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Barbara Penner

An ordinary house becomes an out of the ordinary cabinet of curiosities

At a conference at the University of Buffalo last April, I was invited to dinner at a faculty member’s house, a standard (occasionally dreaded) ritual of academe. Pulling up to the venue, I caught a glimpse of a roomy old double house, a Buffalo type I knew well from a childhood spent just on the other side of the American-Canadian border. I then stepped inside this seemingly ordinary house and encountered − wonder.

My first impressions were hazy. Glimpses of hundreds of objects − mirrors, globes, dollhouses, birdcages, tools, cut-up photos − packed or stacked on top of each other or displayed in wall niches. Frames within frames; worlds within worlds. I wanted to stop and look, but I couldn’t. My host was speaking to me. ‘Set your coat down in the bedroom,’ he said. Bedroom? That something so mundane existed here seemed scarcely credible, but there it was − a bedroom, with a bed, on which guests’ coats were neatly stacked. There was a kitchen too, startling in its normality.

Later that night, under the benign gaze of a collaged Madonna and with a dinner plate teetering on my knee, I heard more about the house. Our host, architect Dennis Maher, had acquired it in 2009 when it was slated for demolition. He then began to excavate it, cutting into walls, floors and ceilings to open up the space and to provide apertures into adjacent rooms. At the same time, he collected salvaged materials, and set them in the walls, hung them from the ceilings, displayed them on stands, and constructed sculptures with them.

With its tableaux of found objects, unloved and forgotten, picturesque and grotesque, Fargo House invokes a whole category of built types: cabinets of curiosities, grottoes and dollhouses. It seems equal parts Soane Museum and Merzbau thanks to its teetering assemblages, obsessive interiority and restless air. (And dust too: Schwitters famously was happy for hair and dirt to collect in the Merzbau as one suspects Maher is too − I didn’t look too closely.)

But to invoke these precedents is not to suggest that Maher is simply rehearsing a well-worn type. The house takes on its own meanings. How can it not? It is in Buffalo, which, along with Detroit, is one of America’s notorious ‘shrinking’ cities, a Rust Belt city with a declining population. As in the better-known case of Detroit, demolition became official policy in 2007 when 5,000 vacant houses were slated for destruction.

Just as the AR is celebrating the power and fascination of new dwellings, Maher’s house acts as a valuable counterpoint. It is like a ghost in the capitalist machine, an irrational spectre that reverses the typical values and expectations of metropolitan dwellers today. Indeed, for anyone living in a capital city, where space is at a premium and properties sell for vertiginous prices, it is a shock to realise that a house and its lot can have little or negative value (Maher bought his house for $10,000).

But the shock is less than it was. Thanks to the popularity of the genre of photography known as ruin porn, we have become accustomed to images of shrinking cities and deserted homes. Detroit in particular has become a factory for ruin photography, freezing the city in a kind of terrible perpetual stillness. Think of the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre whose photos of vacant spaces evoke blight, flight and dreams unfulfilled.

In Buffalo, a backlash has been building against these portrayals, which fetishise decay and erase local lives and experiences. A more activist generation of preservationists are stepping up efforts to prevent demolition, often by buying and living in old houses under threat. Their messianic purpose is hinted at by the way they now speak of ‘resurrecting’ old houses rather than restoring them.

Maher’s house anticipated and belongs to this trend. It refuses to play the nostalgia game, reanimating the dead space of ruin porn. It doesn’t feel like deconstruction for deconstruction’s sake. And even if a degree of fetishism slips in, it doesn’t settle. Maher is an energetic custodian, changing its arrangements and displays almost daily with flea-market treasures.

Most simply, Maher’s house is unmistakably his house. He dwells among the materials he salvages, among the peeling wallpaper and paint. Maybe this is why my favourite moments in the house are when the mundane intrudes into sight − the coffee machine, an electric socket − openly inhabiting the assemblage. They do not let us forget: someone lives here.

☛ For images of Maher’s house, visit:

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