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.

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