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Article Art & Photography

From abandoned to abundant


Words by Kristina Foster

Photos by Heather Saunders

Detroit has long been under the spotlight as a symbol of urban decay. Once a thriving metropolis at the heart of the American automotive industry, the inability to compete with global competition has crippled Detroit’s economy. Over the years, a fall in the city’s population has rendered whole neighbourhoods ghost towns with many houses falling into disrepair. Such a house was bought by Lisa Waud, a florist who had a vision to turn this decrepit edifice into a place of life once more; she decided to fill it head to toe with flowers in a colourful weekend art exhibition. She talks to us about Flower House and the soon-to-be flower farm on the property.

The Detroit Flower House was inspired by the work of husband and wife artistic duo Christo and Jean-Claude, famous for their gargantuan-sized projects such as their wrapping of the Pont-Neuf in Paris in 1985. “I thought to myself, how do you pull off something of that scale? How do you dare to dream that big?” When she saw the 2012 Dior Fall fashion show which famously filled a Parisian hotel with flowers, she finally found a way to translate her admiration for their work within her own profession: “I wanted to steal that idea and bring it here to Detroit!’

After buying an abandoned house for $250 at an auction, Lisa went to inspect her purchase. Looking as toothless and crooked as the other 70,000 deserted buildings in Detroit, it was then that the project took on a motive that went further than just creative expression. “I really saw the house as the vessel for our project, but when I went inside, I found mail from 15 years ago, photographs and clothing. I realised the significance that this was once someone’s home. I knew then that I wanted to celebrate what this house was with flowers”.

Ticket sales sold out in anticipation from an eager public. Florists across the country were equally keen to get involved. “There were 17 rooms in the house. We had 37 lead designers and over 100 volunteers. When I launched tickets sales for the exhibition, we figured that we could get 20 people through every 20 minutes for 3 days which took us to about 2,000 people. Tickets sold out, but people kept showing up. We figured out how to get people through by closing late and opening early so actually we got about 3,400 people through in one weekend.”

When I go to other cities I forget they don’t have huge abandoned buildings. You forget that living here.

However, instead of tumbling the house back into auction after the exhibition weekend, Lisa made plans to knock down the existing structure and turn the property into a flower farm for her floral design company, Pot & Box. “I’ve always had cutting gardens for my studio. Soon after buying the house I contacted a structural engineer who confirmed that it wasn’t a candidate for rehabilitation. The house is almost down now and the farm should be ready for preparation soon, but what a lovely thing that this home could be celebrated briefly before its demolition.”

In her future farm, as in the exhibition, Lisa is committed to American grown flowers with an emphasis on local varieties. “I’m very interested in peonies. We do a lot of spring weddings so I’m going to concentrate on perennials, different kinds of foliage and ornamental shrubs.” With its reputation for music and performing arts, perhaps Detroit’s new attraction will be floral design. Lisa certainly hopes so, saying that “one of my not so secret motivations for the project was to make a connection between innovative floral design and the city of Detroit. We have a dim spotlight now, but I will be inviting back all the florists and volunteers who worked on the house for Detroit Flower Week this October. Through projects like these I’m hoping that the city will become a place where people can make that connection.”

It’s clear that these empty buildings are being viewed by many as rich resources. Not so far down the road from the Flower House site, a project called Afterhouse is turning a severely burned building into an underground greenhouse. “When I go to other cities I forget they don’t have huge abandoned buildings. You forget that living here, where it’s so present and normalised. But there can be a use for them, like what we’ve done with Flower House and the farm. Initiatives like these can make sure they are no longer safety hazards or visual sores. These abandoned houses open up a very exciting conversation. This makes Detroit an interesting place to live right now.”