Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Billed as ‘the first NFT house in the world’, the Mars House is a tenuous entry into the architectural cannon. The project by Toronto-based digital artist Krista Kim is one of an increasing number of ‘non-fungible token’ works of art made to be bought, sold and collected online and authenticated via blockchain technology.

A home that will never be lived in, Kim’s NFT offering is a moody visualization rendered by Mateo Sanz Pedemonte using the video game software Unreal Engine. It depicts a structure sitting in an otherworldly landscape of supposedly Martian red mountains. We are given the barest hints at possible enclosure: a rectangle of digital glass impossibly transparent with no depth or reflection. The ghost façade bears the fingerprints of all vitreous abodes that came before – Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Pierre Koenig, etcetera. A thin, abstracted roof evokes Ed Ruscha’s Burning Gas Station (1965-66). The swimming pool is Hockney blue. The water ripples to a soundtrack composed by Smashing Pumpkins’ Jeff Schroeder.

Born of the internet, made for the internet, Mars House demonstrates a meme-like ease for pastiche. Sold in mid-March for $512,000 (or in cryptocurrency: 288 Ether), its more notable for its price tag than its design. As art or architecture, its valuation is entirely arbitrary, driven by simulated demand in a hyped-up market.

Still, this NFT’s significance might be as a point of comparison to think about home, both as aesthetic refuge and as human right. Housing is one of the most pressing issues in LA at the moment, with the pandemic only amplifying the lack of affordable options for Los Angeles County’s 66,000 unhoused people and the housing precarity faced by many others.

The same week that the Mars House sale buzzed online, the Los Angeles police forcefully cleared the large homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake and erected a chain-link fence around the 29-acre public park. Some of the unhoused individuals were promised hotel rooms or bussed to shelters under a citywide programme, while others salvaged what they could and disappeared into the urban fabric.

Spanning the wide gulf between digital art and homeless housing is architecture and the provocation of what role the profession might play. Design might seem too frivolous of a response to the overwhelming problem of housing precarity and the superficiality of NFT speculation perhaps deems it unworthy of design. Yet this yawning space between technical whimsy and social impact is exactly what the field must find a way to address, to ascribe value.

Echo Park is a historically Latinx neighbourhood that has been gentrifying over the last few decades. While the encampment provided place for those priced out of the housing market, it proved a nuisance to homeowners and a threat to their own home values (prices that can be anxiously and repeatedly checked on proptech apps like Zillow). This conflict between neighbours with and without homes is not acted out behind the proverbial closed doors of private real estate, but takes place in public space, on land whose rights are meant to be shared by everyone.

Resonance between these two events – the launch of the first NFT house and the removal of unhoused people at Echo Park Lake – that took place within a week of each other in March is more than temporal. There’s also a financial parallel. At $512,000, Kim’s Mars House is among the ten most expensive NFTs, but not at the top. In Los Angeles, the average construction cost of a single unit of housing for the homeless is $531,000, according to a September 2020 city audit.

Both cost about half a million dollars. The figure – arguably considerable but not so large in regards to both – gives us an overlapping ‘value’ of home in twin, yet disparate, contexts.

Before eviction, some 174 camping tents and blue-tarped structures ringed a lake known for its lotus blossom festival. Makeshift accommodations were nestled among picnic tables, lined up along the west-side walking path, and tucked under eucalyptus trees. Albeit temporary in construction, these flimsy homes brimming with belongings – bedding, backpacks, a sofa –had taken root within the park, forming a community in the process.

‘Over the last year, the encampment has evolved into a commune-like society with a shared pantry, a garden, a veneer of self-policing and a tenuous grasp on basic sanitation,’ wrote Benjamin Oreskes in the Los Angeles Times on 23 March. What he’s describing is, in short, mutual aid. Indeed, there could be similarities between the collective participation and exchange of resources that define mutual aid and the kind of network collectivity used in blockchain technologies. When we look at these phenomena through the lens of design, there’s a common language of systems built around sharing. Perhaps the big experiment, then, is neither an architected solution to the housing crisis nor a flashy new art market, but finding value in the collectivities and co-dependences between the two.

Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based critic, editor and curator. She has written extensively and was co-curator of the US Pavilion for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Currently, she is the co-curator of 2020-2021 Exhibit Columbus, entitled New Middles. Her column will feature in our Jul/Aug 2021 issue, Frame 141.