Houses built in the city for most stylish birds
Updated: 2013-07-21 10:51
By Steven Kurutz (China Daily)
The artist XAM installing one of his birdhouses, above, and other versions of them. Robert wright for The New York Times
One day in June, an artist who describes himself as an "architect for the contemporary bird" appeared before an empty storefront in Lower Manhattan, climbed a ladder and took measurements for his next masterwork.
He had arrived, wearing dark coveralls and wheeling a platform that held the ladder and other supplies. Then he put on a white hard hat, a tool belt and a reflective orange safety vest. "Usually, I walk around in costume," he said, referring to his strategy of dressing as a city worker so as not to be stopped while doing something that is technically illegal.
XAM is the name he uses to preserve his anonymity. He has been hanging street art for three years now in the form of birdhouses. Although the term seems inadequate, these structures are, in fact, functioning shelters for birds. But many also have jigsaw angles and features like passive ventilation systems, green roofs, gravity-controlled feeders and solar-powered LED porch lights that attract insects.
In a comment on the mortgage crisis, some have "Bank Owned" or "Foreclosure" signs plastered across the entry holes. And many are equipped with (nonworking) rooftop satellite dishes.
The Urban Habitat project, as XAM calls his work, was part of the New Museum's Idea City Festival in May, and his birdhouses were also shown at Dorian Grey Gallery in New York. But new installations continue to pop up all the time in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City. XAM said he has installed more than 100 in the streets since 2010.
XAM, who is 30, grew up on the Southern California coast and studied architecture and design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Now, he said, he makes a living doing odd jobs: part-time building maintenance, freelance graphic design, working as a lighting technician at events.
At the building in Lower Manhattan, a thin beam jutted out under the fire escape, and a "For Rent" sign seemed to promise a hassle-free installation. After taking measurements, XAM headed home to design the birdhouse with a computer program, before taking the blueprints to a friend who owns a laser cutter. "This piece may take me 10 hours to make," he said, packing up.
A few days later, he was back. This time, he was carrying a new birdhouse. It featured luxuries of eco-friendly modern bird living, like a green roof and a solar-powered porch light.
Like any engaged architect, XAM has been experimenting with new materials, in his case cellulose board and a low-VOC sealant, and he wanted to test the sealant before painting the house. "I wouldn't have considered myself a birder before this, but I am turning into a birder," he said.
He fiddled with the light. "If it has a full charge, it will shine for eight hours and attract insects," he said, for the birds to eat.
The installation took all of five minutes. No one paid much attention, except for a guy who rushed over thinking XAM was the street artist who painted graffiti on the building's facade. He looked at XAM in his construction get-up, then up at the little structure. One feared the birds would not be long for this house.