A conversation with architect and designer Matthew Skjonsberg can prove a bit disorienting. Skjonsberg strolls through life with a different set of eyeballs, connecting the dots between urban infrastructure and the cultural, environmental and artistic references that flow like a river of lifeblood beneath its foundation. The connections prove limitless, with Skjonsberg using a varied set of reference points to draw correlations across seemingly unrelated fields of architecture, literature, music, sociology and sustainability.
Skjonsberg arrived in Indy earlier this week as We Are City's "import," the organization's version of an artist-in-residence. While here, he will consult on a potential skateboard circuit that aims to connect the greenways of local parks with bike lanes and the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A legacy of Gene and Marilyn Glick. And he'll participate in a National Science Foundation grant that commissions six site-specific musical compositions. And then, of course, he'll speak as part of We Are City's SUMMIT at Indiana History Center this Thursday.
Matthew Skjonsberg speaking with Benjamin Blevins during his meet & greet at The Artistry.
"What I know of Indy is the reputation that it has for being a progressive, Midwestern city," Skjonsberg says. "Of course, as an identity, it's very much associated with the 500 and so forth ... This formal image of the circuit is what prompted this association for me with a skateboarding circuit to reinforce the cultural trail and the greenways."
Skjonsberg is working toward a PhD with a theme he calls "Periodicity and Rural/Urban Dynamics." Prior, he served s a project leader at West 8, working on projects including Governors Island (New York ), Commonwealth Institute (London), New World Symphony Park (Miami Beach) and Yongsan National Park (Seoul). He earned his undergraduate degree at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
"I almost visualize architecture as a certain kind of knot," Skjonsberg says. "Different knots are good in the sea and different knots are good other places. If you think about architecture as a way to bundle resources into an effective structure, facilitating not only forces but activities, it becomes much more dynamic."
Rather than view a project as permanent, Skjonsberg regards his work as an ongoing negotiation. "Any solid work or infrastructure is going to be used for different purposes at different times," he says. "One of the most interesting pieces for me, is how to create a condition where all these functions can be negotiated. You're creating a platform for these negotiations, hopefully, with the outcome that you do, in fact, gain greater freedoms and options in your own life."
- Courtesy Matthew Skjonsberg
"I'm very excited for what's coming next, because between theopenness of the city, the enthusiasm of the parks and the quality of the participants," says Skjonsberg.
Skjonsberg's doctorate work aims to apply the counterpoint composition method of music theory codified by composer Johann Fux in his book Gradus Ad Parnassum to urban development and design. "They call it strict counterpoint if you compose this way, because it's literally rule-based in the sense that there should be a maximum of 15 percent perfect consonance in the composition," he says. "85 percent should be imperfect consonance or even dissonance, because it's boring if everything is harmonizing all the time. This creates some very interesting implications if you think about architecture in that way. You get a clear idea that you need to resolve a few key points, but everything else should be given a degree of freedom to work itself out and to become more interesting and more diverse."
Skjonsberg rejects the increasingly popular notion that cities can function as self-sufficient entities. "The myopic enthusiasm for urbanism in our generation will have to be compensated for, at some point, by a similar emphasis on rural," he says. "Not only rural in the sense of the resource exchanges between a city and its region, which are also very interesting and should be mapped and acknowledged and understood better, but also the cultural exchanges that take place."
This highbrow connection with culture and development may seem harebrained at first glance, but it begins to make more sense the longer you talk with Skjonsberg. Despite the brevity of his stay in Indianapolis, he's excited about the city's potential. He was surprised, upon arrival, to run into skate park builder Bart Smith, with whom Skjonsberg had worked previously. "Indianapolis is capable of not only bringing these kinds of people here, but actually growing them here," Skjonsberg says of Smith -- an Indy native. "So, I'm very excited for what's coming next, because between the openness of the city, the enthusiasm of the parks and the quality of the participants, I think it has an excellent chance to be a world-class project."
"As an identity for Indianapolis to have the greenways, to have the cultural trail, and to have what we're discussing now as the skate parkways," Skjonsberg says. "It links back to the identity of the city and the Indy 500. It's a beautifully coherent and yet really diverse image. It plays into the vision of Indianapolis as not only a great place to visit, but also a great place to be, which is really the point."