Before introducing renowned artist and environmental designer Michael Singer to the crowd at Gamble Auditorium on March 2, Lauret Savoy, director of the Center for the Environment, took an informal survey of what students in the audience imagined themselves to be. She quickly determined that Singer's audience included architects, designers, ecologists, historians, geologists, artists, and economists; in short, the diverse blend that makes for a truly interdisciplinary conversation. Singer, whose work has transformed public art, architecture, landscape, and planning processes into successful models for urban and ecological revision, was delighted to be in such company. He praised Mount Holyoke's "openness and cross-fertilization of understanding between disciplines, between teachers and students…. We all find ourselves gravitating to a central issue of what is our relationship to the environment around us? How can we heal very damaged situations? That responsibility creates a core connection. At Mount Holyoke you've got a faculty that recognizes that their academic boundaries are permeable and must be permeable and that they must take on these issues. That isn't happening everywhere. You're really in the right place."
Singer's talk, "Creative Process: Environment, Infrastructure, and Aesthetics," was presented by the Center for the Environment with support from the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Fittingly, one of the evening's themes was the necessity of cross-disciplinary collaborations for solving problems. Singer invited his audience to rethink their definition of partnerships and collaboration, noting, "None of us alone is going to have an answer that will solve a problem but as a team we will." He repeatedly proved that point through showing before and after images of projects tackled in collaboration with engineers, architects, municipal planning boards, anthropologists, scientists, and grassroots activists. One example was the Phoenix, Arizona, recycling and transfer center that Singer designed to invite the public's involvement in the process of recycling. This award-winning project was named by the New York Times as one of the top eight design and architectural events of 1993. Other examples included an energy-efficient New York City power plant that doubles as a habitat for indigenous plants and a flood wall in Grand Rapids that created a fully accessible walkway to the river's edge and focused residents' attention on one of the city's natural and historic spaces.
Tracing his career's 30-year trajectory, Singer described how, at age 25, he was chosen as one of ten young artists to exhibit at the Guggenheim. That opportunity, he said, also offered him the chance to make a choice. "Either I was going to continue within that realm--which is very urban based, very much about New York and art world dialogue thinking--or I could venture off into environment and place and nature, an area that was more unknown for me but seemed much more rewarding. I chose to go to Vermont to push the boundaries of what an artist commonly does. My investigations included exploring the intersection of the built and natural environment."
Singer emphasized that when he approaches a project, be it a garden for an airport concourse or a supermarket in a shopping mall, he seeks to make full use of the site's resources. Discovering the extent of those resources results from constantly questioning "why things are the way they are. What is an airport? What is a supermarket?" He encouraged his audience to take a questioning mind into the world and "think about ways we can reenvision the landscape and the environment around us."
Singer, who had met earlier in the day with a class on the cultural and environmental history of the Mount Holyoke campus taught by E. Nevius Rodman Professor of History Robert Schwartz, also invited the audience to join him the following morning for a campus walk to discuss Mount Holyoke's landscape and resources. "We were honored to have Michael Singer with us," Savoy said. "He came here hoping to expand our thinking about the role of creative people in our cultures. He not only did that, but also inspired us to recognize the possibilities for environmental responsibility in our work and in how we live."