Architecture Is the Clutch

Where ideas hit money and materials and space itself.

McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica (Courtesy Gaelen Marsden/Wikipedia Commons)

This interview with the sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson was conducted in late 2020, a few weeks after the release of his bestselling novel The Ministry for the Future.

Matthew Allen: With the pandemic, the protests and justice movements, and the election, there’s been a lot in the present to deal with, but it feels like soon it will be time to transition out of this emergency mentality. In architecture there’s been a renewed interest in care and maintenance, including maintenance of social life. How might this tie into some of the issues we need to tackle as a species, like the climate crisis?

Kim Stanley Robinson: In the middle of a pandemic it’s impossible, but yes, we’re in a space now where we can think about the future a little bit. I think the old normal is gone, but there will be pressure to capture back sociability. Social justice is very important, and designing for the least amount of carbon burn would be a form of care. The better our design is for not torching the biosphere, the better it’s going to be as human design, so there’s no dichotomy there. Since the front of things that we need to do is so broad, I’m very impatient with arguments of priority. To me architecture is the clutch, it’s where ideas hit money and materials and space itself, the surface of the planet. There’s stupendous constraints on what any architectural group can do, so it strikes me as a bit naïve or overbearing to suggest anything except, “Do the best you can with the various forces and constraints of the project at hand.” But the theory behind it should always be for the lowest carbon burn and hitting all those levels of LEED. I also love the tiny house movement, of stripping down or going light, of doing more with less and getting people sheltered. I’m interested in the material science revolution: using nanofibers, nanotubes, buckyballs to make carbon into building materials of strength and flexibility while dragging CO2 out of the atmosphere.

MA: I’m curious what you think about the figure of the architect. You could say that an architect is like an author or a visionary—or perhaps an architect should be a bureaucrat or a planner?

KSR: I’m reminded of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There’s normal science, and then there’s paradigm-changing science. You might say that there’s the ordinary work of architecture that works with a normal set of standards, materials, and approaches—and then there will be something that destabilizes that and pushes somebody to come up with a new approach. Of course, the normal science or normal architecture keeps going on. I’m very interested in what you call bureaucratic architecture—we also need that. There’s room for both. In something as integral to civilization as architecture is, doesn’t that mean city design and therefore human ecology and biosphere management? I’m thinking of bio-architecture: building your buildings out of giant genetically modified sequoia trees or seashells. The weird interfaces that are going to look like science fiction stories—this idea that you “architect” space itself.

I also think of this culture’s idea of charismatic megafauna…. It’s a model where you personify a field by an individual in it—so you have Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry. There’s only room in the cultural imaginary for one or two per generation. Rem Koolhaas is one, I think. Why they get picked is semi-random, but also there’s a reason. One thing I’ve noticed—and maybe Koolhaas is the best example of it—is that these charismatic figures all turn out to be good writers and good storytellers. They’ve projected a vision in stories that strikes people as new. If you have a vision, you’ve got to communicate it, and that ends up being stories as much as buildings. Do you know Bjarke Ingels? [MA nods].  He’s an acquaintance I like, and he’s made a mark. Do you know Reinhold Martin at Columbia? [Nods again.] It’s funny, because they come at it from different angles, but I’ve learned from both of them.

MA: But is being an author and being an architect really so similar?

KSR: I don’t know. There’s a lot of collaboration in architecture. And to become real in the world as a writer, you actually have to be part of a team. Bjarke has an idea and he’s the one whose name you remember, like you’ll remember the writer’s name, but without that team you don’t have the end product.

I’m noticing this as I’m trying to design a small floating dock, ten foot by twelve foot, at my house in Maine. God damn it, it’s hard! Every dock is individualized to its terrain and its use. And this is a very simple structure.  So there’s a hell of a lot that goes on to making architecture, just like there’s a lot that goes on in writing.

MA: I suppose there’s a range. Koolhaas may show up in the office and direct each team in their design for a few minutes, whereas sole practitioners do most of the work themselves. Just like writing a book: there’s no way around spending a lot of time typing at the keyboard.

KSR: Yeah. In fact, it’s insanely isolated and work intensive. When you talk about Koolhaas, I’m thinking of Rembrandt’s studio—you have a name, but then you also have a workshop and people adding to your process with their own individual creativity. To me, that is anathema. It doesn’t fit my idea of what a writer does. I do think architecture is much more collaborative than writing, and pressed against the realities of money and opportunity.

MA: I suppose writers don’t just sit down and start at the beginning and write until they’re at the end and send it off. A lot of writing is editing, in the same way that a lot of architecture is starting with a basic shape and then filling it in—there is a structure that is fleshed out in an iterative way.

KSR: I often think of my novels as an invisible architecture, and I must say that real architecture must be much more satisfying, because you can actually see it at the end. The invisible architecture in writing eventually gets very amorphous and abstract. You finish a book and send it off, but you have no idea whether you like it or not and you never really get the reader’s point of view on it—not their string of thoughts as they read.

At my place in Maine, the lake front has a rock retaining wall that lays against the slope of the hill as it drops into the lake, and the shore was getting eaten away, so I rebuilt the wall. There’s about 430 stones crossing this lake front. I think of it as a novel made out of chunks of stone, and it’s so satisfying! In fact, it’s like going from being a blind person, and for a month every year I get to have sight and feel and have a body. I can look at what I did and say, “Well, that doesn’t work,” and I can replace it!

So there’s something about architecture that is deeply satisfying in its tangibility and visibility and embodiment. Also people end up using it. You can say, “Well that book was important to me and it changed me,” but again you’re in the realm of abstractions.

MA: I assign chapters from Red Mars and 2312 for my students to read, to make a point about a kind of connection to nature and a vision of architecture that is about forms of life as much as buildings—so I’d say there’s definitely a usefulness to ideas embodied in writing.

KSR: In his dictionary from the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson said, “What’s good in a book is what can be put to use.” This utilitarian value of what you can take out of writing into your life, there must be some similarities there with architecture. It’s just that the abstract nature of words and language, the invisible nature of it has become, over my lifetime—I don’t know what the word is—irritating or painful or frustrating.

There must be something going on with my Mars trilogy, because it’s selling better now than it did when it came out, which is really gratifying. I think it might serve now as an imaginary space to imagine difference. When I was writing the Mars books, I was reading a lot of architectural theory. [Fredric] Jameson was sending me stuff, and I was really interested. What are they going to build on Mars? There must be ten or more cities described in the Mars trilogy that are designed in different ways for different purposes. I remember the Bareiss column from my Mars days. It was designed by an architect. At the top end it is a semi-circle facing north and the bottom end is a semi-circle facing south, and everything is smoothed between them. They’re stupendously beautiful, so I had all of the Mars cities using Bareiss columns instead of Greek columns. Now maybe they’re also gone from the world, because we’re talking about the early ’90s. In fact [the designer of extra-terrestrial habitats] Swan in 2312 exists mostly on my memories of my earlier work, though I had the people from Columbia inviting me out to talk and I saw that there was still utopian architecture going on, and Swan has some new ideas having to do with ecological design.

One thing that really impressed back then me was an article, probably in Science News, about an architect named Paul Sattelmeier who designed the Sattelmeier Disc House. He laid a concrete slab that was circular, divided it in half, and one half was open to the world but roofed—an outdoor living room—while the other half was enclosed and split into a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. So, it was the simplest idea: two discs, a post in the middle, a wall around half of it, and a curtain for weather on the living room side. These things were supposed to be mass-producible, so you could make a disc house in a few days. It seems to me to chime with the tiny house movement—let’s get back to basics and make it simple and cheap and effective so anybody can do it. The old book Appropriate Technology was good on this, and I was also influenced by A Pattern Language.

Right now what I would like to do is just build rock walls. Like in the fourth grade, sort of, when I’d make drawings of the Parthenon and the Pyramids and then the Cathedrals, then build little models of them. Full-sized walls are better. My whole life I’ve been interested in visibility and tangibility.

MA: Why don’t you build some stone retaining walls at your house in California?

KSR: Well, it’s as flat as a tabletop, and I’m actually in an eco-village, a designed space from the ’70s. They were utopian young people with credit cards who bought a tomato field, and they turned it into a kind of suburbia that was designed to be less energy-intensive than ordinary suburbia, and also more communal. You only own the land your house is on and the rest is owned communally, so I have no property that I can do what I want on. I do play around with objects in a kind of sculptural way, not an architectural way. I’ve covered one area with quartzite flagstones in patterns of swirls.

MA: There’s a place called Killarney on the Georgian Bay in Ontario near where I live, which has these incredible quartzite hills surrounded by lakes. The whole landscape is quartzite.

KSR: That would be astonishing to see. Quartzite is an amazing stone, and I love it dearly. When it’s clean, the flagstones made of it are just like semi-precious jewels. This is reminding me, I used to have a habit of visiting places like what you described, except archaeological spaces. I’ve been to the Orkney Islands and seen the stonework there of that Neolithic culture, and it is stunning. Also the island of Crete, which is a wonderland, going from the Minoans all the way through the Turkish and Venetian occupations. Each culture had a different style, each one left behind a huge amount of infrastructure that the Cretans have kept on their landscape as monuments to their past (although a lot of marble got turned into whitewash). Much of it—everything except for the Minoan stuff, which is special as being theirs and old and unique—the rest of it is just out there for people to run into as they will. Even the Roman capital of Crete, you just wander around in an olive grove and then you sort of fall into it by accident.

MA: Not to psychoanalyze, but there’s probably a relationship between utopian or futuristic thinking and this appreciation of ruins, particularly infrastructural ruins.

KSR: I think my science fiction is just history flipped. I think of it as historical fiction, and I’ve always been interested in history and its remains. The tangible remains matter a lot to me, archeology matters.       

One of the places I got interested in talking to Bjarke Ingels about was McMurdo, the Antarctic research station on Ross Island. The National Science Foundation was going to completely tear down the ad-hoc-itecture of this base. In the 1950s researchers had put up a bunch of plywood buildings, and then they never had the money to take anything down. So they ended up with 70 years of crappy little plywood buildings, along with newer concrete buildings that were a bit better insulated. So recently the NSF said, “Well, this is inefficient, so we’re just going to raze the entire town and rebuild.” The new building was going to be like a Walmart warehouse—one big building that would therefore be energy efficient. The human spaces looked like an airport waiting area.

I was added to their panel of advisors and my advice to them was, “Don’t do this! What about your past?” But they were NSF scientists who didn’t give a shit about architecture or history. So I urged them to get Bjarke involved in the design. He would have kept some of the old stuff, and in general done a much better job. I even mentioned it to him, and he said, “Oh that’s interesting. Send them to me!” But they were already well along in their project, and advisors are not usually listened to anyway. Maybe this is the only good thing that Trump administration did: the NSF was so worried that Trump would notice them and simply kill the whole program that they put that McMurdo project on hold. They ducked their heads and said, “Lets keep low and hope not to be noticed.”

MA: There’s a certain architectural skill of making everybody happy but still getting your way.

KSR: Yeah. I’ve seen that in following Bjarke’s work. I’ve seen his big apartment block on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. I saw it from the water and thought, “He’s definitely got an eye.” As a novelist what I like about Bjarke is the idea of just saying yes. You come to a dilemma, and first of all you say yes. As a writer I like it, and as a utopian I love it. Some of his critics seem to be suggesting that you need to be more focused on architecting for the revolution. Well, I say yes to that too. It’s a matter of taking the opportunities of each project in turn.

Matthew Allen’s book, Flowcharting: From Abstractionism to Algorithmics in Art and Architecture, is out now.

Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of twenty-two novels, the most recent being The Ministry for the Future. His non-fiction book, The High Sierra: A Love Story, was published in 2022.