A talk with Susan Narduli, Architect/Artist

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Susan Narduli is an architect/artist who knows how to use images to make an impact on our environment.

In 2001, nervous LAX officials temporarily covered her art installation of nude men etched in the granite floor of the American Airlines terminal. Common sense prevailed and the matter was dropped after the Cultural Affairs Commission ruled that Narduli's artwork conformed with design sketches approved by the city in 1999.

Years later, Narduli continues to shape the world around us. She owns an interdisciplinary design studio in Los Angeles, which specializes in architecture, landscape design, public spaces, urban installations and light environments.

The architect/artist says the LAX episode taught her a lot about public discourse, noting "some of the coverage was less than accurate. Even CNN got basic facts wrong, and somewhere along the line the project picked up a title (not mine) which along with a few other inaccuracies stuck throughout the coverage...but most of what was written [focused] on the central issue -- that this was a question about how creative expression plays out in the public process."

Her latest project debuted this spring: an installation at California State University Fresno's newly renovated Henry Madden Library. Narduli played a significant role in the design of the complex's public spaces, including an LED display of a video emphasizing the artistic legacy of the basket-weaving skills preserved by the indigenous peoples of the San Joaquin Valley.

Narduli shares her thoughts in the following Q&A about Los Angele's rapidly evolving streetscape.

Where do you live in Los Angeles and why?

For most of my years in practice, my studio was in Venice. For a period of that time, I lived on the roof of the studio in a two room surplus U.S. Army squad tent. At night, the tent would rustle and creak in the wind, like a boat at anchor. One of the good things about living in Southern California is that the climate allows for such freedom.

Now, I live in an old log cabin in the canyons. It's built on a steep slope, so like the tent, it hovers among the treetops. A friend once called the building half tree house, half boat.

As an artist who uses LED and other digital display tech in your work, what do you think of Los Angeles city government's policies and actions to legislate electronic billboard and other display technologies throughout the metropolitan area?

I think it's a problem when government tries to outlaw expression, whether it's art or commerce. I think we all benefit from an open exploration of ideas. Inevitably, someone's going to push things further than people are comfortable with. In the Bill of Rights, we made a commitment to expression even when it makes some of us uncomfortable.

What are your thoughts on "vegitecture"-the use of living plants or material in architecture?

I like the idea of a building that is responsive and that moves in organic ways. That's what was so exciting about living in the tent. I designed a house once that had a tree growing through the living room. We had to install a rubber gasket around the trunk so that when the wind blew, the swaying of the tree didn't break the glass roof. I've been trying to figure out ways of making buildings out of light. Wouldn't it be great to live in a house whose walls were made of flame or water or wind?

You just completed an installation at the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno. How did you come to be involved in the project?
David Martin, of AC Martin, and I have collaborated on several projects, and David designed the library. When he showed me what he was doing, how he had integrated the basketry forms and patterns of the native peoples of the area into this state of the art library, I became intrigued with how this once dominant culture could coexist in parallel with the culture of the bustling modern day college campus.

A library is a very powerful statement of who we are as a people, and this particular library is very much an expression of 21st Century learning, with all its emphasis on technology, speed and immediacy. But the funding for my project came from people with a different tradition, people whose ancestors lived on the land where the library is now. Those ancestors devoted painstaking care to making beautiful baskets. It could take a year to make a single basket. The project evokes this way of being.

On one level, it addresses what it means to take on a task and complete it, the personal commitment we make to what we create. It talks about focus and about tracking time through our daily, personal actions. For those on the campus, the slow and deliberate making of the basket is a timekeeper. The weaver's progress keeps pace with their own and becomes a part of their daily routine.

On a very different level, I was thinking about the streams of history, knowledge and memory that come together in society. They mesh, more or less, in a kind of societal current. But some less dominant streams are half-glimpsed. The video reminds us of this.

Your practice is so eclectic, merging seemingly conflicting disciplines like public space design, architecture, light installation and environmental/landscape design. How do you see them inter-relating in the 21st century urban landscape?

The urban landscape has always been built on the integration of ideas and imagination. But what has changed in the urban landscape is our understanding of public space, as our sense of community identity has evolved to include like-minded people around the globe. I think that the challenge for those working in the urban landscape is how to create public spaces that are relevant for the 21st century. Too often urban design is no more than a rehash of the familiar.

How will the expansion of the Metro and other light rail systems change the urban design of the westside of Los Angeles?

The trend is definitely toward increasing density and we've all been told by the New Urbanists that this is the shape of things to come. That's probably true for Los Angeles as well. Still, I think L.A.'s light rail system will ultimately look very different than that of any other major city.

We will see development around rail stops, and it will likely be comparatively dense. But I don't see that same density spreading out into surrounding residential areas, at least not in the immediate future. The suburban single-family dwelling is a very real part of the fabric of L.A. life. It's part of what people move here to find and part of how the city understands itself, so I don't see that going away entirely any time soon.

Economic factors will play a role as well. We're on the bust end of a boom cycle. Building in general is slowing down. We have a very slow recovery underway and that might mean that the rate of change isn't going to be what it looked like five years ago, light rail or no.

But I hope that people will move around more. L.A.'s balkanization is especially distressing because it can seem entirely voluntary - but it's not. We have this myth of the open freeway, but the reality is more complicated. People stay sequestered in their own neighborhoods because fighting the traffic is daunting. There are people whose commute lasts far longer than it should because our public transportation system is so poorly coordinated. It can be made to work, and it can transform things.

Failing to make it easier for people to get around has political and societal consequences. These come to define us as individuals and as a city. It does Angelinos good to be able to travel the length and breadth of LA. And the only way that's going to be feasible in the years to come is through the expansion of light rail.

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