Lost House: Lessons in Serving the Neighborhood

This post was written and contributed by 2018 N+T Accelerator Artist Cynthia Gunadi. She and her partner Joel Lamere will open their Accelerator Project Lost House to the public on Sunday October 28, 2018.

The woman said to me, kindly but sternly, “We don’t like it when outsiders tell us what to do.” This reaction was what I had feared most, feeling like an intruder as I attended the neighborhood association meeting. I was in the Four Corners neighborhood of Dorchester, presenting our Now+There Accelerator project proposal–a temporary sculpture in their neighborhood–and it was apparently suspicious to some. Why there? Who was I, and what did I want from them?

Fabricating  Lost House  - summer 2018

Fabricating Lost House - summer 2018

I somehow bumbled a response, that our intention was not to demand anything from the community. Instead, I was there to ask them what I could do to gain their support. There to listen to questions and concerns. We weren’t trying to make a buck, we were just artists who wanted to build something nearby.

My partner Joel and I are architects by training, but part of our practice is artistic, involving more experimental, sculptural installations. Architecture and art: these two sides to our work cannot help but influence one another. In our installations, we often explore material effects, geometry and form, and place-making. We are heavily influenced by the sites we work in. We want our projects to be intimately engaged by people.

Our Accelerator project, Lost House, is a sculpture that speaks to the history of a vacant, city-owned lot in Four Corners where a house used to sit, a private residence that was foreclosed upon and demolished in the 1970s. Our piece evokes, from some angles, a house in its iconic form. It is made of conventional wood framing, the traditional off-the-shelf materials of houses in this region, but formed into branching, twisting shapes through custom-milled wood connections. It is like a house, and yet, not a house. We hope to spark a conversation about the past, and the future, of this site–about what is left behind or erased when homes are lost. We want to help the public imagine an alternative model for using these empty lots that dot our city.

Lost House  opens October 28.

Lost House opens October 28.

Although we had prior experience with installations of this scale, we’d mostly worked on commissions. This was our first time pitching a piece on our own, in a truly public setting. We were accustomed to a clear process, usually headed by a client whose decisions and permissions were the final word. But here, we were at sea, navigating without knowing exactly how to move forward. We met with neighborhood associations, community organizers, and various city departments. It seemed no one person could tell us yes or no. More than once I was answered with blank stares. Each meeting proliferated more individuals or groups to reach out to, an unforeseen frustration at times.


But the other unforeseen result of this outreach was a sense of responsibility we developed to the community and the individuals who, in the end, patiently listened to my presentations. We made adjustments to our proposal in response to some of the concerns raised, and it is a stronger project for it. One neighborhood association asked us to include lighting for night safety, so we revisited our budget to account for solar lights. Other neighbors’ comments on the lot’s current overgrown state led us to switch tacks with our landscape treatment. Despite some initial wariness, we were by and large welcomed by the Four Corners community, and we want to do right by them. We are guests in their home.

I witnessed the care and love these residents have for their neighborhood. At the association meetings, neighbors knew one another intimately; they called out their hellos and asked after relatives. They nodded or shook their heads in sympathy when issues were raised. This community outreach began as due diligence, but ended up feeling like an honor, as individuals approached me after meetings, to ask additional questions or shake my hand, some giving me hugs and telling me they looked forward to the project. The woman who rebuked me ended up patting my arm, calling me “hon”, and wishing us well. We hope we can live up to their expectations with this project. We hope that they make it their own.

Together, Cynthia Gunadi and Joel Lamere founded the Brookline-based architectural practice Gunadi Lamere Design in 2010. As a team, they are preoccupied with architectural craft at all scales, from furniture design to urban strategy, with the conviction that highly crafted design, quality, and longevity are intricately linked. Learn more about them here.