A dusty orange brick house at the top of Rialto Street in Troy Hill, once home to a family, then a group of squatters, has been transformed into an unusual art experience by German artist Thorsten Brinkmann using art, collectibles and everyday objects. They call it “La Hütte Royal,” or The Royal Hut.
Evan Mirapaul is owner of the house, an art collector and the commissioner of this art exhibit. He is waiting for me on the front porch as I arrive for my first visit. My heart is still pounding from the precarious uphill drive as he introduces himself and runs off his list of Do’s and Don’ts. Do go at your own pace. Do open any doors that will open. Do sit on furniture, and do get comfortable crawling through spaces. “Are you claustrophobic?” he asks. No. Okay, because he just likes to let people know it does get pretty tight in some places.
Don’t move anything—this is not an “interactive exhibit.” Don’t force doors open. Don’t rush. He opens the door and invites me in. There is a giant bell, a prop from a long-gone local children’s show, blocking the entryway.
Welcome to the theme of Thorsten. Where are you in space?
I must think my options out. The bell is inches away from the staircase and also cuts off the hallway behind it, so I shimmy past it to the left and into the first of 15 rooms. There are bright lights and dim music. The room is covered in records, but I’m too distracted by the displaced fans, which are set up to spin like turntables, to look at the singers. And what are those? Yes, ears. So many things are spinning, yet it’s comfortably dizzying.
Mirapaul tells me that I will find a route that will take me into all the rooms of the four-story house. I can open doors, crawl through tight spaces, but make sure I go through the fireplace. Then he leaves, reassuring me that he’ll check in at some point.
“Okay piece of cake,” I think, wondering into the dining room where the record theme continues.
The table and chairs are covered in album covers. I find it awkward to walk around the table and sitting at it looks like a tight squeeze.
On to the boxing room. The same material used to craft the spinning ears has been made into at least a dozen fists, all suspended by wires and punching in all directions. It’s very in-my-face, so I venture down steps that lead into a basement boasting sculptures that are made from kids’ toys and molds of body parts.
Back up to the hallway with one too many closed doors. The first one opens easily, but it’s just a closet with mops and cleaning supplies. Oops.
The next is an abandoned bathroom with what looks like a brain on the counter. No thanks.
A few doors are stuck shut, but one leads to a staircase. Just as I’m about to choose the staircase, Mirapaul appears to ask if I’ve seen the tent. He opens the door and smushed into a tiny room plastered in woodland wallpaper is a camping tent and a deserted card game. “Has anyone touched the cards?” I ask. “Yes. And visiting students actually typed on the typewriter you will see.”
We shake our heads as he leads me in through a door I didn’t think opened. The room is big and feels dark and cozy. I begin to notice the faceless portraits and a reoccurring, little black dog. There are also bedposts for wainscoting and pieces of dressers in odd places. Mirapaul tells me to go ahead and crawl through the fireplace.
It’s like going down the rabbit hole. Hallways narrow. There are lights and wild patterns. I’m crawling on my hands and knees through, what I later learn, is a refurbished file cabinet. The rooms on the other side are cluttered—books, beds, and typewriters are all life-sized, but somehow this has become a noir funhouse where the walls are closing in. Rooms get smaller and objects get bigger. It’s an adventure in proprioception.
I navigate my way down hatches, up ladders, and through each room where I take time to soak in the cocktail that Thursten has created. Eventually, having left the most cramped bedroom ever, I step on books that are steps (feeling bad for the books), and climb an old swimming pool ladder up to a linoleum-floored bathroom.
Moving from dark corridors to a light-filled bathroom with running water is soothing. A few more rooms, smaller and lower yet, tax my imagination, until I end up in a big room. The trick is, it’s not really that big. Barber chairs are set up like movie seats and an old film projector shows clips of a man sitting in a chair with a paper bag over his head with a small black dog scampering around. Thorsten? I wonder.
La Hütte Royal is a gesamtkunstwerk, where life and art melt into one. There is no right or wrong way to experience this. Everyone from toddlers to people in their nineties have toured the house. The mish-mosh of objects, most of which belonged to the previous owners or the late squatters, are a nod to the Western Pa. vernacular. The house has been featured in Wallpaper and other design publications. One called it a “grotesque palace.”
Another called it a place of curiosities. Look around and get to know Thorsten—his quirks, his tastes and the way he has carefully created this own oddball dream world. He has invited you in to be a keen observer, to create your own narrative, and to play with how you interact with space. The point is that you experience this.
“I was inspired by the art house projects on Naoshima island when I visited in 2006,” says Mirapaul when asked why he did this. “I thought it was something I could try for myself if I lived someplace where real estate wasn’t crazy expensive. When I moved to Pittsburgh in 2010, I started to look for suitable properties.
“I have no idea how many I have been in so far, but I’m sure more than 1000 and fewer than 3000. Their reactions span the spectrum from life-changing to indifference.”
My reaction is anything but indifference. I’m through a door and back in the cozy room where Mirapaul is waiting. “Did you play a round of golf?” he asks before we head back downstairs. I shake my head, so he turns around and opens a door I just came through. “Go ahead, take the club.” It’s a souped-up putt-putt hole. My ball thwacks off the wall. Good luck sinking that one.
We walk downstairs together and Mirapaul tells me that there is soon to be a new house and a new artist in here in Pittsburgh, because it’s the kind of community where the costs are still low, but the creativity is high.
Trust me. I’m a believer.
Tours are available through firstname.lastname@example.org. Address: 1812 Rialto Street, Troy Hill