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Californian: the edge of the reason

When I was trying to decide just a few years ago what architecture graduate program to attend, I sought the counsel of my favorite professor, Eugenia Janis. She taught classes in art history and photography, she was voracious and vicious but also absolutely brilliant. She looked at me, and said, “Go to Berkeley. California is like nothing you have ever experienced. There’s no place like it.” She had been angling for months to stop me from returning to Europe because Janis didn’t appreciate comfort zones and she knew I was better than mine.

And when I did pack my bags and move to Northern California, I never left. And, really, she was right that California is nothing like Europe, nothing like anywhere in the world. Some people find that surprisingly, considering how many Europeans end up in California but I think there must be something in the water, or at the very least the Pinot, that changes you.

And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a dizzying amount of innovation at your doorstep, with the established titans like Apple, Facebook and Google but also the up-and-comers like Instagram, Foursquare and Cloudtap. California gives you momentum.

A few weeks ago, I gave a short presentation at the Leonardo Art/Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER).

LASER puts on about six events a year in San Francisco. Each one has four different speakers who are brought in to talk about the most diverse (perhaps even wacky) subjects you can think of.

My co-speakers included an artist who made bricks out of mushrooms: they were very strong, very light and completely organic. No word about the smell yet but it seems appropriate to say “only in California.”

I felt a little out of my league and sustainable architecture isn’t exactly a topic that gets most people’s blood pumping. My topic was by far the most sedate (although it did include 25-story vertical agricultural towers)–more on the City of the Future here. But I wasn’t facing a passive audience of architects but devotees. People who come to every meeting not only to listen but to question, to debate, even to critique. People who seem to be able to talk about Alan Turing, Susan Sontag and Louis Khan as if they were Doctor Seuss and Einstein

I don’t often feel career envy (although I still hold onto my adolescent fever dream of being a racecar driver). But at LASER, I met a woman from NASA who does “design research and human factors optimization for terrestrial architecture, then space-based habitats, with a fascination and pro-specialization in isolation and confinement of highly trained, high performing work groups in exotic environments.” Essentially, she does architecture in space! And I thought of Janis and how right she was that California is like no other places in the world.

Because here I was, talking with an architect that was beyond innovative, she was in another stratosphere. Now, I’m not sure how a woman of France compares to a woman of the stars, but somehow we hit it off. Now I get to go to the NASA Ames Research Center to jury an outer space competition. Very literally it is unreal. I just hope it is not too late for me to become a space architect!

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