Greening the Edges

Fritz Haeg’s joyful assault on the front lawn aims to put nature back into our denuded landscapes.

Fritz Haeg is very good at naming things. Sometimes the name stems from a bit of alliterative luck. Sundown Salon was the natural moniker for a five-year-long series of genre-bending salons that Haeg began hosting as soon as he moved into his iconic geodesic-dome house, which happens to be located on Sundown Drive, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mt. Washington. When these morphed into a more structured educational experiment, the venture was easily dubbed the Sundown Schoolhouse.

And sometimes the name is inspired by one of his idealistic antiheroes: Buckminster Fuller, Rudolf Schindler, the 1970s art collective Ant Farm, Gordon Matta-Clark. The latter’s Fake Estates project led Haeg, at least nominally, to Edible Estates, an act of “radical gardening” in which sub­urban front lawns are uprooted and replaced with edible gar­dens, and its counterpart, Animal Estates, whereby native animal habitats are reintroduced into urban areas.

The Minnesota-born artist and architect has a talent for names that tell a story, names that are as access­ible to a grandmother in Salina, Kansas—home of the first Edible Estates project—as they are intriguing to the art-world arbiters who help fund Haeg’s works through grants and museum com­missions. The names all jux­­tapose something warm and familiar—sunset, food, animals—with something that sounds institutional—salons, schoolhouses, estates—to merge the cozy with the apparently official. The projects themselves often feel like giant collaborative hap­­penings where catalytic combinations of dancers, artists, scientists, storytellers, chefs, designers, and architects delve into a common theme.

Haeg’s own name, though, is not nearly as important to him. It would be easy for someone with such a singular look to turn himself into a figure, a designer-as-mascot, the face of some sort of nouveau-localism art movement. He is tall and graceful: in a fedora he is debonair; in the spangly outfit and eye make­up that he once wore to a Sundown Sal­on, he could be a backup singer for Ziggy Stardust; in his regular getup of worn jeans topped with an array of simple shirts made out of some avant-garde fabric, he’s both attractive and slightly alien. And he has the credentials: after graduating from Carnegie Mellon and studying architecture in Venice under Aldo Rossi, Haeg worked with Cesar Pelli in New Haven and Frederick Fisher in Los Angeles while also teaching at Parsons, USC, Art Center, and CalArts. His layered, narrative-rich work has found a ready place at the Tate Modern, MASS MoCA, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, in Philadelphia, among others; his first book, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn (published by Metrop­olis Books), appeared last month.

But Haeg says, “I like the idea that my projects are better known than I am. More people probably know what the Edible Es-tates project is than who I am, which inverts what’s more common today, where you can know someone really well but have no idea what they’ve ever done.” In an era that loves to make stars, “artists are going to want to circumvent that and posit alternative ways of making art or being creative—for example, does art always have to be solitary?”

Though Haeg approaches his architectural work in a traditional studio way—at least the process is traditional—all of his other work depends on collaboration. “The actual thing I’m making may be quite modest, almost nothing really, like a birdhouse, but then there’ll be all of this focus on it and all of this activity around it.” Animal Estates, which is currently showing at the Whitney Biennial, includes installations of animal homes, Sun­down Schoolhouse Guided Estate Tours led by animal enthusiasts, and weekly performances of animal-inspired move­ments chor­eographed by local dancers. “You take this little thing and you blow it way up,” Haeg says. “You focus all the attention on it and you pick it apart.”

“A lot of my projects are predicated upon contrast and a general ‘What if?’ postulation. You know, ‘What if we grew food here instead of a lawn?’ ‘What if we made a home for animals here?’ So that thought is super impor­tant, and whatever comes from that is fine. Typically what happens when an architect receives a program, or has some active influ­ence in generating a program for a project, usually the attempt is, ‘How do I wrestle with that program and make it mine? How do I con­trol it, define it, and develop it in a way that I bring myself to it?’ But for these projects, the program is the most creative gesture of all. Whatever path it takes beyond that I’m totally open to.”

Most of the things that Haeg brings to a project are variables. First there’s the variable of the open-ended question that begins the process. Then there is the local variable: the participants that he brings in to create the project. With Animal Estates, animal-behavior specialists and zoologists will help determine the types of animals indigenous to each location to build dwellings for and where to place those dwellings. With Edible Estates, families offer up their front lawns and ecologists help determine the types of farm and garden crops that would do best. After that comes the social variable: the network of artists and performers that create events around the project. Finally, there is the greatest variable of all, the audience.

In all of that there remains one constant: the dome. “The thing I love about the dome is that it was invented and not designed,” Haeg says. “To me, it’s emblematic of a real­ly soph­­is­­ticated, thoughtful way of making spaces for people. I like the idea of appropriating it as a readymade in architecture, as opposed to this need to be so powerfully creative that you have to invent a new space each time.”

With its strength, adaptability of form, and optimal surface-area-to-space ratio, Fuller’s geodesic dome retains an integrity of concept even as its structure is ever adaptable, making it the perfect symbol for Haeg’s projects. The Mt. Washington dome house, where Haeg took up residence seven years ago when he moved west from Manhattan, has been the backdrop for almost all of the Sundown Salons and Schoolhouse sessions. The three-tiered structure morphs from an underground cave (Haeg sleeps in a tiny pod reminiscent of a Japanese capsule hotel) to a loftlike kitchen and dining area with million-dollar views to a giant tree house painted shades of blue with random panels open to the sky and a purple octopus mural sprawling across the wooden floor. His spry dogs, Oli and Ivy, perch on adjacent steps of the spiral staircase or rush through the grass­less garden.

The dome becomes a symbolic element in much of his other work. Haeg has four geodesic tents that he uses for his traveling projects. One will be the headquarters for an upcoming Animal Estates installation at SFMOMA, and another acted as display space in a recent MASS MoCA show. “My work would have taken a wildly different direction if I hadn’t moved in this house and had those salons. The schoolhouse, the garden lab, the Edible Estates, my design studio—those things all feed off each other in a way that I never could have preconceived. I think if I’d just done the garden, it would be very easy for that work to be ghettoized as environmental work and not seen as much else. The same if I’d just done the events or the architectural work—it’s very easy for any of those things to be discussed in very narrow terms, and because I do all these different things, the conversation around each one of them is opened up a lot.”

That expanded conversation allows Haeg to draw the interest of more mainstream institutions, such as the Descanso Gardens, a decades-old site near Pasadena, California, more familiar with camellia festivals and watercolor classes than subversive gardening. Now headed by David Brown, former president and CEO of Art Center, Descanso recently invited Haeg to install the exhibition Edible Estate at the entryway. On the highly visible plot of land sits a frame house with a water-guzzling lawn to the east and a garden of edible fruits and flowers to the west. One staffer dubbed it the “polemic garden,” which Brown loves. “It’s artistic, it’s political, it’s cultural, it’s based on the way people use the land,” he says. “Fritz comes from a long lineage of artists who reshaped land as a form of artistic statement, people like Robert Smithson and Richard Long.”

Henriette Huldisch, cocurator of this year’s Whitney Biennial, has been aware of Haeg since friends of hers participated in a salon. “He is extremely interesting and relevant in embracing a number of disciplines in his art practice; he has an architecture background and a very pronounced interest in education. He bridges different artistic disciplines and is always reaching out to a broader general public. He’s invested in social practice and is always anchoring his spectrum of activities in things that will be accessible to a broader public.”

They’re impulses that seem to be reflected in the contemporary-art scene. “There is a pronounced strain in this year’s Biennial that highlights artists that do have a grounding in social practice,” Huldisch says, “that are very invested in locally specific context and community. There is also an emphasis on projects that are ephemeral and time-based, that are community-based, and on initiating projects and setting up structures that will last, which is what Fritz did with the Edible Estates.”

The temporary installation at the Whitney will be an exception to that, but a very visible one. Haeg has charmed the institution into allowing him to flood part of the sculpture court, which sits right above the museum’s art- storage facility, to build a beaver dam. It’s unlikely that a homeless beaver will be waddling down the streets of Manhattan looking for an empty hutch, Haeg admits, but the structure will encourage visitors to think about the animals that once lived on that same spot of land.

Haeg calls his Estates “franchise projects” because they can be applied anywhere. They’re the product of a sort of global localism that draws its meaning from the indigenous. “It’s not predicated on a deep understanding of the city,” Haeg says. “It’s about being in touch with very particular landscape ecologists or animal specialists, so even if I started here in L.A., I probably wouldn’t know what I needed to know and I’d still have to go through those same layers of meeting people.” He attributes his comfort at working that way to his architecture background. “Architects are very comfortable with going to any place in the world and sizing it up based on whatever circumstances they’re interested in looking at, be it history or context, and developing something that’s responsive to that place.”

Though Haeg had done some substantial architectural work, including a just-completed house in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake district, he is moving away from a practice that focuses on architecture. “It’s something I just decided this year—the role of making buildings, it’s just another media, you know? There are some issues or ideas that you can explore uniquely with buildings, and it’s nice to be able to have that. Architecture is the backbone for all the work. It’s a way of operating in the world that infuses everything else I do, so I’m okay with the fact that I’m making buildings only occasionally.”

What the designer retains from his architecture work is another question: How do we live in the world we’ve created? And starting this year he’ll be doing it from a different place: “I’m moving out!” Haeg says. “I’m getting rid of almost all of my possessions except my books and clothes, all of my computers except for my laptop, all of my old crap, and I just want this teeny little place in the woods—at least that’s my fantasy right now.

“This house was perfect for everything that happened here, and now this next phase, I’m not doing these things, which leaves me open to these other ways of practicing that I’m excited about.” A year’s worth of museum commissions will keep Haeg on the road, which means that the dome is officially on the market. For a designer whose work has been so rooted in a particular place, it will be interesting to see what happens when he is untethered.

The freedom won’t last long. Haeg’s hoping that his little place in the woods will become part of his next long-term plan. “It would involve a bunch of people getting property next to each other in a rural environment, being autonomous in some ways, interdependent in others, and possibly off-grid,” Haeg says. Mexico and northern California have been discussed as possible destinations, and a network of potential collaborators is growing. Instead of a retreat from the real world, like hippie enclaves of the previous generation, this would be a lab, a place where scientists and thinkers interested in alternative living could come together to learn from one another and set up independent enterprises. It is a confusing concept, until Haeg puts a name on it: “A capitalist commune,” he says, making the idea immediately familiar and foreign, like the best of his projects.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: January 2008

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