Locust Projects presents Cement Houses and How to Build Them by Aaron T Stephan featuring a life-sized façade of a home that nearly grazes the gallery’s ceiling. Stephan, a Portland-based artist, constructed the house from over 350 cement blocks that he molded one-by-one during his three-week residence at Locust Projects. The labor-intensive process, of both building a dwelling and its medium, proposes a dialogue about the American Dream, homeownership, and the collapse of the U.S. housing market at the beginning of the 21st century.
Cement Houses and How to Build Them is mired in the history and promise of American homeownership during the 20th century. The project takes its name from a book published in 1909 by The Radford Architectural Company of Riverside, IL, which specialized in creating stock floor plans—adapted to different levels of affordability—for would-be homeowners to build a home without the added costs of architectural fees. Stephan’s home façade, built in Locust Projects’ main space, is based on a slightly modified version of Design No. 8201, a 440 sq. ft. home from the same publication and plans.
The accessibility of homeownership is key to the didactic approach behind “Cement Houses and How to Build Them…”, the publication; resting on the premise that anyone with the desire and determination to own a home, with hard work and perseverance, can build one from the ground up. This verve was similarly mirrored at the time by Sears, Roebuck & Company, that advertised and sold a one-man, cement block-making apparatus called the Wizard. Describing the machine as “speedy” and guaranteeing satisfaction, Sears’ advertisements sold the promise that a single man could build his own home affordably and from scratch. Stephan modeled his own block-making machine on one of these original units, using mahogany and stainless steel, and tailoring both the mold and mix to result in cement blocks identical to those sold in stores today. In the end Stephan’s efforts reflect upon the inefficiency and impracticality of this process; one that never caught on due to the burdensome work and the fact that buying mass-produced blocks was, even then, more cost-effective than fabricating one’s own.
Approaching the home-building process as an act of détournement, Stephan builds a façade supported by a wooden scaffold; a hollow artifact not unlike a billboard or stage set that is a home only in appearances, and can house no family within. In many ways, Stephan’s façade reflects upon the barriers for entry of the homebuilding process and homeownership as a whole, both at the beginning of the last century and today.
Ultimately, Cement Houses and How to Build Them positions the cement block and the home as powerful symbols of American idealism. In a country shaped by a legacy of booms and busts, white flight, bubbles and gentrification—the myths of ready-access to land and home are troubled by the reductivism that, one only need tug at their bootstraps to succeed. Placed within the context of Miami’s landscape, built from and made entirely possible by steel and concrete, the implications of these notions are made even more complex.
“Cement Houses and How to Build Them…” by The Redford Architectural Company is hosted digitally in its entirety on the non-profit, online library The Internet Archive. Design No. 8201, on which this project is based, is featured on page 130.
Aaron T Stephan (b. 1974, Springville, NY) is an artist who works primarily in sculpture and object-based experiments. His work has been exhibited at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME; and the University of Maine Museum of Art, Bangor, ME, among many others. He has been completed public sculpture commissions in cities including Nashville, TN; Clearwater, FL; Indianapolis, IN; and Salt Lake City, UT. Stephan earned his MFA from the Maine College of Art, and currently lives and works in Portland, ME.
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