Practice: Living and Learning Community

AIA Minnesota Keynote Speaker - 2012

(Many of the images I will show through the first half of this talk are of the remote studio experience)

Tonight’s talk is divided into two parts, a preamble of my beliefs followed by the activities that engage in these beliefs.

The Philosopher Alfred Whitehead claimed that each civilization is defined by its ENGAGEMENT in the qualities of TRUTH, BEAUTY, ADVENTURE, ART AND PEACE.

Where does architecture fit within these qualities?
I believe that in the purest sense architecture is ART

I mention Whitehead’s concerns not only because these engagements are tied to qualities of civilization but also to Creativity and Practice., And I believe Whitehead described these engagements through “positive” terms of practicable qualities because our species always reaches toward an ideal.

Most engagements that we strive towards, Progress and evolution, for instance, is thought about in positive and ideal terms.

This “reaching” is an ancient imbedded characteristic….(because they support a life long pursuit rather than something that is achieved through a single occurrence. )

We must “practice” toward engagement, it doesn’t simply occur.

PRACTICE is a repetition of an action.

Seems straight forward in such general terms but I would like to consider the activity of practice in relation to the creation of built environments.

Ultimately, the reason we practice something is so that we become “good” at an activity or behavior.

Yet, the process of practice in the broader perspective is rarely recognized, discussed or appreciated, as if the END – the product, the Thing – somehow arrives on its own.

We rarely honor or discuss practice when we are appreciating “achievements”:

we simply want record-breakers, home-runs and Golden Globes, and…
the end event, action or thing.

Before, or after, or in the between…we tend to ignore, or under value..

But if practice is actually valued as a continuum instead of what arrives at an “end”

then we understand that our practice is a way of being and doing that “constructs” who we are.

Who we become / and what we do / comes through practice.

For instance, most of us need to practice at improving a characteristic trait every day.

Such as, being thoughtful or patient. In this sense, to become the person we want to be, we cannot point to one act of thoughtfulness or patience, but a lifetime of practicing.

And when we look back upon our lives we can recognize our qualities that are practiced the most.

The greatness that results from the practice of life is not the achievement of the individual or the ARTIFACT we make,

but the interrelations we have -.

How we help our community recognize the world around them, to stay engaged in the world.

I believe the degree of our engagement in the world relates to the best qualities of civilization.

I would like to focus for a moment on Adventure, the act, in the arrival of something important for society, it is the seeking out of chance.

( The TURE part of the word, tells us the intent of the activity is to be understood and experienced as a cultural contribution, not a total benefit to the INDIVIDUAL.)

as WHITEHEAD points out: Adventure is an engagement for a cultivation of a people.

It is the Adventure that defines us – not necessarily an end, because we never really know an END>

ADVENTURE is without guarantee,

and holds within it the potential for success or failure

Adventure is an act, process – a practice toward an unknown and particular achievement. Involving our intervention, interaction, and interpretation of the World in which we live.

From this point of view. We need to live not in fear of what we don’t know, but engage in the realm of adventure for what can come.

I think about Odysseus whom Homer created in our image, the Odyssey provides an allegory of human life and experience.

They are mythic – superhuman experiences that we tie to our mortal and moral lives.

The mythic experience of Odysseus provides a narrative from which the experiences of universal love, hate, pain and recovery are portrayed.

They unfold a WORLD VIEW, practices, beliefs of a particular Civilization.

the Odyssey in not conveyed through facts or data, instead it is written in allegory , a more inclusive language (like poetry) that allows us to envision our own adventures as a way to discover ourselves, our truth, and the path we must take to fulfill ourselves, our communities, honor our lives, aspiring to TRUTH, BEAUTY, ADVENTURE, ART AND PEACE…

Most of us choose a designing life because we want to positively effect how people engage in Life experiences.

We spend a lifetime believing this: that what we create can make a positive difference in the world, and That we contribute positively to the community in which we live.

I believe, at its best, practice and the creative process. Is a form of Adventure

However, too often today I believe as a profession we are looking for security instead of adventure – we are holding onto what we know, what we learned in school, a pattern of repeatability –

when instead we should be embracing the unknown – not only for ourselves – in order to remained engaged in our world and practice,

but specifically because our community and economic climate has changed.

It seems that, along the way, we became bogged down in the myth of service and our economic system. (our way of producing goods and services…)

Certainly people are served by the artifacts we make,
But I do not believe the utilitarian identity of service best represents or communicates what we have to offer our communities or the achievements of a civilization.


How do we create places that engage them in the world, and that retain cultural value?

First we must remain engaged in the world and recognize the need for our own practices to be committed and engaged in the /community in which we live.

Ultimately our practice can be a form of activism that we cast from the nature of our lives, that in turn engages our community in ADVENTURE .

Davinci – when thinking about the creative act recognized that there are two natures. First nature and second nature.

DaVinci’s Concern for the artist as creator of Second Nature, is the creation of interconnectedness we experience that is expressed between imagination and reality.

I think about someone who inspired me, …Samuel MOCKBEE. practice.
Mockbee’s life is a great example of a continuous practice – that evolves and becomes more refined as he recognized how he could best accomplish his world view. The creation of Rural Studio enabled him to teach students of noble actions while empowering the community he was committed to.

I have been thinking of my life in terms of a continuous practice how my life relates to art and adventure and then reflecting on these beliefs, considering them not only relative to my professional choices – but of who I am and what I believe about the world.

I grew up in rural Texas.
It is an experience that sensitized my understanding and phenomenal sense of the world.
From the landscape to the way people made their lives…experiences in wild and undeveloped landscapes, simpler, hand – made lives.

I think back to memories that remain the touchstones for my current identity and developing world view and I recall three actions I created with a group of friends when I was in College. (1,2,3)

1. Chalk board – was notification, or communicating with my community
2. Garbage bags – was an effort to challenge what we think art is
3. Graphic banner – was a challenge to our assumptions, what we believe we know

All were actions based on beliefs about being in the world and how to engage in and effect the world around me. I find my current work rooted in these actions I took many years ago.

Of course the more we practice, and reflect, being clear about our worldview, the more critical our practice becomes…

Today I am here speaking to you as an adventurist and activist.

My beliefs/world view has become more “filled in” – defined…

All activism is founded on Ethics.

Historically ethics, All ethics rest upon the single premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.

The part of the equation that is in flux is the identity of community, what is in FLUX changes in our minds and then our behaviors.

From my point of view.

I believe we can no longer live as we have,

that our responsibilities extend beyond the human species. (seem obvious? I don’t believe it is, or we would not be living as we are- because our preferences and practices largely focus on the human population.

We typically view ethics as human to human membership.

My world view and practice grows from a perspective similar to Aldo leopold’s LAND ETHIC.
Leopold expanded the concept of community to include: souls, water, plants, and animals THE LAND.

Simply stated, Leopold believed That we need to shift out perception away from the land as resource to LAND _ and all its parts / being a fully interdependent community, with us a part of the community.
Each having inherent value.

This belief would bring us to a new way of understanding ourselves in the world, and the action/doing/living/making.

the world that would result would be quite different.

Back to what I do, how I create engagement.

Artemis Institute / Remote Studio

When I began the research that led to the development of Remote Studio, I was exploring Beauty. Beauty as transcendence of “Feeling a part of”

think of a piece of art that moves you …But beauty wasn’t a topic for research for 1995.
Because we were still struggling with the need to quantify everything,

Since that time the – unspeakable has become speakable.once again.

Remote Studio is largely about helping people (students) gain greater engagement with the world through immersions in first nature/wilderness, through transcendental experiences of belonging –

to gain empowerment – learning the value of beauty, and gaining confidence through practicing how they understand the world that they can then take into the larger world.

Remote Studio’s obvious educational experience is brought to university students.

Less obvious, but no less critical is the experience and effect of the student’s work upon the community where they design and build.

When I founded Artemis Institute I chose to situate remote studio in the rural wildland interface not only to benefit the education of students. But to benefit the experience of rural communities, to provide places of civic engagement – which is often under developed due to the rural nature of these places.

To extend the places for civic engagement – and who is involved in this engagement . Thinking back to Leopold’s ethics of community being interdependent and not human specific.

These landscapes, when influenced with the student’s designs provide an experience for us as “part of the whole World” not simply a member of humanity.

Moving Beyond our individuality.

The Remote Studio projects – as they are practiced by the students- and experienced by others – achieve this experience by bringing us and our creative expression into context with the natural world.

Not experiencing the natural world as an object to be LOOKED at, but to be OF the place. Interconnected.

In her book, The Lure of the Local, Lucy Lippard describes the difference between creative work that is about place from that which is of place.

This is an important distinction for the work of Remote Studio.

ABOUT Is more like a summary, that describes a situation, “I was thinking about you”.

OF: is the relationship between a part and a whole: “the sleeve of his coat”.

The difference between about and of for our built environment is of critical matter when considering that – as I mentioned at the beginning, the environment we experience and make our lives in – effects our engagement in the world.

If we are simply making summaries of experiences about a place, we never arrive at the Necessity of the place, its truth, realness, actuality – as we experience the world.

To create of the place we must take “emotional possession” of the place, making it our own. letting go of the loyalty to (facts) as we know it.

Richard Hugo, who discusses this issue for poets, says that “if you have no nostalgic sense of the place, we more easily invest in the language of expression.

This is the point where personal myth making (such as Mockbee, Holl or Mercutt) arises, we know our place, but by loosening the facts of it, we can create something that belongs to it. We embark on an adventure that becomes the place. We engage in a practice with a place and the expression that results is both specific and universal as an experience,

The response embodies the place, while at the same time it calls out something beyond the place, the timeless, the boundless universal qualities.

For me, this is where beauty arises in the work of Remote Studio.


AS students at remote studio begin their adventure, they also begin practices that connect them to the place in which we are living.

Because the students are considering the interrelationship of the land and animals, conservation and preservation comes naturally, material use and reuse is obvious to them.

They design with the intent of realigning our sense of belonging to something greater than humanity – extending our sense of community .

The work of Remote Studio – part building, part landscape, part intervention, provide context for an expanded sense of civic engagement not only by what they are, but how they are placed and given place with the land, and how they teach of environmental conservation, sensitive use of resources, and sustainable concepts.

To better explain their work, I would like to show you a few Projects completed over the last several years located at the environmental interface between the rural and wild.

Pine Creek Pavilion (2006)

Untrammeled gateway
Forest service public use for all

Fitting within a historic place without being nostalgic

Fully accessible

Interpretations of use


Trees, steel, rammed earth, concrete

City of Livingston Reflection Point and Sanctuary park (08-10)

Greatest challenge to anticipate use in a loosely configured


Engaging as many senses as possible.

Sound, touch, sight, and smell

How to experience and understand the landscape.

Scale of intervention

to blend with place helps us experience that we are a part of place

materials, steel, willow, wood, steel grate

landscape to take over.

Natural Playgrounds – (12, in Jackson)

Children spending too much time indoors

Experiencing “tamed” nature or none at all.

These environments serve as a bridge between their “tamed” to “wild” experiences.


Larger parklands


Some years ago a community project was to design and build a Quail Watching “station.” When the structure was near completion and we had left for the evening a camper in the campground went to explore the pavilion and watch the quail in the evening. What he told me of this experience was that

” he sat in the pavilion as the sun was setting to wait for the quail to come down the hillside. When sitting in the carved out space and looking at the surrounding land at eye level he said he felt that he was a part of the place.”

The visitors experience of the pavilion was not of how pretty or well constructed the pavilion is, but how he felt that he belonged to the place.

It is this sense of belonging that provides an engagement with a larger community. Engagement with community provides a sense of value and necessity for something other than ourselves.

These experiences engender a sense of responsibility and CARE.

Remote Studio aims toward helping students gain a sense of themselves in relation to the meaningful qualities of humanity, not simply learn how to build, not simply learn how to draw or estimate, or work in a cooperative professional manner.
But to live lives that seek a deeper sense of them selves to bring forth the potential greatness of the community in which they live.

This sense and experience is critical if we are to move from a people who reside over the world to one that belongs to the world.

I began this talk with Whitehead’s concern for civilization’s engagement in TRUTH- BEAUTY- ADVENTURE- ART- PEACE, . I believe that these are worthwhile qualities to reach toward. To practice…

We must all be engaged in our communities to recognize the need for change and which changes are critical.

We must act more on our beliefs, seek out adventure and rely less on the patterns we know.