'Fallow City Project' Explores Decaying Suburbs and Opportunities for Creativity

February 23, 2010

February 23, 2010 — The landscape of the suburbs is "like the farming of a certain type of house. It's representative of the American dream and aspirations," said Berenika Boberska, a visiting artist and architect in residence in the University of Virginia's McIntire Department of Art.

Suburbs are ubiquitous in the United States and have been cloned throughout the world, Boberska said. The close-in suburbs of many American cities are failing; those near Detroit are in particularly bad shape.

"If they collapse, what happens? That's an interesting question for an architect," Boberska said. It's also an interesting circumstance for an artist to consider.

During her U.Va. residency, Boberska is exploring the "moment of disaster, when you are allowed to change things and intervene" in a collaborative project.

The "Fallow City Project" focuses on Detroit, with the aim of developing new scenarios and opportunities for public experiences, she said. Just as in agriculture when land lies fallow awaiting a rebirth, Boberska envisions decaying suburbs as an opportunity for the birth of ideas. "I am interested in this time when other things can flourish – perhaps unusual uses and public spaces," she said.

During her three-month residency, which ends March 6, she has worked with studio art and architecture students and faculty and students in the sciences to explore numerous scenarios, and to develop and fabricate a portion of the project: a full-scale installation of "Solar Thicket," a prototype public structure using photovoltaic systems to provide light for spaces of encounter and gathering even as the city infrastructure retreats. Boberska said she wanted to bring technology and fairy tales together to create a public space that was independent from the power grid.

Deploying strategies found in fairy tales, Boberska's "solar thickets" – fanciful, hair-like appendages dotted with solar-collecting cells – grow out from a house, facilitating enchantment and transformation, she said.

The installation, along with a model of the "Fallow City Project," drawings and animated videos documenting the process, will be on display in Ruffin Gallery Feb. 26 through March 26. An opening reception is set for Feb. 26 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The project began with a seminar class in December, followed by a January Term class in which Boberska worked with students to investigate design schemes. During this phase, ideas abounded  with schemes to create houses, urban meadows, structures that span streets and interweave a new layer of public space into the existing suburban landscape.

One design stripped down the house to its structure and covered it with a material, creating a "lantern house" that would allow it to glow when lit from within.

Another scenario played on the notion that people disrespect designated paths and walk where they desire. The resulting "desire way" envisions an elevated path above the houses that could provide spaces for gardens and public gatherings or even serve as an elevated bicycle path.

A different scheme envisioned a solar tower mountain composed of "leafy" photovoltaic branches.

Fifth-Year Aunspaugh Fellow Rachel Singel designed a "Feral House" overgrown with vegetation. She explored the idea of nature reclaiming itself. It combines notions of the power of nature and nature in a city, she said.

"I wanted it to have a connection to the natural landscape that is already there," Singel said.

In her work as a printmaker, Singel explores the relation of line and nature with an emphasis on combining the "powerful force of nature and the potential of nature to be infinitely complex," she said.

Each scheme has a transformative or fairytale aspect, Boberska said. "Just as wild roses grow over a castle and it becomes a enchanted space, we are talking about transforming and reimagining the suburban spaces."

Alexa Bush, a graduate landscape architecture student, is heading a group making the stop animation movies that show the progress of individual projects. Landscapes change over time and the videos "engage with the temporality of the project," she said. The experience is a valuable educational tool "to think about the ways you can represent time and process in the landscape. It's a way to get at representation and to communicate what we want our landscapes to be and how they perform over time."

Graduate architecture students Renee Pean and Fatima Olivieri are helping with the fabrication of the "Solar Thicket." They appreciate the opportunity to work on the technical constructive aspects of the project.

"It's a real opportunity to understand how to assemble things. It bridges the gap between builder and architect," Olivieri said. She and Pean designed the "steel angels" that attach the wood structure pieces of the thicket. They learned metalworking skills in the studio art metal shop, where they fabricated the hinges used to join the wood pieces.

Pean said she is applying ideas learned on the project in her architecture studio design class. "It's an interesting interdisciplinary experience – blending art and architecture," she said. "It's nice to take the joint and think about a larger design concept, but not get stuck at either scale. That's really valuable."

Studio art chairman Dean Dass said the collaboration "cuts across disciplines" and brings together curriculums and programs that exemplify the spirit of the arts precinct. The project also connects the students to "relational aesthetics."

"That's a real buzz word these days," Dass said. Relational aesthetics in art fosters and represents human relations and their social context. This type of art shows students that they can fuse their interest in changing the world around them and their art, he said.

Dass describes the exhibit as a "fusion of the idea of studio and gallery." After the exhibit, he and a team will produce a folio of drawings and photographs to document the project.

"It's a special project and an historic project. I am interested in documenting it," Dass said.

The "Fallow City Project" is sponsored by the office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, Arts$, and the School of Architecture. The project is also supported by the Plastic Project, a Page Barbour funded interdisciplinary program in the College of Arts & Sciences, BP Solar and Konarka Technologies.

— By Jane Ford