistic point of view towards what other people have thrown away.”

Maher is not the first to use Buffalo’s abundant stock of empty houses as material for civic commentary. A few years ago, for their master’s theses, four architecture students bought a house at a city auction and built a 650-square-foot structure inside, into which they moved along with their dog.

And last year, another pair of students bought a derelict house for $800 and moved in without fixing it up. Their experience of living there without heat, electricity or plumbing was the last in a series of what they called “squatting experiments” that became their master’s theses.

Maher’s show at the Albright-Knox Gallery is a collaboration between him and eight local building tradespeople, whom he invited to make pieces inspired by his house using the materials of their trade. Jamillah Green, a plumber, made a delicate Jungian house from copper pipes with a tree growing inside it.

Using a single door, Dan Farrell, a window and door installer, made a model that’s part house, part guitar. He told Maher that he thought houses carried sound, “and that the sound calibrates the wood in a house the way it does in an old instrument,” Maher said. “You can take the roof of his model and play the guitar. It’s just amazing.”

Not one of the tradespeople questioned Maher’s sanity when they visited his house?

“Not one,” he said proudly.

The only room without a fancy moniker is the kitchen. Still, it’s been worked over a bit: The linoleum floor has been excavated, parts of it sliced off and the subfloor that’s revealed polyurethaned. Window frames are layered three deep on the wall over the sink. “The kitchen is kind of tricky,” he said. “The use patterns are more severe. You have to dig a bit harder here.”

This reporter raised an eyebrow, and Maher tried another tack.

“What I mean is, the objects have to work harder to infiltrate this room,” he said. “This house is a conflict between my everyday activities and the instability of objects.”

The kitchen, he suggested, is a room for detente.