Before the bulldozers arrive, this Vancouver artist turns empty houses into works of art

Houses all over Vancouver are marked for demolition, and artist Emily Neufeld is using these old family homes as her inspiration and her canvas.

A tribute to the families who lived there, these incredible 'house sculptures' have all been demolished

She came in like a wrecking ball... Installation view of Emily Neufeld's Before Demolition, her solo exhibition at Burrard Arts Foundation Gallery. (Photo: Dennis Ha/Courtesy of BAF Gallery)

If Emily Neufeld ever wants to confirm the stats on Vancouver's housing situation, she can just walk down her street. Neufeld lives in North Vancouver and tells CBC Arts: "There's three houses on every block in my neighbourhood being torn down" — a sight that suggests wrecking balls are about as common as yoga pants in the B.C. city.

In a ranking of the world's most unaffordable places, Vancouver came third this year — and as the land becomes more valuable than whatever's already built on it, demolition is a fact of living there. One study by a University of British Columbia professor predicts a quarter of the city's detached homes will be torn down within the next 13 years.

That gives Neufeld more material than one artist could ever handle.

Like nothing you've seen on HGTV

Houses are the subject of Neufeld's work, sure, but they're also her canvas, her materials and her gallery. And since 2014, she's found a way inside ordinary bungalows and split-levels around East and North Vancouver before the bulldozers arrive, securing permission through the builders.

Once she has the keys, the "extreme makeover" begins immediately.

Emily Neufeld. Grand Boulevard. 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)

She rips into drywall; she cuts into floors. "They're demolishing the houses, right? So the builders don't really care about that," she says. One room might be altered, or as many as four.

Some of her "house sculptures," as she calls them, would give an HGTV host a heart attack. Walls are sliced away to reveal the wooden bones of the structure in geometric patterns, or perhaps she'll add something instead — paintings, maybe, or sculptures built from the house itself.

I want people to consider that lives happen here — good lives, bad lives.- Emily Neufeld, artist

It's high-pressure, labour-intensive work, and she usually has no more than four days to complete everything. All of that construction is done solo, and in the end, nobody sees the results but her. All 12 of her houses have been demolished, including her first, which was just three blocks from her own home.

But Neufeld carefully photographs each piece as part of the project, and a selection of her work now appears at Vancouver's Burrard Arts Foundation Gallery.

The opposite of 'ruin porn'

The exhibition, called Before Demolition, aims to put you right inside these forgotten rooms. Floor to ceiling prints of her photos are meant to surround the viewer; debris from places themselves is included on the floor to complete the illusion. She's also included sculptures made of reclaimed materials — forms that sub in for the houses' inhabitants.

Installation view of Before Demolition. The show runs at BAF Gallery in Vancouver to Oct. 21. (Photo: Dennis Ha/Courtesy of BAF Gallery)

Where you'll find abandoned buildings, you'll usually find photographers — but this isn't another case of ruin porn. In Neufeld's photos, empty rooms are purposely bathed in white light.

"The pictures are full of love," she says. "I want people to consider that lives happen here — good lives, bad lives."

While Neufeld says gaining access to houses has become easier over the years, she usually doesn't get to see a space until she's given the keys by the builders. That means she won't have a plan until she arrives on site. Usually, she says, she'll walk through the rooms, imagining the lives that made any given house a home.

"It's like I'm trying to tune myself to the house," she says, "to see where the best moments are in the house."

You can immediately tell when you're in a well-loved place, she says. It's in the details — faded spots where pictures used to hang, paths worn into high-piled carpet, custom additions that were meant to last a lifetime. Those are the elements she brings out in a sort of visual narrative. "I'm trying to highlight the human traces."

The death of the detached home

Ultimately, she describes the work as being like a "funeral rite" for a home. It's a goodbye to a house — and an entire way of life, as well.

"I try not to go into fancy houses, or heritage houses," she explains. Instead, Neufeld's idea of a dream house would have been the definition of ordinary 30 years ago. She tends to seek out single-detached houses, the kind a middle-class family might have bought for $100,000 a generation ago.

Neufeld's dad was a contractor, and she grew up in Alberta working on his building sites. She says she thinks about families like hers when she's creating a house sculpture. If they lived in Vancouver today, would they be able to afford a place like this?

Says Neufeld: "Those people have been pushed out, and I definitely feel strongly about that."

Check out photos from Emily Neufeld's Before Demolition.

Emily Neufeld. Grand Boulevard. 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)
Emily Neufeld. Yukon Street. 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
Emily Neufeld. Yukon Street. 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
Emily Neufeld. Bellelyn Place. 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
Emily Neufeld. Horseshoe Bay. 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
Emily Neufeld. Trenton Place. 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Emily Neufeld. Trenton Place. 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

Emily Neufeld. Before Demolition. To Oct. 21 at Burrard Arts Foundation Gallery, Vancouver.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.