The Other Half
A Crack House and a Luxury Tower Walk into a Room
On the door to the building is a sign that says "Free Skin Analysis!" It's an offer from a day spa inside. "Analyze your skin's moisture, oil, and elasticity all in one—For Free!!" In the elevator, there's another note, announcing an ice-cream social in the private recreation area on an upper floor. This building is called 989 Elements, and its slogan is "Beyond Just Living." The idea is that this is better than just living. Just living would mean having your needs met, maybe, but not your desires. In this building, you can have it all: community and privacy, sophistication and homeyness, the old ways and the new technologies.
Developer John Su built 989 Elements (it opened to residents last September) as a microcosm for the future Bellevue he envisions, a place where art, too, has a place. Smack in the middle of the ground floor is a brand-new, 2,000-square-foot, double-height room devoted to changing installations of contemporary art. Resident artists live in an upstairs apartment for several weeks developing ideas before they build the art in the gallery. The whole program is called Open Satellite.
On August 29, Open Satellite had its first installation, by L.A.–based artist Olga Koumoundouros, called A Roof Upended. It was curated by Stranger Genius Award winners Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, who set architecture as one of the priorities for the gallery and were Su's main advisers.
For A Roof Upended, Koumoundouros used actual, crumbling bits of architecture torn from a more modest era in Bellevue to orchestrate a portrait of the class aspirations of a city since the middle of the 20th century. She isn't picking on Bellevue—it applies to any of the rapidly gentrifying cities across America, including Seattle. Is a sense of peace lost when luxury is gained? Are we sure luxury happens only after the fulfillment of basic needs? What are the new needs that luxury creates?
Koumoundouros asks these questions in built form. One day, less than a block away from 989 Elements, the artist found two crumbling ranch (meth?) houses scheduled for demolition, hiding their last few moments in the shadows of slick high-rise construction.
One is boarded up and has peepholes at eye level. The other is abandoned, with an eviction notice dated July 24, 2007. They left behind everything—piles of rusty tools, porn, needles, dishes, a Dodge truck with a North Dakota Sportsman sticker and blankets inside. Right next door, on the night of the opening, was the empty, well-lit banquet room of a luxury retirement condo tower with a faux-palazzo facade.
Koumoundouros and some assistants (Leigh Jerrard was her constant architectural collaborator) ripped off parts of the roof of the abandoned house and brought them into the gallery. She re-created the roof shape, including its charming little dormer, using new, blond wood. She tipped it upright, as though the lid were being lifted on a building, and built it so the smooth concrete columns that anchor the gallery seem to grow out of it. Propping up the roof are columns of stacked cans of vegetables and beans, and a pole of sculpted coal—architecture as the new food and fuel.
The bright, new underside of the roof faces white walls, while the top, covered in dilapidated, mossy shingles and dirty corrugated fiberglass, faces a bank of windows with a view of the all-new construction outside.
Koumoundouros added another view, from the outside of the building. She set torn pieces of plywood, like the kinds used on construction sites, in the windows. Peepholes are cut into some of them. From outside, you can see limited-edition posters that have been pasted smoothly on the plywood like a cross between commercial ads and rock-show flyers. They bear agitprop catchphrases like "Beyond Living Just," a twist on the 989 Elements slogan, and the Edward Abbey quote "Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell." The subtlest poster is the most searing, a portrait of a mom-and-pop shop plastic bag with the repeated message "Thank you" next to the words "I feel better now."
Because the shingles are applied loosely, the understructure of the roof is visible, like a new skin breaking through as the old flakes off. On the underbelly of the lifted roof, light shines through a portion of the dirty fiberglass, turning the untouchable surface into a screen for nostalgia. The issue is not which side you'd rather live on, but how extremely they're opposed. Where has balance gone?