Pure Genius

Q&A: Michael Jantzen, artist and designer of the built environment

Posting in Architecture

For Michael Jantzen, buildings are more than their architecture. His work, ranging from a solar-powered vineyard to a house made of silo roofs, combines art, technology and engineering to create a sustainable built environment.

For Michael Jantzen, buildings are more than their architecture. His work, ranging from a solar-powered vineyard to a house made of silo roofs, combines art, technology and engineering to create a sustainable built environment.

I spoke with Jantzen late last month. Below are excerpts from our interview.

What motivated you to design a solar vineyard and winery?

I've been interested in the challenges involved in creating that kind of architecture in an energy efficient, sustainable way and, at the same time, developing a new aesthetic around the new technologies. It grew out of a personal interest. One design would lead to another. I try to think about each project in many different ways.

In this case, I wanted to create something natural looking. I've been to Napa quite a bit. What sticks out for me is the aesthetics of the beautiful rolling hills, which are often lined with vineyards. You get these wonderful lines following the contours of the hills. The grapes are conformed to a specific structure to keep them in rows. They're absorbing energy from the sun in that linear configuration and converting the sunlight into energy. That was symbolic lead for me, to think of these conceptually as rows of solar collectors. What if you made them into solar collectors and put the functioning part of the winery in the hill itself? You can think of yourself going in the hillside and opening up a functional space. You continue the grapevines over that hillside. The design comes from translating the symbolism into a functioning design. Then the design is tweaked toward these elements that make it more sustainable.

Other than the solar collectors, how else is this a "green" vineyard?

The main thing in that design was: What if you could take a vineyard and also make it into a solar power plant? It's not just there for the business of selling wine. It'd have a secondary function to produce enough power to run the winery itself and sell excess power to the local utility. That's why there are so many solar cells on this design. They're flexible cells, so they would conform to the curve. The solar cells are producing power and, at least partially, shading the structure below and providing a place for wine tastings or picnics. The shape of the hill would collect rainwater and store if for use. The south-facing glass in the structure is recessed, so in the summer it's partially shaded. There would be other techniques, depending on the budget, in terms of natural ventilation. There would be a large open space for the retail part of the business under the hill. This is a concept.

Tell me about some of your other projects.

I've always been interested in how to develop housing systems. My work goes back and forth from looking at things from a practical standpoint: cost efficient, energy efficient. Then since my background is in the arts -- I'm not trained as an architect -- I often play with the arts side of things. I've looked at how you can redesign the whole idea of a house. Conventional aesthetics often get in the way of true innovation. We're taught to think a house should look a certain way. We get these little boxes and try to make them as efficient as possible. It's often driven by that conventional aesthetic. In my mind, that impairs the potential of making something truly energy efficient and sustainable.

At the other end of the spectrum, which incorporates my interest in sculpture, would be the M-House. To most people, it looks like a funny-looking piece of sculpture. It's a very efficiently-designed structure. It's made from a kit of parts that I invented that allow you to put these relatively few pieces together in thousands of ways. There is infinite flexibility in terms of shape. You can add to it or subtract from it, if you don't need a house that big anymore, and sell the piece to somebody else. It's an interesting way of recycling the structure without having to tear it apart. Many of the components could be moved while they're in place. You can change the shape of the structure to accommodate different climatic conditions or aesthetic preferences or functional needs.

Some of the early and recent designs have looked at components that are already on the market and are efficient in the way they're produced. How can you create a house from some of these components? A lot of the early work looked at agricultural components because they tend to be used for purposes other than housing, but they're extremely efficient. If the components are designed properly, they're very strong and very cheap. Some of the early experiments looked at using the roofs put on silos in the Midwest. How do you make houses out of those and improve on the energy efficiency, the cost, the time of putting them together? My parents lived in one of these houses for more than 30 years. It was made out of four silo roofs that were put together in a cluster. They're super insulated. In southern Illinois, it only had a wood stove as a heating source. It didn't require air conditioning.

There are several directions in the way I design. One is this idea of creating a kit of parts and inventing systems that allow you to do many things with the same pieces. The other end of the spectrum of where I like to work, which is more like the winery, is thinking about symbolism and how symbolic references can suggest form and function. Sometimes they come together. In general, my work is about research and experimentation. I've been at this for almost 45 years now. I was one of the pioneers of the whole sustainable design movement back in the early 1970s. My work has always had that element, in most cases.

Your work merges art, architecture, technology, engineering, and sustainable design. How does your process take shape?

If there are clients involved -- and usually there aren't -- it's hard to tell what will stimulate an idea. The M-House, for example, started as a desire on my part to create a building system that would have attributes like sustainability. Before that was finished, other ideas would come from the process of working on that project. What if the panels were hinged? You might play with that particular direction and generate a whole new thing.

The symbolic things come from thinking about the way the thing is going to be used. If I were going to build something in that environment, how would I do it and how would I make it at least symbolically close the beauty of the terrain? I'm working on a proposal right now that was influenced by walking by a large water fountain. The wind was blowing and I noticed how the wind affected the water. That started some thinking about how you'd create a solar fountain. It's keeping your eyes and ears open and playing these mind games.

I pretty much design the thing in my head. I draw very little. Most of my work is done in the three-dimensional form of building physical models. Most of the things on the website are photographs of models.

Why is this work meaningful to you? What's your goal?

From a very early age, I've always been affected by my physical environment. I was raised in a small house with too many kids. It was never warm enough in the winter or cool enough in the summer. We didn't have money to do it right. As a kid, I tried to upgrade that environment myself. That's how I started to get interested in the built environment -- trying to create a better one for myself and my family.

My family owned a summer resort. I started to build things on this resort that were used by the public. I started at an early age building a lot of these very different-looking kinds of structures, such as a bath house next to one of the swimming lakes. I started making sculptures bigger, so you could use them for different functions. They became attractions because of the design. People came to this place to see the structures I built.

During my undergraduate work, I became interested in doing more with less, sustainable architecture and designs that were energy efficient. It was exciting and it added to what I'd already been doing, but in a different direction. I did a Master's in fine art, but never stopped working on using these structures as experiments on different was to look at the built environment. These became new challenges. I did that work to see what I could do.

I've always been interested in having this work published to share ideas and hopefully get feedback, and even better, some clients that would actually build them. The M-House was sold to an art collector years ago. That's the other way I like to work -- to build something or have it built and sell it. I never wanted to be an architect where I would be controlled by the client and unable to do what I wanted. The idea is to sell the vision.

What's next for you?

That's a hard question because I usually don't know. Recently, I did the Web-Shaped Pavilion and the Web-Assembled Pavilion. These are design studies that look at the potential of being able to change things in the physical world. What if you could literally change the shape of a building through mass voting? You'd vote on how a certain segment of it should change. How do you begin to create these structures from a global consciousness?

The Web-Shaped Pavilion is a tall, cylindrical structure that's a public gathering place. The exterior is covered with panels that open and close in different ways, so the structure can open up or close down depending on how people are voting. The Web-Assembled Pavilion is a small cube about 12 feet tall. What if the whole cube comes apart and reassembles itself depending on how people are voting? Electric motors would move these segments back and forth very slowly. It's all on a platform. Once you get on the platform, the movement stops. As technology evolves and presents itself to me, I like to plug it into the things I'm working on.

The most experimental of all the things I've suggested is the virtual reality veneer. Throughout my career, I've become aware of the fact that almost everything is controlled by aesthetics: the food we eat, the houses we live in, the cars we drive. We tend to want to build our buildings to look a certain way, even though we could make them more efficient if they were simple shapes. The problem from an environmental standpoint is all the stuff you need to make that in an aesthetic way are resources from the Earth we're using up. What if you could manipulate the light and not the materials? Glasses you wear would make the house look like anything the owner wants it to look like. If the owner wants a Victorian, it will look that way. It's not just tongue in cheek. There's a lot of serious potential there. We're getting better all the time at manipulating light through information technology. We can replace, or at least supplement, a large part of the physical environment with the manipulation of light. It's obviously energy efficient and doesn't use the resources we're using today. It's taking experimental to the extreme.

Photo: Michael Jantzen

Image, top: Solar Vineyard Winery

Image, middle: M-House

Image, bottom: Web-Shaped Pavilion

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure