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Consider the couch with Wes Janz

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Janz's nest of couches, modeled after a pile of shoes. - WES JANZ
  • Wes Janz
  • Janz's nest of couches, modeled after a pile of shoes.

A song won't change the world — well, maybe “La Marseillaise.” Nor a movie — perhaps, The Battle of Algiers, but now we digress. You get the drift, and Wes Janz certainly won't make the case that his brainchild, Couched Constructions — featuring sculpture created out of repurposed couches, some of which have been reclaimed from the streets of Indy — will necessarily change people's behavior, at least not in any direct way. Nor will a website like his One Small Project, which collects materials pertaining to self-built projects across the planet, from rooftop communities in Hong Kong to sandbag houses in Cape Town. Or even a building project like his pallet garage going up near his house near Broad Ripple, which he believes to be the first permitted building in the U.S. to be constructed (almost) entirely out of pallets.

But it all can have an impact, according to Janz, and it can take coming at things from unconventional angles to change people's minds, particularly when mainstream messages concerning recycling and sustainable have all been heard before. It's all about rethinking out relationship to the waste stream. About rethinking architecture, outside the bounds of that which is taught in a traditional architecture school. About coming up with ideas that might, say, eventually help self-builders to build a stronger house out of found materials, or help architects to construct a house that addresses human needs in an innovative way.

Janz, 58, is traditional in a sense; a having worked at Ball State for 17 years, he still teaches courses on design, addressing issues of his trade like energy usage and traffic flow. But about ten years back, he took a trip to Sri Lanka that put him on a different path. He got interested in the solid waste stream, taking pictures of construction site dumpsters. He spent time in closely-built slums around the world, from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, Los Angeles to Istanbul. And he gained a respect for self-builders — and began to do projects borne out of that research, notably helping to build a pavilion in Sri Lanka out of mud, rubble, pallets and other found materials.

That interest took root at home too. Janz organized two tour of post-industrial cities through the Midwest, including stops in Camden, N.J.; Braddock, Pa.; and Youngstown, Ohio. He also became a go-to expert on deconstruction who was called upon by the city of Flint to formulate a plan to tear down abandoned houses while salvaging as much building material as possible. Locally, he's become a board member of the Indy Land Bank, which acquires abandoned or problem properties in order to make them available, at little cost, to developers.

Not that any of Janz's interests can be described as narrowly humanitarian, he tells me as we walk through a garage filled with deconstructed couches — a gutted Hide-a-Bed here, a pile of plywood and springs there, nary a cushion to be seen. “I'm not a sympathetic person,” he says. “Too many times people are sympathetic, and that makes them think they need to get involved in saving someone. I try instead to be empathetic, which to me means being responsible in terms of trying to understand how someone else lives or who someone else lives. I think self-builders are much more motivated regarding architecture than most architects. That doesn't that I live six months out of the year in a slum in Caracas, Venezuela. But I am trying to tap into that energy that's present, in terms of building architecture with anything that's found, and connecting that with the great amount of solid waste we create in the developed world and feel very comfortable putting into a landfill site, which we never visit.”

Janz's pallet garage nears completion. - WES JANZ
  • Wes Janz
  • Janz's pallet garage nears completion.

Janz has been spending more time near to home during the last couple years, curating art shows, working on a homestead near Broad Ripple, which includes a pallet garage, as well as a wood frame home innovatively connected to an existing stone house. He continues to maintain One Small Project, an online clearinghouse for construction ideas related to self-building and found materials. All the blueprints and plans for his pallet garage are housed on the site, with the hope, according to Janz, that “maybe somebody could have a house that's 10 percent stronger because of the work I did with engineers and contractors.” A prototype of the garage's wall will be featured at the Herron show.

His wife, Marsha, had the idea of doing a show using couches, building off of Janz's interest in abandoned mattresses. Given nearly free rein by Herron gallery director Paula Katz, he invited architects and artists from across the country to create some manner of sculpture or artwork from couches. Janz describes himself as a hands-off curator, but he knows what some of the participants are working on: fellow Ball State professor Tim Gray plans to deconstruct a Hide-a-Bed, displaying each separately in a catalog of parts; and a team from Tuskegee University is attempting to build a small house out of couches.

The piece Janz plans to show at Herron is essentially a pile of couches constructed using a pile of shoes as a template. In other words, in order to achieve a certain spontaneity and construct a pile as if it came together randomly, he bought a bunch of shoes from a Goodwill Outlet Store, threw them in a pile, then placed each couch in a corresponding pile in the same random formation — a sandal corresponding to one couch, a black dress shoe to another.

“I'm going to really start to pay attention to the moments of occupation in this larger piece, to try to create nests that any of us could feel comfortable getting into — to get away, to be alone, to be with another person,” Janz explains. “It's tempting, when you talk about the solid waste stream here in the U.S., to talk about poor or underprivileged people, but I'm trying to have that not become part of the conversation. It's more about what causes a human being to be comfortable, or what causes a human being to need a place to hide of be camouflaged, or occupy a city where they don't have permission to do so.”

Janz hopes a found object workshop, part of Friday's opening day events, will inspire others to think about what to do with found materials. He purchased several classes of found items from Goodwill — hard luggage, end tables, chairs, umbrellas, things with handles — from which participants, led by several of his colleagues, will be challenged to make useful objects of some sort.

“The 25 people who participate in the found material workshop may never see hard luggage in the same way again,” Janz explains. “I like that, and I think that's a very small contribution in a life of one other person, to change one's notion of what's possible or what their place is on the planet.”

Event calendar:

March 2 at Herron: Found objects workshop, 9 a.m.; Conversation with Couched Constructions exhibitors and reading by Soul of a Black Cop author Brian Willingham, 1 p.m.; public reception for Couched Constructions, 5 p.m.
March 12 at the JCC: Film screening of Waste Land, a documentary about Rio garbage pickers creating artwork, 7 p.m.
March 21 at the JCC: Public reception for Couched Constructions, Part 2, 5:30 p.m.
March 28 at the JCC: IndyTalks: Our City Under the Radar: Neighborhoods on the Edge, featuring Janz, BSU Architecture professor Olon Dotson and Indy Land Bank chairman Frank Hagamen, 7 p.m.

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