Arizona, Accordions, and Architecture: A Discussion with Erin Moore

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By Aaron Britt / Published by Dwell
Avid readers of Dwell will already know about Erin Moore of FLOAT Architecture Research and Design (from page 132 of the October 2008 issue). I wrote that story about the Watershed, a completely off-the-grid writer’s retreat she built near Wren, Oregon, for her mother and noted nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore. It’s one of my favorite projects that we’ve covered in the last while and in the past weeks Erin and I have been trading emails. I asked her thoughts on building, her mother’s work and even the presidential election. Here’s what she has to say:

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now, I’m moving my family and research practice from Tucson to the Willamette Valley to teach in the School of Architecture & Allied Arts at the University of Oregon. Already, I’ve had the chance to work with a dynamite group of architecture students to design a tsunami research and monitoring station for the Oregon coast. It was a great chance to think about long-term impermanence for this place and was a good compliment to my overall research interest in climate change-related coastal flooding.

What sort of building would you like to design, but never have?

I’d like to design a building with a finite lifespan for which I would have to consider the purposefulness of the end of the life of the building. Sometimes it’s frustrating to design buildings just for when they are newly constructed and to measure their sustainability just in energy consumed at that time. I think that truly perpetual or sustainable systems (like healthy ecosystems) have to be more adaptive and cyclical than that; I’d like the chance to think of a large building the same way.

What's your favorite object that you own?

Really I’m much happier to clear things away than to have them around. Still, when I’m keeping things tidy, I can’t imagine being without cases of wide-mouthed canning jars. I keep everything in them—rows and rows of them—and I like the way the same lids will fit on all different sized jars and that they can be used to store pickled beans, hinges, scrabble tiles, and as drinking cups, flower vases, and drinks pitchers.

What music are you listening to right now?

None of my own music can compete with the songs that I had the chance to hear recently in rural Alaska. Many thanks to Dale Ziel for hauling his accordion in the skiff through all weather.

List five buildings in Arizona that you admire.

A few of my favorite architecturally provocative public spaces around Tucson: an enormous, shuttered window seat built into a thick wall of the museum rooms of the San Xavier del Bac Mission; the unfinished, roofless adobe mortuary chapel behind the Tumacácori Mission (to rival any James Turrell skyspace); the mothballed, subterranean living chambers of the Titan II missile silo; the place at the Nogales border crossing where you can stand and look sideways along both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border fence; the vaulted rooms between enormous rocks along the CCC-constructed Heart of Rocks trail in the Chiracahua National Monument.

Who seems friendlier to high design, John McCain or Barack Obama and why?

I feel quite strongly that most of the world’s sociopolitical problems are rooted in failures of imagination—in the inability to think beyond obvious, inadequate solutions. To me, a good politician should be like a good designer: someone who will not force a constituency or a client into making a choice between the lesser of two evils but who can put the energy into discovering a third, obviously better way to solve a problem. I would like to see more politicians who, like Barack Obama, show this kind of creative thinking.

What of your mother's work is your favorite?

I like my mom’s essays that offer a particular way of perceiving a place—in terms of river courses ("The Willamette"), of sounds ("The Testimony of the Marsh"), and of the underneath of things ("Winter Creek"). Right now I’m reading the French translation of her second book of essays. It’s impossibly slowly going but I like how the language makes the sentences less familiar and how I have to work so hard to sort out the words (Petit traité de philosophie naturelle).

Watershed image courtesy of Gary Tarleton