This week, DLA connected with Ilaria Mazzoleni and Deborah Weintraub – architects living and working in Los Angeles – about their committed work for Nature, Art and Habitat, a non-profit organization based in northern Italy, with a substantial presence here in Los Angeles.
Ilaria, could you tell us about the Nature, Art and Habitat Residency (NAHR)?
IM: Nature Art and Habitat Residency (NAHR) is an Eco-laboratory of Multidisciplinary Practice located in the Italian Alps. It is dedicated to the environment and creativity, to the intersection of science and the arts. NAHR aims to reveal and display a culture sensitive to nature as a source of inspiration, and as a gauge of health and wellbeing. NAHR invites people to move out of their comfort zone, out of the urban setting and into nature, into places in which the human can still feel like a part of nature rather than as the OTHER.
NAHR was born to bring people together to be in nature and to explore the culture-nature relationship firsthand through a summer residency program. Founded in 2015 by the will and support of a small group of invested volunteers, under the guidance of the Italian architect Alessandro Mendini, NAHR has grown over time to have multiple programs hosted in Italy and in Los Angeles, where some of the key players reside.
Deborah, how and why did you get involved with this Organization based in a far and distant Italian village?
DW: I met Ilaria a long time ago, here in Los Angeles. Our professional friendship finds common ground in our commitment to sustainability. Since that first meeting, we have kept in touch, and 3 years ago, while visiting Italy for the Venice Biennale, Ilaria invited me to join the NAHR Workshop on the theme of Water. The workshop took place in the rural setting of the Italian Alps, and included local scientists describing how the world-renowned San Pellegrino water emerges from a spring after percolating through rocks for 30 years. I presented the work I have been doing the last 18 years on the Los Angeles River for the City of Los Angeles. For me, there were intriguing conceptual commonalities to the scale of the discussion of water in the Alps with the LA River and its transformation. I was excited by NAHR’s focus on combining nature, science, art, and design. I was hooked, and when Ilaria asked me to join the scientific committee, I was honored and excited.
You both are architects, but you said NAHR is a multidisciplinary think tank. Are other disciplines a part of NAHR?
IM: Correct. NAHR is consciously structured to host multidisciplinary dialogues that include the sciences, the humanities, the applied and performing arts, and architecture. Our leadership and core interlocutors reflect this multidisciplinary commitment. Let me mention them: our President Gabi Scardi is a prominent independent art curator based in Milano; Enrico Bassi is a biologist based in the Italian Alps; Asli Suner is an architect based in Istanbul; and Dan Disney is an Australian poet living in Seoul. There are several other people with a variety of expertise. They include geologists, anthropologists, writers, dancers, and artists, and their individual voices contribute to shaping each year’s topic. It is this richness of building an ever-growing diverse community that nurtures the practices of the NAHR residents. I firmly believe that architectural thinking must expand its frontiers in the face of the environmental crisis, including the recent pandemic. I feel the dialogue with the various disciplines is critical in forming the way I practice architecture. It is also an inclusive structure that mimics our philosophical commitment to coexistence at the core, and to exploring climate change and social change in the age of the Anthropocene.
How does NAHR contribute to the architectural discourse?
IM: NAHR was consciously formulated to encourage exploration of the rural/urban codependency. Architecture has focused most recently on urban life, and we wanted to expand that lens. The setting for the residency is a historically rich region where one can physically see how the rural/urban codependency has evolved and reflect on how it might in the future improve in terms of nurturance of the planet. It is rich in physical, social, economic and artistic manifestations of the rural/urban connection, and in that sense, is a provocative context for this dialogue.
DW: Each year a topic that relates to the natural elements (water, rocks, grasses, woods, animals) provides the basis for the field investigations that the fellows produce, each in their particular medium. During their month-long residency, fellows use their field research as a source of inspiration for the production of site-specific work. The work emerges very much from being in this extraordinary physical location. It is a physically based analysis and response. The importance of this cannot be overstated, and as an architect, this is perhaps a key premise that Ilaria and I bring from our professional training, a training very much focused on place. The residency is an opportunity to step back from the economic pressures that drive our work. Even for those of us deeply committed to sustainability, it is often hard to keep that primary motivation front and center. At NAHR the departure point is nature, and the end point is nature.
In our current condition, confined by the global pandemic, what is most striking is how quickly nature can recover from man’s abuses, and how quickly nature takes back human spaces. Learning from this grand experiment in limiting man’s impact on our planet will hopefully be a key outcome of this virus.
I read that 2020 NAHR’s topic is Animals: Interdependence between Species, correct?
IM: Yes, how timely, right!? The call included the following questions: In what ways can we envision a post human-centered world in which all living organisms could coexist? We are inspired by this quote from Giorgio Agamben that says, “…the relations between animals and men will take on a new form, and man himself will be reconciled with his animal nature.’’ We feel this prompts several important questions:
How do we define boundaries between species that depend on each other?
How can we develop our ability to interact with the non-human in non-visual ways?
Can we learn to build in a manner more attuned to the environment?
Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit the Italian village where NAHR is based very hard, and with all the uncertainties we have postponed the 2020 program until 2021. We felt that NAHR could offer something NOW to the discussion of how our cities and our lives will be transformed by this pandemic.
So with Asli, Gabi, and others, we developed a digital call to submit on this year’s topic that is entitled NAH_Remote: Reflections – Coexistence in Times of COVID 19, still with the interdependence between species as the core. Central to this call was input from Jose Herrasti an architect in Los Angeles (an LAForum Board Member), and Noah Mercer a software designer in Los Angeles. Anyone is welcome to contribute a reflection in any medium at: email@example.com. We meet every weekend via Zoom to discuss how urban lives have been reshaped by the pandemic.
These are urgent and important questions. NAHR works by participation and through the sharing of available resources, both intellectual and material. This is the essence of our commitment towards building a fair and sustainable future for all living organisms.