An Architect Built a Mysterious Dreamland Inside a House

Surely no cluttered attic has ever looked as strange and beautiful as Dennis Maher’s ‘A Second Home’ installation.
September 28, 2016, 5:45pm
Images by Roy Engelbrecht, courtesy of The Mattress Factory

Some people fill their homes with bric-a-brac, occasionally tipping over into the dangerous realm of hoarding. Then, there's architect and artist Dennis Maher, who does something different with homes: he turns them into incredibly busy and surreal multimedia collages. His latest work, A Second Home, now open at Mattress Factory’s 19th century row house at 516 Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh, is a house that one could very well imagine Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Tony Oursler collectively building with its odd intersections of wooden frames, sculpture elements and video screens.


Maher took up this line of artistic work when he acquired a house in Buffalo, New York that was scheduled for demolition. Over the last seven years, he's been transforming The Fargo House, constantly evolving it by improvising wooden models from walls, cutting holes into ceilings and piling building debris in the middle of a room that is hung with photographs of the house, amongst other things. What Maher created with The Fargo House is the home as a sort of alive work of art.

Photo: Tom Little

The same idea is explored in A Second Home. Built in over the course of several weeks, Maher completely transforms the row house with construction materials, antique furnishings, toys, architectural models, video projections, and other salvaged odds and ends.

“[A] mysterious wonderland that cleaves, intermingles, and collages a house's physical and metaphysical counterparts,” Maher says of A Second Home. “[It] fosters the emergence of a radically interior world: one that dreams of memories that it has never had, conjures the places that it has always wanted to be, and draws its own magic out of the grains of the woodwork.”

Photo: Tom Little

One gets the impression that this is cluttered attic that is unfolding into a labyrinth, or a dollhouse that has become monolithic and is reproducing other dollhouses. Visitors can see aspects of other floors through holes that Maher intentionally cut or left exposed because of the piecemeal construction technique. Elsewhere he builds elevated walkways and platforms that connecting the home’s different spaces. In a rather meta-architectural moment, a video screen (or projection) shows Maher’s hands drawing up rough architectural outlines for A Second Home.

But all is not visual. To give the house a sonic element apart from the creaking floorboards, Maher enlisted composers Dubravka Bencic and Kevin Bednar to create a soundscape that alternately achieves clarity and dissolves in ambience. The sound, along with rooms where shadows are cast from light projected onto architectural models, create an atmosphere that is like some mad tinkerer has just hastefully exited the building, leaving everything on.

Photo: Roy Engelbrecht

“The fragments that compose the installation appear simultaneously as suspended in time and as continuously evolving, while the multitude of layers, assembled views, and variously scaled vignettes coalesce in ways that parallel the construction of the psyche,” Maher explains. “While synthesizing tools, devices, and artifacts from the past that is both known and unknown, A Second Home gives these components a new context in the present and projects them forward into the future.”

And this isn’t the only expression of the future in Maher’s installation. Much like The Fargo House, Maher will continue to transform aspects of the house over the next two years in collaboration with the Mattress Factory Education Department and involving students of architecture from University of Buffalo and Carnegie Mellon University. If The Fargo House is any indication of Maher’s commitment to constant evolution, A Second Home will surely be worth revisiting over the next couple of years.

Photo: Roy Engelbrecht

Photo: Roy Engelbrecht

Photo: Tom Little

Photo: Tom Little

A Second Home is now on view at Mattress Factory. Click here to see more of Dennis Maher’s work.


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