The first thing I saw at the home of Michael Jantzen was a chair on the front porch. He warned me not to sit in it, as it is a “deconstructed” chair. It’s one of the pieces from his portfolio that is more art than architecture, but both domains are important to the artist and designer. Tables in Jantzen’s studio hold an assortment of models of fascinating structures, all handmade. The final phase of his process — except for a few designs that have been built full-size as human habitations — involves plastic fabrication. Using sheets of thin styrene, he cuts, bends, welds, and paints the pieces to look like concrete, steel, or whatever finished building material is envisioned.
One of these, which he calls Think Tank, also incorporates some clear plastic, standing in for glass. If built to full size (which he hopes may happen on the Tesuque campus of the Santa Fe Institute), it would be a fat cylinder about 20 feet across on a circular, stepped foundation. His model for the piece shows a flat conical cap on the cylinder and above that, a strut with a dish on top. “There are solar cells there, but it’s also symbolic of an antenna,” Jantzen said. “It’s gathering information from the cosmos, and it’s also gathering solar energy and collecting rainwater.”
The cylinder has four fixed-glass sections and four that rotate, as do the rounded blinds, so both light and the extent of enclosure are flexible. On the glass are written mathematical equations, and if you rotate one panel over another, these formulae overlap. Although the combinations don’t necessarily mean anything, the artist intends that the process may provoke, or symbolize, “another way of thinking, which is what the institute is all about.”
Jantzen made a presentation about his work at a Santa Fe Institute seminar on Nov. 2. Seven of his models, including Think Tank, have been on display there since that time. He is hoping Think Tank will get built, although nothing is finalized. “I think we could raise the money, but their board would have to go for the proposal,” he said.
Most of Jantzen’s architectural works are conceptual proposals that also function as art forms. Sometimes he photographs a model or a sculpture and plays with it in Photoshop in order to create a new image, and sometimes that image is made into another new three-dimensional object. One model in his studio looks like a round concert shell on the top part of a mushroom-like shape, with gathering areas underneath. It’s also designed to gather solar energy and rainwater. “If you’re going to design a public art piece, why not also have it also gather energy for the community?”
Some of the structures are designed to be cost- and energy-efficient and sustainably designed living spaces. Others are more whimsical. The Mobile Home is a house on top of more than a dozen zigzaggy legs; this is from a large series titled The House as Metaphor. Another model has two dogs on either side of a door. “It’s a dog in each universe guarding itself,” Jantzen explained. Another piece is a large bowl with legs. The figures of six black panthers prowl around a disc surrounding a black hole. It’s called Guardians of the Black Hole Containment Vessel. “This is all about play, and exploring and inventing.”
He and his wife, photographic artist Ellen Jantzen, came to Santa Fe last spring from St. Louis; before that, they were in Los Angeles for 20 years. Both attended Southern Illinois University, and he went on to get an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis. His work has been exhibited at the National Building Museum, the Canadian Center for Architecture, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Passive solar design was one of his early interests, dating back to the 1970s. “I was interested in what was described as futuristic, which got a lot of press because it was fun to look at, but not too many sales. My big hero many years ago was Buckminster Fuller, who I knew, and what I loved about his work was that he was always trying to reinvent things, and he wasn’t letting conventional aesthetics get in the way. That’s been the biggest drawback, in my view, that so many people are committed to a conventional housing aesthetic and then they try to force sustainable elements into that.”
One of his early works was the Solar Silo Roof House. He and his wife built it in 1982 in southern Illinois for his parents. Each room element was made with thin-steel silo tops. “The silo company wanted to get into housing and actually donated the material. The pre-painted, ribbed sheets slide and lock together. We put domes inside of domes and filled the 12-inch space with cellulose insulation. It was very easy to heat with one wood stove. And I invented a way of grouping multiple domes together like soap bubbles, which breaks up the monotony with some vertical walls.” The silo dwelling was featured in House and Garden and Domus magazines.
Some of his more recent structures are shown on the website www.design-boom.com — among them The Folding Mirrors Pavilion, The M-velope, The Modular Housing System, The Shadow House, and The Segmented Building System, which is based on two simple modules that can be multiplied to create solid volumes. One that was actually built was his M-house. “I built it myself near Los Angeles in 2000. It was 65 feet long, 24 feet tall, 36 feet wide, all steel and concrete. This is prefab modular. I did the whole thing in the garage, because nothing’s bigger than 4 by 8 feet. Then it was trucked to the site and put together. There is an interior. You can live in it.”
Much of Jantzen’s work has revolved around kits of parts that can be assembled, disassembled, and reassembled into a large variety of forms. All of the exterior panels of the M-house are hinged on a frame so you can fold them in different ways and change the shape. The hinges allow the panels to fold into or out of the cube frames to perform various functions. Some panels are insulated, contain windows and doors, and can be manipulated to form enclosed spaces for living. Uninsulated panels can fold in or out to shade the sun, deflect rain, or block wind. Others unfold to provide platforms for sitting, working, eating, or sleeping.
M-house was designed to function as a single private vacation retreat, or in multiples as a resort complex. With different sizes, shapes, materials, and panel types, this “M-vironments” system can be used for exhibit structures, pavilions, play environments for kids, or office modules. A large model of M-house was exhibited at MoMA in 2008, part of an exhibit about the history and future of prefabricated housing. The full-size building ended up selling (through the Phillips auction house) to a Korean art collector and for years it’s been warehoused, disassembled, in Los Angeles. “The reason I thought there might be some interest at Santa Fe Institute is that a lot of what I do is inventing systems that generate form and function. For M-house, I started with a cube. To each face I assigned x number of panels; for example, you can cover a face with two 4 by 8 panels or you can cut them in diagonals, then they can fold open and that starts to generate form. So there’s that idea of taking something relatively simple and having it generate extreme complexity.
“Most people don’t want to live in these kind of structures, but they love the idea of staying in them for a short time, and there’s a big market with groups like Airbnb to rent destination exotic places to stay. One of the things I’m looking at now is to get a few of these things built, possibly around Santa Fe someplace, where people can rent them. These can be prototypes for the way we should be living in terms of energy and sustainability, and people who aren’t familiar with that have the chance to experience it. These would be off the grid, or close to it.”
Jantzen said his basic objective is simply “to keep doing the work. I’d like to sell more stuff, but I mainly do what I do because it’s fun. That’s all I’ve done for 45 years.” ◀