Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Garland Fielder Weighs In on Architectural Design and the Creative Process - Interview

Garland Fielder studio shot 2022

...Hell yea, Garland. I happen to consider architecture the most sublime of human expression... (Virginia Billeaud Anderson - BoudinandBourbon.com interviews Garland Fielder about his architectural design practice and the creative process. Fielder's ARChouse unleashes architecture, art and music.)

Garland Fielder Weighs In on Architectural Design and the Creative Process - Interview

It takes balls to fiddle with Plato. That's what I thought the day I saw Garland Fielder’s graphite drawings inspired by Platonic solids at Anya Tish Gallery. It was in 2009, I think. Pondering Plato’s notion of absolute timeless reality, Fielder devised a tetrahedron with red lines on blackish ground. Spare and elegant, it yielded a purity aligned with Plato’s insistence that God loved geometry.

Recently I encountered Fielder at a Menil Collection media preview. And was intrigued to learn he had been practicing architectural design. He invited me to his studio. He designed it.

Hell yea, Garland. I happen to consider architecture the most sublime of human expression. Our visit inspired this interview.

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: Looks like you suspended art making, writing and teaching for about four years to complete a Masters of Architecture at the University of Texas in Austin.

Garland Fielder: Things turned out that way, but at the time I was naive enough to think I could continue making art and complete the masters. And Masumi and I were overwhelmed. Our son Kai was a toddler. Architecture school is notoriously difficult, for anyone, with insanely long studio hours. At first, it felt like my art background was a detriment, even though I was accepted into the program based solely on my studio practice up to that point--all art and absolutely no conception of what architectural design really meant. I later came to understand my background as an asset, but it was a long haul. In fact, I think I made one painting in those 3.5 - 4 years, and it was a mess! BTW, I’m not yet a licensed architect. I passed my exams but didn’t complete all the intern hours needed to get licensed. As an “architectural designer,” I can legally design single family residences in this state.

VBA: You’re in high-fallutin company. Gehry’s son Sam is an architectural designer, cranking it out alongside Frank. When during your studio practice did you begin to think about studying architecture?

GF: I began to get interested in installation-based art while finishing my graduate studies at the University of North Texas. The non-objective, geometric based work I made seemed to want to explore its surroundings, so to speak. I was influenced by Paris-based Swiss artist Felice Varini’s contextualized installations that “clicked” into composition only from one specific vantage point. Masumi and I were somewhere in France looking for one we had read about, and were in the wrong place but didn’t know that, and thought perhaps we had seen it. That scavenger hunt type of art viewing, with the winner finding the correct vantage point, brought home the absurdity of the art world. On some level, making art is absurd. The deeper you go into the art world miasma, the more absurd it gets. But I love that. It got me thinking about how utility and art are at such odds and why that might be. Architecture seemed like a logical next step.

ARChouse, exterior view, Houston, Texas.
Garland Fielder’s architectural design studio
Rendering of Pool Cabana. Floor to ceiling
windows define an elegant pool-side space.
Casita Vista interior shot. Small house behind
 the pool compliments the main house

VBA: After practicing both fine art and architectural design, are the processes similar?

GF: I think fine art and architecture have similar processes. In both pursuits, one works within certain parameters in order to accomplish something. Inspiration is essential to both. Without it, you get shit, but inspiration is different from actually doing the work. A completed project in an artist’s studio or a design firm involves trial and error. You learn by making mistakes. With increased production, hopefully as you learn from mistakes, you build your practice upon that. Both architecture and art are difficult vocations, but each with caveats. However, by treating art with a sense of utility and architecture with a sense of wonder, a sort of reversal of expectations, I found I can remain productive in both.

VBA: I note a parallel with Philip Johnson. Before turning himself into a guru of modern architecture, he completed a philosophy degree at Harvard, with a concentration in Greek and Latin. It’s interesting you studied philosophy at the University of St. Thomas before going to graduate school in North Texas. When I was in graduate school at UST I often wondered if the philosophy department tried to saddle philosophy majors with Thomistic thought. Any links between your philosophy background and architectural design?

GF: I went to the University of St. Thomas for a couple of years and ended up getting a joint degree in philosophy and creative writing. I was really interested in religion at that time. But I was also a literature nut, and read all the classics I could. I had a great teacher, Dr. Janet Lowry. Her style of poetry really influenced my writing, confessional stuff, free form. I loved it and it was a great complement to the philosophy as it was taught at UST, which was dogmatic and really not too concerned with modern, let alone, contemporary philosophy. Coupling those two disciplines was a precursor, I suppose, to my coupling of art and architecture, and music, although I didn’t realize it. Seems I’m interested in too many different things to be content in one field.

VBA: The creative writing background sheds light on your art criticism. Years ago I came upon your Norman Bluhm review. I’m generally not a fan of art criticism. So much of it is mouthy and high blown. Your article however was superb, in fact I dissected it. Does writing relate to architectural design?

GF: Thank you. That Bluhm show moved me. As you know, writing is a process of flow. I write about art that demands to be written about, at least to me. It is weird, but when I see such a show, I know it right away and it is really pretty easy to get the first impression down. However, the real craft in writing is the editing process, the molding of an essay to speak economically and with wit or panache or whatever, that’s the art of writing. I love that part. It’s about iterations. And design is about this as well. Walking a client through a schematic design and explaining the flow of the project is a major part of the process. You tweak all along the way until all the components serve the design, the linking of it all, that’s the beauty and the beast when it comes to design. With any creative pursuit, you have to be the director, you have to know at all times the forest from the trees, otherwise, you will have intuition, but no framework to apply it.  Anything good you come up with is more by chance than design.

Elisabeth Mladenov’s abstract paintings in
exhibition “Fountain” at ARChouse

VBA: Handling of light is a primary element in your design. Say something about designing space to optimize light.

GF: I consider light to be the most important aspect of architectural design when it comes to experiencing the space. When light is treated as a primary principle of design and controlled and utilized in ways that make sense, rather than ignored, or disrespected by budgetary dictates, it changes the environment, and enhances our engagement with the space. Light can be manipulated to create mood. It affects our psyche irrespective of our awareness. The Swiss architect Peter Zumthor considered light one of the uber materials a designer uses to profoundly affect the subconscious of users of a space. In this, designers are working at an elevated level.

VBA: You stated materials are a cornerstone of your design. What specifically do you want readers to know about your use of materials?

GF: I try to stick to material pallets that are minimal and intentional. And contextual. I believe choosing the right materials for a project is fundamental to design. So much of what is built has slick refined materials chosen because of big bucks. It takes inspiration to make profound choices that maintain a worthwhile material presence, while keeping the project within budget. Those fights are always worth the sacrifice, in my opinion. When the choices succeed, it leads to deep trust. I’m thinking of Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica house, for instance. You can see his vision remain consistent from the early work all the way through to what he does on a mega-scale today. Inspiration is what drives his choices.

Garland Fielder

On the topic of Gehry, that guy was a jack of all trades, obligingly designing coffee tables or couches or lamps for clients. And, their experiences with art and music were integral to his designs. Your design philosophy seems to be totally in sync with this. ARChouse, the studio you designed and built in Houston’s First Ward,
accommodates multiple creative threads. It’s an architectural design studio, a place to meet with clients, to generate floor plans, create 2D and 3D views, to create renderings, build models, run cost estimates, and all the additional services such as project management, digital conceptualization and site specific installations. Equally, it’s a place to exhibit fine art, yours and that of other artists. And, a place for making and recording and performing music.

GF: Yes, ARChouse represents the design philosophy that underlies my practice. I use the term “inclusive” to describe the various streams of content I am involved in creating at one time. Using a design software like Revit, or working on a photo-realistic drawing or manipulating audio tracks in post-production all seem to employ similar methodologies. Not only are there software similarities, but similar slates of concentration are demanded. It’s as though once my mindset is in the correct place, the disciplines could be interchangeable. Good content happens if the mind is in the right focus. A long standing ethos of mine is to remain a lifelong student. With that, I am referring to a state of mind which is open, unclouded by preconceptions, if possible. I make a real effort to get there in one way or another, everyday in the studio.

Spatial configurations of his site specific installations
led Fielder to architectural design

VBA: How do you market, besides social media and word of mouth?

GF: That is a good question. I am trying to enlarge my presence on social media, which isn’t a part of the business that comes naturally to me. Lately, I have spent on promotion. I used to naively think that if the work is good, it will succeed. Well, it is in part true that making good work is an end unto itself, but one craves exposure. All artists do. I’ve tried to learn from colleagues who use social media how they express themselves as artists. Some found much success that way. I can’t help but still remain a bit circumspect. On the other hand, in person, I think I am a good advocate for my own services. Talking about art/architecture/music, whatever, comes easy to me. I enjoy the dialogue very much and I think people looking for an architect respond warmly to hearing me speak about it. Certain clients seem especially excited about that multidisciplinary approach I’m cultivating. Those are my demographic, obviously.

VBA: Richard Meier believed design required helping clients through the soul searching process of knowing who they are, and how they will inhabit a space. He advised architectural students to never abandon their drawing skills, despite the computer. Your drawings reach a level of skill that would unnerve Meier. Tell readers about your upcoming exhibition.

GF: My show Bunker Melodies will be at G Spot Contemporary Art Space on September 3 through September 27, 2022. The opening is Saturday, September 3, 6-8pm, with a musical performance at 8pm. The show revolves around bunkers, fortifications from throughout history. Drawings, paintings and sculptures will exist together in the space. Collectively, they will represent various interpretations of bunkers; some are more iconic, some banal. Some will be heavily abstracted. I believe bunkers are a good symbol of today’s zeitgeist. Our own anxiety has become a bunker of sorts, one of our own making and one that demands to be addressed. These monolithic oddities can be considered caricatures of ourselves. My fine art practice allows me to weave a different kind of narrative, free from the confines of physics and code. My shows are meant to serve as reminders of ritual. I like that much of my art looks like it could serve some function in a sacrament of an unknown religion. I composed a musical score for the show that will be performed at the opening, adding another stream to the mix.

Masumi Kataoka and Garland Fielder
performing live as “Phil Spectral,” 2022
Studio shot of Garland Fielder recording
 at ARChouse, 2022
Garland Fielder, “Cube,” wood, paint,
hardware, 16 x 16 x 16 inches, 2021

VBA: Let’s talk about the music you compose, record and perform at ARChouse. What’s your instrument?

GF: I started learning the bass when the quarantine hit. I was determined to learn how to play it, but with little understanding of what that meant. I started composing songs around bass riffs that I got comfortable with, but quickly realized I needed to understand theory to progress. So I jumped into that side of it. Learning scales/arpeggios/key signatures/etc... That became Pandora's box of musical opportunity. My bass technique improved based on my understanding of theory, and my understanding of theory improved as my bass playing did.

Luckily, Masumi likes to play with me. She understands theory much better, she played piano and was in band in high school in Japan. After decades, she is now re-engaged with music. She plays a Korg Minilogue analog polyphonic synthesizer. We share time on a Korg Electribe sequencer. I play electric bass with synth pedals along with the sequencer. Another synth player and a clarinetist join us. We focus on improvised compositions rather than pre-composed works. We call this project “Phil Spectral,” a nod to the legendary producer and super weirdo, Phil Spector. His "wall of sound" inspires me. We have two albums out on Spotify/Bandcamp/Soundcloud.

For me, music and design succeed when I am process oriented, rather than goal orientated. Architectural design becomes problematic if I think of it as a product instead of a service. I learned at UT Austin that good design exists in a constant feedback loop. My openness to that feedback makes me a better designer. It’s like practicing scales and arpeggios and stuff that seems laborious, well, it's that stuff that allows for creative expression on the instrument. Meaning, the goal is the expression itself, not the song that results. A realized design, a completed house, for example, feels anticlimactic, and I remain fixated on the actual design, and can’t distance myself from it. It’s the same dull payoff for an art exhibition, which brings a particular creative endeavor to a screeching halt. The doing is the thing. Otherwise I’m screwed because my music, art or architectural design get stale. Creative people understand this. It might sound like elitist bullshit but it’s my heartfelt belief about the creative process. So in my design, I remain open and in awe, and embrace the whole process. The wonder of it humbles me.

Garland Fielder, “German Bunker, Atlantic Wall 03,”
 graphite on paper, 30" x 22", 2021
Garland Fielder, “German Bunker, Atlantic Wall 03,”
graphite on paper, 30" x 22", 2021
Garland Fielder, “German Bunker - Atlantic Wall 01,”
graphite on paper, 22” x 30”, 2020


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