Still defying gravity

Defenestration Project could get a bright new life before its looming death



By Brady Welch

For more than a decade, a curious scene has greeted viewers looking upon the old Hugo Hotel at Sixth and Howard streets. A bright green couch lurches precipitously from the building's corner window. Packs of reading lamps are scaling the building's outer walls. A floor or two up, another couch, some coffee tables, and one of those old and impossibly heavy television cabinets appear to contemplate jumping from the fourth-story rooftop. No prank of the homeless, this precarious assemblage — wow, that's a dangling claw-foot bathtub three stories up — is the Defenestration Project, the work of Bay-Area artist Brian Goggin.

"I never thought it would last," Goggin recently admitted to us. In fact, the project wasn't supposed to last for more than six months. "The clock and armoire were built for the project. But the bathtub is an original from the Hugo, and all the others were salvaged from the street or found in thrift stores." It is a testament to the project's sheer fortitude against the elements — and its quirky appeal — that Defenestration will celebrate its 13th anniversary March 5 at 1:AM Gallery, located directly across the street from the installation.

The event will be a retrospective-cum-fundraiser for a proposed $75,000 restoration Goggin has titled "Project Restore Defenestration" that includes illuminating the lamps and installing an LED strobe in the hulking television set. "We're making sure that all the pieces are looking good and in some cases even better than they originally looked," he said.

A few pieces of furniture already have been removed, many needing to be entirely rebuilt. Others will be restored while remaining affixed to the building, requiring boom lifts and scaffolding. Overall, these will require resealing, repainting, fiberglassing in some instances, and in the case of the couch, getting covered in a new gloss of latex (as a preservative). Goggin estimates the restoration will take from one to three months, and he may even add some entirely new pieces to the installation.

"We want to see it vibrant again," he said. For the gallery show, he plans to have individual pieces of furniture on view with the intent that patrons will sponsor them. "We're hoping to get the funding and support, so by the time the rain stops, we're funded and ready to go. If we don't, maybe it's time for it to come down."

And come down it eventually will, though not for lack of funding and support. In October 2009, a court ruled that the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency could condemn and acquire the building under eminent domain for $4.6 million. Though the agency's plan is to build much-needed affordable housing in the area, the sale represented the retreat of any protective cover the building's original owners, the I.M. and S.I. Patel Living Trust, inadvertently provided for the artwork.

The Guardian spoke to Jeremy Sugerman, Goggin's legal adviser, who was able to confirm that the artist always had a loose agreement with the Patels whereby they reserved the right to notify the artist to take down the work for any reason or lose title to it. So when the Redevelopment Agency purchased the building, the notice from the Patels came due.

Sugerman and Goggin then went directly to the Redevelopment Agency and pleaded with them to let the building and art stay until a new development was solidly in the works. A raggedy Hugo Hotel with couches and reading lamps welded to its side, they argued, is easier on the eye than an empty hole in the ground. Sugerman told us that the agency was immediately receptive. A month after the purchase, SFRA commissioners approved a permit stipulating that the work could stay hanging for a minimum of 18 months.