At the exhibition “Your Place in Time: Twentieth Century America,” now on permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum, visitors can encounter, among a range of artifacts “highlighting five generations” of national life, a domestic interior titled “Back to the Land: Communal living in a geodesic dome, 1973.” Within the dome, curators have recreated a living room and farmhouse-style kitchen complete with a wood-burning stove and miscellaneous thrift-store furnishings. Beneath the obligatory Boston fern in its macramé hanger, a cinderblock and wood-plank shelf provides “some hints to alternative lifestyle choices of the time”: alongside an incense burner and crudely rolled joint, Timothy Leary’s autobiography and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet join well-thumbed volumes on yoga, handicrafts, organic gardening, and Volkswagen repair; scattered atop a coffee table are a chess board and sci-fi novels by Frank Herbert and Kurt Vonnegut. 1
“I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used,” declared Henry Ford upon opening his museum in 1929. “When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition.” 2 Yet the museum’s display of hippie culture reveals a telling betrayal of Ford’s mission. On closer inspection it becomes apparent that the geodesic dome is a tightly crafted structure, its metal struts milled and joined with a precision that any industrial engineer would admire — but as such the dome is utterly at odds with the rag-tag contents and hardly representative of “communal living,” ca. 1973. To capture the hippie aesthetic would require the curators to have installed a very different dome, a more makeshift construction that reflected the do-it-yourself, hand-craft ethos of the era. As the social historian Iain Boal writes, in West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California:
The communes of the 1960s and ’70s were for the most part improvised, ad-hoc affairs. Almost all communal housing was adapted from existing structures and refunctioned to new collective projects — either Victorians or empty industrial buildings in the urban context or abandoned farmhouses beyond the city. Hippie architecture is a by-word for the bodged and half-built. 3
Not at all “bodged and half-built,” the exhibition at the Ford Museum seems merely a conventionalized symbol of countercultural lifestyle — a too neat reconstruction of hippie stereotypes and clichés, ca. the turn of the millennium.
Such clichés have, of course, proven remarkably durable; it would be hard to identify a cultural movement at once more pervasive and familiar and yet less well understood. To a large degree this is due to the sensationalistic media coverage of the youth-driven counterculture that emerged in the mid 1960s across the country and especially in Northern California. As portrayed in periodicals and books, on television and film, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in those days was a lurid and druggy scene, its alternative lifestyle more or less synonymous with runaway teens and pot dealers, with florid psychedelia and groovy music. Historians Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle have aptly described the standard counterculture narrative as an arc of trippy ecstatic birth followed quickly by stoner disillusionment. Here they list some of the stock images that encrust our understanding of the era:
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters tripping on acid rediscovering America, this time from west to east, aboard their “magic bus.” … Leary chanting “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” sampled onto the Beatles’ “Day in the Life”; the flowers, the music, the vision that was (but in actuality wasn’t) the Summer of Love in San Francisco, 1967. This stroboscopic light show will then draw to an abrupt close with the mandatory montage of the counterculture’s “dark side” — someone shooting up speed or having a bad trip, the Manson Family murders, and finally the Altamont concert-debacle — all ritually invoked, as mutually reinforcing tombstones.” 4
The mandatory montage might have included as well denunciations from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Theodore Roszak, the California State University professor who in 1968 popularized the term “counter-culture,” soon saw the neologism deployed as an “all-purpose pejorative” by right-wing politicians eager to exploit middle-class fears that bell-bottomed and long-haired youths were dragging America into a vortex of moral decay. 5 Likewise, the hippies defied deeply held left-wing paradigms of social progress. How could a group so predominantly white and middle-class possibly function as an agent of democratic liberation? New Left critiques (then and since) tend to portray hippies as bourgeois avatars of an alternative consumer culture — rock music and bohemian fashion, natural foods and herbal cosmetics, etc. — which for the most part they deplored, and then to blame them for the corporate appropriation of this culture. And in the history of architecture and urbanism as well, hippie and counterculture design has been no less marginalized and misrepresented. In “Alternatives,” a 1981 addendum to Charles Jencks’s influential survey, Architecture Today, William Chaitkin reduced the movement to the story of a failed Age of Aquarian utopia in which the “cult of the dome” and a “new tribalism” led to a short-lived surge in commune construction which quickly devolved into “more modest, personal, pragmatic projects.” 6 Chaitkin’s unsatisfactory summary was one of the few instances in which hippie design was even allowed into the mainstream canon — albeit with the telling rubric alternatives — and the allowance was fleeting in any case; by the early ’90s the publishers had excised the addendum from future editions of Architecture Today.
Hippie modernism has been not only misunderstood but also underestimated.
But what if we were to disassemble the tidy packaging of the Ford Museum, to refract the “stroboscopic light show” of endlessly looping images of flower children and acid trips, and to move beyond the reflexive condescension of “Alternatives”? Certainly the time is right to delve more closely into hippie architecture and its aesthetic and social production, to explore its intentions and practices and to evaluate the legacy of what design historian Lorraine Wild has termed “hippie modernism.” 7 For doing so reveals a movement that has been not only misunderstood but also underestimated — a movement galvanized by the mission of blending the aspirations of progressive architecture with the new imperatives of environmental responsibility; and more, a movement centered not on the East Coast — which is too often assumed to be the inevitable locus of avant-garde art and design innovation — but instead on the West Coast and especially in the Bay Area community of Berkeley. As a group of local communards declared, in the early ’70s, “Whereas Washington is the center of the United States government, Berkeley is the center of American movements and causes. If any town is, Berkeley is the center of the ‘counter culture.’” 8 The rhetoric is grand but the claim is legitimate. Almost half a century ago a regional group of hippies — known also as the “ecofreaks” — began to deliberate upon contemporary dilemmas ranging from corporate capitalism as a catalyst of environmental pathologies to the social disenfranchisement and spiritual malaise of lifestyles based on consumer identity. 9 The recent emergence of Occupy, the intensifying focus on sustainable design in response to ecological degradation, even the papal encyclical, Laudato si’, on our profit-driven “throwaway culture” and its relentless exploitation of the biosphere — all underscore the continuing relevance of a postwar counterculture that has been too easily consigned to the colorful footnotes. Indeed, in the words of historian Andrew Kirk, hippie environmental design is nothing less than a “storehouse of significant cultural knowledge.” 10
“A utopian dream of design working for the public good”
For the discipline of architecture, no doubt one of the obstacles to understanding and accepting counterculture design — to unpacking the storehouse — has been the very character of its practice: the hallmark of hippie modernism was a focus not on any rigorous or specific architectural form but rather on a kind of empirically informed and socially inspired bricolage. As Wild writes, the hippies were inspired by “a utopian dream of design working for the public good, with form being secondary to process.” Their methods were “not particularly linear or scholarly, but instead reflected the improvisatory ‘garage mechanic’ (or ‘garage band,’ depending on one’s generation) energy empowering the work.” 11 In an exploration of what he terms the “Countercultural Bricoleurs,” Andrew Kirk links the hippie creative process to that of the bricoleur: “a ‘jack of all trades’ who, with cunning and resource, ransacks the ‘ready at hand’ to create something new … based on the continuous reworking of the received elements of the world.” 12 Design historian Simon Sadler argues that such D.I.Y. methods reflected a culture of “polymaths — carpenters, ex-servicemen, engineers, mathematicians, photographers, and scientists,” most of whom had no formal design training. 13 And Stewart Brand, the impresario of the Whole Earth Catalog — that bible of hippie “tool freaks” and, with its assorted typefaces, dingbats, photos, amateur drawings, and purloined engravings, itself an object lesson in bricolage — describes the hippies as “outlaws, dope fiends, and fanatics … with a functional grimy grasp on the world. World-thinkers, dropouts from specialization. Hope freaks.” 14
Hippie modernism focused not on rigorous form but rather on a kind of socially inspired bricolage.
Garage mechanic, jack-of-all-trades, world thinker, polymath, outlaw — clearly the hippie environmental designers who emerged in the Bay Area in the mid 1960s, and who would flourish for more than a decade, defy easy categorization. Not surprisingly, the movement took what we’d now call an open-source approach to inspiration. One especially fertile aesthetic complement was a West Coast art movement that originated in the Beat era. In Funk, a 1967 exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, curator Peter Selz describes “funk art” as “sensuous; and frequently … quite ugly and ungainly.” 15 Selz commandeered the term funk from San Francisco artist Bruce Connor, who had developed a distinctive process and oeuvre: Connor ransacked abandoned Victorians in the Fillmore district, scavenging everything from discarded clothes to shards of wallpaper, and from the scrounged materials he created assemblages of layered refuse that memorialized the detritus of American prosperity. 16 In the late ‘50s Connor founded the Rat Bastard Protective Association, a creative circle whose moniker was an assertion of solidarity with a local garbage collection group called the Scavenger’s Protective Association. 17 Connor’s fetishistic objects were informed in turn by The Museum of Unknown and Little Known Objects, a 1949 exhibition at the California School of Fine Arts of neo-dadaist works described by its solo artist, Clay Spohn, as “made up of lost and discarded utility objects, now found and reconstituted, reconstructed, reassembled, revitalized and re-employed.” 18 All of which is to say that in an era when a New York-based avant-garde was dominating the art world and enjoying increasing financial success, artists on the West Coast were self-consciously embracing their outsider status and crafting largely unmarketable objects from rubbish. Little wonder that a few years later the rising generation of hippie builders would continue and extend this local tradition, creating ad-hoc structures and ramshackle environments from cast-off materials, living up to Selz’s proposition that “Funk art looks at things which traditionally were not meant to be looked at.” 19
But funk was just one influence among many; consistent with the D.I.Y. modus operandi, hippie modernism displayed a dizzying theoretical surplus. Buckminster Fuller’s whole systems theory was a standard point of reference, and it was Fuller’s concept of a “design science revolution,” in which the fundamentals of nature would function as the guide for human invention, that inspired the hippie bricoleurs to shoulder their generation’s emerging notion of environmental stewardship and ecological activism. Fuller was also, of course, the inventor of the geodesic dome that sheltered the communal living space at the Ford Museum, and that cinderblock bookshelf might have well contained a copy of his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Not to mention volumes on topics ranging from transpersonal psychology to psychedelic mysticism to nature worship to communitarian collectivism to cybernetics to Zen Buddhism. 20
Buckminster Fuller’s concept of a ‘design science revolution’ inspired the hippie bricoleurs to shoulder their generation’s emerging notion of environmental stewardship.
How did bricolage methods, funk aesthetics, holistic theory, communitarian idealism, and environmental ethos come together as an integrated hippie design practice? We can begin to understand the features of alternative hippie architecture, just as contemporary design students did, through the syllabus of a 1971-72 course at the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. ARCH 102 ABC, or “Integrated Synthesis of the Design Determinants of Architecture,” a studio taught by assistant professor Sim Van der Ryn, recruited graduate students for a year of research and construction on a forested hillside in Marin County. The studio offered an “on-site experience in the theory and practice of basic building design, land use, and village technology” and — in true back-to-the-land spirit — practical know-how on “making a place in the country.” 21 Mornings were devoted to workshops in skills needed to establish a rural foothold, including “adapting to the natural environment,” site mapping, shelter design, tool use, carpentry and wood frame construction, and “energy and waste systems.”
Born in The Netherlands, raised in New York, and educated at University of Michigan, Sim Van der Ryn had recently arrived at Berkeley and was in the early years of a notably polymathic and intellectually adventurous career. True to form, he supplemented the course fundamentals with seminars whose variety and idiosyncrasy perfectly convey the range of counterculture design theory and practice. Students learned about “mobile life styles” from members of Ant Farm, the San Francisco-based avant-garde design collective; about documentary graphics from Gordon Ashby, an editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and designer in the office of Charles and Ray Eames; and about the material properties of wood from sculptor J.B. Blunk. Gordon Onslow Ford, a member of Andre Breton’s circle of surrealists and a disciple of Bay Area Zen master Hodo Tobase, lectured on regional ecology, and “wilderness-therapist” Robert Greenaway introduced the principles of eco-psychology. Doug Hall, a founder of the local T.R. Uthco art collective, initiated the class into the mysteries of “scrounging.” 22
Over the course of the year, the dozen or so students constructed what amounted to a D.I.Y. village. The central structure was “the Ark,” a building workshop/drafting studio that also served as a communal dining room and lounge — and with its patchwork of forms and salvaged materials, a case study in bricolage. Around the Ark were assorted constructions — personal sleeping cabins and tree-house roosts, a sauna, self-composting chicken coop, cookhouse, outdoor oven, outhouse, and communal shower facilities. Materials were found in nearby Petaluma: studio communards scavenged old-growth redwood planks from chicken coops that had been abandoned by the local poultry industry in its switch to factory farming. They dismantled ramshackle sheds, scraped chicken shit from salvaged wood, and trucked the hard-won gleanings back to camp, in the process earning from their studio instructors certificates that entitled the bearer “to be known to all as an outlaw builder, with all the rights and privileges attached thereto.” (The “outlaw” designation was actually all too fitting: nothing that the students built conformed to code requirements or had been granted a building permit.).
How did Berkeley students respond to their year of back-to-the-land apprenticeship in the wilderness of Marin? In Outlaw Building News — a final report authored by the studio and printed on cheap newsprint — the assessments ranged from enthusiastic (for one student the course was the first “where community and environment were not contradicted but constructed”; for another it was an opportunity “to build a house in which my physical self could exist … and a consciousness where my spiritual self could exist”) to qualified (“my social conscience tells me I’m playing elitist games,” said one student). 24 For Van der Ryn, it was the beginning of a long career as teacher and also cultural passeur: an intermediary linking an accredited school of architecture with local purveyors of hippie knowledge and alternative expertise.
To this end Van der Ryn was focusing not just on village-scale design but also on architectural works, in particular a proposal for an “ecotectural house” in Berkeley. Many of his contemporaries would, he admitted, find its features estranging — not because of the design’s aesthetics but rather because it challenged prevailing norms of domesticity. Van der Ryn envisioned the house as an opportunity not for consumption but instead for facilitated energy and food production and waste recycling; the overall goal was not only to conserve resources but also to underscore the inhabitant’s place within a broader environmental context. “The idea of ecotecture is to design in terms of the smallest coherent system, so that we become aware and thus responsible for the effects of our actions,” Van der Ryn wrote. By encouraging residents to see things whole, the household could be redefined as “a mini ecosystem in which rabbits, chickens, fish, honeybees, plants, microbes, and people interact in a flourishing example of interrelated self-reliance.” 25
In the spring of 1973, Berkeley architecture students provided the R&D talent needed to realize a prototype for ecotectural home technology; as the final project for Van der Ryn’s “Natural Energy Design” studio, they used salvaged lumber to erect a multi-story timber scaffold to support a patchwork of machine parts. Their “Energy Pavilion” incorporated a wind-driven electrical generator, homemade solar collectors, rainwater reservoir barrels, a greenhouse bedded with lettuce and snow peas, and a composting toilet. The ungainly structure was, in fact, the freestanding service core of Van der Ryn’s ecotectural house. Local news reports led to long lines of visitors as well as the unwelcome attention of the Campus Esthetics Committee, which demanded the structure’s immediate demolition — but not before a wealthy young donor offered funds to continue the project. The ecotectural experiment, which lasted a decade, yielded the 1979 Sierra Club monograph The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City, one of the earliest guides to sustainable household design. 26
“Let a thousand parks bloom”
Arguably the most consequential legacy of hippie modernism was its focus not on the architectural object but rather on a range of environmental issues, from renewable energy to resource conservation, which we now categorize under the embracing rubric of ecological sustainability. Here too the emerging movement found a deeply receptive local atmosphere. Northern California had been at the crux of American environmentalism since at least the late 19th century, when John Muir founded the Sierra Club in San Francisco, and in the 1960s the region was, in the words of writer Kenneth Brower, “epicenter for American environmental radicalism.” 27 In those years, hippie moderns made Berkeley — university and city — a laboratory for design experiments that sought to recalibrate everyday urban environments in the service of ecological well-being.
Consider the effort to claim — or “liberate” — a vacant parcel of university-owned land near Telegraph Avenue. The famous — or infamous — People’s Park was born when a provocative invitation appeared in the underground newspaper, The Berkeley Barb, on Friday April 18, 1969:
A park will be built this Sunday … We want the park to be a cultural, political freak-out and rap center for the Western world. All artists should show up and make the park their magical possession. Nobody supervises, and the trip belongs to whoever dreams. 28
About two hundred dreamers heeded the call, and that weekend began rolling turf, planting trees and bushes, and installing picnic tables and children’s swings. Over the next three weeks, thousands more came to join the cultural and political freak-out — or, as it happened, to pick up a shovel, listen to an impromptu rock concert, or just sit in the sun. Flower beds, clusters of saplings, and a “People’s Revolutionary Corn Garden” appeared; a shallow amphitheater and stage materialized. Students and professors from Berkeley’s CED became participant-observers. Van der Ryn, then chair of the university’s Advisory Committee on Housing and the Environment, was charged with briefing administrators on the populist occupation of campus property; taken to the site by his students, he quickly became a convert to the improvisations of what he called “the New Culture.” Marveling at the emergence of a collective vision through group consensus, he listened as citizen-activists defended the “spirit and purpose of a park where each person could be creative” and thus rejected the application of any unifying landscape standards. 29 As the political theorists Sheldon Wolin and John Schaar wrote that same spring, in the New York Review of Books, “About 200 people were involved in the beginning, but soon the Park was intensively and lovingly used by children, the young, students and street-people, and the elderly … the occupants of the Park wanted to use the land for a variety of projects, strange but deeply natural, which defied customary forms and expectations.”30
Berkeley became a laboratory for design experiments that sought to recalibrate everyday environments in the service of ecological well-being.
The outlaw urbanism of People’s Park would ultimately prove too strange. Van der Ryn urged the university to transfer the contested plot to the city, a solution with overwhelming town and gown support. But administrators ignored his advice and the brief idyll of People’s Park ended abruptly in what became the single most violent confrontation in the university’s history. On May 15, 1969, administrators sent police to clear the site and workers to erect perimeter fencing and no-trespassing signs. Governor Ronald Reagan authorized state troops in riot gear to fire on park supporters. By the time “Bloody Thursday” ended, scores of people were injured; one twenty-five-year-old bystander would later die of gunshot wounds.
Media coverage then and since has focused overwhelmingly on the violence, which escalated into two weeks of military-style occupation of the campus enforced by National Guardsman with clubs and tear gas. What has gone missing from the record is a richer understanding of People’s Park as a countercultural spatial experiment in urban environmentalism. 31 At the end of May, activists convened a campus teach-in on “Ecology and Politics in America” in order to debate next steps. Speakers equated People’s Park with the national conservation movement and “broader questions of planetary survival.” A flyer for the event declared that “The People’s Park is a mirror in which our society may see itself”:
The battle for a people’s park in Berkeley has raised questions that go far beyond the immediate objects of public attention. … The questions raised by this issue reach into two worlds at once: the world of power, politics and the institutional shape of American society on the one hand, and the world of ecology, conservation and the biological shape of our environment on the other. Ecology and Politics are no longer separate or separable issues. 32
The roster of eminent speakers who addressed the crowd of 2,000 suggests the growing reach of countercultural energy. The social critic Paul Goodman sent a telegram to express outrage at “the vandalism committed by the authorities.” Jane Jacobs sent another to commend the renegade park builders and also caution them to “be brave but be careful: against armor and sadism your weapon must be ingenuity.” Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, recently arrested for interfering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a flood control scheme in Marin County, compared the destruction of riparian environments with that of People’s Park. Van der Ryn briefed the audience on air and water pollution crises at home and abroad. The Beat poet Gary Snyder exhorted the crowd to “recover gut knowledge of our relationship to nature,” and called for replication of the “first little piece of liberated territory in America” through the creation of an “Earth People’s Park.” 33
The next day a small plane, chartered by a local Quaker group, flew over Berkeley trailing a banner: “LET A THOUSAND PARKS BLOOM.” The appeal failed to spread globally, but it did yield a second-generation People’s Park just a few miles from the original. Later that year in north Berkeley, activists and their children occupied several blocks that had been cleared during construction of a tunnel for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The vacant parcel, originally intended for apartment buildings, became the People’s Park Mobile Annex. In front of the encampment of tie-died bed-sheet tents, graffiti on a plank fence announced: “Welcome to Insurrection City.” 34 As at the original People’s Park, volunteer labor and bricolage landscaping transformed the liberated plot, but this time with a dramatically different outcome. Rather than countering community mobilization with violence, the BART managers ceded ground rights to the city of Berkeley. Within a decade, the five-block expanse, renamed Ohlone Park to commemorate the area’s indigenous inhabitants, boasted a community garden, picnic areas, children’s playground equipment, sports fields, toilets, and the world’s first dog park: another local D.I.Y. innovation. Unencumbered by a legacy of bloodshed and stakeholder turf wars, the “other” People’s Park offers a little known example of the successful deployment of hippie design tactics at an urban scale.
“With our free stores, liberated buildings, communes, people’s parks, dope, free bodies and our music, we’ll build our society in the vacant lots of the old.” So wrote hippie activist-gadfly Abbie Hoffman in the summer of 1969, in the program guide to the summer rock festival that put the village of Woodstock, New York, on the American cultural map. 35 A few months later, yet another vacant lot of the old society was repurposed by hippie urbanists. In April 1970 — to mark the first Earth Day — Ecology Action, a Berkeley commune, established a “drop-off center” near the university campus. Thus was born the nation’s first neighborhood recycling operation. There, once a week, locals could deposit old newspapers, glass containers, empty cans, and assorted household trash. The grassroots program, run by volunteers, enjoyed instant success. Soon the local salvage industry adapted its business model to include household scrap, and within a year the Bay Area boasted over seventy similar programs. 36
The Ecology Action communards reveled in the shock value of their trashcan take on consumer modernity.
One of dozens of communes founded in the Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, Ecology Action was organized in 1968 to function as a laboratory for household recycling practices and philosophy. The founder was Cliff Humphrey, a Berkeley student who had done a stint in the army and worked as a freeway construction inspector before returning to college. Humphrey was majoring in anthropology, and it was a course on Native Americans that sparked his interest in ecology and inspired him to start the commune, along with his wife Mary and friend Chuck Herrick, a student at the College of Environmental Design. 37 Dedicated to a fundamental rethinking of the presence of waste in domestic space and culture, the communards reveled in the shock value of their trashcan take on consumer modernity. In a March 1970 feature story in the New York Times Magazine, reporter Steven Roberts described Ecology Action as notable for a style that was “brash, activist, radical,” and he detailed its daily routines with the fascination of an ethnographer documenting the lifeways of an exotic tribe. Patched and paint-spattered, “the Ecology Actionists’ clothes are candidates for the rag bag,” Roberts observed. Rather than heating rooms to shirtsleeve comfort, communards wore sweaters indoors. Rather than throwing all trash into a single bin, they separated items by category for industrial recycling. Rather than discarding organic waste, they dumped it in the backyard to make a compost heap. Ecology Actionists baked their own bread, printed their political literature on “old computer paper,” and placed bricks in toilet tanks to reduce the volume of flushed water. “What [Humphrey] and many ecologists believe is that society must undergo a ‘cultural transformation,’ a move away from the ideals of growth, consumption and progress,” wrote Roberts. Describing the communal residence, at 3029 Benvenue Avenue, with its approximately ten residents, he continued:
For the Humphreys, ecological soundness begins at home. … The household is now down to two gasoline-powered cars, one truck — which runs on propane gas — and eight bikes. … The house buys food in bulk when it can — rice, sugar and flour are available — both to save money and to avoid the containers that hold prepackaged foods. Plastics, in particular, are shunned because they are indestructible. Residents of the house take along their own shopping bags or knapsacks to carry their purchases; when they have to accept paper bags they usually return them to the store. Several Ecology Actionists startled a grocer the other day when they bought some potato chips for a picnic, emptied the contents into their own bags and returned the wrappers on the spot. 38
For Humphrey and his fellow communards, these everyday practices had larger significance. They sought to connect the values of ecology with the broader agenda of social transformation, and in 1969 founded the Ecological Action Educational Institute with the goal of accessing political and organizational networks. In that capacity they exerted considerable local and regional influence, helping various California municipalities raise awareness about the benefits of recycling, the dangers of pesticides, etc. 39
Other Bay Area activists grappled with the challenges of moving from street protest and agitation to fruitful engagement with policy makers. In the turbulent year of 1968, Sim Van der Ryn collaborated with a recent Dartmouth graduate, Robert Reich, to write a position paper. In “Notes on Institution Building,” they ponder the difficulty of overcoming “the defensive status quo-ism of those in power, and the inability of institutions to be sufficiently responsive to change.” They proposed a new agent of reform, “the radical planner,” who would infiltrate “the system” to advocate on behalf of grassroots groups and marginal causes. Unlike the specialized bureaucrat, the radical planner would be, in essence, a systems bricoleur, whose expansive brief was to effect holistic change. 40
“The Berkeley/Ant Farm/Mad Environmentalist coalition”
Van der Ryn and Reich never published their paper, but by 1970 the increasingly broad-based protest movements of the ’60s were already infiltrating the system. That year saw the passage of the federal National Environmental Policy Act and the celebration of very first Earth Day — an idea first proposed by San Francisco pacifist John McConnell and taken up in Congress by Wisconsin Democrat Gaylord Nelson and California Republican Pete McCloskey. Eco-politics had gone mainstream and bipartisan, and that inaugural event mobilized more than twenty million participants for rallies across the United States. An EPA report from the mid ‘80s recalls the mood:
The first Earth Day lives in popular memory … as a joyous and life-affirming moment in American history. The theatrical flair of some of the demonstrators had a great deal to do with its success. Oil-coated ducks were dumped on the doorstep of the Department of the Interior. … A student disguised as the Grim Reaper stalked a General Electric Company stockholders’ meeting. … Demonstrators dragged a net filled with dead fish down Fifth Avenue, and shouted to passers-by, “This could be you!” 41
The Earth Day flag that flew above all those peaceful public demonstrations on behalf of eco reform, designed by McConnell, depicted the NASA photograph of Earth from space. The flag was soon available for purchase from the Whole Earth Catalog — which of course featured that same famous image on its cover. In this context it was hardly surprising when the International Design Conference at Aspen chose, as its theme for 1970, “Environment by Design.” The elite of the profession were, it seemed, poised to join the campaign to save the planet.
But they sought to do so on their own terms. Founded in 1951 by Chicago businessman and chair of the Container Corporation of America, Walter Paepcke, the IDCA had over two decades established itself as the preeminent forum of industry leaders and thinkers united in the conviction that good design advanced good business. Concerned that a younger and more activist generation would stage what Eliot Noyes, an IDCA board member, called “a counter-conference, or an anti-conference,” the organizers asked Sim Van der Ryn to organize an “environmental action” contingent from the Bay Area. 42 Clearly they hoped that deputizing a university professor to function as intermediary would ensure that Aspen went off as usual — that the prestigious summer conclave in the Colorado resort would be a congenial gathering of the cognoscenti.
Aspen had become the preeminent forum of industry leaders and thinkers united in the conviction that good design advanced good business.
To say their hopes were not met is to put it mildly: during that mild and sunny week in June, Aspen was the setting for an epochal clash of values rooted in wildly different understandings of not only the conference theme but also the very legitimacy of the event. To the IDCA, environment was simply the context in which designed objects existed; and design was more or less synonymous with the high-style aesthetic and corporate practice that had been brought to America by Bauhaus émigrés like Herbert Bayer, who had been commissioned by Paepcke to design the campus of the Aspen Institute and who was a perennial luminary of the annual conference. Design historian Alice Twemlow conveys the atmosphere of old-guard Aspen in this description of the opening party in 1970.
As the sun begins to dip behind the snow-capped mountains that encircle the idyllic Colorado resort town … IDCA board members and their wives gather for a cocktail party. Drinks have been set out on the terrace of one of the modernist houses in the Aspen Meadows complex, designed by Herbert Bayer. Bayer, the Austrian émigré and consultant to Container Corporation of America, who moved to Aspen in 1946, is there, dapper in his suit and cravat, suntanned and still handsome at 70. Also sipping gimlets and dressed in plaid jackets and ties are Saul Bass, the Los Angeles-based motion graphics designer; Eliot Noyes, design director at IBM and IDCA president since 1965; and George Nelson, design director at Herman Miller. The men’s hair, if they still have it, is cropped close and grey. Their wives’ hair has been curled and set and barely moves in the breeze that ruffles the surrounding aspen trees. They wear large sunglasses with their cocktail dresses and pearls. 43
To the Bay Area hippie moderns — passionate advocates of whole-earth ecology, trash-bin funk, épater le bourgeois insolence — this sort of plaid-jacketed propriety and gimlet-sipping urbanity was ripe for gleeful disruption. Van der Ryn’s group arrived in Aspen with the celebratory air of a circus coming to town; the caravan of chartered buses from California disgorged an assortment of conference conscripts, including Cliff Humphrey, of Ecology Action; Michael Doyle, a firebrand activist who worked in the office of Lawrence Halprin; Craig Hodgetts, then a young faculty member at CalArts; and a Berkeley-based guerrilla performance troupe called The Moving Company. Members of Ant Farm, including founders Chip Lord and Doug Michels, pulled up in their own customized van and promptly contravened IDCA rules by planting one of their artworks — “Pillow Inflatable” — on Herbert Bayer’s sacrosanct landscape. Denied access to the official proceedings, the collective lurked on the margins throughout, reveling in their role as rabble-rousers. As Twemlow says, “With their waist-length hair, beards, open-necked shirts, bandanas and jean jackets, these groups signaled their adherence to an alternative lifestyle and set of values of which Berkeley was the unofficial American capital, as well as their physical and philosophical distance from the conference organizers, some of whom had been attending the design conference at Aspen since its founding in 1951.” 44
The plaid-jacketed propriety and gimlet-sipping urbanity of Aspen was ripe for gleeful disruption by countercultural designers.
Over the next few days, the members of what historian and conference speaker Reyner Banham dubbed “the Berkeley/Ant Farm/Mad Environmentalist coalition” would throw the conference into chaos. Some of the tensions boiled down to a generational divide, and the very different styles — or lifestyles — of the older and younger cohorts. For IDCA denizens, the ideal Aspen unfolded as a series of formal presentations in the pavilion-like auditorium during which prominent designers lectured to several hundred attendees from a raised stage. Talks were followed by professional networking and copious socializing over free-flowing drinks and leisurely alfresco meals. The opportunity for mountain hikes and fishing trips heightened the mood of bespoke retreat.
To the hippie designer/activists, this was all too polite and passive, too regimented and hierarchical. As Doyle, in a memo to Halprin, put it: “The conference, as it is set up, is a waste of time … a place where so-called great names come to pedantically disseminate their views to the less fortunate, less famous designers. Fly in — speak — fly out.” 45 In IDCA 1970, a documentary by Eli Noyes (son of Eliot) and Claudia Weill, an irreverent university student makes a similar point: “It’s one speaker and 1,000 people glued to their seats by regulation or boredom or both.” 46 To shake up the Rocky Mountain stronghold of haute modernism, Van der Ryn’s environmental actionists attempted to instill a spirit of freewheeling spontaneity and participatory interaction. During one session, Craig Hodgetts instructed everyone in the audience to stand and remove his or her I.D. badge and pass them randomly to someone else; he then encouraged the bemused — or annoyed — attendees to try to find their badges by wandering around and making new friends. 47 Cliff Humphrey proposed a group picnic at the Aspen city dump as an object lesson in consumer waste; when that failed to materialize, he collected a pile of garbage generated by IDCA participants and used it as a visual aid during his presentation.
But the divisions at Aspen went deeper than style and presentation; the more fundamental disconnect concerned the ultimate import of environmentalism. As Twemlow notes, there was a “stark ideological disparity between the IDCA leadership, who were interested in the environmental movement purely as a theme for the design conference, and the young attendees, who were actually living in communes and practicing ecological sustainability as part of their everyday lives.” 48 In a talk titled “The Environment Revolution,” conservationist Stewart Udall, who had served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, argued the pressing need for a new ecological consciousness. Acknowledging — and rejecting — the techno-futurist “euphoria” of earlier IDCA conclaves, Udall warned against complacency: “If you’re not part of the environment movement already … you’re part of the problem in 1970. … If you’re not ready to entertain new ideas or concepts — some of them are quite radical — you can’t be an environmentalist.” 49 In his presentation, Cliff Humphrey articulated this message in even stronger terms. He proposed that the conference theme should not have been “Environment by Design” but instead “Survival by Design.” Pointedly, he decried the complicity of corporate designers who had been “lubricated with a profit motive” and were “ruining our life support system.” Taking aim at IDCA leaders, Humphrey was unsparing: “The urgency, the calamity that is confronting us, has not been transmitted to you.” 50
The talks by Udall and Humphrey were in turn reinforced by Walter Orr Roberts, founder of the Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research and a leading climatologist. In “Man on a Changing Earth,” Roberts acknowledged that scientists had discovered that the atmospheric carbon dioxide generated by the burning of fossil fuels was “sufficient to produce substantial changes in the heat balance of the atmosphere. … A striking change that many of us have tried to explain has been the warming trend that occurred in the northern part of our continent, and particularly in the Northeast of the United States, between about 1900 and about 1950.” And, he continued, while much about the “fragile gaseous envelope around our earth” eluded atmospheric scientists, many suspected that “we may have engaged in global-scale weather modifications experiments without knowing it.” 51 Thirty years before scientists would first propose the term Anthropocene, an unlikely assembly of corporate designers and hippie activists heard early evidence of humankind’s launch into an unprecedented geological epoch.
It was a warning the some of the stellar participants refused to receive. Reyner Banham, for many years a keen detector of emerging avant gardes and chronicler of new technologies, apparently felt himself outflanked by the young eco-activists, and he peppered his address, “The Education of an Environmentalist,” with insults aimed at “Sim Van der Ryn’s tribes.” Banham derided what he called the “Great Berkeley Disaster.” “The College of Environmental Design, up at the back of that war-torn campus,” he said, “is to my mind simply a modish monument to an idea that never got off the ground.” True environmental education, in his view, would be founded on “non-utopian propositions,” and in a proposal for “the actual intellectual content of an environmental course,” he rejected Roberts’s provocative proposition about atmospheric changes:
We will certainly have gone below the threshold of what is educationally tolerable if we produce people who think carbon dioxide is a pollutant. … You live on carbon dioxide; it’s the key link in our life cycle. Yet we talk about it as though it were some kind of dangerous pollutant. It’s no more dangerous [a] pollutant than water is. 52
Ecological activism proved an equally difficult message to other European intellectuals. Speaking on behalf of a conference contingent known as the “French group,” the Marxist sociologist Jean Baudrillard lauded Banham for unmasking “the illusions of Design and Environment practice.” Calling environmentalism the new “opium for the people,” and describing Aspen as the “Disneyland of environment and design,” he declared:
In the mystique of Environment, this blackmail toward apocalypse and toward a mythic enemy who is in us and all around tends to create a false interdependence between individuals. Nothing better than a touch of ecology and catastrophe to unite the social classes, except perhaps a witch-hunt (the mystique of anti-pollution being nothing but a variation of it). 53
The week-long conference ended, on June 19, with a stormy closing session that left Banham, its chair, “psychologically bruised,” as he later confided in a letter to his wife. 54 Banham was hardly alone in feeling beaten up. Saul Bass, an éminence grise of postwar graphic design, encapsulated what many Aspen regulars were feeling when he remarked, midway through the week, “Why do we have to assess capitalism? We’re just trying to stage a conference!” 55 Eliot Noyes, admitting that the event had left him “battered, bruised, stale and weary,” resigned his position as IDCA board president, and even suggested that the organization abandon the whole conference enterprise. 56
Neither Sim Van der Ryn nor his environmental activists would return to disrupt another Aspen gathering, and over the years the loose movement of hippie modernism would — as is the way with movements — lose force and cohesion. But in this case the inevitable dissolution was the result not so much of loss of faith or conviction; if the hippie moderns ceased to cohere it was to a significant degree because their crucial ideas went mainstream.
We can indeed trace multiple lines of once insurgent and alternative ideas infiltrating the larger culture. In the late 1970s Van der Ryn moved his field of action from design studios to public service when Governor Jerry Brown appointed him State Architect of California, a position that allowed him to develop innovative standards for energy-efficient office buildings. Over the years he founded an interdisciplinary institute for ecological research, published articles and books, and is today a professor emeritus at Berkeley. “Notes on Institution Building,” the position paper he co-authored with Robert Reich, might have remained unpublished, but Van der Ryn embodied its concept of the “radical planner,” and Reich himself has built an extraordinary career by using institutional positions, ranging from Labor Secretary to Berkeley professor, as platforms from which to advocate for progressive social causes.
The Ecology Action commune disbanded at the end of 1970, and today the house on Benvenue Avenue is indistinguishable from other residences in an increasingly upscale Berkeley. But the practices Cliff Humphrey and his collaborators so laboriously pioneered, and which were considered eccentric enough to merit a piece in the New York Times — from sorting and recycling household trash to buying flour and rice in bulk to reusing shopping bags — are now commonplace daily activities across the nation (and the world). Cliff Humphrey published a textbook, What’s Ecology?, and, supported by the proceeds, moved Ecology Action to Modesto, vowing to turn the Central Valley city into a “model of ecological sanity.” Within a decade, he had succeeded. Look magazine reported that the community had gone “bananas” for recycling and was “hooked on garbage”; at an industry conference in 1988, Humphrey was introduced as “the grandfather of recycling.” 57 Earth Day is still celebrated in mid April, though the festivities have lost much of their early edge as environmentalism has moved from the margins to the center. Many of the young “mad environmentalists” at Aspen, like Craig Hodgetts, have enjoyed long and distinguished careers in academia and practice. And today, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know all too well that Banham, Baudrillard, and the IDCA mandarins were on the wrong side of history. We know that ecological crisis was neither a hippie delusion nor Berkeley myth and that anthropogenic climate change is threatening human survival and planetary health. The hippie moderns who hijacked Aspen and sought to galvanize ecological awareness — no matter their motley raiment, grab-bag philosophies, and clown-car comportment — were in a valuable vanguard that deserves vigorous reappraisal.