Lessons from 1960s'-70s' Counterculture Architecture.
April 19, 2008
So much depends on the perception of a post-petroleum future, a single tree, melting ice caps, Al Gore’s waistline, innovations in alternative energies, and C.E.O.s who convince their boards to go green or, at least, adopt the rhetoric of green. Meanwhile, Americans are consuming more, driving bigger SUVs, buying more needless stuff, living in denial, and dumbing down. So can we still look to architects and planners for new attitudes and new paradigms? Good architecture, like some of the freestanding houses in this issue, can help shape our expectations and give us an idea of what the future might bring, truly sustainable or not. “Green” may be a pill that’s harder to swallow than one imagined, and maybe it’s not so bad to talk about aesthetics after all: Are we still waiting for the green version of the Villa Savoie or the Farnsworth House? There is no unity or single direction apparent.
It’s a good time to look back to the originating seeds of green, to the anarchic 1960s and Bucky Fuller’s philosophy of “ephemeralization” (doing more with less.) Conspicuous similarities can be detected between then and now, certainly a general ennui and loss of confidence in the status quo, along with the urge to save our planet. Conventional parameters of city, community, family, and housing were all thrown out in the psychedelic era, seen as part of the same mind-set that brought carpet bombing to Vietnam.
In 1965, a group of art students founded Drop City, a domed commune in Colorado. “Houses in our society are walls, blocking man from man, man from the universe, man from himself,” wrote Bill Voyd, one of the founders. Paolo Soleri was preaching arcology, a combination of architecture and ecology, back in the early ’60s, and instead of just theorizing, he went into the Arizona desert like an Old Testament prophet and began to actually build Arcosanti, the prototype for a new kind of organic, high-density city (without cars) surrounded by natural wilderness. It still thrives today, 38 years later. Steve Durkee and other members of USCO (“Company of Us”), a multimedia collaborative formed in New York in 1964, conjured up the idea of “Solux” in early manifestos and then went forth and built their “spiritual dude ranch” on a mountainside near Taos, New Mexico. (The name changed from Solux to Lama.) Anything seemed possible since young people were willing to give up the comforts of middle-class affluence and live in a state of what Ivan Illich, Austrian philosopher and anarchist, called “voluntary primitivism.” They did without television or plumbing or central heating while learning the ways of the compost heap, the privy, and the communal washtub.
With hallucinogenic drugs as lubricant, college dropouts who had never built much of anything felt empowered to move into the wilderness and create whole new communities. A group of Yale architecture students, led by Dave Sellers and Bill Rienecke, were sick of Modernist theory, moved to Prickly Mountain, Vermont, in the mid-’60s and started building houses with their own hands. A group of Princeton students, led by Steve Badanes, called themselves Jersey Devil and followed suit.
For many New Age utopians, Fuller’s geodesic dome offered the greatest promise, with its single embracing space, ideal for collective living, maximum enclosure constructed from minimum material. There seemed to be an inherent magic in all things circular. “Corners constrict the mind,” wrote one hippie builder. “Build circular musical structures and help destroy rational box-reality,” declared another who believed that the square had contaminated every aspect of Western civilization from the sandbox to the grid of corporate Modernism. While hundreds of domes had been built by 1959, Fuller’s vision flowered in the mid-to-late ’60s when the children of the counterculture adopted the dome as a symbol of both resistance and solidarity. Indeed, it could be seen as the seed for a whole new civilization, one that was communal, self-supporting, nonhierarchical. Its simple geometry suggested a multifaceted crystal, the eye of God, a circle of fellowship, and the mysterious oneness that so many had experienced on LSD and Psilocybin. “You merge with the dome; its skin becomes your skin,” said one geodesic convert.
Modernism and the cult of the machine seemed corrupt. Who wanted to live in a soul-withering box? Who really wanted to live in Corb’s machine à habiter? Instead of steamships and airplane fuselages, young architects were studying bird’s nests, honeycombs, bowers, anthills, and beaver dams while condemning the monuments of the modern movement as so many “architectural bombing runs.” One long-haired builder explained, “We want our homes to spring from the soil like trees.” (Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 Architecture Without Architects and D’Arcy Thompson’s 1917 On Growth and Form were popular sources of inspiration.) In his fervently utopian proposals for Mesa City (1955–60), Soleri was studying seedpods and stamens. Others, borrowing Soleri’s silt-casting techniques, built mounds of earth, covered them with concrete, and scooped out the dirt when the concrete had set. In 1972, Aleksandra Kasuba created a cocoon dwelling in the woods of Woodstock, New York, by pulling stretch fabric between the branches and trunks of different trees. “The approach was spontaneous throughout,” she said. Fourteen people lived inside the ghostly membrane during Whiz Bang City East, an alternative gathering held that summer.
In 1970, Charles Harker and members of the Tao Design collaborative—most of them disillusioned students from the architecture program at the University of Texas, Austin—built “Earth House” working without plans, improvising as they went, weaving strands of PVC piping into nestlike configurations and then spraying the structural skeleton with polyurethane foam. “All design is spontaneous,” said Harker, who compared the process to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. Around the same time, Bob de Buck built a house that resembled a giant anthill in the desert near Truchas, New Mexico, using scrap wood scavenged from building sites around Albuquerque. “Tools not to have: straightedge, square, level, plumb,” advised de Buck. Steve Baer, itinerant hippie builder and inventor of the “Zome,” drove by one afternoon and mistook it for a heap of garbage until he got closer and began to see the beauty of its weird, fractured anatomy.
In the funky, self-build revolution, making shelter was seen as an act of personal transformation and revelation. This credo was spread by word of mouth, by contact high, by a kind of telepathic interconnection that was also known as grokking. It was just there, somehow, in the air, the back-to-nature vibe, the need to make shelter, the need to uncomplicate one’s life. There was scrounging and recycling of old materials, living off the spoils of straight society. “Trapped inside a waste economy, man finds an identity as a consumer,” wrote Bill Voyd. “Once outside the trap, he finds enormous resources at his disposal—free.” Voyd and other pioneers at Drop City learned to chop the metal tops out of junked cars and shape them into building panels. Other free-form builders learned to work with bottles, mounds of earth, mud bricks, old tires, and bales of hay. Hippie surfers in Big Sur, California, fabricated driftwood houses and lived there happily until the Coast Guard bulldozed the funky structures into the sea. A more permanent community was established across the border on Hornby Island, British Columbia, by U.S. draft dodgers and self-build architects who fashioned surprisingly sophisticated shelters using only driftwood.
While ideas from the outlaw architects would filter quietly into the mainstream, the movement as a whole, the urge to build like beavers, was later dismissed along with LSD, tie-died T-shirts, and free love. Ronald Reagan, when running for Governor of California in 1967 said, “There will be no more Morning Stars,” referring to the infamous free-land commune in Sonoma County. He rode the reactionary upswell all the way to the White House. The proverbial genie somehow was put back into the bottle. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, architects started talking more about Palladian villas than biodegradable privies. Domes were dissed. (They leaked.) Walls and doors were seen as good things. People wanted privacy, not the communal bean pot. Hollow Corinthian columns and faux facades filled the architecture magazines while talk of solar, sustainable, or recycled design was shrugged off, seen as something of an embarrassment, a holdover from funky, Birkenstock-wearing hippies.
Notions of sustainability, ephemeralization, simplifying life, and reducing our carbon footprint have come full circle and seem more urgent today than ever before. But while the shaggy ’60s may be up for review, they come with a haircut, shorn as they are of the social/cultural revolution that drove them. And the question remains, can you have one without the other? True sustainability without sweeping social change? True green without revolution? Consumers beware: When one hears companies like Exxon, General Motors, and Merck Chemical talking green, then you know it’s probably time to check in with Alice and slide back down the rabbit hole.