Fritz Haeg, FAAR’11 Looks Back at a Year in Rome

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Interview for the American Academy in Rome, October 10th, 2011

We recently sat down with Fritz Haeg, Garden Club of America Rome Prize Fellow 2010-2011, who discussed his experiences during his Fellowship year at the Academy and some of his upcoming projects.

What were your expectations coming into the program and how did they evolve during the course of the year?

I’ve been aware of the AAR since I first left college almost 20 years ago and I applied around that time and then not again until last year. It’s a place that’s been in my head for a long time, but I don’t know what my expectations were originally because now they have been so eclipsed by what my experience was. I suppose my real expectation was to have a year free to explore, and that was definitely the case. What was most valuable was to have, first of all, a year of freedom, which I wanted to give to myself by suspending any expectations on myself about my own work or ideas about what I wanted to produce. And then to have that year in the city of Rome was incredible in itself. And finally to be surrounded by the other Fellows who were there. Each one of those three aspects was really significant in its own way.

Can you tell us a bit about the aspect of communal living?

We were lucky to have a really collegial group that was supportive of each others’ work. Academy life is a form of communal living and I’m really interested in that for my work in terms of how we self organize within communities, cities, and neighborhoods. Perhaps it is something a lot of fellows aren’t prepared for; the degree to which it’s a social environment. It’s not a retreat in the woods where it’s all about solitude; its very much a social atmosphere where you are surrounded by interesting people doing their own projects in the same building. You are working and living together and sharing meals every day, so that is a big part of the year. We kept remarking to each other how lucky we were to be a part of the group we ended up with last year. There was a lot of support and curiosity about each others work.

On paper it might seem that there would be a divisive line between the scholars and the artists — because of the differences in the way they work — but in our year we didn’t experience that. There was a lot of cross-over and collaboration between the two.

Would you give us an example?

I suppose one of the best examples would be someone like composer musician Paul Rudy [FAAR’11] who collaborated with almost everyone at the Academy during the course of the year in one way or another. He was the best example of that, but even casually at meals there was a lot of mutual interest among the Fellows about what everyone was up to.

I’m very interested in the kind of exchange that happens informally, not necessarily in an organized academic or professional way, but rather in daily life, the exposure to each other’s work at a casual level through regular conversations over meals. To me that was the essence of the best part of the experience of the year. I can’t tell you how many times I thought “I’m too busy, I don’t have time for dinner tonight, I need to stay in the studio…” and then ended up going to dinner and having an amazing unexpected conversation with a fellow or visitor that I could not have anticipated — perhaps even setting me in new directions in my work.

Could you tell us about your work space at the Academy?

I was extremely fortunate to have studio 309 on the top floor adjacent to the terrace facing east, which is typically given to landscape architecture Fellows. I’m not used to having a separate working studio —  I tend to work on the road or where I live, so I turned my studio into a microcosm of a domestic space. I had an outdoor space adjacent to my studio, which was critical to some of the work I ended up doing, such as the rooftop edible garden. For the past six years I’ve been working on a series of edible gardens in different cities around the world. I work with local residents to publicly grow food where they live, be that the suburban front lawn or the vacant spaces around inner-city housing. Each garden represents a prototype for people growing food publicly where they live in cities. I just established #11 in Istanbul this summer, and next the edition will be planted in Budapest in 2012.

I started my garden at the Academy as soon as I arrived, using found and discarded materials. The garden was donated to a local community center for immigrants and the unemployed called ex-SNIA, which is located near Termini [Rome’s main train station] in an abandoned factory complex. They have been sending me pictures since I left, and it’s looking great. There are a few members of the community who have become quite involved with cultivating the garden and using it for communal meals. My hope with all of my gardens is that they continue indefinitely, that I could return to any one of these twelve cities in a decade or two and find all of the gardens continuing and evolving without me.

What about your upcoming projects?

The series of Edible Estate gardens, like a lot of my recent work, engages with fundamental ideas about how we are living today and how we relate to the environment, to our food, to animals, and to each other.

Animal Estates, another on-going project similarly evolving as a series of editions in multiple cities, explores the idea of urban wildlife by proposing a modest layer of architecture to welcome selected native animals native back to our cities. The first edition was installed in front of the Whitney Museum for the 2008 Biennial which included a series of 12 prototype animal homes, each designed for a species of wildlife that used to live on the current site of the Whitney Museum, 400 years ago. They existed as model homes that any local resident could look at and be inspired to make at home for themselves.

The most recent edition will open in two weeks in London at the headquarters of Arup, the global engineering, planning and design firm. They have a ground floor gallery space that will be transformed into our headquarters for Urban Wildlife Client Services. We have selected 11 species native to the city of London to work with as our animal clients. The space will exist as a public resource for activists, architects, artists, and typical urban residents to consider the possibilities for these animals in the city —  from bats to bees to hedgehogs and different species of birds including herons. I approach it very much as an architecture project that just happens to engage clients other than humans.

How did the city of Rome influence your work?

I was immediately inspired by the tradition around Roman food, especially cucina povera. I started a book project on that topic with Nero [publication house] called Roma Mangia Roma which will hopefully come out in the spring. Next year, I will be teaching and developing collaborative projects with students both in Detroit and Princeton. While in Rome I became interested in the idea of how cities evolve over time, how they expand and contract. In Rome there is the story of disabitato, the large part of city that was abandoned into the Middle Ages as the Roman Empire gradually collapses, and left to become wild. It is very easy to romanticize that I suppose, but we are seeing similar urban patterns in the US, especially in Detroit.

What advice would you give to new Fellows?

Various Academy staff mentioned the idea of a clean slate regarding the buildings and physical spaces. Each new group of fellows should show up in the fall and feel at home, without the activity of past fellows looming too heavily — though you may know about the amazing people who were there before you. Somehow you feel a sense of ownership, like it is all there for you, without any preconceptions, prescriptions or instructions about what to do.

I guess my advice would be to arrive with a complimentary clean slate, empty the schedule, limit other obligations, put past work behind you, and show up as open as possible to your own unique experience.