On August 6th, a small group gathered around artist Mary Mattingly to listen to “The Story of Flock House,” a history of her current work-in-progress and its corresponding exhibit, The Investigation, Constitution and Formation of Flock House, currently on view at the LMCC’s Art Center on Governors Island. Flock House is a prototype nomadic living system made of recycled materials that is designed to latch onto urban buildings and structures to establish symbiotic relationships with them and those who will reside in it.
Mattingly presented her talk in the LMCC gallery, an intimate setting that allowed the event to progress as a conversation rather than a lecture. The gallery space holds a compilation of bits and pieces of the elements that have both generated and been generated by the Flock House project – from diagrams and sketches to sculptures and photographs. Born in 2010, the House is the sequel to Mattingly’s Waterpod project, a floating mobile dwelling, also made of recycled materials, that aims to push the boundaries of the ever-densifying city into New York’s waterways. Flock House, much like the Waterpod, offers a malleable and fluctuating space that migrates around New York City, this time pushing the city into the limitless sky.
The first photograph of Mattingly’s presentation, a black and white print of a wooden house on wheels in Northern Connecticut in which she was raised, made clear the early origins of her fascination with nomadic living systems. But the concept of a perched, autonomous living system did not occur to Mattingly until she was navigating around the five boroughs during her Waterpod journey. Throughout these travels, she encountered a new fascination: industrial waterfront cranes and the operators’ cabs affixed to them. She began to imagine migratory houses with hanging gardens tethered to old structures, wondering “Is this the future of New York?” Mattingly and a few of her friends moved into one of these perched crane-top cabins and lived there until they were kicked out for legal reasons. Unimpeded, Mattingly established a relationship with Al Attara, a Brooklyn landlord with community-driven, eco-friendly visions, who gave her permission to use the rooftop of 33 Flatbush Avenue – a sanctuary of communal spaces for artists and entrepreneurs — as the birthplace for the House.
Flock House began to materialize. Mattingly and her collaborators gradually collected recycled materials (mostly abandoned vehicle parts and construction materials), planted vegetation and, with the help of architecture students, constructed a pathway of wooden planks. In summer 2010, a prototype of the House was installed at Smack Mellon Gallery to allow for greater public access to the work-in-progress.
Though Flock House is constantly undergoing changes as a basic principle, certain components are set in stone. The fiberglass exterior shell is made of recycled industrial materials that have been crushed and re-casted into an organic sphere with open patches intended to mimic human migratory patterns around the globe. Its size is fixed to match the width of a highway lane for travelling purposes. This shell, however, wraps around a modular skeleton comprised of steel bars that can be hinged and unhinged into any desired shape. Eventually, the House will be able to latch onto other structures. Inhabitants will use collected rainwater to shower, drink and grow vegetation, and solar and human power to generate energy. (The team of architecture students collaborating with Mattingly is currently studying human power systems.)
The Governors Island exhibit presents a myriad of fantastical, non-functional, self-sufficient systems constituted of recycled materials: a vibration-powered light system; an air-purifier that sucks smog in and releases clean air, potable water, and fertilizer; a build-your-own-island system; a wearable home; and a bike-powered water purification system. Mattingly intentionally staged a conceptual show, presenting her interest in the fantastic and the plausible existence of such systems in the future, rather than their engineered actualization. But she also used charming subtleties, such as a rock under one of the wheels of bicycle system that would hypothetically hinder it from moving forward, to draw the viewer back to the real-world relevance of the systems she imagines. Infused throughout the installation is Mattingly’s criticism of the hasty pace of our times: “The more we speed up, the more we need to slow down.”
Perfection is by no means Mattingly’s ambition. She is not on a mission to reinvent living systems as perfectly autonomous utopic habitats. In fact, she was pleasantly surprised to encounter new obstacles from destination point to destination point during her travels in the Waterpod. Likewise, Flock House is meant to rely upon the symbiotic relationships that will emerge in each of its new environments. She references Archigram’s Plug-in City – a framework for an imaginary city with components that are plugged in and consistently reorganized – as inspiration. Through interdependent relationships, the project will encourage human collaboration and teamwork, a crucial element for the future of our cities.
Though Flock House’s journey has not yet been fully choreographed, a few of its destination points are nearly definite, including Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Snug Harbor, and it is scheduled to commence its travels with invited guests in May 2012. And though the House is a tangible project with a concrete plan of action, The Investigation, Constitution, and Formation of Flock House bears the form of a conceptual alternative to urban development. Flock House itself is simply a more elaborate manifestation of Mattingly’s dreamlike collages and of her endearingly clumsy “system” sculptures; a baby-step towards awareness.
The Investigation, Constitution and Formation of Flock House is on view through August 14.
Claire Ross is currently a project assistant at Urban Omnibus and will soon be obtaining her M.Arch at the City College of New York. She grew up in New York, Philadelphia and France’s Cote d’Azur and now lives in Manhattan.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.