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THE LAB MAGAZINE—Some of your work makes me think of an architect’s dream – a subconscious mash-up of design concepts and building materials, freed from the restraints of real time and space. Can you explain your use of layers and mixed material and departure from the laws of physics?

ALYSSA DENNIS—What I enjoy most in drawing is when I erase as much as I draw. And until that happens I feel like the drawing is inactive. It comes to life when I erase and start to incorporate layers of information and imagery. The time I take to draw some things just to erase it can be defeating but is attractive to me to see the failure behind the success. In the end it makes the failure part of the success instead of the other way around.

I’d like to think that if I were an architect that’s how I would treat my buildings. Using what is there even if it was a bad idea at some point and problem solving until you get it to make sense. I also like to promote a kind of architectural schematic or dissection in the work almost as a visual mental mapping of space. Walls are necessary yet constraining so I like to think about parts of a structure that you could easily modulate, change or even see through.

TLM—Your work combines architectural drawing and model-like sculpture with many social and cultural references. Is the relationship between people and places something you’ve always been interested in? 

AD—Absolutely! I moved around a lot when I was a kid and my memory of things and times in my life were so much more defined by the different places we lived, which included being acutely aware of meeting new people and observing their living spaces. I see myself now as a kind of stationary vagabond. I like to fluctuate constantly between staying in one place and then breaking free of that for chunks of time. Defining and redefining myself within a space and applying that to how buildings and spaces affect us all. I’m also interested in how architecture and planning can affect social change. I will be focusing more specifically on this with future works. I’m working on a show right now that is the beginnings of, I hope, a long collaboration with several eco-architecture projects, which service low-income social groups.

TLM—Off the plan houses and cookie cutter apartment developments are becoming the norm, seldom addressing the finer nuances of a healthy living space. What is your feeling toward this trend?

AD—This is the exact trend that never seems to leave my mind as one of the main issues at hand or perhaps the issue. Architecture, especially in the US, is mostly capitalist driven and abides by what Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry call “sentimental economies.” Essentially, any effort at adjusting the system toward the interest of social and environmental health is set-aside in the interest of a “free market.” Basically, we are stuck in something we can’t easily get out of. I’m also incredibly weary of any large number of houses built by a limited few for a large number of people. There is bound to be a disconnect between form and function when the ratio between inhabitants and designers and planners is disproportionate. Large housing projects as well as expensive housing developments are almost always in the interest of controlling social demographics. Inhabitants themselves need to be more involved in the decision making of housing if it is to be truly successful.

TLM—In your mind, what does the ideal living environment look like? Can we discover pieces of this puzzle in your work?

AD—My ideal living environment is something multi-functional with equal amounts indoor and outdoor space. The most ideal is a design that truly follows how best a structure will function based on passive energy solutions, and ultimately a system that treats waste more as a resource. I’d like my work to provide pieces to the puzzle. How best to put the pieces together is certainly something I think a lot about.

TLM—Can you talk a little about your interest in ancient and tribal shelters? What are some of the values and practices around these DIY living spaces that resonate with you and why? 

AD—My interest in architecture started from living for several months in Mali, West Africa. I had never lived in a space that made the most sense in terms of climate and comfort with the least amount of cost and material. We tend to unnecessarily complicate our building methods and disguise it as innovation when eighty percent of the time it’s more about opening up new market economies. This isn’t all bad but needs to be put in check. I’m also interested in ancient places like Chaco Canyon where the design of a structure was a way of literally defining their place in the world. It was a way of tracking the movements of celestial bodies including our own. This kind of design served a practical purpose as well as being completely magical in terms of amplifying to the human observer what exists in the natural world.

TLM—What period in human history best exemplifies positive living concepts and constructions? How do you think we can translate some of those ideas into contemporary developments?

AD—I think they exist in vast numbers today and have for quite some time. The problem is they’re continually neglected in the interest of capitol. The Twentieth Century was an incredible boom of innovation where people like Buckminster Fuller took the opportunity to present some of the most humanitarian architecture the world had ever seen. Designers, architects, and builders are still putting his ideas to use it’s just that not that many people are listening.

TLM—What ideas and works are you developing now?

AD—The newest project I’m working on is for a show in New Orleans at Parse Gallery. I’ll be showing drawings that illustrate the inner-workings of three or four separate sustainable building projects, which all specially serve the social needs of their community. The show will be mostly works on paper presented as an installation where you can engage in the visual information of each building’s method and design. For example, a community project I’ve been communicating with is an eco-village in Nepal where most of the structures are built with adobe plaster and salvaged wine bottles from the urban landscape of Kathmandu. There are also other living systems which have been implemented into the community like biogas systems for cooking, biodynamic farming methods, the use of soap nuts to make soap but also used to make jewelry to feed into the local economy. The systems that each of these communities employs is sometimes hard to detect at first glance, so the aim of the show is to engage an audience in visually defining some of the finer points of how these sustainable building projects operate. My plan, once the drawings are complete, is to sell digital reproductions of the work to help raise funds for each of these projects.

TLM—Natural elements feature throughout your work, suggesting an interest in the incorporation of nature into urban settings – is there a reason behind this?

AD—I’m interested in urban plant life because most of them are attempting to perform a job; that job is to restore soil. All plants need nitrogen to survive. Most of them get that nitrogen from the soil. The specific plants I focus on don’t need to take nitrogen from the soil. These plants exist in disturbed areas to fertilize the soil so that other plants can grow. They are like warriors who put up a good fight in the interest of providing fertile soil for many other life-giving plants and animals. I like the idea of something growing out of an abandoned building that is a potential resource or solution, which we pass off as destructive or unsightly.

TLM—How much is the built environment about aesthetics and the senses, and how much is it about practicality and function? 

AD—I think form really should follow function and in that there is a beauty, which feels effortless, cyclical, and even whole. In this way you become one with the space or environment. A place where you can coexist and there is a symbiotic relationship.

TLM—Looking at your work on paper is like witnessing a structure in the midst of creation. Is this transience and unfinished quality an important aspect of your work and what role does it serve?

AD—This transience is absolutely essential. It is also very much about the axis or points of departure for decision-making. The in-between of construction and deconstruction is an access point for change and an opportunity to reassess our problem-solving methods. This transient state is also an acceptance of the life cycle of a building or its material. That material isn’t permanent but forever morphing on a macro and micro level.

TLM—We encounter decay and deconstruction every day, whether it’s a development demolition or disaster news coverage. How do these events shape your perspective on the lifespan of physical places?

AD—This is a very complicated issue but one where decay and destruction are just as much a part of building. What we need is to prepare our structures better for this potential. The fact that buildings don’t last, for whatever reason, makes it essential we consider the “life span” of a building as well as the materials that go into it as a cyclical action rather than a horizontal time-line. How do we make pieces salvageable not only to us but how are they best reintegrated back into the environment with little to no damage.  

TLM—What is your process like? Do you constantly document the buildings and materials that surround you? Or are your compositions made up of imagined components?

AD—I used to document a lot more with photographs but now I’m more of a watcher and looker and allow that information to filter in. I still take photos of buildings and spaces but it’s more mental notes and writing that I work from now.

TLM—Could you name any architects, designers, and urban planners whose work you respect and explain why?

AD—Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri who have influenced so many like builder Dan Phillips, Lloyd Kahn, John Todd, and Michael Reynolds to name a few. I respect and admire their work because it stands for the survival of humanity and the world and all things that live on it. Their work is a testament to putting our evolved brains to use.