Texas Architects catches up with University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture Professor Clay Odom, Assoc. AIA, who talks to us about growing up with deep family roots in a small town, sourcing inspiration from nature, and immersing himself in the sonic worlds of Radiohead.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the very small town of Baird, Texas, near Abilene. You might say it’s not the type of place where big ideas in architecture and design are generated; however, what it lacked in cosmopolitan terms it made up for with the deep roots my family has there. I have family on both my mother and father’s sides that have been in and around that town since the 1880s. Needless to say, the sense of knowing where you came from was extremely important when I was growing up and still influences me to this day. I’d also say that the comfort of knowing that I had deep family roots made it easier to make decisions about expanding my horizons as I grew older.
If you had not studied architecture, what other profession would you have pursued?
When I started my undergraduate degree, I was a music performance major. I have always maintained an interest in music and played in bands on and off for years. I think music and design are kindred pursuits. I get a very similar kick from playing music and from design. I enjoy both developing songs creatively and performing them live. In some of the installation pieces I’ve been working on lately (including a recent piece that was installed as part of show called "Situation" at the Design Hub in Melbourne, Australia), the work has been developed to generate atmospheres and spatial experiences where sound is a key component. I have been collaborating with a sound artist, Sean O'Neill, on this type of work and see it as an extension of this part of my past. But mostly, now I’m limited to playing music with my kids and going to shows. But hey, it’s Austin — not a bad place to be a music lover.
Pen, pencil, or computer?
I think most people would characterize my work as being digital. The work I produce is done primarily using digital tools. I would say that some of the more speculative, unconventional work and research projects are being produced using a range of high- and low-tech approaches. Fundamentally, I certainly strive to deeply link the methods I use to digital processes regardless of how the work is ultimately delivered. Ultimately, I think the idea that you’re one thing or another are false choices that lead to unnecessary and unproductive divisions both within my own practice and within design disciplines in general. I hope that the work, pedagogy, and scholarship that I’m currently producing plays a role in breaking down these types barriers.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration mostly through the processes and methods that I engage. I think that most would find that this is a particular type of theoretical exercise, but for me, it is a practice. The processes I’m most interested in doing primarily align with those found in nature. They are focused on nature's complex relationships and emergent types of phenomena, but they aren’t focused on reproducing artifacts or images that you might associate with nature — at least at first. This to me this is the power of a systematic, process-based way of thinking about design. It tends to generate projects that can’t be totally pinned down to stylistic association and that resist the ability to fully tie them down to single image or reference.
Do you listen to music when designing? What kind?
I usually don’t listen to music if I’m really having to figure things out, especially when I’m writing or developing content for the classes I teach at UTSOA. But when I’m in pure production mode, I go straight to all things Radiohead, including Thom Yorke’s solo work and side projects. I think their works are these perfect, completely-designed sonic worlds with immense amounts of texture, surface, and spatial connotations. Perfect design-oriented music.
But if I am finishing something up, and I’m ready to celebrate, then I’m usually more in the mood for My Morning Jacket. Songs of theirs, such as "One Big Holiday," are just great examples of the pure power of rock-and-roll to cut through the clutter and move you at your core.
What type of advice would you offer to young professionals?
I tell my students and other young professionals that they need to be in the habit of putting themselves into positions where unexpected and interesting things can happen. This typically involves saying ‘yes’ and being open to not knowing exactly where opportunities might come from. I read a quote by the great Buckminster Fuller the other day, and he said, "Dare to be naïve." I think in today’s world, where risk is almost intolerable, that this could be seen as a dangerous, even avant garde position. But, I think when you’re just getting going that it’s about working and doing as many challenging things as possible.
This way of thinking about an early career also builds both a portfolio and a range of contacts that are the keys to success as one moves deeper into a career. It’s this kind of openness that created the path to my graduate degree at Columbia University, my working for a broad range of offices, from SHoP architects and StudioSofield, to the fashion house of LucaLuca, and finally to a career that mixes a speculative design practice with teaching at UTSOA.