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Burning down modernism: The making of Chris Larson’s Celebration/Love/Loss

Photo by Katharina Eggers

The original house

The original house was designed by Marcel Breuer, émigré from the Bauhaus school and master of mid-century modern architecture. It sits like a bunker tucked in the bluffs overlooking Highway 61 and the Mississippi River, just east of St. Paul. Its exterior is unassuming: Its walls are so embedded into the surrounding steep elevations that there is no vantage point where the building gains any depth—it’s a lot of squashed rectangles. Even from below, the house seems to squat in indolence.

The interior is what sets it apart. The house is divided into two main rooms, one of which is looking west up the river to the Twin Cities, and the other south down the river. They are high-ceilinged, bright rooms, with windows that frame the spectacular views of hills, oaks ,and river valley, bringing them into focus like a camera lens.

There is something dynamic, even bewitching, about this design. It is modest; the rooms meeting at a nexus; the interior in perpetual dialogue with its vantage: the trees, the snow-covered hills, the white river below. It’s like the platonic example of a house: a perfect form, as if the ruck of buildings down below were mere representations of what a house could be. This is a house that wants to be lived in.

Chris Larson planned to burn it down.

Not the actual house, mind you, but rather a full-scale replica. The house would be built in his St. Paul studio, then rebuilt on the lawn of the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul and set on fire in the middle of the night for the Northern Spark Art Festival. Chris called the work Celebration/Love/Loss.

Chad Bogdan, the current owner of the house, was intrigued but curious. “So why do you want to burn down my house?” he joked when Chris and I first met with him in his home.

Chris answered with the gloss of an art magazine, using words like symbolic, movement, energy, restorative, renewal, the end of modernism. The answer, nodded at, slid away like ice down the river.

“It’d be great to have a party that day,” Chad said. “It’s near the fiftieth anniversary of the house, and it would be great to use the occasion to celebrate it, to celebrate Breuer.” We toured the home and were shown various details here and there. In what was once the library, Chad’s sons played with Legos on the floor under a mounted, cartoon tiger head. From the master bedroom, both downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis could be seen. “I didn’t even know it was over here, and I was driving down below and I looked up and saw it on the hill and I knew it would be my house,” said Chad. “I’ve always revered Breuer’s furniture, and living in a house he designed is something I never thought would happen. Sometimes I just sit in the corner and look at it. I just stare at elements of the house for hours, appreciating it. The design is just…it’s sacred. There’s a sacred element to the design. He really nailed it.”

I had brought along my tape measure to take measurements of the house, not comprehending the vast number of measurements required. Fortunately — and by fortunately I mean I don’t know what we would have done without them — Chad produced from his office Breuer’s original plans of the house, footprint and elevations. “Do you want these?”

“Holy moly. Yes we do!” we said.

These architectural plans hovered over the project like angels, or ghosts maybe, just as I hovered daily over the table where they lay, reading their various dimensions. It’s the image of that shape that has remained: the crosslike form of the house’s perimeter, seared into my memory.

How to build it

I had originally thought that I would only be a helping hand, showing up now and then to lift things and follow orders. When I met Chris in the studio and asked him when we would start building, he said: “You mean when do you start building.”

This was a surprise.

I have always found it curious that art institutions largely ignore the stories of how art is made. Months — even years — of the artist’s turmoil, tedium, and ecstasy are covered up by the finished object and made sterile in the museum. Now I found myself in the middle of it. I was no longer the part-time helper but now had real responsibility in making the art happen: all of a sudden I was the art-fabricator. Chris helped out when he had time, but for the most part, he was occupied with the logistics of the project. There were a great many tangles of red tape to pass in order to burn down a building in Downtown St. Paul and Chris did the cutting.

“Chris has conned you into doing all this work,” some acquaintances said, “while he’s the one that’ll get the newspaper headlines and media glory. You’re a patsy, Forest, a lackey, and don’t expect any other title.”

“Conned” and “patsy” may be rather strong words, but in a sense, my friends had a point. I did devote myself to the project with minimal pay. But that was the crux: I would receive some reimbursement, albeit it small. I thought of Ishmael’s argument for going to sea in Moby Dick: There are those sorry passengers who must pay to book passage on ocean liners. But being paid to do so. That’s the thing.

I confess that I neither would have nor could have spent months of my life building a cardboard house solely for the purpose of burning it down, had I not been paid. There were other jobs that I turned down for which I would have been paid more. But it was more than cash that mattered. The job itself was compelling: I believed in it as art.

There were others involved in the project who were not convinced. One fellow coworker in particular worked with us in the studio for a month until he quit on account of a loss of morale. “I don’t want to work in Larson’s Factory,” he said, alluding to Warhol’s infamous Factory. “He hasn’t given us any reason to build this thing day in and day out, he hasn’t explained to us why. I want more of a justification. I don’t want to be chasing down the white whale for Ahab Larson. We’re warehouse workers.”

It is true that for the majority of the build we were working in a 20,000 square feet big-box furniture warehouse, basically empty but for disassembled steel shelving, much of Chris’s own stored art, and the majority of Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü’s worldly possessions. Those possessions were neatly arranged against one wall of the warehouse, and gave off a sour smell of smoke and ruination from when they had survived their own house fire a year earlier. The Breuer house did just fit.

To build the panels, we ordered 8,000 lineal feet of 2x4s and 11,000 square feet of cardboard. The delivery man was one of those KQRS-type blokes of a certain age who attempt to wear with dignity a Hitler mustache: it was not flattering.

 “Do you have a forklift?” he asked looking into the vast warehouse space.

“No.”

“Fuck,” he said. “I’ve got to call my boss.”

Chris has a no forklift policy— in fact, it’s a no heavy-machinery-whatsoever policy. No matter how large his work is, he maintains a rule that it be light enough to move by hand. For Mr. Delivery Man the absence of a forklift was absurd, but he helped me unload anyhow. The sheets were 12 by 7 feet and awkward to carry. After moving half the pile he clutched his chest and swayed.

“Fuck,” he said, gasping, “I’m fifty-eight years old!”

When he asked what the cardboard was for, I told him and his eyes lit up. “Burn it? Really? Oh,” he said. “I’ll have to tell the guys about that. They’ll like that. Wow. A whole house.”

His response was of the more optimistic variety. While building a replica of an architectural masterpiece came as no surprise to most people, burning the replica in downtown St. Paul was captivating, and many responded either with a kind of wonder or with plain disgust.

“You’re going to do what?”

“Burn it down in the middle of the night.”

“That is such complete bullshit.”

Others would say, “I need a house, why burn it?” or “Couldn’t that house be given to the poor?” In their mind, the full-scale cardboard clad replica was the same as an actual house. Yet, it was in every sense temporal, particularly once it stood outside. Had the house undergone even a day of rain, the cardboard would have fallen away from it like lasagna noodles and without this structural support, the framing would not have stood long. 

The size of the cardboard determined the size of the modular panels that would make up the walls. Their production took much of our time. It was monotonous work and lasted for some weeks. We would make a frame from 2×4’s at the designated height, and then glue and staple a large cardboard sheet to both sides. There were at least sixty of these panels, each one specific to a location. For as slow as building the panels was, once the floor of a room was built, we only had to put the wall panels up in place and, presto chango, in an hour we had created a room.

Photo by Katharina Eggers

The roof panels were enormous and much discussion was had as to how to lift them. They were composed mostly of cardboard and so weighed little, but lifting them up to the 12-foot wall height was another matter. Several methods were employed, all of them awkward and involving much swearing. Meanwhile, imaginations ran wild concerning the build on-site in which any one of these roof panels would make a perfect sail—any amount of wind would launch them into the air to fly thirty yards away where they might land on a poodle or a convertible or the mayor or some other crushable thing.

“I’m not going to work down there,” my coworker declared, ever the antagonist. “It’s in a river valley. There’s always wind.”

Those final days before the burn generated a great deal of trepidation, for any amount of rain and above-average wind speeds would be hazardous and tantamount to failure. A 40 percent chance of failure, I predicted, considering how often it was raining that spring. So I chose not to think about it.

***

When we had built most of the walls, I came into the studio after a rainy weekend and found that humidity had expanded the cardboard, which was now bowing and bulging over the stud bays. When the cardboard was first glued to a panel, it lay flat over the studs, resembling a blank wall. Now it looked just like what it was: a cardboard house. In order to fix it, I wanted to gather all manner of humidifiers and get an army of students with blow driers to come in and heat up the cardboard until it laid back down.

Chris, though, was unconcerned. “It is what it is,” he said. “It’s something that will disappear in the media.”

After the fire, the media is what would remain. Chris’s photographer took pictures of the house once it was finished in the studio, including the studio views from each window and door. He also took one-to-one comparative photographs of the actual house and the replica. These were published alongside a New York Times article concerning the burn and are quite stunning. To my mind these photographs alone justify the work.

***

Visitors began to stop by. Architects, artists, art historians, and curators wanted to see the house before it left this world. One Minneapolis art collector arrived in a stretch-limousine with four giggling young ladies in tow. They brought growlers with them and poured everyone a beer. They toured the cardboard house, marveling and cooing.

The press was not far behind. The story of the burn had legs, as they say, especially after the New York Times came calling, and from then on there was a steady stream of press. They prowled with easy smiles and tender manners, but every one of them was looking for an angle. Chris’s patience was short. Reporters came around, and he would defer to me, his “colleague.” The reporter’s faces went blank. “Is he the artist?” the photographer from the Pioneer Press asked in a heat. “Did he get the grant? Has his art appeared in museums?”

Well no, but I made a good spokesman, I knew what was going on.

To the public, why was the question of the hour. Why make it? Why burn it? There was a short essay on the work in the Northern Spark handbook, where one could read: “Burning the Breuer replica is not an act of mourning. Rather than a funeral pyre, it represents hope. The spectacular flame prevents melancholy arising from the loss of Modernist purity and rationality. Ruinous beauty burns to reveal new possibility — seeing through the high point of man-made perfection to the potentialities wrought through its destruction.” But this did little to satiate the interrogators. There were also those who already knew the answers: “It’s pure sensation and spectacle. It’s easy to burn things down. It gets attention.” Chris was aware of this attitude and didn’t like it. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who burns things down,” he said.

But what are you trying to say? That’s the question that will plague artists “from now to time immemorial,” as Susan Sontag has it. One cannot be an artist, it seems, without the demand that you say something, that you make content and meaning readily available. But can’t the work speak for itself? And failing that, can’t the work of art that is not readily intelligible be allowed to be unintelligible, silent and thus merely formal?

Not in the least. The public wants answers! And take-home solutions.

But what if it is that moment when the crowd is awed by the roiling flames, that they stop asking what it means and instead experience the work for just what it is: a powerful, weird experience?

How to burn it

Mira LaCous is the leader of Hollywood Pyrotechnic, a local company that specializes in fires of all kind, from movie explosions to fireworks. Chris hired her with the initial expectation that she would burn the house to the ground. But after visiting the house in the studio, and after burning a sample of the framing and cardboard, her conclusions were dismal: she claimed the cardboard was flame-retardant and though she could burn away the skin, the framing would remain. Which, in her words, would be “the sad remainder of something beautiful, around which the crowd might hold hands and bow their heads in mourning.”

Chris wanted the house to be completely consumed, leaving just a footprint behind. For conceptual reasons, certainly, but also because the demolition of a lot of charred framing would be a filthy and miserable job.

Mira’s solution? A special concoction of what she referred to as “slurry.” Regular inflammables such as gasoline or kerosene were out of the question on account of the evaporation. As the liquid became gas, any flame would create an oxygen-fuel mixture which would lead to explosions. We did not want the Breuer house to be a bomb.

Her slurry was an accelerant of her own making that would cost $100 a gallon. She expected at least sixteen or more gallons, which would far surpass her already agreed upon cost.

This, to put it bluntly, was suspicious.

“What about Christmas trees?” I suggested at a meeting with her and Steve Dietz of Northern Spark, who acted as the mediator. Chris was attending his son’s graduation and had sent me as proxy.

Christmas trees would be a perfect solution: they do not off-gas, create a spectacular fire, and are cheap to come by.

“You put a lot of Christmas trees in there in the dark and you’re sure to unhook one of the leads to the e-matches,” she said. “We can’t let that happen.”

“But they’re like self-contained bonfires.”

“Again, we can’t risk unplugging the leads.”

“We would be careful not to.”

“You can’t promise that. In the dark, moving hundreds of Christmas trees around, you’d be sure to unhook one of the wires. They’re hard to see, they’re fragile. They’d get kicked.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I’ve been lead pyrotechnician on hundreds of burns. I’ve seen a thousand things go wrong.”

“I’m sure we can come to an acceptable agreement,” Steve said.

“What we need is to come to an agreement about an affordable accelerant, and since you only want to sell more of your slurry, what I am suggesting are Christmas trees.”

“Frankly, if the fire chief comes in there and is surprised to see a bunch of extra Christmas trees when I’ve already stretched their patience, he could just shut the whole thing down.”

“Couldn’t a simple query email solve that problem?”

“The amount of emails I’ve sent — and one more — I think they’d shut us down.”

Clearly negotiations were at a standstill. The magic answer, of course, was more cash. The signatures required to sign off on burning down a house downtown were many, and Mira had done far more paperwork than she anticipated. The fire station was to send a truck, there would be a cop on Highway 52 to direct traffic in case of smoke, the FAA had to be informed, the buildings in the immediate vicinity had to shut down their air vents to prevent smoke inhalation, the city had to sign off, the mayor had to be notified.

Chris ended up paying Mira some more and I didn’t hear about it again. Still, a question hovered: Was Mira on board? Would only the cardboard burn? How much of the framing would be left standing?   

***

Back in the studio, the house was dismantled in a few hours. Chris had secured the use of a semi-trailer plus driver, and the house was loaded in and brought to Union Depot in two loads.

The back entrance to the grounds is located just under the old Highway 52, amid construction of the new highway. Things were crowded and there were not a few angry truck horns or mean looks from the construction workers. An actual bridge had to be built, and there was little patience for art students moving around cardboard. A crane blocked the turning radius of our truck, and Chris had to ask a dude in a hardhat if it could be moved.

“It’s not my fucking crane,” the man in the hardhat said.

The truck managed to clear the crane, but was unable to make a corner into the Depot grounds, so we had to unload the panels and balance them on the back of pickup trucks to bring them down to the site where they were staged under the rail platform awning. There was misting rain, and some of the panels went wonky. The Breuer house didn’t like the move, and apparently neither did anyone else. “It’s a good thing it’s going to be burned so we don’t have to move it around anymore,” someone said.

The next few days were sunny and windless. The house was put up with the help of at least twelve people. I ran around, trying to keep all of our different crews busy as they worked on different sections of the house. My brain slowly melted in the crush of the deadline. The string of twelve-hour days was beginning to reckon. But there were no mishaps, no airborne roof panels, no crushed poodles or mayors. Everything went according to plan and, like magic, the Breuer house appeared in the shadow of the St. Paul skyline. It was a Breuer house pop-up. We imagined being able to put it anywhere, a Breuer ghost wandering the earth.

The actual burn was still a looming question. Christmas trees were the words of the hour. The trouble was, it was early June, and Christmas trees were scarce. Chris’s son Asher went in search and found none. The city compost site had a mountain of them, but Asher, looking like a teenage punk and assumedly up to no good, was sternly turned back at the gates by the attendant. Chris was about to go down to the city compost himself and commission the trees. But then, the Fire Marshal arrived to inspect the house and suggested as surefire combustibles pallets and paper—the firemen’s method for burning down training houses. “Works every time,” he said.

Pallets! This solution was received with much joy. Old pallets are plentiful and easy to find. Relief was palpable. Mira was equally excited. Asher sped away to gather as many pickup loads of pallets as possible, and giant vats of shredded paper were delivered shortly, donated from Anchor Paper.

***

On the night before the burn, I slept in the house on a sleeping bag and pad. It was a night filled with trains, and the house vibrated endlessly. I slept little and was awoken at 6:30 a.m. by Fox News. The news caster talked fast and loud and never mentioned Chris, or Breuer for that matter.

“No, Cindy!” he shouted back to the station waving his hands in the air and jumping up and down. “You don’t get it! They’re going to burn it down! The whole thing! They’re going to burn it to the ground! … No, I don’t know what it means!”

I spent the day repeatedly checking the three weather apps on my phone. Rain was imminent. I was miserable and kept hitting my head against the cardboard walls, trying to come up with a method for wrapping the roof in plastic.

Photo by Katharina Eggers

Chris was unconcerned. “It is what it is,” he said, “we just need to keep the pallets and paper dry. If they’re dry, no amount of rain will keep the walls from igniting. If it gets wet, it gets wet. Don’t tarp it.”

So we didn’t, and I was somewhat relieved. But I did continue to check the weather on all three of my apps all afternoon and evening, and throughout, rain was intermittently predicted for the next hour and the next. But it never rained— not until 45 minutes before the burn, and even so, it was the spitting kind. Looking at the radar, a benevolent force field in Eden Prairie appeared to have turned the storm.

At dusk, the house seemed to float ghostlike while people milled and stared, many incredulous, all of them baffled. The general consensus, it seemed, was that this project was weird.

Photo by Katharina Eggers

At midnight, the crowd was moved back to a safe distance, and the prep work began. Mira and her crew strung wires and applied the slurry, while our crew cut holes in the floor and walls to duct the drafts that would feed the flames. Pallets were erected like long tents that were then stuffed with paper. 3,000 pounds of paper was used, and at least the same weight in pallets. At one o’clock it began to rain. Then the crowd gathered along the barrier, as restless as any late-night crowd in the rain might be.

When two o’clock, the scheduled time of the burn, came around, Mira and her crew were still laying the wires. The crowd became vocal. “Burn it! Burn it!” some chanted. “Burn it down!”

“Tell us what it means!”

“Burn! Burn! Burn!”

The mood was one of grotesque circus glee, the crowd transformed into a rabble. Mira took enormous strides around the house and out across the lawn through the rain to where she had set up her ignition. Somewhere back in the crowd, a plume of fire erupted. Rain continued. The shouting became louder.

“They better get this fire started soon,” Steve Dietz said, eyeing the crowd.

A few moments later, a bright bloom of fire cracked and sparked, the first in a series that popped inside the library and then throughout the building. Light bloomed from all the windows, making the house look, for a moment, cozy and inviting. All at once, the flames erupted through the ceiling, climbing high and roiling up through clouds of ascending paper bits and cardboard. The crowd roared. This is what they wanted to see: a massive conflagration. The size and movement surprised everyone. But there was a moment, after the cardboard had burned away and every line of the black framing was written in blue flame, when the crowd became quiet and reverent.

Photo by Katharina Eggers

A friend of mine in the crowd overheard one guy, who just moments before had been chanting the circus jeers, say to another: “Dude…that’s beautiful.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with thirty two, Minnesota’s forward-looking culture and ideas magazine with a literary edge.

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