Interview with John R. Donalds | Andrea Polli

Arid co-editor Andrea Polli speaks with John R. Donalds, researcher in architecture at Syracuse University. December 26th, 2012, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Transcribed by Kellen Zelle.

AP: We just visited Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti site as well as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater at the Santa Fe Indian School. So before we get into talking about the trip, can you tell me a little bit about your research?

JD: Yes, I’m currently exploring the interaction of network culture with architecture; so the idea is that architecture as space can be informed by, or be used as, a tool in people’s communication within networks, primarily in electronic networks (a global network architecture) but then also imagining how it can inform a local, more communal, network of people.

AP: So are you talking about how physical space changes or informs the way we interact with network space?

JD: Yes, I imagine primarily that architectural space can be used as a network tool. I’m not yet attempting to alter how people interact in that space, in a network communication, but rather how architecture can be used as a tool in that communication, or how architecture can more fully express how we live in a contemporary network—how our relationships are increasingly informed through network communication, a distanced, non-local relationship.

AP: What made you decide to research that sort of connection?

JD: It stems from my previous work in photography and video and working at Oberlin College to develop networks and shared media spaces for the Art Department in terms of video editing, collaborative classrooms and distance education; and from also wanting to produce thesis work that has some provocativeness to it that, as kind of a final frontier maybe or the next frontier I imagine we need to explore—how architecture may currently have these older, more traditional, methods of operating and is not really, in a networked way, addressing what I now see in relationships between people and communities, having been very completely informed by or changed by the development of a global Internet.

AP: So that’s kind of interesting to me in the context of this trip. You created this workspace, this collaborative workspace, at Oberlin, a series of workspaces; and that is something that really struck me at both the Arcosanti site and Taliesin West was how – that was really… Arcosanti, for example, was only a small percentage complete. It has about 75 people living there and they plan to have eventually 450. They’ve been building it since 1970, and the first spaces that he builds are these workspaces; this wonderful ceramics shop, metal shop and the Lab –which basically looks like it functions like a woodshop – and then you have the same sort of thing happening at Taliesin, which of course, was built for sort of a different reason. It was built for collaborative work where you have that long 96 foot–the biggest space I think, at Taliesin, is another lab space – the workspace –

Image: The Arcosanti Amphiteater as seen from the Sky Suite. © 2013 Andrea Polli.

JD: —The drafting studio—

AP: Yeah. So how does that play into—I mean, is that just an old way of thinking about architectural and community collaboration, or do you feel there are some things to be learned, or things that contemporary architects can take from those types of structures?

JD: I haven’t yet thought upon how those large initial workspaces are something that participates in my designs, except in that, I do see them as certain workspaces, as being fundamental to what I imagine in my initial design research to be a multi-family apartment type setting.

AP: So what kind of workspaces do you see?

JD: I can see shared kitchens, and child care, and laundry or general workshops; but then maybe those are things that are more traditional and typical to architecture, and it’s how they’re informed by technology and their special relationship to other programs of the buildings that will begin to push them forward into an investigation of a more, possibly, global or local intra-network communication.

AP: I mean it’s funny that Arcosanti didn’t have any shared kitchens, you know? It seemed like every apartment had its own kitchen, it seemed like there was that communal space where people had their meals, but that was a kitchen that was run by—I suppose that they share cooking duties—is that the kind of thing you are thinking of? Or are you thinking of a shared kitchen where people just go and make their own stuff and hang out with each other?

JD: Well, I mentioned this to you before: the idea, not as an isolation of an architect’s role, but rather a very particular segregation of my role that I would like to provide for myself—that I would like to provide a sense of agency to people. So, I don’t want to totally predict how a space can be used, but rather give it a certain flexibility so that, if it turns out that a society using a group of spaces chooses to go one way or another with it, they will have some option with that. I see at the spaces at Arcosanti began to do that; there was, if you remember that one kind of smaller kitchen in the library, the shared library I suppose, seemed to take on a lot of use, if you could look at the evidence of the pans, and the RO water system, and the laundry right nearby—that it became what maybe the architect had not completely intended, as a very strong focus for the community in terms of shared use, and it didn’t seem to be designed at the scale that could allow for all 70-some people to share it, but it was getting very heavy use. And then also the café in the base of the tower, a visitor’s center, seemed to have daily activity in terms of communal meals, dinners and breakfasts; but for the number of people we saw show up to those, it seemed like maybe the architect had provided an oversized kitchen, a more commercial scale kitchen, in there. It is interesting to see the choices that people made towards using a more commercially designed space versus a more domestic space—that the domestic one was getting a lot of heavier communal use, it seemed to me. So that was an interesting piece of evidence that I came back with; that maybe in shared spaces, there is a desire for a domesticity—a kind of extended family—that architecture can provide clues for, can provide the tools for.

AP: And that’s because that space was smaller and kind of more intimate like someone’s apartment?  It literally looked like they took someone’s apartment and turned that it into a public space—that there was no real intention on the part of the architect for that to happen.

JD: Right. So maybe that is evidence there that, at least in that kind of situation—in more of an artist commune in Arizona—with a lot of interesting landscape around it—there is a certain type of person attracted to that scene, who will be attracted to the domestic space regardless of the constraints that it may provide for them; the constraints—the closeness, the coziness, the compactness of people being together—may be something that that environment or that architecture is inspiring.

AP: So do you think there is something specific about the setting of Arizona—the Southwest? Or is it the people?  I mean, we talked to that one guy who said he kind of had an island mentality, and that living there—he had lived there for seventeen years—was almost like living on an island. Is that kind of what you…

Image:  Student project on the grounds of Taliesin West. © 2013 Andrea Polli.

JD: I took away that many people who go there look for a certain isolation—look to get away from the beaten path of society, and give themselves space in isolation to investigate themselves, or how they can develop a community at a smaller scale.

AP: So as someone who has a lot of experience at a lot of different places, traveling throughout several places in Asia, Europe, and the United States, do you think there is a special sort of case – having come from California and lived on the east coast – is the southwest a special context? Also, the same related question that I think about is: did Soleri think about that when he built Arcosanti? Is Arcosanti an urban laboratory? Is there evidence that he considered the context? What is that context from your experience in other places?JD: I wonder if his bells—the original structures being workshops and the foundry casting of ceramics; and his then ceramic and metal bells—give evidence to him considering the wind and topology of that area as something that his pieces wanted to interact in; he knew, or wanted also, people to be able to interact with too, that the wind and atmosphere of that space, moving through his architecture and his bells was something that was important. And creating a sonification of that movement through bells, would also interplay with his arched spaces, his vaults, his curved amphitheater designs for—not just for an actual performance amphitheater, but how all the apartments are centered now around that space—that there is a stage for the landscape to operate on along with his bells and his open courtyards and transitional spaces between buildings and balconies that—it’s very integrated into the land, along with his sense of use of excavation to burrow into the land.

AP: Right, it was so amazing the way you were on one level of the land, and as you traveled through his architectural compound you end up on another level, and then there is, yet still another level of that canyon that goes down, so it really echoes the very specific landscape; and I was really surprised as well about the sound that, within the different spaces you weren’t really encroached upon by the sound of other people that much—lots of thick cement floors I suppose—and then the vaults that have that incredible very long echo. Do you think—because we were talking about the kind of people that want to go there—do you think that workshop structure also helps to attract or supports more artists wanting to live in that kind of experimental situation, using the slow cement casting technique. What are your thoughts about that?

JD: Yeah, I’m reminded too about your previous question that I don’t think I addressed carefully, which is the type of person who may be attracted to that type of living environment—living and work environment. I believe Paolo Soleri seems—in selections of artwork and his own works; drawings, and sculptures, and the architecture—seems to know a good bit about the artists mentality that, I feel like, he’s considered very well what it is to not only be an artist, but to be an individual and working in collaboration with or around others in a community.

AP: What makes you say that? That’s cool.

JD: When we were talking about the structure and how it dug into the landscape, and the idea of interpenetrations of landscape and architecture, I was also reminded how that provided for a lot of private space, or just in general, the idea of an island—if our resident’s statement about desiring to live on an island or finding himself living on an island isn’t also representative of how that structure is dug in, like a bunker in ways, that there are actual physical ways that the building sinks into the landscape and provides some relief or some protection from the environment, but at the same time gives kind of a cultural or psychological protection in a mode of going in and hiding; burrowing. How do you say when you are—

AP: A cocoon?

JD: Cocoon—during winter, you’re hibernating in something, there is a certain psychological phase or phases that, in my experience, artists, as sensitive people, seem to go through; that they’ll have this need for community and be very outgoing and desirous of contact, and can have a very polar shift into wanting isolation and independence as well; and that building, Soleri’s structure, seemed to work along that line of understanding personalities, or shifting sides of the same personality.

Image: Creative settlement on the outskirts of the Arcosanti site. © 2013 Andrea Polli.

AP: Yeah, I never thought about that, but it really is like every apartment—even in his master grand plan for the 480 people—are all facing in towards this amphitheater, and I thought of it more like engaging with the other people – that it was a social kind of structure—but it’s really interesting the way you talk about—it’s also keeping other people out. Like it’s a focus on our community and keep others out—which is, really, totally different, I think, than what you’re working on—which is how to integrate the global community into a local community.

JD: Yes. Well it’s not like an open tap that one can’t control in my scheme either. I imagine it to have a great deal of adjustable security to it as well, I want to give people the tools by which to become hermits and maybe just have a unidirectional view of the world that they can choose the media that is coming to them, or the communications, or to go the opposite direction and be completely exhibitionist, or community participatory and be the life of the party or the focus of a much larger conversation—

AP: Right; like having the most hits on You-tube or whatever—

JD:  Right, all coming from your living room live. I would like to see it go either way. I guess, now as we talk about it, as in an artistic mentality—that one can have different sides of their personality, to be really open in one moment, and very closed in the next.  I also think a lot about the origins of the Internet and how it’s developed into a method of communication and information sharing between people in a very positive way, but then also its origins as a defense mechanism for the United States—North America—in connecting military assets, central intelligence, corporations and universities in the US—also located in that first Arpanet.  So, the idea that I’m beginning to express, at a very basic tectonic level, reflects the ways in which network architecture—the global network—has been initiated and has developed, I want that architecture – that actual structure and technology in it—to represent those multiple sides of network.  In architecture, in what I research and look to design, it’s not to continue using the word security in terms of my money and my objects, but rather to extend that idea of “security” to my every day moment of emotions, desires, interests in learning from others, or wanting to be cloistered away from them—that security, as network culture, I think, implies the idea that social networks have that underlying structure of “yes, protect my bank account that I operate with,” but also has the next level of security in terms of who I want to be friends with and how I want to interact with them.

AP: Yeah, maybe I’m getting the wrong idea here, but it sounds like, in a certain sense, you’re talking about freedom; and just to get back to Soleri, one question I wanted to ask you was—this idea of agency.  We were critical about his choices in terms of shared cooking and eating facilities and they ended up being re-adopted, maybe, in a different way than what was intended. So from your impression of the Soleri Arcosanti site, do you think that he’s giving the occupants agency? I’m just thinking about how I felt myself there, I felt a sense of safety like I might feel at a conference, or with people that I know and am familiar with, or that we’re all sort of interested in the same thing, but I don’t think that really had anything to do with the way the architecture was structured. So that’s a really rambling question…

JD: But the key point is, “did I see him providing any sense of agency to the occupants through his structures?” Yes, in that he was providing different types of spaces. Maybe not as many different types as would be necessary for full agency, but there were—if you can remember us climbing on the cube, the isolated cube that was at the very end of the structure, it was like where I imagine the holy man or the hermit goes to be outside of the group, but yet it is in proximity enough so that whatever visions they have, as that cube looked out very interestingly onto the landscape almost as the prow of the ship that is Arcosanti.  In that one small cube the isolated individual could go to be alone in nature. There were individual spaces like that, which suggested that certain levels of participation and community were defined, and participation in the environment was defined by a differentiation of habitable spaces.

AP: Right, so you go down and you find there a chicken coop, and turkeys, and then what looked like very temporary structures using what seemed like parts of Arcosanti, lots of these circular cement walls, but put up in a very temporary way off the grid—hand painted, handmade—So is that a representation of the outsiders, or is that an expression of people needing to have their own agency and making these bells and these flower pots that are all, there is creativity in it, but it’s also very much along Soleri’s vision.  Do you think these artists are just saying, “we have to build our own structures, we have to live our own way.”  What’s going on there?

JD: I suspect that it had a bit to do with economy, the economy of certain people; that there was maybe a lack of participation in the business structure of Arcosanti, as maybe more of a—as Soleri called it a laboratory—or, as we experienced it, a visitor’s center/tourist site, that there is a business economy and staff structure that I imagine certain people may not fit into, and how some may be required to participate in the community, then giving them access to one of the formally designed apartments.

AP: A hierarchy, you got in at the ground floor in 1970, and you were working with Soleri, or you were coming in twenty years later and trying to get yourself an apartment but they were all filled.

JD: Right. Or you’re not affording it because you have a need to only be temporarily outside of Scottsdale—that you have other agendas elsewhere in the region or the world that you have to go to, so there may not be the same commitment involved in the economy of Arcosanti that then requires one to be down the hill in a more transitory or temporary living space; but then secondarily, I see people’s need maybe to just be way more messy, to not live in that formal environment that may have certain rules of control because there are visitors coming through, that there’s a need for this space to advertise or to teach people what it is that the architect’s vision may be.

JD: Yeah, so to continue on the theme I was talking about with Arcosanti, the ideas of a formal architect, may be pushing aside or creating a boundary; a business of, or a structural boundary along which people can’t express themselves to the full degree within that space, within that architecture. I think that the Wright Foundation, that Taliesin West is doing a very similar thing, that by keeping these cells out of view, because we did notice the states of disrepair and the certain relaxation of pristine craftsmanship—That the Foundation and the school, yes, will work to craft the image of these objects with the students, so the student can’t just go out and build whatever he or she wants—on that site; they are getting steered, probably very strongly through their mentorship.

AP: Yeah, but I would argue that they have more agency than the people who were building outside Arcosanti, because they’re able to make these drawings and get help and assistance—I know what you’re saying that they’re being steered, but there were some much more original structures than those outside of Arcosanti. So your agency is being informed by help from your professors and from being exposed to Taliesin.

JD: Yeah, there are designers who, in my experience with architecture school, are being provided with a language as well. So yes, but they have agency to work within a very strictly defined language though; so while there was a continuation of Paolo Soleri’s language going on with the people with their own agency to do, more or less, what they wanted. There was a lot less of the language of Paolo Soleri going on in that fringe than there was the language of Frank Lloyd Wright on the fringes of Taliesin West.

AP: Right, but I think that being able to master a language allows you more freedom, in a certain way. I mean, compare that with a spoken or written language for conversation between humans, but also to take us back to technology, the computer languages and kind of being able to master and understand those—sure they’re extremely structured, but once you know those, you have more agency, right?

JD: To operate in a field, more agency to operate in a field that’s defined by that language. So, yes, I can agree. Yes, agency versus, maybe, freedom. That freedom to discover one’s own modes of language, or different structures of community I think are constrained by the requirements of learning, or only using one language. Say, the Frank Lloyd Wright language that’s imposed to a degree—

AP: Mhmm, they all had to have that stone, poured cement—

JD: [It was] cast concrete with the stone boulder inserts or filler.  So there were some [structures] that go along with your statements, that they were working within a certain language—the language of the school, but a certain number of the student structures were not using much, if any, of the traditional Frank Lloyd Wright language. That in the formalized, individual architect designed spaces, the legacy of the architect is being played out through that structure and how it’s inhabited; so there may be a certain type of inhabitation by people who are invested in promoting that legacy of the individual designer and the marketability of those designs, and the legacy—I do see a commodification of formal public living that, unlike in the fringe areas where there is not the same insistence on the legacy of those structures, those structures and the belongings that one keeps in them is more for the facilitation of a continued public experience; rather than using public experience to further the legacy and commodification of an individual.

AP: Wow. So, that just blows me away. I don’t have any more questions. Is there something that you want to talk about that you think we didn’t cover?

JD: That was a great conversation, thank you so much for your questions, and having me remember our great visits of architecture.

All images © 2013 Andrea Polli.

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Perspectives, Spring 2013

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