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An Abandoned House in Detroit Blooms with Aromatic Plants

Flower House exterior (all images by Heather Saunders Photography)
Lisa Waud’s ‘Flower House’ (all images by Heather Saunders Photography)

DETROIT — Two common themes in the Detroit lexicon: blighted houses, and nature persisting despite architectural ruin. Lisa Waud’s visually striking Flower House plays into both motifs. A chandelier made of tree roots and edison bulbs is coming out of a hole in the dinning room ceiling. The next room over is a kitchen with bundles of vines and seasonal fruit spilling out of every drawer, lining the walls. Windows, doorways, and cabinets covered with wreaths and garland so long and lush they don’t seem purely decorative — they seem to reinforce the structure of the house.

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Upstairs there’s a play on words: a canopy made of white flowers is strung between four thick tree branches and hung over a bed of seasonal and regional blossoms, all shaped to look like an antiquated manmade bed frame. Jessica Hunter of A Fine Medley, one of 37 florists who collaborated on the installation, kept aromatics in mind when decorating the upstairs bathroom with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers. In a room nearby, a tornado made with moss and ferns appears to be slowly sucking up the house. “I feel like I’m in the jungle,” I overheard someone say, as I pointed the toe of my boot to watch the movement of the moss, fixed to the floorboards below.

In a nod to the resilience of nature, this project will live on after demolition of the house: the land will be turned into a flower farm for Waud’s floral decoration business Pot and Box. Tickets for the exhibition, which will only run until Sunday, have already sold out. The money from the initial IndieGoGo and the ticket sales will go toward responsibly deconstructing and repurposing the house’s materials with Reclaim Detroit.

The idea for this project came after Dior’s Fall 2012 Couture show, which new Artistic Director Raf Simons presented in an old mansion completely covered in flowers. Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work has long inspired Waud, but she didn’t know how to embody her love for their installations until she saw Dior’s high floral walls.

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The visual aspects of Flower House, as appealing and well executed as they are, aren’t the most resonant parts of the installation. It’s how the rooms smell: like roses, wet earthy ground, or what seemed like snapdragons. And, because of how soft and inviting the cold old house became, it reminded me of being small enough to sit under the fountain grass in my mother’s backyard, daydreaming about my favorite parts of The Secret Garden and imagining how happy I’d be in a place like that.

2005 Rutgers University study looked at whether flowers have coevolved with humans, concluding that they give us lingering emotions of satisfaction and fulfillment. The people in the study who received flowers were less likely to feel agitated and more likely to reach out to friends and family. They smiled with a genuine smile, known in physiology as the Duchenne smile. There’s an intimacy that exists between people and flowers; add that to the comforts of home, and it creates a whole new kind of affection.

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“[Home is] the human being’s first world,” said philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. “The house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind.” He goes on to talk about how houses shelter our first daydreams and are where we relive initial memories of safety and relief.

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Initially I made the mistake of thinking about Flower House within the context of public art, mulling over the importance of inclusivity and the potential harm in charging for tickets in one of America’s poorest cities. Outside of the city, Detroit’s empty houses are made into a spectacle. The fact that anyone can potentially go inside them has made me forget how private they still are, and, like in the Flower House, how the privacy of life within those walls still resonates. There is still a violation in invading space that, even without people, wrongfully seems to be more a part of the public or “outside” than “inside.”

Waud’s Flower House is important because it’s symbolic, and the kind of primordial intimacy it evokes is a reminder of how the things people cannot keep, or choose to leave behind, are more than just things. They are fragments of our disenfranchised history that are still around because we’re still living in it.

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Lisa Waud’s Flower House (11751 Dequindre Street, Hamtramck) continues through October 18.

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