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Artist James Hubbell Builds Park in South Korea

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Aired 6/17/10

San Diego artist James Hubbell heads to South Korea in July to design another Pacific Rim Park. We'll talk about his projects and the new chapel on his property in Santa Ysabel.

The new chapel at Ilan-Lael,  artist James Hubbell's residence and artist compound.
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Above: The new chapel at Ilan-Lael, artist James Hubbell's residence and artist compound.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Artist James Hubbell will continue a tradition this weekend that has become for many an annual pilgrimage. He and his family open up their home and art complex in Santa Ysabel to celebrate the arts, nature and beauty. Hubbell's work as an architectural designer, and sculptor, his stained glass and mosaic artwork are all part of his incredible residence. But, San Diego is home to many of his works, including the Pearl of the Pacific Park on Shelter Island. That park is just one of a string of Pacific Rim parks being created by James Hubbell and his students. He's off to create a new park in South Korea this summer. It’s a pleasure to welcome James Hubbell to These Days. Good morning, Mr. Hubbell.

JAMES HUBBELL (Artist): Good morning. It’s nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And also joining us is Professor Stephan Haggard of the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UCSD. Professor Haggard, welcome.

STEPHAN HAGGARD (Professor, School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California San Diego): My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mr. Hubbard – Hubbell, this weekend is the annual open house, as I said, on your property called Ilan-Lael. For those who don’t know about what’s there, this is your home, but what will people see when they go to the property?

HUBBELL: Well, we’ve been there since ’58 and I have a disease of building. So there’s seven buildings plus a little chapel that we just finished, and the land and the trees that have come back after the fire. And probably they might meet some interesting people.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a possibility, indeed.

HUBBELL: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Now what was your inspiration for creating these buildings?

HUBBELL: Well, my wife and I lived on the coast and when we moved up there, we wanted to build our own home. And I just like to build. So it wasn’t intended to build all those buildings, they just sort of came.

CAVANAUGH: And also they look, some of them, look as if they’ve actually grown out of the ground.

HUBBELL: Yeah, well, I’m very much influenced by nature and I’m trained as a painter and a sculptor so I think of the buildings as sculptures, not just as functional places to live.

CAVANAUGH: When you see the inside of many of the buildings in the Ilan-Lael complex, they are so embellished with stained glass and mosaics it really does look like an incredible labor of love. Is that how you would describe it?

HUBBELL: Well, I wouldn’t trade the building of it for anything. No, I think one of the things is that when you do a building or a job, what you’re trying to do is find the seed of what the building is about and sometimes it requires that there be glass and mosaic and other things, part – it’s like a piece of corn. It has to have the tassels and all of the other things.

CAVANAUGH: Professor Stephan Haggard, let me get your – you to share your impressions of this remarkable complex.

HAGGARD: What I was immediately struck by, when I went up there for the first time, and that led me to my involvement with Pacific Rim Parks, I just thought that these were beautiful structures and in many ways Jim is replicating those in other locations around the Pacific. So my involvement really came from seeing the opportunity of spreading this kind of architecture around the Pacific Rim.

CAVANAUGH: And you mentioned, Mr. Hubbell, the fact that a lot of the structures on this compound were destroyed in the 2003 Cedar Fire. How did everything get rebuilt? I mean, excuse me, we’re only 7 years out and there’s a lot of building going on there.

HUBBELL: Well, four of the buildings were gutted. And we had thought for a long time to put them into our foundation, Ilan-Lael, and it just called and said this is the time to do it. And so that was very, very helpful. So they’re basically – Anne and I are artists – an artist in residence. It’s part of the foundation. And there’s about 40 acres that goes with it, and there’s a trail that somebody’s been taking care of.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’ve mentioned the name of this complex, Ilan-Lael, a number of times. What does Ilan-Lael mean?

HUBBELL: It means a tree that belongs to God. And we were looking for a symbol that brought spiritual and physical things together and the tree has its roots in the ground and its branches in the sky.

CAVANAUGH: Now you mentioned that there’s a brand new building that is not a building that has been rebuilt but a brand new building that’s open this year. Tell us about the chapel.

HUBBELL: Well, it’s not really a building.

CAVANAUGH: Aha.

HUBBELL: It’s more like a sculpture that you can stand in. And part of it was done with a class of about 13 people last summer. It actually had started before the fire and we just needed to finish it because we were trying to do an archive building and it didn’t seem right not to finish it. So it’s a great addition to the whole complex.

CAVANAUGH: So many people now talk about using sustainable materials and natural materials in their building, and this is something that you’ve been doing for all the time you’ve been creating these structures. Talk to us a little bit about the materials that you use as you create these structures.

HUBBELL: Well, yeah, I’ve been interested in, you know, in using local things in adobe and stone and the lighting and everything. But it’s – my son’s really – Drew Hubbell, that’s really his world. I’m – I really build because I want to make music out of the building. It’s – I don’t build – I mean, the environmental part is part of it but it’s not the driving force.

CAVANAUGH: How do you create music out of a building?

HUBBELL: I don’t know. I think you have to put it as a value that, you know, it’s just like the conference that we’re doing on beauty. It’s not really to define what beauty is but to see if it is becoming something that’s talked about in the culture and valued. And if it is, how do you use it? And so its sustainability or all of those things, if they’re values that are in your psyche, you just do it, you know. But if they’re things that are written down as regulations, you probably do it wrong.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with artist James Hubbell and we’re talking not just about his annual open house on Father’s Day at his property in Santa Ysabel but also we’re talking with Mr. Hubbell and Professor Stephan Haggard about the Pacific Rim Parks, this project that you’ve started around the Pacific Rim obviously. This project will soon take you to South Korea, Mr. Hubbell. What is the Pacific Rim Parks project? How did it get started?

HUBBELL: Well, it actually – it’s very interesting because they’re all tied and both working with the Pacific Rim and also with the beauty theme, I heard a quote by Dostoevsky back in the cold war that when things are really bad, only beauty and truth can communicate. And I’ve always been curious, and that sort of got me involved with trying to understand what was going on in Russia. And so when Vladivostok opened up, a friend of mine, Lowell Strombeck, and I were able to go there and eventually the two cities became sister cities. And we made a friend of the person that was head of the university and so the first park was build in Vladivostok.

CAVANAUGH: And why did you choose to create a park?

HUBBELL: Well, Gennady, the director, and I thought there should be something physical. You know, you have committees when you have volunteer organizations and sometimes the people don’t understand each other. But if there’s a physical symbol then there’s something that kind of passes on even if – you know, it’s something that’s there. So – And it was a chance, too, to work with – so we did it with Russian kids, architect students, American and the Mexican, and that was the first one. And in the process, the students wanted a symbol and they chose a pearl. And so that eventually became sort of what all of them have the pearl and the idea is that we have the Ring of Fire but what we’re trying to do is to string pearls around the Pacific of countries and cities that are friends and want to help each other.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a lovely image. Let me ask you, Professor Haggard, you’re with the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UCSD, how are you involved in the creation of these Pacific Rim parks?

HAGGARD: Well, I’m a member of the board now but my involvement started about three or four years ago when I first met Jim. And what struck me was the parallel between what he was trying to do and what the graduate school was trying to do. The graduate school is the School for International Affairs for the UC system as a whole and basically we’re devoted to the study of the Asian Pacific, defined to include the Americas. So when I saw this project, it seemed like a natural fit with our mission and what we were trying to accomplish. We were thinking about economics, politics, business, the interactions of the region, and Jim was really doing the same thing but looking at artistic mechanisms for bringing the region together. So it just seemed like a natural fit.

CAVANAUGH: How many countries have you built in so far, Mr. Hubbell?

HUBBELL: Five.

CAVANAUGH: Including San Diego, right?

HUBBELL: Including San Diego, Tijuana, Vladivostok, Yantai, China, which is our sister city, and Pacific…

HAGGARD: Puerto Princesa.

HUBBELL: Puerto Princesa…

HAGGARD: The Philippines.

CAVANAUGH: In the Philippines.

HUBBELL: In the Philippines.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

HUBBELL: Last year, we did that.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’re going to South Korea, as I mentioned, in July. Stephan, what kinds of negotiations have been going on to make that happen?

HAGGARD: Well, each park has a type of organic quality to it. I was involved in the Philippines park and that park was initiated in part through contact that I had with a student which led to the governor of one of the provinces in the Philippines, and it’s a similar type of process with the Korea park. It’s someone knowing someone knowing someone. And the Jeju location is an island off the south coast of South Korea that’s just a beautiful site and has a long history of involvement in peace related activities. I had connections there. I drew on those. And you just simply move forward with people and explaining to them what we’re doing and getting support, and it snowballs.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mr. Hubbell, as you arrive at this location in South Korea to create this park, will you be bringing lots of materials with you from the United States or where will you get the materials and where will you get the workers to help you build this park?

HUBBELL: No. We won’t be bringing hardly anything. Our toothbrush. But the people and the government in Jeju have committed to supplying materials and tools and things. And the labor is really the students, and the students will be from seven countries: Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, San Diego and Tijuana. And all architect students.

CAVANAUGH: And is the way that you compile materials with what you find at the areas these parks are built in?

HUBBELL: Yeah. Because the island of Jeju’s a volcanic island, probably 80% of it will be volcanic stones.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, you already know that.

HUBBELL: Yeah. I mean, it’s what they have and what they – It’s a permanent material and it really expresses – In a sense, location determines certain things, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Like what?

HUBBELL: Well, like one thing, there’s – Jeju is noted for its wind so I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to build something you can get out of the wind in, you know, that has some protection from the wind.

CAVANAUGH: Well, does it make you think of building things that will work with the wind in a way and have the wind used as an energy source or anything like that?

HUBBELL: Well, yeah. I mean, it gives the possibility but those things give you – they give you a language that is part of their – but the other part of the language comes from the students because what we’re trying to do is to get people to realize that the Pacific is a cultural thing as well as an economic thing. And in the long run, it might be as important or more important than the economics. I mean, I think it’s a very different culture than what you have in Europe and the east coast. So this – What I do is, I work with the students and try to get their subconscious. What they don’t know about the Pacific and about shapes and forms that express it, and then I use that to develop a plan of what – and then they build it. There’s three weeks of sort of panic building.

CAVANAUGH: Panic building?

HUBBELL: Yeah. Yeah.

HAGGARD: There’s a double entendre in there.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Professor, this particular park in South Korea kind of corresponds along the same timeline as certain talks that are underway in the Pacific Rim with North Korea. How do you see the two concepts combining?

HAGGARD: Good question. Well, first of all, there’s an educational function in here, and that was part of what attracted me to the project. This grows out of a concept in architecture of design/build, where instead of putting students in front of a drafting board and working on theory, you put them in the field and actually have them build something. And in some ways, the efforts to build cooperation in the Pacific among the countries of the region, more generally, but also the six parties that are involved in the Korean Peninsula talks is also a kind of architectural exercise of trying to construct institutions, of trying to construct structures that would mitigate some of the tensions on the peninsula and bring the countries together, so there’s a little bit of a parallel there, and that’s what got me involved in the park.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mr. Hubbell, as you said, each of these parks has a pearl element to it. Do you know yet what the pearl element will be to the park in Korea?

HUBBELL: Well, I know the volcanic stone’s very rough and very dark so we – it gives us a chance to play off of. And the other fascinating thing is, is that Jeju is one of the places that lady pearl divers started.

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

HUBBELL: So, I mean, if I’m quoting right, in the sixties there was 30,000 lady pearl divers. And I think now there’s only 3,000 but – so the pearl kind of is a natural theme for there. And, I mean, it’s sort of like the place has things that – I mean, it’s working like with a client. They have gifts and it’s sort of dumb not to use them.

CAVANAUGH: I can see that. Now you know I know that Korea has played a pivotal role in your life. You are a Korean War veteran and you adopted your first child from Korea. So does this park in South Korea take on a – some personal significance for you?

HUBBELL: I think absolutely. You know, I think also the thing, the significance, too, is its location. It’s so – It could – It’s in – It’s sort of equally located between Japan and China and Korea, so it acts as a kind of a place to bring the idea of the parks that we’ve already done in the region into sort of a cone – you know, to say, well, what was it about? What’s it about?

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HUBBELL: And Stephan’s organizing a little conference.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.

HAGGARD: Well, as you may know, your listeners may know, there’s been a process going on for some time of trying to denuclearize the Korean peninsula that began following the onset of the crisis in the fall of 2003, the nuclear crisis. And the six parties involved in those talks are Russia, the two Koreas, Japan, China and the United States. And they’ve been stalled over the last year, so one of the things this conference is going to consider is the question of how we get those talks back on track, what type of arrangements on the peninsula might look like going forward. As you may know, the Korean War never actually ended; we only have an armistice on the peninsula. So for starters, we have to get to a peace regime and then there’s a lot of talk about how we might build a so-called regional security architecture that would denuclearize the peninsula and normalize relations among the parties.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. But it’s a long – this sort of politics is kind of a long way from your vision of what you were telling us a little while – of beauty, and I’d like to go back to that, Mr. Hubbell, for a moment, if I may. You know, that’s – beauty is so much a part of what you create and yet beauty has not always been highly prized in the modern art world. So I’m wondering if you think that the thrill, the goal, towards sheer beauty might be coming back in our culture?

HUBBELL: Yeah, absolutely, I think so because like 20, 30 years ago, it was almost a dirty world, particularly in the art world. But it’s – I find it’s being used all the time, not just in art. Because I think, to me, things aren’t separate. I mean, the politics and the art and the culture and the fads all run together and they all tell you things. So if the word beauty is being used and taken seriously, it means something about the country, and where are we going to – Are we going to use that? It’s not – And I don’t want people to define it because I don’t think – It’s like love or life, if you define it, in a sense you destroy it.

CAVANAUGH: I read where you said that you think that we might be heading towards a new romantic age. Why do you think that?

HUBBELL: Well, I think that we’ve been obsessed with control, you know, on everything from schools where you teach in order to get grades to genetics to politics. And I think that particularly recently we’re learning that we’re not really in control and that you have to celebrate mystery and celebrate things that just happen. Otherwise, you kind of destroy everything. So and, to me, that’s what the romantic is, it’s somebody that accepts that life isn’t something that you – you go from A to B to C, it takes you somewhere.

CAVANAUGH: We are out of time. But I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today. Thank you both. I’ve been speaking with artist James Hubbell and Professor Stephan Haggard. Thank you both.

HUBBELL: Our pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that the Hubbell Ilan-Lael Foundation open house and studios takes place this Sunday from 11:00 to 5:00 at the Hubbell property in Santa Ysabel. If you’d like to comment about what you’ve heard here on KPBS, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.

Event Information:

The Hubbell / Ilan-Lael Foundation Open House & Studios will take place this Sunday from 11-5 at the Hubbell property in Santa Ysabel.

Ilan-Lael Foundation will sponsor a panel discussion on beauty this Tuesday at 5:30 at the San Diego Museum of Art.

The KPBS documentary on James Hubbell called "Art and Vision of James Hubbell" will air this Saturday at 4pm on KPBS TV.

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