The Back Room

an old photograph of amy trachtenberg and jeff miller standing together in front of a dark green shed

Leading and Following: Amy Trachtenberg and Jeffrey Miller in Conversation

Amy Trachtenberg
Jeffrey Miller

When Amy Trachtenberg and Jeffrey Miller met more than four decades ago, the young artist and landscape architect were living on different continents. But that chance encounter launched a lifelong collaboration, one deeply enmeshed in various Bay Area communities and artistic circles. Early on, the couple wondered, “How do two quite independent beings maintain a very long and fertile relationship?” Here are a few glimpses into how they’ve gone about answering that question, sustaining a San Francisco life in the arts through interdisciplinary commissions, activist-artist family parades, sea-kayaking adventures, and an ongoing curiosity in all there is to experience and share.   — clr

“The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” James Baldwin 

Amy Trachtenberg: The night I met you we were at Fraenkel Gallery, independently looking at photographs of dogs named Man and Fay Wray by William Wegman. You leaned over and asked me a very funny question. You were with Steve Anker, who came to San Francisco with a well-versed background in abstract non-narrative film. I invited you both to meet me for a late dinner back at my parents’ house; I was mesmerized. My brother was studying to become a landscape architect and I had been reading about Vita Sackville-West and Gertrude Jekyll, but I had never met a landscape architect. You had this community of artists and poets studying at The New College and you were employing some of these folks to build gardens that you were designing. Want to talk about some of that?

Jeffrey Miller: Sure, yeah. I was not a student at the New College nor was I at the Art Institute, but there was a community of folks that I was engaged with, who brought me into various art scenes in the city. Steve was a good friend, along with David Levi Strauss, Robert Kocik, Norma Cole, and Michael Kronebusch. At SF Art Institute, I collaborated withTim Kennedy on a number of his film projects. He was an old friend from our days at Bard College and came to San Francisco shortly after I moved here. I was attending openings and screenings at the Art Institute and was very much interested in all that, having studied film in my undergraduate world as well. I had established my design-build firm as a landscape architect and contractor. I designed a garden for Robert Duncan and Jess at their home in the Mission; we renovated an out-building in the rear to be a meeting place for Duncan’s students and a viewing space for Jess to show his work outside of the visually active environment of the house. The project really came about through folks at the New College, many of whom helped build that garden, including David, Robert, and Michael.

Jeffrey Miller in Robert Duncan and Jess's Mission neighborhood garden.

At the time it was so much less expensive to live in San Francisco and for these poets, if we didn’t have enough work building the fine gardens that we created together, they were very happy to spend time writing poetry, reading, and doing the other things they were fully committed to.  

The other world I was connected to — and a lot of it was through Tim Kennedy — was the Blue Dolphin, off 24th and Potrero. It was a communal living situation where music and dance performances happened. The Blue Dolphin is where I met many musicians, including Jon Raskin, a founding member of Rova Saxophone Quartet who continues to be a friend today. There was also a whole other crew of musicians I was very connected to, like Phillip Johnston, and X.M. Bill Pitman, jazz musicians who played on the streets of San Francisco and in clubs in North Beach.

AT: When we met in 1983, I was living in Paris. Having graduated from l’École des Beaux-Arts, I was not anticipating or desiring a move back to the US, despite my closeness to my large family mostly settled in California — which is why I was visiting San Francisco. The French Socialist safety net of that era allowed for incredible affordability as a young artist; I lived at La Cité Verte, south of Montparnasse in a magical live-work squat episodically shared with the sculptor and writer Anne Rochette. Together with other artists in Paris, we successfully fought to save this site from demolition. Over those years, for free or very cheaply, I spent tons of time in the museums, at the Cinémathèque Française, in small film houses, and seeing a lot of contemporary dance and theater. I heard music in caves and quarries, including by Terry Riley, Steve Potts, and Steve Lacy. I still have drawings of those events from when I always had a sketchbook and not a phone camera. Prior to finishing my degree, I began working in the studio and traveling with the artist Sheila Hicks as her assistant. From 1981-83, I was involved with large-scale production and installation of her work in France and in Amsterdam.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, but from a very young age was a Francophile. I think it started in ballet and modern dance classes where the language of positions is named in French. I had a first trip to France in 1973 when I was seventeen; I’d planned to go for a month and live with friends Daphne Corregan and Gilles Suffren in Marseille and Provence, but stayed for four months and traveled to Corsica, the south of Spain, and deep into Morocco. Every sense was lit up — the influences of that first experience outside the US persist. Upon my return to the Bay Area, I reluctantly started college at Sonoma State but all I wanted to do was go back to France. In 1976, I had the opportunity to return with a small opera company, Cinnabar Theater, to do sets and costumes on the fly in Lyon, Dijon, and Vézelay. It was supposed to just be a summer job but I ended up staying for almost six years.

I saw significant collaborative pieces in Paris: Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown with Robert Rauschenberg, Karole Armitage/ Rhys Chatham, Pina Bausch, the experimental inventive work of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil, and Peter Brook’s work. I saw the premiere of Dance, scored by Philip Glass, choreographed by Lucinda Childs, and with color-coded projected backdrops by Sol LeWitt. Highly demanding of one’s attention, the pedestrian gestures of the choreographed movement overlapped with the geometries of the LeWitt drawings, and the color spoke to the music. These works were key to opening up how I could think of expanding and straddling studio work, languages, and collaboration.

An exquisite corpse, written together in Paris, December 1983.

JM: Just a little bit of a history on my background as well: I attended graduate school in landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and created a masterplan for a neglected three-mile section of the Park River in Hartford, Connecticut, as my graduate thesis. The design provided increased public access and developed a variety of amenities in response to community meetings I facilitated. Following the thesis project and graduation I was recruited to work for the city planning department in Hartford as a neighborhood planner. After an eighteen-month period working in the bureaucracy I was craving more opportunity to design landscapes and moved to Philadelphia to work for an office of architects and landscape architects. Two years later I moved to San Francisco and worked for the renowned landscape architect Garrett Eckbo. Garrett was a mentor to me. He was part of a movement in the 1930s that spearheaded the modern movement in landscape architecture. It broke the Beaux Arts design tradition that was paramount at the time, introducing a whole new way of thinking about landscape design. I was fortunate to get connected to Garret and work with him for a number of years before I started Miller Company Landscape Architects.

AT: Certainly prior to our meeting, neither of us were concerned about marriage or having a family, both enjoying a quite freewheeling relationship to relationships. After falling hard for Jeff in SF, I went back to France. Not knowing how to stay apart, he planned to visit me and until then, tons of letters with collages and drawings were fervently sent and awaited, flying back and forth across the continents and the Atlantic Ocean. This preceded the internet and international phone calls were prohibitively expensive. After two months of separation, a few calls, and much writing, within the first hour of Jeff’s arrival, we decided to get married.

The first person in SF that you wanted me to meet was Norma Cole. Norma, also a Francophile, had previously lived in France. She was at the time mainly focusing on painting, reading, and being a mother while also attending the poetics program at New College, while studying with Robert Duncan. Her writing life had begun and that juggling of the realms of artist, motherhood, intellectual endeavors, and community was a great example to me.

Norma Cole and Amy Trachtenberg, 1986.

Once I moved to San Francisco, which happened within six months of meeting Jeff, a very rich part of our first decade or two together involved going to screenings at the San Francisco Cinematheque. It was great to be introduced to other histories of film, especially the non-narrative work of Stan Brakhage and Nathaniel Dorsky. We went to lots of readings at various spots like SPT, Intersection for the Arts, 80 Langton, Tassajara Bakery, and New College — we heard poets from everywhere, including locals Michael Palmer, Robert Duncan, Aaron Shurin, Bob Glück, Lyn Hejinian, Norma Cole, Kevin Killian and poets theater productions, Leslie Scalapino, Larry Eigner, and Bill Berkson. My work with poets started early. I’ve designed book covers for writer friends and worked for several years with City Lights. Among these are books by Nathaniel Mackey, Norma Cole, Mary Burger, Eleni Stecopoulos, Myung Mi Kim, and Barrett Watten. I did a cover for Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy’s Mirage which is a frottage of various embossed book covers.

Amy Trachtenberg in the studio basement of their Bernal Heights home, 1985-89. Photo: Dennis Letbetter

JM: The first night we went out together, we went dancing. We started at The Rite Spot, then went to Bajone’s on Valencia Street. It was a friendly place with live music, and it wasn’t a place where you felt that somebody was trying to pick you up or anything like that. It was just a good place to dance and have a good time.

AT: From the first time that we met, dancing became a glue for us, a way to keep unspoken closeness and reconnect. Our ability to dance together says a lot about our ability to work together. Once for Valentine’s Day we took a tango class at Green Gulch Zen Center which was about leading and following, following and leading. That taught us a lot. 

Your apartment in Cole Valley was at the top of the hill. You had (we have) a great record collection and books, books galore stacked like pillars. Our first night together, you played Brazilian records, Caymmi, and took me up to your improvised and illegal roof garden with a view. You had sewn your curtains from coffee bags and a beautiful hammock was slung across the living room. I felt I could stay there forever. I was very happy that first night. 

JM: We did immediately fall in love. That’s the basis of our collaborative life, in a way, that we’ve lived together now for more than forty years. We make a lot of decisions together, some of them have to do with projects we work on, others are just things we negotiate in life together.

They’re almost one in the same, is the way I think about it. There’s an ongoing conversation that happens. We’re both very interested in looking at things and discussing them, whether it’s architecture, landscape, the ocean, the sky.

AT: One of our first so-called dates was me attending a public meeting Jeff was conducting related to his community and design work in Buena Vista Park. It impressed me to see someone of my generation really engaging with a very diverse community about the use of their historic park, which had a lot of contested aspects. At the intersection of an active gay community where a lot of sex was happening under trees and in the shrubs, strolling elders, and families with children, Jeff was listening and designing new pathways through that park that would stabilize the ecosystem, slow erosion, and still invite a range of human activity. 

JM: I think it does play into the notion of “what is collaboration?” My practice as a landscape architect, and the nature of the work, especially in the public space, is collaborative. You don’t get to do everything as if it’s your own world — you’re collaborating with communities of various types. They could be elders, they could be formerly unhoused people, they could be the leather community, they could be families, it could be in the context of a school — all of that requires collaboration. So I’m attuned to this notion of what it is to listen to people, by facilitating community conversations and responding with ideas that result in designs that address both social and environmental matters.

When Amy got here she wound up working at the Philippe Bonnafont Gallery in North Beach, which had a focus on architectural drawings. Mac McGinnes and Dennis Letbetter were both involved with that gallery and became close friends. 

Jeffrey Miller and Mac McGinnes, 2020.

AT: Mac was my boss and Dennis and I have since done many collaborative book projects together – mostly unseen. David Ireland was another great influence. When I was in Paris, Peter Brook’s spare transformation of the Bouffes du Nord theater had a profound effect on me in terms of the elemental quality of its architecture. With the character of the skin of the walls left in partial ruin, it links easily to David and his 500 Capp Street house. As a spatially directed conceptual artist with a background in set design, he was very interested in what Jeff and I were doing in the renovation of our house, and wonderfully supportive of my work as it became more mature. I continue to be involved with his work and I’ll be having a show at his house next year. I’m interested in going into his archive to bring out his writing, which is a very undiscovered aspect of his work.

JM: Wasn’t there a moment when you worked with Bill Stout?

AT: Yes. I worked at William Stout’s bookstore also.  

JM: Which is probably the most renowned architectural bookstore in the country. Pretty amazing place. 

AT: When I first went to Jeff’s studio, which was in a storefront on Franklin Street, it occurred to me within that first hour that this was someone with whom I would love to collaborate. I’d done some spatial thinking for dance and small opera design, but the degree to which Jeff was trained and engaged with very large architectural and urban concerns really attracted me. His work as a designer dealt with enriching communities. Coming from painting but troubled by and engaged with social and political concerns, I felt my daily interface with his projects encouraged my expansion into thinking about public art making.

Folsom Street studio, Amy’s side, 2021.

JM: My Franklin Street studio was a long railroad layout and Amy settled into a space toward the back. I would go in and see what she was doing; that was a great influence on me, the focus it took to deal with the limits of a canvas, in terms of thinking about how to keep focus on some of the details of my own work. Our shared studio space is now located at 16th and Mission. We used to be in SOMA at 12th and Folsom for almost thirty years. We’ve found a way to share these spaces, harkening back to that original space on Franklin. We can wander into each other’s places and see what we’re doing and share ideas and get a little inspired.  

Jeffrey in his Franklin Street studio, 1985.

AT: But we mainly ignore each other. We do our own thing. When our kids were little, my studio was in the basement of our evolving house, open to the garden that Jeff transformed from dump site toward a tropical paradise. Things were fluid and we shared so much of housebuilding, housework, and parenting. In our move to Bernal Heights, we/Jeff gutted an old, somewhat neglected house in which we saw great promise. I was pregnant, painting, working at Philippe Bonnafont Gallery then at William Stout Books, pregnant again and breastfeeding a lot. Jeff was gutting and rebuilding the house, running his studio — both of us not knowing how much work it all was. There was and still is a lot of energy for these things.

Between 1983 and 1986, at Franklin Street, Jeff had various intriguing building supplies around and some of it was tarpaper. While working on large canvases, I tore the tarpaper apart to layer into an abstracted industrial landscape: green sky with pink ground. The materials he worked with were very magnetic for me — plant material, brick, concrete, and stone. I love his ability to conceptualize and craft forgotten or abandoned spaces with timeless and scavenged materials. Some of those materials and processes have definitely entered my work in installations and in theater pieces. The other thing I love about proximity to landscape architecture is the projections that are made as to how trees and plant material will grow and change. And the lack of control one must surrender to as a designer who will often not be shaping and pruning those spaces forever.

In our current studio I have my own cocoon, while he and his co-workers work away on the other side. Because of overlaps and differences, we have worked well together on public works and in theater.

Carla Harryman’s Performing Objects Stationed in the Subworld, at The Lab, 2003. Photo: Donald Swearingen.

I studied art history, painting, and world civilization but was and still am deeply drawn to contemporary dance and theater. The poets theater play Performing Objects Stationed in the Subworld was developed and performed in 2003 at The Lab, written by Carla Harryman and directed by Jim Cave with a score by Erling Wold. I had previously been the designer for Goya’s L.A., a boundary-busting play by Leslie Scalapino that we produced at Langton Arts in 1995, with music composed and performed by Larry Ochs and directed by Carla. For this 2003 production, Carla and I had a residency for the summer where we could work with the cast, which included the poet performers Kevin Killian, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Brent Cunningham, Taylor Brady, Annie Kunjappy, Walonda Lewis, Ken Berry, Patrick Durgin, Roham Sheikhani, and M. Mara-Ann. My role was that of visual artist for stage, props, and costumes. Jeff collaborated on the set design and did all of the building. The Lab was an amazing canvas for allowing a composition to take place, marrying the inherent qualities of the old ceiling, columns, and floor patterns in a Peter Brook manner. Initial conversations with Jeff were a very generative part of how that entire space became the set — a great adventure. 

Leo and Nate in Bernal Heights garden, 1989.

JM: I would say the birth of and raising our children is our most significant collaboration.

AT: So, within the first year of our being together in 1984, married, pregnant, we bought the house in Bernal Heights, then an affordable neighborhood we were drawn to. We became parents to Nathan, and within two years we had Leo. Our extended family offered much essential support and freedom, as did the parent-run nursery school co-op that we joined on Cortland Street. The backyard of the co-op was one of Jeff’s first projects in a school setting.

JM: It was a storefront on Cortland with a little rear yard that we were able to turn into a wonderful play yard for the children out of all recycled material. That community was and continues to be important for us. Jay Kilbourn was a parent at the co-op and was the executive director of San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG); he brought me into SLUG as a designer of community gardens. Eventually I joined the board of directors, serving for twelve years, five of them as the president. The organization grew and met the goal of establishing one hundred community gardens within the city by the year 2000. Alemany Farm and Heron’s Head open space were projects spearheaded by SLUG during my tenure on the board.  

USS Missouri protest on Market Street, 1986.

AT: In the mid-eighties there was a push from the government to homeport the USS Missouri, which was a nuclear weapons ship, into San Francisco Bay. Our activist community of friends and families from the nursery school co-op banded together, making costumes and huge props that pictured the nuclear ship. We all dressed up as grim reapers to parade in protest, along with thousands from across the Bay Area; the kids were face painted as we pushed them down Market Street as a stroller brigade, alongside the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It was one of many Market Street marches and parades we participated in as a family against military interventions and in celebration with Pride Parades. 

JM: Yeah, sharing our political perspectives has brought us engagement in the community. It has definitely engaged our children. Nate is thirty-nine and a union organizer for healthcare workers on the East Coast. He went to Santa Cruz in Community Studies and got involved with some very progressive work in San Francisco. Before moving East, he worked with the unhoused community at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, then co-created an NGO to work with union organizers in Colombia. Leo, thirty-seven, has also been involved in community creation through his music scene, starting in the Bay Area when he was quite young with his band Animosity SF. Now he’s a landscape architect who also DJing and co-producing music festivals with his partner MC Madrigal.

L: View from bedroom window, R: Son carries father

AT: They’ve just moved back into the family home. Leo is building a house next door with Jeff where there once was a kind of shack/garage. This is a project that Leo and Jeff have long dreamt of. They co-designed with a little bit of my participation and they’re building it now, as we speak. 

JM: Amy did more than just a little, and as we get deeper into the end game, her critical eye and her great sense of what it is to detail something is coming into play.

One architecture-heavy project we collaborated on was at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga in 2012, a really cool project called the Creekside Studio. I created a master plan and design for the area that transformed the underused space of this beautiful estate to create a place where artists and writers could work, people could gather, and events could take place along an existing creek. Once the design was approved my crew, including Leo, was responsible for the on-site installation of the Creekside Studio plan. We had a small part of this major estate, but it was an important “other” type of place that they didn’t have there. 

Creekside Studio at Montalvo Arts Center, detail.

AT: I focused on two specific components of the Montalvo project. I designed a patchwork shade cloth, creating two large canopies made from a variety of textiles. Jeff’s crew expanded the former utility structures on the site into a ceramics studio and I clad the building with a pattern of striped, reclaimed moldings in a vivid palette.

JM: What I’m starting to think about is this collaboration we did at Fort Mason for what was called the Peace Garden. Crissy Field was still an airfield at the time, and there was a lot of conversation about how to transform it. I was involved with a group of folks to discuss this; John Northmore Roberts was the main landscape architect, Karl Linn was a part of it. Karl was an amazing landscape architect and psychologist. A Holocaust survivor who grew up in Germany, family moved to Israel, taught in Israel then had a successful career in New York — but he pulled back on that and started working in the non-profit world. He also was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was an influential person for me because he brought me into several things.

At the time there were garden shows at Fort Mason, and I initiated a Peace Garden project for one of them. This was a collaborative effort to promote the creation of a peace walk in San Francisco, inspired by the notion of Boston’s Freedom Trail or Philadelphia’s independence walk in thinking about how to influence the city and recall the history of San Francisco as a peace-making place. 

AT: It’s where the United Nations charter was signed.  

JM: The collaboration included a major wall piece by Amy. The filmmaker Andrej Zdravič embedded video monitors in the walls, projecting images of transformations in nature. Ross Drago scrawled the outer walls with a graphic symbol-based language he developed. I worked with seniors and children who created paintings evoking notions of peace that were mounted in the interior of the space. Custom-designed fountains graced the garden entry and I silkscreened pavers with the images of peacemakers from around the world: Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jane Adams, and others were screen-printed onto the paving stones, creating a peace walk. It had to go up fast and be gone in a couple of days — it took a lot of preparation and some definite communication between all of us. Amy was a big part of that.  

AT: A few collaborations of ours included temporary situations. One of my earliest solo shows in San Francisco was at a gallery in the Mission called Show N Tell, a somewhat sprawling warehouse space. When Jeff saw the work chosen for the show he suggested building a platform to exhibit the twelve-foot-long exquisite corpse book, Flaubert en Egypte, that I’d made with Dennis Letbetter. Jeff stressed that we did not have to accept the given constraints of a space, where even a temporary architectural transformation was possible. He built an enclosure for my small-scale intimate collages. Ever since then we have always tried to look at how to play with spaces for exhibitions. 

Show N Tell installation, Flaubert en Egypte book created by Amy Trachtenberg and Dennis Letbetter, 1989.

Groundwork was a commission I received to create a public artwork for a new library in East San Jose. Jeff was intimately involved with non-stop conversations, drawings, and prototyping. It was a very labor-intensive project, involving my then-teenage son’s labor and that of various friends like artist Tanya Hollis and master woodworker Paco Prieto. We created a significant entry space that was meant to be a community sanctuary. It’s now been close to eighteen years and it’s holding up very well. Was it a coincidence that Ground Work is also the title of Robert Duncan’s final major collection of poems?

JM: There were numerous people Amy was collaborating with on the library project, including the project architects. They developed an initial scheme and she interjected with the notion that there should be a rotunda as an entry space, with Groundwork situated there. Our own collaboration really had to do with the engineering, crafting, and installation of the materials. And then there was a collaboration with the builders because we needed to do some rather unusual things during the process, including skewering the rotunda’s columns with forty vintage era tractor tires early on in the construction process.   

AT: The motivating dual concept was to pay homage to the history of the farmworker labor of Santa Clara Valley and to reveal the eight structural columns and clad them in various evocative materials. In tiers rising from the floor were stacks of tractor tires, a surround of madrone branches, and milled redwood. Jeff figured out how to skewer the tires onto the steel eyebeams before they were put into the ground, and they had to build the library around those forty tractor tires. That was a very significant contribution. And the engineering — I could draw pictures of what I wanted but I really didn’t know how in the world it could possibly be built.

L: Columns inside the Keshava Temple in Somanathapura, India; R: Groundwork installation at Hillview Library.

I am somewhat obsessed with the sculptural impact and significance I’ve seen in spaces where pillars and columns are the canvases for storytelling, with anthropomorphic, religious or ornamental characteristics. Like those we’ve experienced in temples, mosques, and churches in countries such as India, Spain, Mexico, and Turkey. The project for twenty-four new libraries in San Jose seemed like such good news for democracy and I wanted our library to feel like a sacred space. Many in the community had been farmworkers and child laborers and wished for that history to be “told”; it was wonderful to have Mary Burger and Rebecca Solnit write essays for the catalogue.

JM: A lot of the way we collaborate, especially since many of these projects are generated through the selection of Amy as an artist, is that I am engaged to think technically about how a project’s components are fabricated. I influence the way they look, as well, but the notion of how one collaborates, maybe that’s an interesting area for us to think about here? One thing that’s helped us collaborate is that we have different skills. If we were both coming from the same place, we might be butting heads a little more, whereas building off the skills that we can each bring to these collaborations helps us keep moving on and tracking where the thing is going. 

AT: The fact that I live with a designer/builder has made me imagine more ambitiously as a visual artist. I’m not sure I would have dared to present these ideas if I didn’t have the good fortune of living with someone so super skilled with materials, working with his hands, and courageous in tackling things that maybe nobody’s ever quite thought of before — all of this influences what I might propose. Honestly, I find it very sexy to know that Jeff manifests so many different things in the physical world. 

Amy Trachtenberg, I Said You Said, collage, 2001.

JM: I think we’re both lucky in where we come from. Amy comes from a big family full of activists, artists, architects, and landscape architects. My brother’s an architect, my dad was an engineer, my mother was a ballet dancer. So, we both come from places where looking at the world carefully and navigating through it is important, taking a shot at what we can do in the world to make it better or to influence it in some way, whether that’s in the work that we do, or the political activity we take part in. 

AT: Or the dinners we make together. We both love to cook and gather people. Our garden’s transformation with its firepit and fruit trees has felt like an urban paradise: avocado, banana, lemon, apple, and verbena trees tower over this patch which once was a dump site for car parts, paint cans, and appliances.

Something essential to our connection is that from the very beginning, we have found places to explore and camp. We have always taken quite adventurous and often very remote trips. We are sea kayakers, and we’ve taken long trips crossing between and sleeping in the woods and on the shores of islands. That elemental materiality has deeply influenced my work and definitely is a place where Jeff derives many ideas for his work. We’ve crossed bodies of water, packing our drinking water, with dozens of tortillas strapped to the back of our kayaks, subsisting very simply while having the richest of experiences. 

Jeffrey standing in the playground at Lafayette Park during construction, 2014.

JM: Getting to very remote natural areas feeds me in terms of what I’m interested in doing as a landscape architect. It’s not unusual for landscape architects to be involved in natural materials, because that’s what we do, but making those really apparent is not always easy — I’m involved in a lot of public parks and playgrounds and I feel it’s very important to touch real materials in these spaces, especially in children’s playgrounds. I prefer to work with stone and water and wood, as opposed to metal and plastic. Metal is a real material but it’s a manufactured material. And plants, of course. If you go to Lafayette Park in San Francisco, there’s a playground that we designed there. A lot of it came about through a photograph I received from Leo in Portugal, where they were climbing through a very narrow rock passage; I responded to that, thinking it would be a really fun thing that could happen in a playground. So, at Lafayette Park we have a space called The Gorge, which is two mountains of rock that make a narrow passage where kids go from one space to the other. Anyway, I think that these trips that we’ve been on, not only in remote areas, but in areas that are really intense... our trip to India clearly had a major influence on both of our thinking, just the character of some of these spaces, the detail, the color. 

AT: And just movement. 

JM: Movement, yeah.  

AT: I had a first trip to India several years before, where I had a last-minute invitation from Rebecca Litman, one of my oldest friends who was traveling there with Phillip Glass, one of her best friends, and whom I’d first met when I lived in Paris. They had an extra ticket to Mumbai, so at the last minute, I joined them to hear music and see dance in temples throughout India for almost three weeks. It was incredibly saturating and mind-bending and really fertilized a lot of my work since that time. I returned with Jeff because I felt so changed by it, and I felt we needed to have that experience together. It was a completely different trip that really affected us so deeply, beautifully, in the best way that only India can. It constantly undoes the expected.

The Bernal Heights garden, 2023.

I want to say something about the garden as a metaphor. Very early on — I think it exists in some letters we wrote to each other in our first year — we wondered, how do two quite independent beings maintain a very long and fertile relationship? One of us came up with the idea that it’s like a garden that needs to be replanted, weeded, turned over and harvested, left fallow at times. At every stage it is noticed. It must be tended to. 

JM: Also gardens are very unpredictable! You can plant a tree and it can do some funny things. I think the metaphor of a garden is really a good one in terms of our relationship that needs to be nurtured and maintained, but also that we can’t predict everything that’s going to come along. You find a way to adapt. Often, collaborators come together for a certain project, they’re not necessarily as intimately involved as Amy and I are, and they have a goal for that project which they collaborate on in one way or another, either together or isolated, sharing back and forth. Having this really long-term relationship is a different sort of collaboration.

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