art/design: interview: Robert Stone
Robert Stone is designer from Los Angeles who has recently built a startling place in the desert for people to stay in, and he has another on the way. We explore his background and his thinking ...
You used to be in a Punk band and we're interested in the path from Punk, with its usual disdain for technical refinement, to Design with quite a heavy dose of visual and intellectual refinement. How did you get from one place to the other? Or are the places really one at heart for you?
I am actually feeling really conflicted about the punk background story. I think it is sort of misleading on a superficial level. I have been developing my own architecture for 20 years in a garage in Los Angeles, and I am well aware that I present both new aesthetics and an unfamiliar set of design issues. But, some people, when confronted with that, instinctively look for a biographical explanation rather than do the work to unpack the aesthetics . . . its just so much more comfortable. It doesn't illuminate the finished architecture much, though.
On the other hand, I think you are asking the question in a different way. The only thing that is particularly punk about me is that I still believe in it. I still identify as a punk not because it defines me, but because I consider all that I have learned from it as a debt that must be honored. So to get to your question, Punk actually can be very technically refined, but it is a self critical culture that searches primarily for truth, so technique is never an end in itself. I grew up in a punk scene (Palm Springs, CA mid 80's) where some guys were mixing jazz, space rock and hardcore into a sound that was totally unique. It needed no recognition from the mainstream because its beauty and truth was self-evident to those of us who were there. So, before I even studied architecture, I already had this model of artistic practice that followed and internal compass in an honest and self-critical search for truth.
If my work is, as you say, "intellectually and visually refined", it is partly because it has been developed over many years, using the model of artistic production that I learned from underground music. Nobody cared what I was doing and I didn't care that nobody cared. You can devote a lot more energy to making amazing things if you donât worry about what other people are doing or who is going to like it. I am looking for magic and logic on my own terms. If something leaves the studio at all, it is because I think I found both magic and logic.
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If Punk was a cry from the heart against meaningless consumerism and the sublimation of the individual, quite a few designers have a similar cry but find themselves forced to toe the line to stay alive. How have you managed to stick to such a "pure" path?
Purity in architecture is usually purchased by Daddy's trust fund isn't it? I actually engage the market more than most architects who design their own houses. I built this house with my own labor and bought the materials on credit cards with the faith that a small number of people would like it enough to want to stay in it. If the risk works out I can keep the house and the public can enjoy it. If it doesn't, Citibank has another toxic asset.
Seriously, nobody is forced to toe the line. Lots of architects wait their whole lives until they can safely pursue a dream project without risking their lifestyle, and then find they have nothing unique to say after all. I knew even when I was really young that the trick in architecture is to still have something to say by the time you get experienced enough to be able to build something. I have many sketchbooks full of house designs. . . there is a lot more where this one came from.
The place you've built in the desert, Rosa Muerta, is quite stunning in its look. There's a sort of twisted zen look to it. What were your aims when you designed it?
On the level of program Rosa Muerta is designed for parties, and it is occupied by different people every weekend who each bring their own meaning to the place through their use. I have this idea that unstructured creative fun is somehow transformational and can affect larger cultural change. Rather than being some inward turning architects' vanity project, this house is intended to function as a new kind of self-performance space to be occupied by the public. The fact that the aesthetics are new is important as well. If I had built a typical modern house like we have seen in Dwell every month for the last decade, then people would come out and fulfill a pre-existing narrative of modern lifestyle. As it is, they walk into a place that is like nowhere else in the world, so it offers a clean slate. My guests are great and they each bring unique life to the place and make it their own.
So to create a place that fulfills that promise, I am trying to develop a new architectural vocabulary that relates to the subtleties of the desert landscape, the desert culture, and the times that we live in. I grew up in the desert and I think I can make the most meaningful work in a place that I understand intuitively. I think of it like language. I can ask where the train station is in Japan, but in SoCal, I speak the native language, and I can speak and understand with subtlety, intelligence, grace and even silence.
When I set out to create my own architecture, rather than looking at what everyone else was doing and carefully positioning myself to be just different enough for marketing purposes and still have a shot at mainstream success. I just started with what was around me, with the things that I know best and love the most. I tried to figure out why, and I combined and transformed them in ways that were meaningful to me. Over time an aesthetic developed that was more than the sum of its parts and could keep me interested. I believe that people are smart and intuitive enough to at least recognize that core of fascination in my work. I love my work. You probably don't, but at least I do. . at least somebody does. I think that is missing in a lot of architecture.
The Vacancy Motel is an interesting project. Would you tell us more about it? Do you think that the idea of it is more important than any actual buildings might be?
Free time is the enemy of the state. The Vacancy Motel was a design and business plan whose final goal was to detour vacation time into subtle a social revolution. I presented it in museums in Los Angeles and Miami in 2001. The whole thing is designed as a flexible framework to support a continuous party. Open social situations are where change occurs and things move forward on both a personal and social level. The secret that revolutionaries won't tell you is that street protests are a lot like parties. I think it can also work the other way around.
The place does not even begin to fulfill its potential as art until it is built, and occupied, and affects life outside itself. If anything I think it is less successful as âonlyâ art. It staked out a new realm for art to move into, engaging real estate, business planning, and marketing all in service of a social experiment. But because it was presented as art, people seemed to always think it was a concept as opposed to being real. I wrote a one hundred page business plan and pro-forma and flew around to meetings with hospitality industry capitalists. But when I was in the art world I was constantly having to reiterate that it could be art and also be real. I know that the mainstream culture tries to ghetto-ize art, but I was surprised to see how the art world has internalized those assumptions. There are also a lot of architectural propositions built into the sections and plans that can only be felt in real space. I consider classic Minimalism (the real thing in art, not the silly architectural version) to be a basic set of experiments into the subject-object relationship, and I have tried to build on those experiments and consider their social and cultural components as well. The Vacancy Motel design is embedded with the knowledge gained from a lot of those experiments but nobody will know until it is built. And in case you can't tell, I have not given up on getting it done.
What have you got in the melting pot?
I am finishing a second house in the desert called Acido Dorado. I have a gallery show that I haven't found the right place for yet. I also have a wonderful son named Ford and beautiful wife named Amy that I love dearly and will be spending more time with.
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