When I arrive at environmental architect David Hertz's Venice, California office, I find myself in a little alley which funnels me into a corner valet parking lot by the beach. Snarling Westside traffic has had me in a stressed-out haze for the last hour and a half, creeping along Sepulveda Boulevard, and I've already thought of how I'll explain my five-minute tardiness for our 11:30 interview away with the old L.A. excuse, "Sorry I'm late. Traffic was terrible."
"Great, I'll be that excuse-making tardy Angeleno," I think to myself, as I hand my keys over to the female parking lot attendant.
"That'll be $20," she tells me in a thick Russian accent.
I look up from my keys and into her eyes. She ain't kidding. This is Venice Beach, baby, and for all that I've heard about its recent development and gentrification, I still can't seem to wrap my head around the astronomical parking rate I've just been told.
"Whoa!" Looking around for an escape route, I see nothing to point me in another direction. "Guess I don't have a choice, right?" I ask the attendant.
She holds out her hand, no answers forthcoming, and I fork over a $20 bill.
I feel like I've just been held up in a Venice Beach not-quite-highway robbery, but I walk towards David's office, a brick-covered industrial warehouse, with the hope that the rest of the afternoon will somehow make up for my lost $20.
I pull on the metal door handle to the front of David's office only to find it's locked. I pull again. Still locked.
"Skywater?" a well-heeled professional woman suddenly asks me, coming up from behind as she chats on her iPhone.
I nod. I'm unsure of what she's talking about, but I think that's what I want. Water? Yes. Access? Definitely.
She buzzes me into the office and seats me at a desk where a long, repurposed sailboat boom hangs overhead. It's now a light fixture of great beauty, and my eyes fix on it.
David Hertz is known for his innovative, gutsy, environmental, and repurpose- oriented design approach. Among his many other ideas, he's crushed old records, CDs, and videos in South Central crime communities, repurposing the detritus into colorful accents to tiled flooring. He's turned old milk jugs into high fashion dresses for women, and he's moved 747 airplane parts across swaths of terrain to build an especially aerodynamic and beautiful home for a client, all while making sure the house was sufficiently regenerative in its energy footprint.
"David's in an interview," I'm told, as I'm offered that Skywater to drink, water that's been captured by an atmospheric water generator, and filtered for my drinking pleasure by David and his team.
The water's delicately set before me. I look at it. It's crystal clear. It's perfectly calm. The glass is full. So I drink. And it's delicious.
A few minutes later, David walks out and greets me warmly, ushering me into his office. "Hi, how are you?" he asks.
"Great," I say, "just drank some of that Skywater."
David nods knowingly, and we sit across from one another.
I'm here to ask him some questions: some on design, some on social causes, and some just out of my own personal curiosity about the big dogs in the design industry.
David's demeanor is open and collaborative and one way or another, we end up touching upon the spiritual aspect of Balinese design, millennial co-habitation in urban centers, and the threat of Kardashian consumerism to us and the rest of the world:
You’ve mentioned that you’re inspired by Japanese design, and I was curious about your relationship with it and how it informs your work.
I’ve always admired the Japanese aesthetic, especially the traditional Japanese house but also even the contemporary architects. I have a good friend who’s Japanese. Our kids are friends, and we would go to Japan at least once a year. We would travel throughout Japan, and I really fell in love with the culture. Part of it is the relationship between the traditional Japanese houses and nature, the minimal simplicity, integrity, honesty, and especially the materials. Those are all deep philosophical, foundational issues for organic architecture.
I also noticed that you had a lot of Balinese inspiration in your work. What kind of inspiration do you get from Bali and how they design?
I started going to Indonesia -- surfing. Now I’m doing projects there. It’s the relationship of indoor space to outdoor space and a similar use of materials, especially wood. In Bali in particular, and in Sumba and other islands, there’s a very interesting social organization to the buildings that’s also tied to spirits. The building placement all faces Mount Agung, the spiritual center. There’s ancestral history there. There’s different buildings. There’s this idea of a compound, a series of different buildings that have different uses. These compounds have private spaces but then also public spaces that allow for social interaction. It’s very interesting.
That’s what I was inspired by in my own house. In Tenganan, which is a traditional and one of the only really in-tact original Balinese villages, there’s a long house. It’s like a community house and then people live in small dwellings, and they come together. So my home was inspired by these different dwellings and that social dynamic that happens in those spaces in-between the buildings.
Yes, I used to live in Tokyo, and I would go to Bali frequently. That’s why I ask about those two places. I was really struck by Balinese design for that reason, as well. I loved how you could have a multi-generational situation all on one compound. You would have so many different functions being satisfied on that same plot, whether that was spiritual like the family temple, or a family gathering space, where you would have the main square in the middle of the compound. There, you would get together and watch TV or cock-fighting might happen, as well. It was very interesting to me that you could have private spaces and also have social space.
I found that to be something that’s really lacking in American design because design here is so cookie-cutter in the way of single-family dwellings. I think that we’re moving in a different direction nowadays, where we want to have different ways of organizing ourselves around a domesticity. I remember you mentioned that you’re getting interested in millennial housing, where everybody lives together and they all do yoga and drink green juice, and try to have a heavy social element to their lives. Can you talk about that a little bit?
It’s a delayed adolescence phase of life basically. You’re a kid, and you went to college, and you lived in a dormitory, and now you’re thrust out into the real world. You’ve got a job at Snapchat or something. You don’t really have the time, the inclination, or the money to get a house, get an apartment, or get a roommate. The idea is that you could go into social housing, where you would have an apartment. There could be four rooms, but you would have your own room. It could be fully furnished, but then you would have a semi-private space where you would have a living room and kitchen that you would share with three or four other people. This would be within a building where you would have other things like a yoga studio or movies on the roof or a we-work type of space, so that it’s kind of a shared living arrangement. There, you would have a different hierarchy from total privacy to semi-private to public spaces. We’ve been interested in that in housing. I think that it’s definitely gonna be a trend.
I think so. I think that what we have right now, especially in urban areas, is not really satisfying the needs of younger people in more and more precarious situations. I would love to see new, creative ways for people to be able to live together. American society is changing. Family forming is happening much later if at all. It’s so interesting to see how people are finding creative solutions so that they don’t have to be lonely living in an apartment by themselves or finding roommates on Craigslist.
It’s interesting because we’re doing this water project where we’re making water from air and giving it away to communities as a social experiment. We’re growing and watering community gardens while working with this safe space for youth which helps kids who are homeless.
There’s this kid named James, who now has a full-time job picking up water and watering all of these planters. He just got an apartment for the first time. I was talking to him yesterday, and I was saying, “God, this is so exciting. You actually have an apartment. You’re not homeless.”
He was saying, “Yeah, but I’ve never felt so isolated.”
It’s something that I just totally took for granted. Being on the street, you’re always aware of your surroundings. You’re always interacting with people. All of a sudden, you’re alone in this apartment. You’re disconnected, and it’s a very interesting transition.
So I guess this is a place where your design would come in, and you would try to blend in the indoor with the outdoor, right? So many spaces are so closed off from the outside world.
Yeah. Even a co-habitation type space would be good, because you could have a room, but your room is among others, so you could interact with other people in the kitchen or what have you.
Exactly, that would be ideal, I think. I wanted to ask you, in that vein, about some of your other projects and what draws you to them. You mentioned the atmospheric water generator and Sky Water in your speech. What would you say draws you to these projects that aren’t necessarily design projects but more like social causes?
It’s having an awareness of systems. We’re part of a system. A building uses energy and water. Many buildings form a city. Within the cities are humans that have a kind of social dynamic. I’m very aware of the whole system which starts globally with thermodynamics. Water came here from outer space, and we only have so much water and very little of it is fresh. A lot of it is contaminated. We transport it long distances. Now it comes into your building, and people aren’t aware of the energy-water nexus. It’s the general move towards a restorative building and a restorative, regenerative city that gives back more than it takes.
That led me to understanding that we have not been able to do that, especially not in California, with water. There’s more water in the air than all the rivers in the world at any given point of time. So with atmospheric water generation, it’s regenerating itself on a weekly basis. It’s distilled, and it’s fresh, and you could use solar energy to offset the energy cost to make the water. Water’s more important anyway than energy. Energy costs and alternative energy costs are coming down so rapidly. We’re just ahead of the curve. We know that there’s a massive water crisis where we’re usurping groundwater and water on land at a faster rate than the planet can replenish it. And it’s becoming salinated. There’s a lot of serious energy and environmental issues associated with it.
It’s just something I’ve become fascinated with and is part of systems thinking. You use what’s there. You use the sun to make energy. With energy, you make water. With water, you can grow food. With food, you can create jobs and feed people. You can then take the food waste and turn it back into energy through biogasification and complete this cycle.
It’s also a destructive technology in that we’re breaking the model of a centralized, controlled infrastructure that’s based on centralized power and control of resources. It’s a matter of fundamental human rights. If you can do point-of-use water generation and point-of-use electric generation, then you don’t have those strains on infrastructure. We have a failing of infrastructure, trillions of dollars to invest in it. Especially on the coast, you could make water point of use.
There’s also a movement towards farm to table -- the idea that let’s get this food closer because of all the water transported in food, the weight, and the energy. So it’s the same thing as farm to table. It’s water to table. Same with energy.
Hearing you say all that, I wonder if at any time, you feel that there’s a schizophrenic nature to what you do. I was looking at your designs and how strikingly beautiful they are. So much of it takes place here on the Westside and obviously, in pockets of extreme wealth. These people [wealthy people] are the only types of people that can afford that kind of design. At the same time, what I admire about you is that you’re somebody who’s looking at things holistically and systematically, not isolating yourself to one pocket of society, but rather bringing a more inclusive focus. Do you ever feel, being here on the Westside, dealing with some of the clients that you do, that we could say largely come from a culture of exclusivity or privilege, do you ever feel torn in-between these worlds of extreme wealth or extreme desperation? You’re dealing with all of this at the same time.
It’s astute. It’s why my office is right here. It’s right on the edge. You have this front. You’ve got Snapchat right here, so you’ve got this kind of antiseptic front, but then the back is gritty and real. There’s real poverty and real mental health issues and homelessness.
I could be in Malibu. For awhile, I was working out of my house and it was too perfect, in this kind of Balinese indoor-outdoor place. It’s like you’re disconnected. That’s why our projects in Africa, Haiti, and Watts help me to stay grounded and to put things in perspective. It makes me appreciate what we have and how lucky we are. Something as simple, that you take for granted, like a glass of water, when you see someone so appreciative of a glass of water -- like a six-month pregnant woman last week -- you realize that wow, access to water should be a right.
There’s a corporate water cartel that’s taking the public trust and bottling it, distributing it to have profits. I’m interested in this -- I do refer to it as a social experiment -- in terms of seeing how the community reacts to this, whether they’re skater kids or affluent people or homeless people.
When you look at something like the community gardens in Venice, there’s 82 planter boxes. They’re on the parkway. They’re providing food for the community. And you see that it’s great, but we’re in a drought. So these planters are watered with water made from air locally using solar energy. And it all starts to make sense. I think it can be a model.
In Haiti, there’s bad water. It’s not reliable. There’s not enough quantity; there’s not enough quality; there’s not enough energy; there’s a food desert, food scarcity. Dropping one of these into a small community where you use alternative energy to make water, use women’s groups to manage it to grow food and make aeroponic vertical garden towers, where you can grow food without soil in a small area with the water that you make, that can have a profound effect.
I don’t see it as a schizophrenia in a way, which I think has a negative connotation psychologically, but I see it as a balanced perspective about being aware of the difference between the haves and the have-nots. There’s definitely an irony in a way, or I guess a disparity, especially between the level of clients that we often work with. It just creates a more balanced reality.
That makes me think of this stat. It’s predicted that by 2030, 5 billion people will live in cities, 40% of them living below the poverty line. What are you thinking of in terms of the types of creative solutions that could be out there design-wise in order to help these people, because I think it’s gonna be a global problem. We’re already experiencing some of that here in Los Angeles.
I do think that density is a good thing. There should be more people closer together in mixed uses, rather than segregated planning, but I think that the buildings that they’re in need to contribute. They need to generate more energy, grow more food, purify the air, provide respite and a restorative place for its occupants.
I think that there’s definitely a shift, especially in Asia, from a kind of agrarian society to an urban society. That’s where most of the migration and population growth is. How that happened is critical because if every single person has a refrigerator and air conditioner and at the same time, we don’t have generations that are continuing to farm, then we’re going to have food scarcity issues. We’re gonna have global climactic problems. It’s really critical.
A lot of people still look to America and sports figures or celebrities, and a lot of people want to emulate our lifestyle. But if our lifestyle is kind of Kardashian, and we want to show a wasteful extravagance, then we can’t blame other people for wanting that same thing. It’s oftentimes fueled by an industry or a manufacture of consent around commercialism and feeding the capitalist machine that’s based upon obsolescence or perceived obsolescence. This makes people want products and then dispose of products.
Ultimately, that probably needs to change. People need to think about services rather than just products. It’s going to be a nearly impossible thing to change. There’s a wonderful thing about capitalism too, like opportunity, but it clearly doesn’t work in other forms of society. So it’s just about balancing it.
I think that there’s positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. Positive feedback loops would be something along the lines with what we’re doing. If you’re using waste or you’re growing food or if you’re working with people to help them do positive things, then the more people are doing that, the more positive things happen. I think it’s just changing from the way of being destructive to being positive.
It seems like it’s going to be up to us, and maybe China, the major leading nations of the world to really set the tone for what’s going to be happening in the future because we have so much power over the smaller nations to determine what kind of reality we drag them onto.
I think that we’re already on that path. There’s more green jobs and clean tech jobs than dirty jobs. It’s difficult for a coal miner in Virginia to hear that, but it’s a dying industry. We need to be there to help in the transition, but we’re transitioning. There’s always people who are left behind in the transition.
By and large, if you look at the planet as a sick patient, there’s always this denial. Then there’s acceptance. I think we’re at the point where most people agree that we’re now trying to find solutions. There will be a lot of people that don’t. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t act until it’s really far along. That’s likely gonna be the case. We’re lulled into this false sense of security, but when our bills get too high or water stops running out of the taps, then people will react. We’re trying to just be ahead of it by understanding the whole system.
Shifting gears a bit back to design, you had the privilege of working with John Lautner. If there’s one thing that you could identity that you learned from him or something you’ve carried with you throughout your life, what would it be?
There’s so many influences. Lautner was a huge influence. I think the one really important take-away for me was that he became very embittered in his old age about being so idealistic. He was so idealistic, very “truth against the world,” and not wanting to be a part of the system of being on the positive side of making change. I think that was the basic take-away. I get that you can be bitter about something and the older you get, the harder it is to maintain positivity. But I think that it’s a big world, and there’s not just one way of looking at the world. That was a big take-away.
I’ve read about his love-hate relationship with L.A. which is interesting considering how much he did here. You could see that duality in him for sure.
I don’t think that he ever felt that he really got his due. Other people were getting more press because they played the game. He didn’t want to work on commercial projects or play the game. He was an exceptional iconoclast, exceptional talent, but that was really the take-away.
Is there anyone else that you would say had a more profound impact on you in the way that you design, in terms of a positive change mover?
Well, I went to work after Lautner for Frank Gehry. It was kind of the opposite in a way. Frank was highly celebrated, and he was playing the game of politics and media but looking at architecture as art and personal expression, similarly, but in a kind of contemporary way, working within academia and against it, working within institutions. That validated it. I think that was a way to kind of offer an opposite.
There have been other people like Paul Hawken, who is a client, friend, and mentor on looking at environmental issues. Doug Tompkins from Esprit was an early client. I was motivated by his social and environmental ethos which helped inform my practice as well.
Thank you so much for this really insightful interview.
When our interview ends, I go back out into Venice. The $20 have been forgotten. I'm thinking now about balance, yin and yang, how design informs life and life informs design.