Fritz Haeg of Edible Estates kicks off Postopolis! LA with an engaging talk around urban food production, a topic which I’ve become fascinated by since I moved to Australia. Edible Estates is one of the standout set of projects in this burgeoning area, with a particular take on how to bring localised, distributed food production to our city’s streets.
Haeg discussed how he had focused from an early age on architecture and buildings, drawn to being an architect for as long as he can remember. So he says Edible Estates “comes from a place where I had an obsession with buildings”. He got over this obsession though, almost coming out the other side, such that he’s no longer interested in buildings, “or in the physical structure at least.”
When he moved to LA 10 years ago, he started exploring the activity that happens inside and outside of buildings, almost the ‘life between buildings’ as Gehl would put it. (I thought that in the context of Los Angeles this is particularly interesting proposition. Amongst the spaces defined by the more Anglo Angelenos life between buildings is often brief and transient. The Latino community - and others - has utterly changed this, but Haeg’s work focuses on those urban and suburban spaces where “activity outside of buildings”, as he put it, has been most invisible.)
With 30 events over 6 years, all centred around his house, Haeg started started strategies for “inhabiting spaces and occupying environments”. These included events like ‘Sundown Salon’, knitting salons, events for kids where they built a fort and a mudpit, conventional literary salons, hair and makeup days and so on. The output of all these performances/events is being gathered into a book (a 150ft long page of paper with images on one side and text on the other).
With an arch of his eyebrow, Haeg notes that he understandably got a little ‘over’ having hundreds of people in his home every weekend, and then took on the idea of ”reconsidering the role of the home in society”, converting it into something akin to a schoolhouse and running a series of itinerant projects, via a mobile geodesic tent, where he would coordinate community education activities as companion to projects for institutions such as the Whitney, a ‘Philadelphia Training Camp for Expression Skills’ and so on.
On particular project ‘How To Eat Austin’, in which workshops would start with “dirt” in week 1 and progress to cooking in week 8, leads directly to the Edible Estates projects. These grew directly out of the 2004 election, and the perception that the USA was divided in two halves - red and blue. That there was a cultural divide here, at the heart of America. Haeg thought that architecture and art seemed an introverted dialogue and wondered whether an art project could bridge audiences. He started in Kansas i.e. the geographic centre of country, and with the front lawn itself.
Haeg sees the humble front lawn as a space that has so much potential. He says that it “also epitomises everything we stand for as Americans. It represents comfort and prosperity. I mean, how free must you be at the weekend to care of it?” It’s also a space that’s homogenised across America, such that it can look exactly the same in LA or NJ.
For Haeg, architects tend to be obsessed with making a mark - making something permanent. The lawn, for them, has a powerful function in terms of ‘frame’, almost “pushing the landscape down to make room for the awesome building”. The lawn us thus a “repressed vacant abstract nothingness”. It’s an anti-social no man’s land and often polluting.
So could we transform that into productive connecting space? He divided the country up into 9 squares and decided to do one garden each season. He references the High Line project in NYC as a reclaiming of such space for an urban garden (though this isn’t productive as far as I know).
In Salina, Kansas, he worked with people to create these little ‘edible estates’ - productive gardens in what was their front lawn. All gardens are permanent, all are productive.
In terms of methodology, Haeg intriguingly notes that he “dictates the terms on a project and then finds collaborators”. (Hm wonder if there’s more to this process?)
The converted lawns can have a tendency to “piss off other suburban neighbours”, a side-effect Haeg clearly enjoys when it happens. He notes that with one house, one neighbour freaked out, while the elderly German immigrants next door were ecstatic. Haeg finds it fascinating to look at the spectrum of responses to “what is basically, y’know … a vegetable garden”. To see what “responses that space elicits”.
Other projects include some outside the US, at Brookwood Estate, London, commissioned by Tate Modern, creating a kind of pleasure garden in middle of city, which also produces food. He set up an Edible Estates Temporary HQ in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. (The website notes: "This first planting includes fruits, vegetables and herbs: apples, plums, raspberries, currants, tomatoes, aubergine, brussel sprouts, scarlet runner beans, peas, lettuce, rocket, spinach, bok choy, artichokes, fennel, onions, parsley, coriander, sage, bay, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, dill, calendula, marigolds and nasturtiums.")
Haeg’s clear that he doen’t want to make gardens that are beyond peoples’ means - it must be “something anybody can make In the weekend”. As a result, it might sometimes look “scrappy”, at least as viewed through conventional means.
His next project sounds fascinating. It’s in Chelsea, NYC, and centres on the idea of what the space was on September 10 1609 I.e. a simulation of what it looked like and how native Americans lived off the land. This is linked to a project for the Whitney, ‘Animal Estates’, that explored the animals that used to live in that particularly space, including the construction of a beaver pond and beaver dam in spirit of Whitney architect Marcel Breuer. “Sort of”.
Regine asks a couple of questions, including one about why the use of the word ‘estate’? Haeg notes that graphic design and names are an important part of the work, and that the Edible Estates logo was designed to look familiar to Americans that might have seen suburban housing developments - that he was playing with the idea of legitimising it, of taking a radical activity to the people least likely to accept it (interesting echo here with Stephanie Smith on day two - more later). Haeg knows how hard it is for many homeowners to take the first step to plant the edible lawn there - it’s such “a big break with habit to change the antiquated notion of the lawn we have”.
Regine also asks about how the gardens are later on. Haeg says he’s In touch with all families, and almost all (if not all?) are still tending the gardens successfully. In fact the new owners of one house contacted him to take care of the garden they inherited from the previous owners - you have to be a relatively skilled gardener to pull this off, he notes - and he’s now working together with the family. (I’m interested in the skill level. I know from my own experience how much care and attention is required to grow even the smallest crop, and this seems to be a crucial factor in how this takes off. Having said that, I also know the time taken in such activities is hugely enjoyable, therapeutic, and generates a genuine sense of achievement. Even in the production of a few cherry tomatoes.)
(Distributed urban food production is a fascinating topic, not least for the civic possibilities of people working together in shared community gardens, allotments, and increasingly the little strips of urban space that were previously decorative at best. While it may never supply a ‘base load’ of food, it’s of fundamental importance to our cities going forward, for numerous reasons. It was good to hear Haeg talk about his experience here.)
(A local friend later notes there is a deeper irony here in terms of Los Angeles - again with the Mike Davis 'Magical Urbanism' idea in mind - that the Latino population has an almost intrinsic understanding of public urban space, as if carried down in some kind of urbanism gene from the cities of Southern Europe, and that they’re increasingly retrofitting this onto LA’s urban fabric. My friend noted that Latino culture in LA has always had chickens running around in the yard, for instance, and this was generally very much frowned upon by the Anglo-Saxon Angelenos. So while Haeg is attacking the front lawn of suburbia, Los Angeles in general may be racing ahead to a future where food production is intrinsically part of the warp and weft of urban space anyway. The productive backyard may engulf the manicured front lawn either way.)