11.28.2011

Design Nomadics

I think I first heard of Steven Roberts in 1995, in Popular Mechanics, a magazine I loved as a kid.  For awhile, I got Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Outside every month, then stored them in chronological order in cardboard file boxes in my bedroom.  Once my family got the internet, I started to follow Steve's adventures across the country on his computerized bicycle, B.E.H.E.M.O.T.H., pursuing what he christened technomadics.


Basically, he took a long-wheelbase recumbent bicycle and added solar panels, batteries, a CD player, a heads-up display, handlebar keyboard, and a system that circulated ice water through tubes embedded in his helmet.  He had been on a perpetual journey since 1983, cris-crossing North America.  To support himself, he worked as a freelance writer.  In an era before wi-fi, and even cellphones, he connected to the internet via ham radio and pay phones, clipping rubber cups to the receiver to transmit articles to his editors.  Nights, he stayed with friends, camped, or booked cheap motels.  Nowadays, you could more or less do everything he did with an iPhone; he traveled with a solid quarter-ton of equipment to achieve the same connectivity in a more primitive era.  


Roberts hacked, engineered, designed, and built the bikes from the ground up, integrating technology into a platform that afforded him ultimate freedom.  As time went on, he left the bicycles behind, and is now in the midst of a thirteen (and counting) year-long quest to build a technomadic boat.  It has gone through many iterations, from kayak to trimaran, but seems to have settled on a steel-hulled sailboat.


Steven Roberts, and B.E.H.E.M.O.T.H., circa 1991.  Courtesy of his site.  


As I got a little older, I discovered the work of Jersey Devil, a pioneering design-build architecture firm.  Steve Badanes, Jim Adamson, and John Ringel, all Princeton architecture school graduates, banded together in 1972 to practice a new kind of architecture, responsive to site, environment, and client.  Operating with nothing more than a post office box, they would accept commissions, then move to the client's property, living in Airstream trailers or temporary structures they built on-site.  Then, absorbing the context and surroundings, they would design and build a house.  Much like Roberts, they were design nomads, roaming the country in search of work and inspiration.  While at the Rural Studio, I had the good fortune to meet both Jim Adamson and Steve Badanes when they guest lectured.  Andrew Freear called them the "godfathers of design/build", as though they were cigar-chomping design dons instead of amiable, avuncular architects.  


Just this summer, at the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, Amanda and I had the good fortune to meet Kyle Durrie, proprietress of the Moveable Type letterpress truck.  She is touring the country, visiting print shops, hanging out at craft shows, and evangelizing the joys of making things by hand.  When not couch-surfing, she crashes on a bed built-in to the back of her truck.  


Kyle Durrie, in her truck, as photographed by Tanja Hollander.
In Berkeley, California, landscape architect Andreas Stavropoulous has turned an Airstream trailer into a mobile studio for his work.  The compact space has forced him into some interesting design decisions, and allows him to inhabit the land he is intervening in.  While not mobile at the moment, the possibility of movement is equally important to the perception and possibility of his work.  


In Austin, Texas, former Rural Studio faculty member Jack Sanders pursues a design/build practice alongside teaching, art-making, and printing.  Much like the Jersey Devils, he works out of an old van, crammed with tools and equipment.  We caught his road show at the 2011 Doo-Nanny, hosted by folk artist Butch Anthony in Seale, Alabama.  It's sort of a southern, bluegrass-flavored Burning Man, and the grounds were filled with design nomads of all kinds, touring their art and handicrafts in trailers, school buses, and tricked-out cars.  


Beautiful little trailer from the Doo-Nanny 2011.
My nomadism has been less pronounced -- while moving frequently to pursue my work, I have established semi-permanent addresses in each new place, living under a solid roof and sleeping on a real bed.  These folks are truer gypsies, caravanning, camping, couch-surfing, and crashing.  However, the same idea, contradictory as it may seem,  animates all of this activity: the desire for a closer connection to place.  It is so hard to imagine context -- cultural, political, social, environmental, visual -- on short site visits, from photographs, or other filtered streams of information.   Traveling allows the best of both worlds, allowing one to absorb all the breadth of the world while establishing close (albeit temporary) connections with individual places.


Time to buy a used school bus, convert it to biodiesel, carpet the roof in solar panels, and build in a drafting desk.  Or, hip as it has now become, a vintage Airstream, re-done with recycled hardwood floors, tankless hot water heater, and LED lighting.  Maybe I should abandon fossil fuels altogether, given their inevitable rise in price, and move into a bike camper.   Biking is hard, especially with all that weight, so it may be easiest to drift along a carefree current, rafting down the Mississippi, building furniture out of driftwood, drinking moonshine, growing a garden on the deck.


Until then, the 'rolla awaits patiently by the curb, ready to load up and ship out whenever the next opportunity comes calling . . .

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