Witnessing the bones of the to-be-demolished home on 4562 Enright stand as an independent, reimagined structure inside the walls of The Pulitzer Arts Foundation was a transformative experience. The exhibition of the same name by German architecture collective raumlaborberlin opened July 29 as part of three new installations currently running at the museum – and its presence will provide new insight into urban decay.
Passers-by might drive through certain neighborhoods in north and west city and liken the deteriorating dwellings to a woman with striking beauty that is offset by missing teeth. But for the present and former residents of these blighted areas that were once thriving communities, the presentation will forge a new connection with the power of visual arts.
“We were trying to bring the everyday into the gallery, and most of what is directly outside is beyond the line,” said exhibition curator Kristin Fleischmann Brewer. “At different moments, visitors are forced to confront this home’s history, its present state and its speculative future.”
As the brick foundation and exterior await full demolition at the home’s original location, a full-scale, two-story reconstruction of the home, with the original wood beams, windows and hardwood floors, stands just inside the Pulitzer. Unlike the condemned signs that warn of the danger of stepping foot into abandoned homes, guests are encouraged to walk through the exhibition and re-inhabit the space.
“The idea was to explore what happens when the house is falling apart,” said Jan Liesegang, one of the four architects for the project. “And how much of the soul is left in the house still there.”
According to Liesegang, the process came with imagining the past, present and the future of the home, which was originally built in 1890. The layout of the front room is an illustration of the home’s history, sparsely furnished with items from or inspired by the time period in which it was built.
“We made up this character, who in the center part is trying to explore the history of the house and trying to reconstruct it from what is left,” Liesegang said. “The last part is the future, like a working studio space of the imaginary inhabitant.”
A white pod made from paper products, including old copies of The St. Louis American, sits on the second story as part of the futuristic experience.
4562 Enright Avenue represents countless derelict properties that were once the proud realization of the American Dream. It could be 1044 Gimblin Street, the duplex that was my first family home. Too many fond memories to recite come to mind when thinking of our footprint in the Baden neighborhood. Now all that remains is one of four flattened lots that extend nearly to the end of the street.
Baden, like many North City neighborhoods, suffered a mass exodus for the greener pastures of North County in an effort to escape the violence and crime of the crack epidemic. We were among the last families standing when we returned to the home during my sophomore year of high school.
A burned out home to our left and three boarded up houses where my childhood friends once lived was my view as I peered out the windows.
Our family quickly drifted back to Spanish Lake after my senior year. A disgruntled tenant set fire to our home, with many of my belongings and cherished keepsakes still inside the upstairs apartment. The loss was a double dose of trauma. The beautiful neighborhood I explored as a youngster was reduced to a dangerous drug infested war zone – and our home literally went up in flames.
Being inside 4562 Enright Avenue at the Pulitzer offers a measure of closure for those who had to make peace with being the last generation to call such places home.
It was a fascinating experience for Liesegang, one of the four architects from raumlaberlin, as he was forced to confront the anomaly of St. Louis when his collective was commissioned by the Pulitzer to create their first U.S.-based exhibition.
As a native of Berlin, he knows the experience of living in a divided city, but there was plenty that was unique to our region.
“St. Louis was the first time we worked in a shrinking city,” Liesegang said, referring to the population. As the group acclimated themselves with the St. Louis metropolitan area, they were fascinated by the stark contrast in its neighborhoods.
“You feel like on one side of it, the city is falling apart,” Liesegang said. “Then, on the very next end, you see these really fantastic housing estates.”
The raumlaborberlin group was struck by the racial divide, but they feel like there is plenty of room for healing and unity – especially after working with the residents who live near 4562 Enright Avenue and including their narratives as part of exhibition.
“We focused on the idea of hope,” Liesegang said. “We aren’t providing solutions, but we want to provide something that will motivate people to try again. We have the hope that it’s possible. We know it’s possible. We lived in this divided city for 30 years, and then suddenly the wall was gone.”
Raumlaborberlin’s 4562 Enright is currently on display at The Pulitzer Arts Foundation through October 15. For museum hours and additional information, visit www.pulitzerarts.org.