A few weeks ago, I got a brief note from West Seattle resident Michael Henderson, creator of the spectacular backyard imaginarium he calls the Undersea Aviary. “Hey Sara, I done did it,” he wrote. “I cut it all down. Feels fine and good.”
So here is where the journey ends… for now.
Last summer, Henderson built a magical sculpture of wire mesh, mortar, rebar, and glittering mosaic tiles so massive that neighbors complained, inspectors came out, and—because he failed to comply with a Stop Work Order and didn’t produce the kinds of planning documents he would’ve needed to rebuild to code- he got sued by the City of Seattle.
Athough he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for that rebuild, the $3,379 it garnered wasn’t nearly enough to meet the costs of taking the whole thing down and putting it all back up according to city zoning and land use rules.
So, one fine day, about a month ago, he put on his work belt, climbed up that twisting maw of rebar, and snipped a few pieces off. “It was like, ‘I wonder how that will feel,’” he says. “I cut a few, I cut a few more. And it felt fine. It was like a swatch test, when you’re painting your house, like, ‘How does that look?’ It really felt great, actually.”
For a few weeks, he snipped for a few hours a day. Then he clocked several full days to finish by mid-April. He put the news up on Craigslist, offering the scrap up for free, and Seattleites flocked to the mangled pile of rebar for their own home improvement or artistic projects.
Of course, it’s not like Henderson’s backyard suddenly looks like your average backyard. The concrete footings of the former tower still stand, sprouting their chopped-off rebar stalks like so many headless bouquets. A squid sculpture remains, as does a mirrored sea anemone and the slate-gray eel.
But he’s ready now to “clear the decks,” he says. “I’m so tired of the concrete and the dust and the tile and of living in a construction zone.” It’s time for new, and decidedly more manageable, artistic materials, like “paper and petals.”
The dominant feeling isn’t loss, then—it’s relief.
“I think the point of this was to work through a whole bunch of [personal] shit,” he says. “And I did that.”
Then, in a whisper, he assures me: “I’ll go big again.”
Henderson still doesn’t know for sure how much money the city will fine him—if any—for all the days that the structure remained up without a permit. His final court date is still ahead, and he hasn’t paid anything.
During his most recent court appearance, he was informed that even if he was finally, fully prepared to take the structure down, he should first check with the Department of Construction and Inspections (DCI) to see if he needed a permit for that. “Isn’t that funny?” he says, laughing. “They thought I might! That would have been great! What a strange world I would have lived in!” But no, no, the DCI told him: No demolition permits. Just take it down.
“I think Seattle’s a good city,” Henderson says. “I think they’re reasonable people.”
Naturally, though, the complacence doesn’t come without a few pangs. “A part of me was like, ‘Oh wow, if I raise the money, then we could build playgrounds’” all across town — his original dream. And once it was clear that he wouldn’t, in fact, raise the money, there was “a big slice of, like, ‘I’m a failure, people think it was a stupid idea, no one cared.’ How could that not be there? I really would have liked to have seen it completed.”
But this was an unwieldy offspring: The Undersea Aviary outgrew the backyard, Seattle’s zoning laws, and even Henderson’s capacity for obsession. “I am really good at biting off more than I can chew,” he told me in late February. This time, he said, “This was a really ridiculous project.”
He recalls a driver’s ed class he took once where each student gripped a fake steering wheel and gas pedal and the instructor said, “‘All right, everyone, push the gas pedal all the way to the metal; see how fast it can go.’ That felt a little bit like this,” he says. “Now, I’ve done that. I know what the outer limits are.”
Next up for Henderson: Self-published, digital children’s books, full of line drawings, poems, and animations. The medium is a good one, he says, because it’s so much smaller, so much freer: “It’s nice that this is all I have to carry forward, this little nothing on a hard drive.”
Plus, “if you’re digitally publishing, you’re not asking for anybody’s permission.”