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?

Anderson: Okay.

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.

Johnson: Yeah.

Anderson: And I can total­ly see now why you would be inter­est­ed in Morton, right. Because Morton is inter­est­ed in what is natural.

Johnson: Right.

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.

Johnson: Yeah.

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.” 

Johnson: Right.

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.

Johnson: Right.

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.

Johnson: Yeah.

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?

Anderson: Absolutely. 

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.

Johnson: Yeah.

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—

Johnson: Yeah.

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. 

Prendergast: Absolutely.

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. 

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.