Aengus Anderson: The roadside is littered with the bones of our broken promises. But, finally, we are back.
You're listening to The Conversation. I'm Aengus Anderson.
Micah Saul: I'm Micah Saul.
Neil Prendergast: And I'm Neil Prendergast. And if you're just tuning into the series you may want to check out an earlier episode where we lay out the whole premise of The Conversation.
Anderson: Yeah. These are our final episodes. They were all recorded in 2013, and we've just been horrifically lazy about getting them packaged up for you. But, they are now ready and here they are.
Anderson: Neil and I are at the helm and we're just going to introduce Jason Kelly Johnson, who is an architect from the Future Cities Lab in San Francisco. And when Micah and I were first starting The Conversation, this was back in early 2012, we were at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and we saw this amazing model. I mean, just an absolutely insane-looking building. A building with like, fins, and scales, and lots of moving parts. And you couldn't not walk up to this model. It was amazing.
And there's a guy there. And the guy turned out to be Jason Kelly Johnson, and it was his model from his lab. So Micah and I walked up to him and said, "Hey, can we interview you someday?" And we didn't get around to it on the first 2012 round of interviews. But when I was recording in 2013, I managed to reconnect with Jason and we had a fabulous conversation about architecture, permeability of landscapes and systems, feedback. All sorts of interesting things.
Prendergast: Yeah, listening to the interview it really struck me as a great place to sort of restart the conversation, rebuild the momentum. Because this kind of interest he has in the…I don't know, how nature and culture aren't really separate things, builds upon a lot of the earlier stuff that we've had in the series. I'm thinking in particular of Timothy Morton. And his ideas touch on I think a few more, too.
Anderson: Yeah, Joseph Tainter as well. And both Timothy Morton and Joseph Tainter come up in here. And, because of the editing I wasn't able to get them in by their first names so we just say "Morton" and "Tainter." If you've been listening to this project you'll know exactly who we're talking about. If you're new to it, those are two episodes that you may want to go back into the archives and dig up. They're both fascinating and they both pop up throughout the series because the ideas in them resonate with a lot of different people.
So, having said that, let's start this thing back up.
Aengus Anderson: What is your work reacting to? What’s sort of the crisis that you’re thinking about?
Jason Kelly Johnson: There’s several levels to that. I mean, I think in the latest body of research, and I think probably the project that you found me through, the HYDRAMAX project, was a kind of critique on the city. Especially the city of San Francisco, I think. We were looking at sea level rise, specifically. And so the crisis was one of a kind of ecological crisis where it’s, we all understand that the city of San Francisco and you know, any coastal city in the world really, because of sea level rise is in a crisis mode. And so the HYDRAMAX project was at SFMOMA that you had seen. That is a project that was explicitly critiquing how cities are in a way dealing with global climate change, or not dealing with them.
Anderson: And can we give that listener a description of what this is and what it looks like? The visual was what captured my imagination first.
Johnson: Yeah. I mean, HYDRAMAX is a system, it’s a network, it’s a kind of mesh that sits at the edge of the San Francisco Bay. It kind of provides a kind of threshold between the kind of aquatic environment and the terrestrial environment. And what it does is it provides a place for incubation, where the water and the city can kind of come together in a productive fashion. So probably the best way to think of it is like the difference between a dam and a wetland. The city edges become essentially productive wetlands where things are grown, where things are hatched, where machines and robots, and plants and animals and synthetic biologies all sort of converge. So it becomes this like, hyperactive space.
So in the case of the HYDRAMAX that we proposed, we sort of thought that an entirely new kind of building, a new kind of system would need to be invented. So looking out across this neighborhood, at a certain point in time they built these warehouses and they built these factories because there was something being built in them, in this case submarines. So the buildings needed to look like that. Buildings needed to be erected very rapidly, so that’s why they look the way they look. They’re made out of concrete. They’re long and they’re thin, in a gesture towards the bay because the goods that were being produced in them had to release these things out into the water. And so they’re in response to their sort of specific situation.
So, do I think that buildings in 2013 that are trying to do something different—say they’re trying to produce food, trying to become factories again—do I think that they need to look like steel mills from the 1930s? No, they actually have totally different sets of parameters that can guide them.
So, the HYDRAMAX system and the HYDRAMAX buildings are highly tuned. They can harvest sunlight. They harvest fog, so they they actually have these massive sky feathers that rise up into the sky so when there’s fog banks kind of rolling through San Francisco, the sky feathers are basically collecting condensation and then using that condensation as freshwater to begin to feed aquaponic…so basically fish farms. They feed hydroponic systems for plants. And so the edge of the city becomes productive. It becomes a place where you certainly can distribute that stuff to the rest of the Bay Area but it basically becomes a place where people can move to. And it becomes a public space, a place where you could do community farming and all of—
Anderson: And reacts to different weather and tidal conditions [crosstalk] and things like that.
Johnson: And tidal conditions. So it uses the tide… Basically the building is one kind of stilts and it’s using the tide—it’s moving up and down with the tide.
So really the idea was to actually shift the edge from being a tourist‐driven Disney World, something that’s static. And it’s either that or it’s these abandoned things. There’s factories, there’s other stuff. So the idea of HYDRAMAX is just to kind of in a way radically rethink the edge, and look at how it could become a kind of productive, kind of almost an experimental space in the city. It actually could become a really radical place for new institutions to be sort of founded. It could become a place for Silicon Valley to pull his head out of its ass and actually do something productive. To use the money of technological production to kind of remake a kind of new prototype for how cities can deal with their edges and with water.
We were sort of looking at San Francisco in the future and actually looking at how it’s well‐known that the sea level rise will be ground eighteen inches, perhaps twenty‐four inches in the next 100 years. So we know that the edge of the bay will be in question and we know that the things that we’ve done at the edge of the bay will have to adapt and change. And so we were sort of looking at the logical solution will be to build a wall around the edge of San Francisco, keep the water out, let the edge be kind of calcified in it’s kind of current state. And that project was actually looking at a kind of alternative sort of vision for it. Let the forces of climate change actually be a kind of real thing; that water and a city kind of begin to coexist. So instead of seeing climate change as this thing we should build a wall around and kind of fortify, see it as kind of an opportunity to rethink these structures that were put in place.
So you know, I guess I question why are we so unwilling to give up these structures. But we have this kind of nostalgia for it, and so we’re not willing to really give it up. In fact those buildings have been protected. And the edge in many ways is stuck in time. And so you asked me what the sort of the enemy is, well one enemy is just sort of this nostalgia for times past. This kind of thinking that there was a kind of point time that should be sort of preserved and that’s a kind of penultimate point of time. And I think the American city in a lot of ways suffers from this kind of nostalgia.
Anderson: I’m curious. I want to break down that nostalgia a little bit more and go like, what are we trying to get into? What are we trying to recreate that we think is gone when we’re holding on to this coastline here? I mean, this is kind of World War II stuff. You know, certainly when you think about World War II, it’s used so often. And World War II and the 50s afterwards is like…halcyon day.
Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. No, absolutely. You know, my breakdown…there’s lots of factors to it. But there’s a kind of a safety factor, I would imagine?
Johnson: There’s a kind of a notion that it’s a time when things were clear and things were more legible. They weren’t as complex. There were less inputs. There was less of a need to fuse let’s just say, an ecological thinking with a kind of built thinking. So we weren’t really too worried about where materials came from, or what they actually did, or how they might kinda pollute at a certain point in time. And there’s a kind of safety in that.
Anderson: Safety in the naïvety.
Johnson: In the naïvety, in the kind of lack of knowledge, and there’s a sort of… You know, there are architects that I think are “sustainable designers” but they don’t actually see the connection between a building being green and being ecological and generating energy and all that stuff, and also being really well‐designed and actually being really innovative, and actually still doing something really active at the kind of urban scale. So there’s a lot of projects that will take an old structure and just wallpaper it in solar panels. And yet they don’t really understand that the potential of cities is really they could create their own culture.
You know, I think our work is much more interested in questioning the notion that architecture is a static entity. Part of our thinking in terms of architecture is how we make a building breathe. How do we give a building a kind of like, almost a nervous system. And how do we actually have a building be much more sort of intermeshed with the pulse of a place, with both it’s sort of natural systems—the wind, the sun light, the geothermal condition, all of these kinds of things; and also how do we take people, and how do we take inputs from all the really crazy stuff that’s happening through social media, through just sort of computation, through embedded networks and sensors and this kind of stuff, and have architecture be a kind of critical intersection point for those things.
Anderson: There’s a really interesting parallel there, thinking of architecture as this fixed, unchanging space (like that steel building outside there), and the connection that you were talking about earlier, with the coastline is this fixed…thing.
Anderson: And I can totally see now why you would be interested in Morton, right. Because Morton is interested in what is natural.
Anderson: It feels like in a way, part of the critique we’re dealing with is a society that likes things to be neat and clean, like there’s a sort of modernism about it, liking control. I like that you touched on the cultural aspect there, too, you know. The idea that a lot of the stuff here hearkens back to an era where things were simpler. There’s kind a facing the realization that we’re in…that we know all the stuff about the world. As Morton would say, “there’s no away anymore.” And we’re starting to realize what that means, and in a way that our architecture or our design of the coast, or walling out the sea level rise, is an effort to get back to a time where we couldn’t—or we didn’t know that stuff and we could just enjoy—
Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.
Anderson: If those things are in play there’s something else I wanted to ask about there, which I think ties into that, but the idea of control. You know, as part of the thing that we’re critiquing, is it a need to control…the world? Like, to really know all of the operational variables, all of the assets. And is that a problem?
Johnson: Now that’s a very interesting question because we’re replacing one kind of control with another kind of control. But in a way it’s a much more… It’s more akin to like synthetic biology, where you’re understanding many more of the variables and you’re able to script things in a way that’s more open‐ended? That allows more feedback, I would say, into the system. It’s not about like building a dam. It’s about building something that is kind of soft. It could operate on one extreme like a dam. But it has the capacity to adapt to the point where it would let something flow entirely. So in other words, there’s a really different way to think about control. One that has feedback mechanisms and kind of heuristic elements, sort of borrowing from artificial intelligence. How our bodies work. How intelligent beings are able to control things but they’re able to do that with a gradient.
Timothy Morton, the way that I read his work and has got me really thinking about the kind of blurring, the distinction between something that is living and non‐living, or natural and artificial… I mean, I have really come to the almost philosophical conclusion it’s just fruitless to actually start to draw those lines between things. Because things aren’t absolutely one or kind of the other. They’re these things that are moving back and forth and really blurring distinctions. A lot of those distinctions were made at a certain point in time when control was about one, on or off. But things I think have gotten much more blurry in kind of an analog sense. So we’ve gone from a one and a zero to trillions of ones and zeros that create a much softer, pulsing understanding of everything around us.
Anderson: Do you think that intimidates us?
Johnson: I would say that a lot of the planet doesn’t really think about it. I think as a designer I think it asks you to set up an entirely different sort of way of approaching the world. Things aren’t absolutely always the right thing. It means that as a designer you’re not designing for a single moment, or a single situation. You’re actually designing for a range of moments and a range of situations.
I’m sure you’ve read people like Manuel DeLanda. I audited one of his courses when I was teaching at UPenn. In the first class he took a huge like 500‐page book and put it on the table. And then he said, “What I want you to do is to look at this and I want you to study the book. Think about its weight. Think about the table. Think about its transference to the ground. Think about the concrete. Think about how that transfers through concrete into the Earth.” And then he said to sort of shut your eyes and imagine all of the force flow lines. And he drew an arrow, and he said, “I want you to just in your mind think about arrows and think of things transferring and interconnected. And just abstractly think of that as kind of this constant kind of force flow.”
But that kind of thinking? in the way that we could begin to perceive the physical world as not being these discrete, independent things, this or that, but that things are much more kind of intermeshed. And the way that you get to that is probably through, I think in the beginning is looking at mass and weight. Heat.
Anderson: Really tangible stuff.
Johnson: Tangible sort of physical things. And then from that I think being a designer in a world that philosophically is like that, it does become more difficult.
One of the things we’ve realized with our work is we are probably never going to build HYDRAMAX. The bigger idea of HYDRAMAX is a powerful one in that people are looking at that as a kind of potential.
Anderson: I’m interested in kind of the logical extensions of this sort of change, because it seems like there’s a big mindset change you’re going from, the fixed to the flexible. And then it feels like well how do you cope with that? Do you just you know, completely acquiesce to the change? Do you try to resist it entirely? That’s where I’m interested HYDRAMAX again, is that you deal with some of it. You’re gonna let the bay rise. You’re not going to try to turn this whole industrial civilization back to the Stone Age. But you’re also not just going to stand by and let the bay rise and not do anything, you know.
Johnson: Right, right. Yeah.
Anderson: You’re not going to let Bangladesh flood, basically.
Johnson: Right. Yeah. I had a really interesting conversation with a woman who came and toured the office a couple of weeks ago. And I was showing her a project that we did a few years back called the Glaciarium project. It’s a vertical cylinder device that sits in this container. And you walk up to it and you look through this little viewfinder. And you actually can look at the piece of ice. And on the viewfinder, where your eye is able to look in, there’s a little sensor there. And the sensor triggers a heat element within the vitrine and actually begins to accelerate the melting of the ice. So the more that you look at the object, the more that you participate in its destruction.
And so the idea was to make a kind of fetishized container that you would look at this ice, understand that you are actually destroying the thing that’s absolutely beautiful that you’re looking at. And then we basically collected the water from the melting ice core in a basin below it. As the ice falls out it hits a contact mice. And so the sound of the melting ice you could hear it throughout the gallery.
Anyways, I was just showing this woman this project and she sort of looked at me and she just sort of said, “That’s so sad. That’s so sad. Why don’t you give people the chance to fix the ice? Couldn’t you do something in there so that it could stop the heat, or it could maybe refreeze the ice, or that… Why did you do this to people?”
And then we had a whole talk about climate change and reaching this kind of critical point. We sort of almost have this feeling that well, you know, I can do this or I can participate in that and then you know, it won’t matter so much, I can always take it back. It’s like global carbon credits, this kind of logic is just absurd. And we almost feel like we’ve got our own internal carbon credits, or that we’ll screw up but we’ll have more kids and then they’ll fix the problem.
Anderson: If you take something like HYDRAMAX, this really optimistic statement of being able to work with changing conditions, is there any reason not to burn all the fossil fuel and just develop really neat new ways of living in a planet that’s incredibly hot?
Johnson: Yeah. I don’t know. I guess that’s not really for me. That’s not really the right question, is it wrong to do that? I guess I think sure, we actually have the capacity to do it. I kind of pessimistically believe that that’s sort of where we’re heading? Do I think that that’s a productive use of my daughter’s time? That she should be basically involved in massive radical geoengineering projects. If that’s what the way the world is going to be, it’s sort of sad. Like I think there’s probably more optimistic ways to sort of live in the future.
Anderson: So maybe the questions isn’t one of right or wrong but it’s a question of, do you lose something when you accept just letting it heat up, and adapting?
Johnson: Yeah. Yeah, I know, I guess I’m a sort of romantic in the sense that I think that I’d much rather be spending the time on things like art and culture, philosophy. Like I think there’s been moments in time that have led us to think that there could be ways of living that are less about always trying to fix a massive problem and maybe there’s another way to to live. But maybe that’s my just total nostalgic vision of it. And so maybe I am a kind of total utopian and believe that there is a way forward in which we’re not going to be constantly responding to these massive things.
But I mean, again I think that we’ve reached a tipping point? If we are going to resist these things, we are going to have to get involved in these sort of massive geoengineering things—cloud seeding.
Anderson: I talked to a guy at Harvard named David Keith who’s one of a the major geoengineering scientists. And you know, he sees it as like, you should never be at a point where you need to even consider this stuff. I think the thing that stuck with me about that conversation was that he was saying we really can’t make a case for say, the polar bear. Or for any of these things that we could lose if the climate changes. You can’t make the case for that financially and you shouldn’t try.
Anderson: Set geoengineering aside for a second and just say that if you want to appeal to people to save the polar bear you need to say, “There’s something intangibly valuable about the polar bear.”
Anderson: And he was willing to say that, you know. You can’t say well really, if you save the Arctic ice then economically you’ll benefit in the long run because X, Y, and Z won’t happen. He said don’t even make that argument. He said the challenge is to convince people that life and that kind of diversity has value. It’s an arational idea of good. I mean, when we talk about a vision of a better future, which I’d like to move into here, is that part of it? I mean, it seems like when you’re talking about there things like aarts and philosophy and all of these things that have value, presumably, you might be hard‐pressed to make me a case that there’s more economic value to those then say, building steel factories out here. But you could probably make a case to me whether there’s some other kind of value that we’re not seeing. Why are those things valuable?
Johnson: Because I think that maybe one of the reasons we’re in the place we are is that we lost the sense that the kind of urban life, the idea of kind of a forum, the idea of a kind of intelligent dialogue could emerge from a city in the way that it’s sort of designed, in the way that people are sort of interacting with each other. In other words, a lot of architects right now are involved in making green buildings, and these are really good things. But I also think that the value of architecture’s not just as a kind of engineered system, as a kind of problem‐solving system. It’s that there’s a kind of cultural, kind of social, probably political dimension to architecture that should be intermixed with things like ecology and things like agriculture.
You know, all of our food production happens remotely in the Central Valley. All of our pollution is happening in another place. And our cities have become places where people are sitting in kind of glass towers and they’re completely disassociated from all of these ecological things and all these kind of productive things. And so we’ve sort of partitioned off our world and I think we’re in the place we’re in because the politics and the money and all these things are kind of super separated from things. So we’re able to sort of blindly operate.
So part of the HYDRAMAX idea is that we’re beginning to try to cross‐knit these things together. So that as a politician, as a financial person, as someone who’s involved in all these different levels, that you’re bringing these things closer, you know. You can’t not know what they’re doing.
Anderson: That’s really interesting. I think that’s a really neat way of answering sort of the question that Torcello put forward like, how do you respond to the crisis of the present when it’s stupidity? And this this seems to be like, maybe it’s not stupidity, but it’s a bunch of people who live divorced from reality. So if you can sort of address that through space, through forcing people to be familiar with that?
Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. It’s pretty routine, I think, in a lot of places for folks to never actually encounter or have any knowledge of anything around them in terms of where it’s made, how it’s made. What it’s made from, what it’s connected to. So HYDRAMAX really is utopian in that sense. One of the critical things with the project is that there’s a kind of implicit circuit, you know, making these productive agricultural sequences in a city, make those a part of the loop that you might routinely sort of move through. And so part of this was like these massive kind of aquaria that you’d actually see these kind of robotic harvesting machines that were sort of harvesting and kind of growing and tending to the fish. So there’d be this sort of crazy technological system in place there. But it would be somehow close to you and be sort of…
Anderson: So you know when you order the fish at the restaurant that somehow, somewhere that robotic arm down the street is out [crosstalk] looking for your dinner.
Johnson: Something within there. So it’s sort of like tightening the loop. But I’ve been trying to figure out, within in even that sequence, is that just a kind of nostalgia? I mean, could those aquaria be virtual? Would it really matter? Does proximity necessarily matter? Would it would actually change things? It’s an interesting question.
Anderson: And I mean, when you mention the virtual aquarium I think that gets us to a point that I like to bring in, I think we’ve touched on it in a lot of different ways in this conversation, but the idea of a good, right. Why are the real fish…good? For the stuff we’re talking about, are we talking about we need to be working on these things exclusively for their value to us? You know, you have the fish farm because you eat it. Or do you have the fish from also for the fish? In some weird, intrinsic way, and I realize that could sound like it’s philosophically splitting hairs but I think it leads to different outcomes.
Johnson: Yeah. That’s a very tricky one. Selfishly I think there’s a value. I mean, I grew up in a really different world where I had at least an understanding of where these things were in their sort of so‐called native environment. I grew up in Canada, just outside of Calgary. I remember as a kid being able to go to these like, fantastic places that were… Maybe they weren’t virgin places, but they were like ultra out there. And having this incredible sense of the origins of like a fish. And of a kind of a plant in a kind of a place. What values is it to a human being to have that, to have that knowledge of the kind of origins of things? Would I be the same human if I basically just at protein cakes and had no knowledge of the origins of things? Yeah, it’s a really good question.
Anderson: And is that a conversation that can even happen? In this case it’s an experience of your childhood.
Anderson: And you might be talking to someone who has that synthetic protein cake experience of their childhood, which is you know, just covered with nostalgia.
Anderson: And both of them might lead you to thinking very different things about whether or not we should preserve a fish.
Johnson: Yeah no. I think it’s a…I mean, the question of diversity, it’s been documented that even for the health of our species as we know it, that having that incredible diversity is a really critical thing. But I mean in a lot of ways what you’re describing is the capacity for humans to potentially live totally divorced from these things.
You can play it through. The International Space Station, you know. We’re already experimenting with these things. I think it’d be a worthy exercise, but it’s definitely not a world that I necessarily want to live in.
Anderson: Is that kind of the arational bedrock that we’re dealing with here? The idea that just that stuff has value. And I mean maybe that could be a spiritual thing or a religious thing, or it has nothing do with either of those but it’s just held in some people and not held in others?
Johnson: You know I’m actually really fascinated with artificial intelligence and things like machine vision and how just on a really deep level what would it mean if I actually invent say an artificially intelligent neural network, a small robotic something? As a species is it any different than say that trout that I encountered as a child? Would my daughter, if she’s encountering this artificially intelligent robotic entity, does it mean as much to her as the trout did to me? You see what I’m saying?
Johnson: Like the things that I valued in that experience? The way that that fish could adapt. The way that every year it would be cycling through all of these different ways to kind of survive. The way it would sense its environment. The way that it had all these incredible things it could do. Does it matter that it’s a biological thing?
Anderson: Right. A hypothesis kind of behind this series is there are these moments of massive historical change.
Anderson: There was a zeitgeist to a time period, and enough people went, “Let’s charge this direction.” And things really change rapidly, from a long era of stability. And so I don’t know if that’s a real thing or if that’s just something that kind of we create, a pattern that we find in the historical record? But do you think there is anything to that hypothesis? And if so do you think we’re living in a time like that? Or we should be?
Johnson: Yeah, I think… Look, I think I’m looking at it from the perspective of a designer, say an architect, someone who’s dealing with the physical realm. Do I think that we’re in a moment of kind of radical reformation right now? Probably not. I think there’s radical form‐making happening. I think that there’s hints of real innovation. Do I think we’re in it yet? No. Do I think we’re beginning to sort of head in that direction? I think that there’s stuff that’s happening in a way that we are making the physical environment, the capacity for the physical environment to become much more sort of responsive and mediated, much more sort of attuned to social networks and to political networks in a much more sort of fluid and kind of dynamic way. I think that stuff, there’s the potential for that to happen. I think we’re probably at the beginning of it.
Right now I don’t think having thirty‐five apps on my iPhone is putting me in the middle of a revolution. I think it’s when those apps actually begin to much more directly affect the physical realm and put me closer to a public realm and a kind of a city that is much more sort of productive and much more positive ecologically. Then I think that we’re going to get closer.
But you see hints of it, you know. A company like Tesla was a really radical experiment and you’re seeing them chugging away, and you’re seeing them trying to fundamentally rethink the automobile. And that’s something that’s being sort of hashed in this environment. And that’s physical and the car has direct implications to how cities get made. But I’m not totally positive it’s actually radicalizing say, architecture yet.
Anderson: Do you think that’s something that’s ever going to come about through conversation, or is it a reaction to like, do we have to drive the ecology off a bridge—
Anderson: —face a real crisis, and then we sort of react? Or is it something you think we can preemptively go, “Well, we’re getting the data in. Let’s start really changing our footprint…”
Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I hate to say it but I really do believe that there are some critical moments in time where things happen because there is a crisis. San Francisco is a great example of a city that did really radical things after 1909, the earthquake, and hasn’t done a whole lot since then. And so you know, I hate to say it but it is true that sort of radical moments do begin to kind of produce radical things.
I see a lot of folks in my generation, say our generation, that are really thinking, and are really interested in building and doing radical things. But they’re just not… There’s no one really out there that’s commissioning them or that’s actually trusting them and engaging them that’s actually allowing the thinking to become physical. You know, you don’t see a figure like Bill Gates saying, “Okay, let’s remake the city in a radical way.” There’s a certain sadness that you have an incredible group of super‐well‐educated people that have deep knowledge, and you don’t have a president nor do we have business leaders that are really investing in kind of rebuilding the city. So you see a lot of bottom‐up, DIY stuff kind of happening, which I think is actually really interesting. But I’m not totally convinced that it’s going to be enough. On some levels I think a lot of the greatest buildings happened because there was a person or a set of people that just sort of said, “Okay, this is what we need to do.” In that sense I think our generation is maybe…not as productive as it could be, or should be.
You could go to architecture schools around the planet right now and you’ll see them playing with radical ideas. But we just don’t have the urgency, let’s just say, in this country to even…let alone experiment, but even to fix our most basic infrastructural systems. So there is no kind of Manhattan Project for the built environment, or the ecological environment, which there could be. And that could be a really fantastic experiment.
Anderson: Do you think conversation matters?
Johnson: Yeah. I wouldn’t be a teacher if I didn’t think it mattered. I think there should be more of it. You can see the tension in the Bay Area. You have Silicon Valley and then you have San Francisco. You have a company like Apple building a massive new kind of campus out in the suburbs in Silicon Valley. All those employees are sitting on buses every day coming into San Francisco to live in the city.
And so you have this kind of very funky tension between these worlds. I think conversations are really good beginning points, but they have to have the feedback from kind of critical experiments brought into them. And that’s a lot of the way that this practice begins to sort of operate, is we talk a lot. I teach a lot. We experiment a lot. And then we try and do small experiments to sort of see what happens.
Anderson: And just to hope it gets out there.
Johnson: Hope it gets out there. I mean I think right now we’re trying to scale up to do work that resists the monotonous nature of contemporary building development and just find really specific people and clients that allow us to do the work, and maybe we do a lot of pro bono work where we try and get paid for certain things. And then that helps us to do work for certain clients that probably never would afford it or be able to do it. So that’s a lot of the way that this studio is operating right now.
Anderson: And you said earlier you’re an optimist?
Johnson: Mm hm. I think I’m actually probably one of the most optimistic people that I know but I also think that I’m also one of most pessimistic people I know, on a certain level. So I kind of oscillate. I guess I’m secretly pessimistic. I’m coming to conclusions about certain things. I keep a lot of that to myself. And I try and temper it with like, “Okay you know, that’s…that’s really fucking dysfunctional and really screwed up. But like let’s just try and see if we can rethink this and do this a little bit better.”
So in that sense I’m a kind of…I’m an optimist. I definitely believe in technology. I definitely believe in the interplay of technology and philosophy. And that’s what probably makes me an optimist, you know. I think I see a lot of people that go to engineering school and then they come out with no understanding of philosophy or politics or ecology. And that always just really disturbs me. So I think what I try and do and the way I try and teach is to give people a much deeper understanding of technology, engineering, the arts, and kind of make it a massive mix up. I don’t think you can have a world in which you’re just doing engineering, or you’re just doing art. I think those things have to always have this interplay? And I’m optimistic when I see that kind of happening.
I see that here in the Bay Area with kind of the Maker movement. I see that in young kids right now. I had an amazing meeting today with Carl Bass, who’s the CEO and founder of Autodesk. He was telling his 15 year‐old kid came home and wants to make some kind of vehicle so he can ride around the city; electric, Arduino‐driven vehicle that he could drive around with his iPad if he wanted to. If he wasn’t in it, he could set it up to pick up his friends. This is like, so funny, you know, a 15 year‐old.
But you know, I think for me that’s actually really interesting. And so that makes me optimistic, right, that there’s this other generation that is beginning to emerge that isn’t going to sit back and wait for the megacorporation to sort of produce everything. That we actually might begin in a bottom‐up way kind of beginning to make things that we think are productive and ecologically sensitive, and maybe that we’re shifting a little bit from waiting around for some massive politician or political movement. That maybe there’s another way forward.
I’ve never really seen it work. Like I’m still probably a part of that generation that thinks that there’s got to be this thing up top that commissions this thing. But I’m seeing hints that this kind of bottom‐up approach might actually begin to, in a way, aggregate to produce something actually really interesting.
Aengus Anderson: So, whether he's the most pessimistic optimist or the most optimistic pessimist, the jury's out. But this is a conversation with a lot of nuance in it, which I think is always fun. You know, we've talked about it before, it's always a little bit harder when someone is very real about things and like, "I don't know, it could be this way, but I can also visualize it as this way," and you can't just have like a simple point/counterpoint interview. Real life is messy. Real life is gray. And that's something that Jason really does not shy from. And what I love is that it's also in his actual designs, right. They're all about permeability, nuance, you work with the tide, you work with the cycles of fog in San Francisco's bay. You know, there's all sorts of stuff like that which is analog. And it's just a lot of different values. It's not a a digital one and zero.
Neil Prendergast: Right. And there's that permeability between nature and culture, as you describe with the tides and so forth. And there's also sort of a permeability, it sounds like, between the designer and the user. Or, if permeability doesn't quite work there at least there's a feedback loop.
Anderson: That is another good way of thinking about permeability, right. With the tide there's always a feedback loop. The water level goes up, the building does something different. The water level goes down, the building does something different again. And maybe the things it's doing also change the water level. So there's a kind of constant conversation between building and tide.
And, as you mentioned, there's a constant conversation between new types of projects, and how people receive them, and how the designers see them when they're built large. That's something that like, everything Jason talks about in terms of his own work seems like it's kind of iterative. He's someone who's really interested in like, what does the prototype do, and then how do you make a better prototype?
Prendergast: And, as I think is the case with probably most designers, there's also still yet a desire to have a lot of funding and to do a bit project, it sounds like.
Anderson: Right. And there's that interesting tension in the interview where it seems like he's not of one mind. Does change come from the top down, does change come from the bottom up? You know, does it come from the Maker movement? Does it come from the kid designing the Segway thing? Or does it come from like, the big funder and the brilliant designer who's got a new idea, and someone's got the space to build it?
I don't know how you feel about this. I feel like I go back and forth, too, and have gone back and forth throughout this project. Because some interviewees have been really hard like, "Change comes from the bottom up," and other ones are like "No, you really just convince a few people and change will then come from the top down."
Prendergast: And I think with design there's a certain history, too, that would certainly structure any kind of conversation people are going to have about that exact problem. I can't help but mention Jane Jacobs, the New Yorker who was so famous against interstate highways being built through her neighborhood. And there was really a critique in the 1960s and 1970s—more than a critique, an activist movement against a lot of the interstates. And there were a lot of weren't built because of grassroots communities saying you know what, we don't want this through our neighborhood.
Anderson: Mm hm. And you know, when you talk about interstates that immediately brings something to mind that Jason was talking about. He was talking about, it would be great to have—I mean I think he says a Manhattan Project of like, design. Like something really big that gets a lot of funding, that rethinks the whole landscape. And I think well, there kind of was a time where we did that, and it was kinda the 60s and 70s, and 50s, too. You know, the Eisenhower interstate system? Certainly qualifies. There's a lot of urban redevelopment that happens in that time period. I mean, Tucson lost eighty acres of our best homes to a very brutal modernist convention center that was centrally planned.
And so it's interesting because it feels like Jason really doesn't like nostalgia for these buildings that seem like they've outlived their social role. You don't need the sub-bays anymore. At the same time, it seems like he feels like oh, we really need a lot of funding for designers again. And I think, God, the last time we really funded designers, they created the whole landscape that he wants to destroy, right? And that so many people now have a complete distaste for.
Prendergast: I really do think that the freeways were the Manhattan Project of design. The designers there had a free hand in doing most of what they wanted to do. They had great funding. There was a political economy that supported it. And yet today, a lot of people look back and say oh my gosh, what did they build? That's where we got addicted to oil. A landscape that's not to human scale. Why would we want that?
And even at the time, actually, there were a lot of communities that railed against new interstates. Think of cities like New Orleans protesting against an extension interstate right through the town; eventually steered it away. But across the country you could see this. And today we really share the opinion of those activists, or at least a great many of us do, where we look at those things and we just think, how crazy were these people to build that?
Anderson: And that it was so well-intentioned.
Anderson: Right? Like, I mean, I don't think anyone really thought about the idea of carving up a neighborhood. It seemed more like, "Oh, well you're bringing new traffic in. Or you're bypassing something so traffic won't be pouring through your neighborhood and won't that be nice?"
Prendergast: Or now, automobility is so accessible that middle-class women could count on having an automobile. They weren't stuck at home. So it was a part of freedom for a lot of people.
Anderson: Which is really interesting when you think about you know, in many ways like how much that changed the landscape into something that feels like it's the absolute antithesis of what we want. It is, in a lot of ways, the antithesis of what Jason is doing with projects like HYDRAMAX which are so much about creating a space in which you live, you work, you consume, and you're tied into a really tight loop of seeing the economic cycle around you. And I think for a lot of people that's a world that they want to live in. The massive influx of new residents into old city centers that we've been seeing over the past like fifteen years, twenty years? seems to reveal that in fact people do want walkable landscapes.
But it's also fascinating to think that like, maybe there's some lingering distrust of big-scale projects and massive funding for design, because we feel like we've seen it go so wrong.
So it's interesting because like, well if you gave Jason a blank check and twenty acres of bay-side industrial property in San Francisco, I think you'd get something that would be incredible. And it would be something that would probably be an awesome place to live? But I do think people would be afraid to give him that check because somewhere they would be like, what if it becomes obsolete in the same way those freeways became obsolete? In the same way those urban redevelopments became kind of blights themselves.
Prendergast: Right. And maybe you know, part of the issue here is just cultural change over time. That we can't go too big because well, not that the designers are necessarily going to get it wrong. But the public, the communities, residents, workers, whomever, they might change their minds.
Anderson: Which I think is something that Jason would be totally on board with, right. Because he's anti-nostalgia. As the needs change, he thinks the buildings should change. But I think in the way that the people who fund buildings think? They don't think that way. We don't like thinking of buildings as something that are really for a cultural moment. We don't see buildings as in conversation with us.
I think all of us somewhere want our buildings, our little homes and things, to stand like a pyramid. You know, we like the idea that it will be there, forever, as this monument to this moment in time. And there's something really fun, and also challenging, about Jason saying that's not what a living landscape is.
Prendergast: This is a little bit of a preview into what the future episodes are going to be discussing. But I think that there's also something really great, a great value in design, which is that it articulates the alternatives that might be out there for us.
Anderson: That was Jason Kelly Johnson, recorded in his studio at the Future Cities Lab in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, June 6th, 2013. And this is The Conversation.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.