By David Paul*
North America’s desert invites excess, evades academics
From Burning Man to ballistic missile silos, the American desert as
a capital of excessive activity and destination as a void is the
subject of a new book whose publisher recently held a related
discussion at Columbia University.
ACTAR, a Barcelona-based publisher who also opens a New York office
this month, co-sponsored the discussion, which was timed with the
release of its book, Desert America.
Not surprisingly, ACTAR director Michael Kubo and another
collaborator on the book were the most engaging speakers of the
program on the phenomenon behind extreme uses of the desert ranging
from a location of temporary utopias to nuclear testing sites.
It turned out to be a stifling subject for invited architecture
professors from Columbia and Rice who took part in the program and
reached for autobiographical experiences as they often struggled. One
professor even shared that contemplating the desert evoked from her
feelings of “dismay and personal depression.”
Despite its outward appearance, Kubo, the first presenter, pointed
out, the desert in North America is full of activity, “different
parallel activity … that encompasses everything from oasis of
entertainment to consumerism to the secret staging of military power,
and so the most seemingly environment turns out to be an ideal
setting for actions.”
Where nothing exists, anything can happen, he explained. “The book is
about this chemical reaction between the raw material of the
landscape and the modern science that has occupied it.” The
protagonists are made up of engineering feats such as the Hoover Dam
and the clearly negative aspects include secret Cold War technology
research conducted there.
Kubo mentioned the instant desert city, from the very temporary one
created annually at Burning Man, to the rapidly growing Phoenix with
its swaths of non-native lawns, and asked what was the difference
between the two.
Kazys Varnelis, director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia
and a collaborator of the book, spoke after Kubo and discussed
subjects he covers: a seasonal RV city and private space exploration.
“The desert becomes a destination because it is a void,” Varnelis
explained. Proof can be found every winter when an estimated one
million people neatly line 94 square kilometers with their RVs in
It is notable to Varnelis, who seems to have studied the roughly
decade-old gathering for a number of years, as a place of exceptional
population density and little waste.
The seasonal community is centered by a rock and mineral show that
becomes a part of the economy in the temporary town. In many ways
class and economies are otherwise undone, Varnelis explained,
pointing out $300K rigs and truck bed campers parked next to each other.
Relocating in the park is largely based on the capacity of waste
tanks of the self-contained rolling homes, another somewhat
interesting aspect of Quartzsite.
On the ground, the environment is seemingly anti-aesthetic, Varnelis
said, adding that none of the students he has taken to visit
Quartzsite have wanted to do a project on the community. He recalled
one student saying, “I think I’d rather do a cemetery.”
Another segment of the book Varnelis wrote on involved the Mojave
Desert as a one-way destination for retiring jets, as well as the
birthplace of private space travel.
After X-prize winner, Spaceship 1, completed the first private space
flight, billionaire Richard Branson invested in the project. Varnelis
said Branson’s company, Virgin, has invested in providing civilian
space travel and has already started booking flights.
With that, Michael Bell, associate professor of architecture at
Columbia, told the audience his presentation would weave in the
autobiographical. His father, he explained, was an electronics
engineer who worked on projects for NASA.
One of the photos showed the elder Bell placing a payload for a
satellite into a Ford Galaxy 500. He explained that often the
engineers traveled with the equipment themselves, not trusting anyone
else with the equipment or the task.
This example added to what Kubo presented, giving a personal account
of the way in which the North American desert was largely valued as a
government test lab.
Bell also mentioned a house he designed in the early 1990s. He
described the two buildings he designed on the property, one to keep
a private art collection and the other as the residence, as an
“inside out” project. The example seemed to have little to do with
the desert – outside of the fact that the building site was located
on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The next speaker had autobiographical examples of her own to share.
Being a landscape architect, Kate Orff began, “I think maybe my
response to the desert as one of trepidation and fear may be
typical,” adding that her personal experience with the desert had
been “massive failed projects,” including a Las Vegas planning
project and her first project out of graduate school.
The director of the Urban Landscape Research Lab at Columbia said a
recent reflection on the subject of the desert “brought about dismay
and personal depression.”
Her personal impressions seemed to intersect with the growing subject
of climate change as she predicted that with desertification and
other ecological trends in the world, “we’ll all be living either
underwater or in the desert.”
Maybe as an offering of encouragement in an otherwise apocalyptic
scene, Orff mentioned the physiological and behavioral adaptations of
plants and animals. Succulents have done well in adapting to deserts,
she pointed out, as have African antelope.
With little more than that, the floor was given to, admittedly, the
least prepared of the speakers, Sanford Kwinter, associate professor
at Rice University.
Kwinter sat at a table in the front of the Avery classroom, shirt
unbuttoned at the top and untucked at the bottom, and graced the
audience with his charm. “When in doubt … talk about yourself, so to
speak,” he declared.
In a rambling that included human evolution, a major landscape
architect friend who is designing a project for Dick Cheney and
Donald Rumsfeld, and national monuments, Kwinter interspersed
punchlines that delivered diminishing returns.
At one briefly comprehensive streak of his talk, Kwinter recalled,
from his trips to the Kalahari: “The sudden appearance of a bobcat, a
flash flood, a watering hole,” all of events showing the gradual
unfolding of the desert.
A discussion apparently followed.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
John Jourden is an (a)rchitect and pathological thinker living in New York.