It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Catie Newell sits at a long table in her Detroit warehouse-cum-apartment typing notes into her Mac while talking on the phone to a curator in Grand Rapids, Mich. The late-summer sun filters through the enormous windows, illuminating bookshelves that house molds, acrylic sculpture, blown-glass globes—materials that have played a role in her installations. Newell has been awake since 5 a.m., an early hour even for this habitually early riser, who often hits a period of frenetic activity near the end of a project. But it’s never been quite like this.
In a few weeks, Newell, 33, will fly to Italy to begin a year-long fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Her winning proposal, titled “Involving Darkness,” continues a succession of urban interventions that Newell has installed in cities such as Detroit and Flint, Mich. Her “Unlit” installation at last year’s architecture Biennale in Venice was an unsettling interior environment meant to evoke the darkness inside Detroit’s abandoned and boarded up buildings. While in Rome, she will further explore the ways that limited artificial light and darkness influence our perceptions of the city. “Darkness can be used as a design tool,” Newell wrote in her proposal, “revealing new environments and obscuring otherwise familiar ones, affording them unexpected dimensions.”
Today, Newell, founder of Detroit-based Alibi Studio and a tenure-track professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in Ann Arbor, is juggling multiple projects that she must finish before going abroad. “This is the point when I stop cooking for myself and forget to eat,” she says.
The project in Grand Rapids, called “Displace,” is a complicated installation of custom-designed glass, the result of a materials research grant that she earned with Wes Mcgee, who directs Michigan’s Fabrication Laboratory, or FABLab. “He’s like the robot whisperer,” Newell says of Mcgee. “I do things that have some strange elements to them; my work can be mischievous. Together we make these projects that neither of us could do alone.”
Newell and Mcgee began experimenting with glass in 2011, working on an installation called “Glass Cast,” which used digital technology as well as traditional glass blowing techniques and warm kiln slumping—a process that manipulates the material into highly sculptural shapes. Mcgee designed and built a custom kiln in the lab that Newell uses to slump the glass. “We started with the question: Why does glass have to be a flat pane?” Newell says. “With digital fabrication, we can make all of these other materials in forms with a lot of complexity, but glass has been left behind.”
The results that they have achieved are at once fragile and assertive, organic yet alien. Last year they created an installation called “Specimen” for SiteLAB, a Grand Rapids nonprofit (Aaron Willette contributed computational work to the project). As the name implies, “Specimen” appears to be a sample of a once-living organism suspended from the ceiling, its form casting shadows on the floor while limited interior light plays off the undulating glass. “I really like foils,” Newell says. “I like things that are delicate, but look aggressive. I like things that are very dark, but then provide illumination.”
With their latest research grant for the Grand Rapids project, Newell hopes to create both material as well as optical distortion. She’s been testing a time-consuming process for mirroring the slumped glass, experimenting with versions ranging from completely opaque to completely transparent.
“It’s time to see what the kiln produced overnight,” Newell says. At noon, she embarks on the 40-minute drive to Ann Arbor to check on the progress of her “Displace” sculpture, which will ultimately get installed in a historic building in Grand Rapids, where the mirrored glass will transform the user’s perception of the interior. “The space is so straightforward, so simple. But then it’s reflected in the glass, and you see the door, you see the window. And it’s like seeing into this other world,” she says.
Seeing the world slightly aslant is what Newell does best. She is quickly earning a reputation as a master manipulator of space, with site-specific installations that use experimental materials and fabrication processes to create a discourse on contemporary urban life. In the car on the way to Ann Arbor, she talks about her project “Salvaged Landscape,” built over 28 days in October 2010 inside a Detroit home that had been burned by arsonists. Newell, who got permission from the owners to do whatever she wanted at the site, deconstructed portions of the building and used the charred wood to craft a wholly new structure inside the shell.
Newell thrives on the act of building and maneuvering materials in the moment as a way to think through projects. She always has an idea of where she’s heading, but in “Salvaged Landscape,” as in all of her projects, she has no drawings. “I think through making,” Newell says. “Material and process go together for me.”
It was during the construction of “Salvaged Landscape” that Newell noticed how the sunlight would pierce the exterior of the remaining home. “As the sun went down, right before it went pitch black, these rays would come across and turn the charred wood golden,” she says. “I had to not let that go away, so I opened up part of the front face differently so that light effect would remain.”
When the installation opened on Halloween eve, or Devil’s Night, notorious in Detroit for outbreaks of arson, “it turned golden and then went totally dark,” Newell says. “You just can’t draw those kinds of things.” She built “Salvaged Landscape” with the help of her father, a retired antique toy restorer, and she credits him with her interest in material. “My dad wasn’t making these toys as brand new, he was responding to them as they existed,” she says. “He taught me how to have a keen eye, and that probably turned into this material obsession.”
During her graduate studies in architecture at Rice University, the dean at the time noted her instinct to use materials as a response to existing conditions. “I think of my work not as a narrative, but rather a commentary,” Newell says. “I try not to make things up. I’m trying to amplify the truth, and I realize that this wouldn’t be possible if I was creating new buildings.”
After graduating from Rice in 2006, Newell spent several years as a project designer and coordinator at Office dA in Boston before coming to Michigan in 2009, where she first lived in Ann Arbor. “I don’t think I initially thought I would come and do things in Detroit, but I felt so drawn to it.”
Newell isn’t trying to change the world; rather, she’s using the existing environment to highlight the way things are. “ ‘Salvaged Landscape’ simply responded to what’s going on here. There are 15 arsons a day in Detroit,” she says. “I’m not trying to be a do-gooder or a problem solver.”
Even still, her work sparks discourse. When “Salvaged Landscape” moved from Detroit to a public art installation in Grand Rapids, vandals climbed inside and removed pieces of wood, so the city cordoned it off with police barricades. The project was then scheduled to move to the Heidelberg Project, a sprawling outdoor arts installation started in Detroit as a response to the city’s disinvestment in traditionally African American neighborhoods. But the day “Salvaged Landscape” was scheduled to move there, Newell got a call saying the project’s organizers no longer wanted it. “They told me that they worried it was offensive, and the neighbors were going to be upset that they had a piece that’s made from an arson house,” she says. “I thought: Wow. My piece is being declared offensive by the Heidelberg Project. What does that mean?”
At FABlab, Newell examines the glass that came out of the kiln that morning for the “Displace” project and selects a few pieces that she and a research assistant spray with chemicals to create the mirroring effect. She grabs a quick salad from the campus dining hall and when she returns, a maintenance man accidentally bumps a table of glass and cracks several of the best pieces. Newell takes a deep breath and assures him it’s OK. “That’s the thing about working with glass,” she says. “It breaks, and it’s gone. And you have to let it go.”
She prepares more glass for the kiln, then drives back to Detroit to meet Brandon Weiner, the executive director of Creative Rights, a local nonprofit that’s making a documentary for a Kickstarter campaign. Weiner wants to record a testimonial from Newell at “Salvaged Landscape,” which has been reinstalled one house down from the original home, just across the street from Detroit’s famous abandoned train station. Next to Newell’s wooden structure, another artist has installed a miniature golf course. She bristles at the juxtaposition. While Newell isn’t an advocacy architect, her work is sensitive to the truth of a place; to her, the mini golf course seems crass. It risks turning an arson site into a literal playground, making a game out of Detroit’s challenges.
After a late dinner with Weiner and some other local artists, Newell’s day finally draws to a close. Heading home, she recalls an observation made by one of her colleagues at the University of Michigan. “He said that I do architecture like it’s an extreme sport,” she says. “I think that’s pretty true. I have a lot of trust in pulling things off.”