Typologies within typologies: 100 Abandoned Houses and the Heidelberg Project

We love typologies here at Typologica—quite obviously, considering they are our namesake. All that collecting and categorizing serves us curatorially-inclined folk well, facilitating critical connection-making on so many levels. As a scientific method, the use of typologies has existed for centuries within a tradition of exploration, classification, and analysis, but from the late 1950s when Hilla and Bernd Becher famously debuted their photographic archive of industrial structures, calling it Anonymous Sculptures: A Typology of Technical Constructions, typological methods within art have become widely appropriated and applied to all manner of people, places, and things.

Through the comprehensive, systematic, and standardized collection and presentation of images, many well-known artists such as Ed Ruscha, Thomas Ruff, Lynne Cohen, and Roger Mertin have adopted this styleless, seemingly authorless visual framework within which to immortalize, analyze, and/or critique the social constructs or conditions embodied by their chosen subjects—in this case, gas stations (Ruscha), German students (Ruff), observation rooms (Cohen), and Christmas trees (Mertin). As Marc Freidus proposes in his catalogue essay for Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers (Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1991), this use of “seriality, a passive frame, and a comparative method of presentation…seems an effective strategy to deal with the limited truth-value of the photograph. Not only is modernism’s authority repudiated, but a thoroughly critical role for art is proposed, in which the viewer must play an active role.” In other words, the photographic typology attracts and sustains our attention precisely because the apparent absence of an author invites us—indeed, authorizes us—to participate in the making of meaning out of what appears at first to be an impassively presented series of images.


Recently we stumbled across one such project, 100 Abandoned Houses, which photographer Kevin Bauman initiated in Detroit in the late 1990s. Many of the homes he photographed retain a faded grandeur even in their current shabby state, echoing a more prosperous age. Intending to create a visual archive of the slowly deteriorating homes in advance of their presupposed demolition, Bauman has returned time and again to find many of them still standing, forsaken by their owners and speculative developers both. In the years since his project took off (it received wide coverage in the press in 2009/10, including articles in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle), Bauman continues to document the ongoing demolition by neglect—albeit at a much slower pace as he has since moved out of the neighborhood—far surpassing the initial series of 100.

Despite a few compositional inconsistencies, Bauman’s project greatly exemplifies the productive affinity between typological analysis and the built environment, replete as it is with cultural signifiers and the trappings of social norms, power, and control that go into its construction and use. From the scale of urban plans and streetscapes to that of buildings both monumental and vernacular, on down to domestic interiors and architectural details, photo typologies are an effective way to explore, expose and elucidate power differentials and contradictions within existing socio-economic and cultural systems. On the surface Bauman’s archive certainly presents us with the all-too-familiar face of urban devastation in the wake of the mid-2000s subprime mortgage crisis, which compounded Detroit’s already accelerating economic decline.


However, within the larger story that Bauman’s archive tells, subplots and spinoffs begin to emerge upon closer inspection. Indeed, much of the power of photo typologies lies within the relationships of individual images—not just to each other, but to the set as a whole. At a level beyond one’s initial impression of pictorial redundancy, the viewer begins to relate to the uniqueness of each singular image. For example a subset of homes which are shrouded and becoming consumed by vegetation speaks eloquently of the feracity and persistence of nature in the urban environment, even as it presents clues to the timescales within which these homes have been sitting derelict. Typologies within typologies reveal layers of meaning, attesting to the richness of information embedded within this way of thinking, looking, and making.


Yet another subset of images reveals signs of a community’s response and resistance to their neighborhood’s crumbling condition. Looking closely at individual photographs within Bauman’s archive, one notices that several of the homes bear the mark of a single large dot painted onto their facades. Further research and discussion with Bauman led us to the work of Tyree Guyton and his Heidelberg Project, which has focused international attention on the problem of urban blight in the inner city. Through the “dressing up” of abandoned houses with colourful dots and accumulated detritus, Guyton creates streetwise spectacles that draw crowds of onlookers—and Detroit’s demolition crews as well. According to Camilo José Vergara, a sociologist and photographer who covered the Heidelberg Project in his book American Ruins (The Monacelli Press, 1999), the large dots on abandoned houses were painted by Guyton’s supporters in protest over city plans to demolish his dressed-up houses—and to prosecute Guyton personally, for littering.

Since 2010, the city of Detroit has undertaken a sweeping campaign to raze 10,000 of the abandoned homes, much to the relief of residents—and to the consternation of preservationists. Meanwhile, the Heidelberg Project is celebrating its 25th anniversary as “a political and generative presence…founded on the principle of healing communities through art”, and will coincidentally be featured here in Ontario at Museum London’s public art symposium taking place March 30–31. Jenenne Whitfield, the Heidelberg’s executive director, is slated to give the keynote address, “Art as a Catalyst for Community Revitalization”.

Under Whitfield’s direction, the Heidelberg Project has expanded its goals to include acquisition and restoration of property in the area, as well as the implementation of art and education programs for the local community. Perhaps it is art that will bring Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods back from the brink, as it has in so many other cities before. Even so, with nearly 90,000 vacant homes and lots still going unspoken for, Kevin Bauman could be busy for a long time to come—if he chooses to continue. All speculation aside, his sensitively wrought typology already speaks volumes for itself.

See Kevin Bauman’s original series of 100 photographs at 100abandonedhouses.com
Note: A limited edition of 10 prints of each image is available for purchase in a size of 5×5 inches.
The price is $35 with $10 from each sale going to a charity or non-profit organization such
as Habitat for Humanity or The Greening of Detroit.

Read “Detroit’s Derelict Houses, Preserved on Film” at the New York Times
Read “Detroit Shrinks Itself, Historic Homes and All: Detroit to Demolish 10,000 Abandoned Properties”
at the Wall Street Journal

Read about the Heidelberg Project on their website
Read more about the Heidelberg Project in “Street Folk” at art:21
Additional images of the Heidelberg Project by DetroitDerek Photography on his Flickr page

Information on In the Public Eye: A Symposium on Public Art, during which the Heidelberg Project
will be featured, at Ontario’s Museum London

Extra credit: Fantastic June 2002 interview with Bernd and Hilla Becher and their development of typologies by Ulf Erdmann Ziegler for Art in America

images, from top to bottom: 
Hilla and Bernd Becher, Factories (Gables), 1987, 16 black and white photographs 
Kevin Bauman, selection of 9 images from his series, 100 Abandoned Houses
Tyree Guyton/Heidelberg Project, photo from the Flickr page of michaelcipi
Kevin Bauman, screenshot of his website home page, 100abandonedhouses.com 

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