Architect, Adam Kushner tested our mettle as interviewers because he really is impassioned and well-reflected on many things. Each answer gave us pause for thought as we spoke about his views of technology as limiting rather than expanding our experience of the world. His apartment in the West Village was conceived as a space that moves through the four elements of earth, air, fire and water and there is an intriguing sense of experiment with materials, rather than materialism. Lest you think that he’s a humorless intellectual, he admits readily to being addicted to television, is married with young children (twins), alternates relative sloth with training for marathons and has traveled extensively. He also has a passion for welding, which might be odd if he were not in the building business. Actually, we’re not sure – is welding an official hobby?
It’s so open in here and you live here with your wife and two kids. What do you do when you have a fight, where do you go?
We don’t – so we don’t fight.
You mean you don’t fight because you don’t have a place to go?
I’ve been reading some of the things that you have written about architecture that you see an increasing loss of tactile sensation as we engage with the world through media, rather than direct experience. Are we trying to avoid actual experience, do you think?
Correct. I think that’s exactly right. It’s becoming all about what you see, a visual medium only … everything is through this box or this screen. If I may be so bold as to say that you’re projecting through the screen, everything’s two-dimensional, it’s only the eyes. What we need to do as a group of people – I don’t want to sound pompous and say ‘as human beings’,– is that we have to get back to who we are as people, which is a tactile experience. That’s really who we are. We are these creatures who are all about our sensory environment … touching things, seeing, smelling, tasting, and what we’ve been doing in the last 30 years is avoiding that.
Why?! Good question! Because I think we’ve only learned to communicate through this one elemental piece– the screen image. That’s why. It’s because it’s easy and there’s a sense of completion, a sense … the illusion … of accomplishment in emails [for example] that you don’t get through a struggle. We can sort of get into a very large philosophical discussion on what the essence of people is … are we good or bad, are we lazy or are we not lazy?
It seems to me what primarily drives our love of technology is avoiding chance. It offers us an illusion of control. Living in a world open to our senses involves risk.
Well, maybe you’ve put your finger on it. We’re afraid of the unknown and Nature is our biggest unknown. We are the small guy on the planet here … and we’re about to screw it up. I find myself as I get older spending more and more time sort of treading the same path. I wear a hole in the sidewalk from here to [my office in] Canal Street and back, and you know, the day I go into the woods is an amazing, just jarring experience, which it never used to be. It wakens me as a person, which means that I’ve forgotten what it is like to live as a person. And a lot of that is because I engage myself all day long with media.
You know Apple computers is one of the most influential companies and I was reading this whole thing about music and that ‘the greatest gift to our society’ is iTunes. I was thinking they chose that? It’s letting us listen to music …
Differently … but it’s still just about music. It’s about nothing … what are we doing? We’re giving people things to do to fill up their time.
What do you do to counteract these sorts of thoughts? Was building this apartment something you did to engage more with process or experience?
Yup, that was part of it. Literally sitting here welding and crafting … but that was a year of my life over the course of 43 years. But you know what, to answer your question, the daily struggle I have is ‘what am I going to do today to make the world a little better by the end of the day?’
You mean you wake up and think that?
Yes, I really do. I think about what I’m going to do differently that is going to take me out of my normative path. In my own incremental way, if I can sell a client on an idea that makes you look at the world a little differently, maybe a little better, then those people are going to be a little happier. I taught, by the way, I’ve been a professor for a while, so that’s more of a direct experience. I started out as an architect and I decided not to grow old and be a miserable architect, which is the fate of most New York architects.
Because it’s a grueling, oppressive, underpaid profession.
Because no one respects the fact that you build things with paper as opposed to the objects that are produced from that paper … it leads to a lot of divorce, a lot of drinking and I don’t know many happy, old architects. In order to avoid that, I said, ‘you know what? I’m as smart as any contractor I know and I’m going to be a contractor.’ And I did. And there was a power to it.
I’m skeptical about a view that there was once an age where we were happier without these high forms of technology …
Of course … I’m not a Luddite. I think I’m fairly adept at understanding technologies but there’s a place for that … I like watching Netflix and television.
What do you watch on television?
The usual crap. The biggest TV is in the kids’ room but they’re not allowed to watch television. They have not watched television since the day they were born. But I’m addicted. I have a terrible addiction.
So will you take the television out of the apartment altogether or will you just expect to live with the double standard?
I expect the double standard will survive.
You grew up in New York, so what’s the best about living in New York?
What’s the best thing? There’s no such thing as the best thing. There’s a lot of amazing things … the smartest group of people, the richest culture that you could kind of put in one place … one of the worst things of course is that we are becoming … it’s horrible, a horrible state of who we are, is that we are becoming a city like every other city … I have a bit of a love affair with all things Italian.
What is it about Italy that you love?
The heartiness, the richness of it, the people, the culture, the history, not in a nostalgic way …there’s an honesty to it.
They were once fascists …
Agh, forget about that bit …
You’re a terrible romantic!
There’s nothing wrong with that is there?
You said earlier that because you used a subway door as your front door, it became known as ‘the subway apartment’, and you were characterized as a ‘quirky’ architect. But you don’t want to be thought of as a quirky architect …
No, I’m not. I’m very serious. I’m not a kook.