German-born artist Hans Haacke proposed an archaeological dig to reveal the hidden foundations of homes and buildings buried under a single vacant lot. Haacke studied at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 1961–62 on a Fulbright fellowship; when he later returned to Philadelphia, he became intrigued by the empty spaces in the city where buildings once stood. Haacke’s deconstructions of monumentalized sculptures and spaces have been exhibited at the Reichstag in Berlin and Trafalgar Square in London. Here in Philadelphia he requested a site for an archaeological dig in which subsumed architectural foundations, intact underground, could be brought to public view. In cooperation with the People’s Emergency Center and property owners Alvin and Sheila Bunch, the triangular lot at 42nd Street and Lancaster Avenue was imagined as a site for excavation and interpretation. This single location once held seven properties, until an automobile crashed into one of the buildings in the late 1990s, causing the owner to demolish the remaining structures.
Haacke’s monument imagined the former buildings not as buried and gone, but as a living blueprint to link the city’s past and present. The artist’s intent was that “the history of each house is to be researched, dating from the original ownership of the land to the present. To be collected are the names, occupations, and sociologically relevant information about the owners of the properties, the circumstances under which they changed ownership (date, price, mortgages, mortgagees, foreclosures), when they became vacant, as well as personal stories and reminiscences by and about the people who lived there. This information, together with an image of each house, is to be posted on or near the site.”
After delays for permitting and public safety, the dig began during the opening week of Monument Lab. Excavators revealed brick foundations of the buildings that once stood on the site. Deed information and renderings of the properties were installed on the surrounding fencing. Shortly thereafter, due to further challenges with maintaining the site as an open dig, the area was again covered with earth and returned to its status as a lot.
Location: Special Project: Lancaster Avenue
Digging (Archaeology of the Vacant Lot) Collaborators
Doug Mooney, AECOM, Alvin and Sheila Bunch, and James Wright
The City of Philadelphia, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s Office, and the People’s Emergency Center
The empty triangular lot bounded by Lancaster Avenue, Brown Street, and North 42nd Street in West Philadelphia is to be the site of an archeological excavation.
By cautiously taking off the weed-covered top layer of the lot, the truncated walls of the three-story houses that once existed on the triangle are to be revealed.
The history of each house is to be researched, dating from the original ownership of the land to the present. To be collected are the names, occupations, and sociologically relevant information about the owners of the properties, the circumstances under which they changed ownership (date, price, mortgages, mortgagees, foreclosures), when they became vacant, as well as personal stories and reminiscences by and about the people who lived there. This information, together with an image of each house, is to be posted on or near the site.
City records, newspapers or neighborhood publications, archives of civic and religious organizations and institutions, as well as memories and personal records from still-living members of the local community are to be explored. In this effort, the participation by people from the neighborhood is to be sought and welcomed.
Possibly, during the excavation, discoveries will be made or ideas will be generated that suggest adjustments in the course of action.
At the time of the inauguration of the citywide Monument Lab project, perhaps only a fraction of relevant information on the site will have been collected. It is to be continued throughout the duration of the project, and beyond. It is a work-in-progress.
About the Artist
Hans Haacke, born 1936 in Cologne, Germany. Lives in New York since 1965. Taught from 1967 to 2002 at The Cooper Union. Personal exhibitions at Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Renaissance Society, Chicago; Tate Gallery, London; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Venice Biennale; Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Portikus, Frankfurt; Serpentine Gallery, London; Generali Foundation, Vienna; Deichtorhallen Hamburg and Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 2006; Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; 4th Plinth, Trafalgar Square, London, 2015.
Works included in 4 Documentas, the Biennials of Venice, São Paulo, Sydney, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Gwangju, Sharjah, Mercosul, and the Whitney Biennial, New York. Shared with Nam June Paik Golden Lion for German Pavilion at Venice Biennial 1993.
Banner: Digging (Archaeology of the Vacant Lot), Hans Haacke, Brainpower. Special Project – 42nd Street and Lancaster Avenue.