Lisa Taranto is well-known around town for her gorgeous, hand-built ceramics and for her work as founder of Tricycle Gardens, a nonprofit dedicated to the development and promotion of community gardens. But did you know that Taranto is also an architect? While these three areas of work may seem wildly divergent, given Taranto's background, her diverse livelihood makes perfect sense.
In the late 1980s Taranto took time off from studying architecture at Virginia Tech to live and work at Arcosanti, an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona. Developed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti was designed according to the principles of "arcology" — architecture coherent with ecology. As Arcosanti's Web site explains, "When complete, Arcosanti will house 5,000 people, demonstrating ways to improve urban conditions and lessen our destructive impact on the earth."
At the time, Taranto's architecture professors thought she was crazy to be interested in such a "fringe" community. "I felt like there wasn't a place for me to go as an architect in America," she says.
At Arcosanti, Taranto learned how to work with clay, and she was captivated by the medium. Though she returned to Virginia Tech to finish her degree, she also took pottery classes there, then spent many years making her living in Richmond selling functional ceramics. Around 2000, she closed her wholesale pottery studio and jumped back into the world of architecture. She found that her ideas about sustainable living were finally acceptable, even necessary.
"The path I've been on for the past 20 years is finally starting to become more mainstream and that's exciting," she says. "With the green movement it's amazing what's happened over the past 10 years." We asked Taranto to elaborate.
Q: What is your architectural design philosophy? A: I try to always encourage well-built buildings in an urban setting. I'm not interested in suburbia or sprawl. I'm interested in building for the long haul. There's this whole idea of green and green materials, but it really doesn't matter if you build an 8,000-square-foot "green" house in suburbia. It cancels itself out. I'm interested in being sensible and sensitive to one's budget and site. If you site a building correctly to take advantage of passive solar, it's an enormous benefit for energy costs. It's not rocket science.
For me, it's all about how to live a life as an individual, as part of a community and humanity in general, so that we leave behind the least amount of destruction and the most beauty possible.
Q: How do you describe your aesthetic? A: I really try to understand the nature of the material and to influence the material as little as possible and let it have its own voice. There's that dance between controlling it and letting it work for what it is.
Q: What inspires you? A: I am definitely influenced by modernism. The thing about modernism is that in order for it to work, you need highly skilled craftsmen. … My aesthetic is a cross between an organic feeling and a modernist feeling.
Q: How does your art influence your architecture and vice versa? A: In a lot of ways, working with clay allows me to build fantasy architecture. I really like making functional work, which is a big part of my architectural training. I have a really hard time [making] sculpture… My more functional work is about having nice objects that you can use on a daily basis.
Q: How do you define "modern"? A: Modernism was an era. Modernism is very streamlined and very clean. There's precision in it. This idea of a building as a machine was a big idea of modernism. Traditional houses, with formal living rooms, and dining rooms, are not a machine for living. They are built according to an idea of how people should live. … Modernism, to me, is something that is very tailored to the landscape, and to the client.
Q: How did your experience living and working at Arcosanti affect you today? A: I learned a lot about how to be self-sufficient. I learned how to weld; I worked in the foundry and learned how to cast bronze. I learned how to fix things and how to make things. In our society things are so disposable and nobody wants to learn those skills anymore. Living at Arcosanti taught me to be resourceful and creative.
The commune part of it helped me to learn about the importance of clear communication. … The big picture is, I still really strongly believe Paolo Soleri is a visionary.
Q: What are you trying to bring to art and architecture that isn't already there? A: I am trying to be a reflection of contemporary society. That's constantly changing, so I'm just trying to capture a reflection of the constantly evolving landscape we are living in.
Q: How did you get involved in community gardens? A: After I closed down my studio, I started volunteering as a reading volunteer at Chimborazo Elementary School, and it was a life-changing experience. For me, it was the first time I was stepping out of myself. That is when I got the idea to start a community garden in Richmond. I have been cobbling together a life of community gardens, art and architecture for the past seven years.
Community gardens bring together my ideal about communities and cities and about how we can make them a healthier place. One of my favorite quotes is, "Horticulture is the slowest of all the performing arts." For me, [Tricycle Gardens] has become my architecture.