In a 1976 interview, philosopher Michel Foucault described the turn of the eighteenth century as a period in which discussions on architecture and urbanism became intrinsically interwoven in the complex political discourses of society building. Foucault underlined that architecture has an undeniable political attribute, which—among its many other purposes—serves governmental agendas and strategically organizes society.
American artist Mary Ellen Carroll makes a comparable discerning statement, uncovering architecture's political, social, and cultural features with the unalloyed act of pivoting 180 degrees an ordinary 1960s single-family, ranch-style, residence set in the senescence subdivision of Sharpstown in Houston, Texas. Her project, entitled prototype 180, irrefutably resurfaces Foucault's plainspoken but pressing inquiries on architecture: "How is one to conceive of both the organization of a city and the construction of a collective infrastructure?…[H]ow should houses be built?"
prototype 180 turns its back to the street, drawing attention to the social context, as well as to our pre-established and usually uncontested architectural, urban, and cultural norms. The project has the unique condition of being situated in Houston, which is the only metropolitan area in the United States without formal zoning regulations. The rotation of the house and its surrounding land was performed under standard operating procedures—underlining the city's "free enterprise" development, which is known to have caused the city's vast urban sprawl and its multiple business centers. Carroll challenges such guidelines with her (literally) ground-shifting project by, as she points out, "treating policy as a ready made." And while prototype 180 certainly alludes to many of the conceptual, labor-intensive land art projects situated in rural areas in the American landscape during the 1960s, Carroll's ten-year monumental maneuver also highlights architecture's ability to perform through the reactivation and retrofitting of the residence.
In a later interview, Foucault said that architecture "is not only considered as an element in space, but is especially thought of as a plunge into a field of social relations in which it brings about some specific effects." In that sense, prototype 180 makes us reflect upon such effects.
An exhibition presenting prototype 180 is also on view at Columbia University's Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery until March 25, 2011, curated by Mark Wasiuta, Director of Exhibitions. The exhibition showcases live video feed, photographs, models, and multiple legal and unofficial notes and documents of the long and painstaking bureaucratic procedure the artist underwent through to accomplish the rotation. prototype 180 is open to the public in its address at 6513 Sharpsview Drive, Houston, where it presents itself as a "model/laboratory for the application of innovative building and communication systems."