Gordon's 'Spaced Out' shows '60s influence
Saturday, July 26, 2008
The 1960s - famous for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - are also
remembered as the beginning of the green movement, the time when
people became aware of the fragility of what the eccentric visionary
architect Buckminster Fuller described as "spaceship Earth." The
fantastical domes Fuller invented and the Fulleresque buildings that
hippies created on communal farms in Marin County, the Wine Country,
Big Sur and other parts of the country, such as Woodstock, are
inspiring for green-thinking architects today.
Historian Alastair Gordon's fascinating new book, "Spaced Out: Crash
Pads, Hippie Communes, Infinity Machines, and Other Radical
Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties" ($65, Rizzoli), looks at
what happened back then and puts the era's architectural efforts,
good and bad, into current context. Gordon's research makes it clear
that the '60s generated many of the ideas about recycling and
protecting the environment that we consider normal today. What he
doesn't emphasize but asks in an essay he wrote in 2003 is whether we
are still waiting "for the green version of the Villa Savoie or the
Farnsworth House?" Perhaps we are, but meanwhile the '60s may have
inspired the most visually arresting buildings by some of the most
celebrated and visionary architects today.
Most of the radical '60s buildings Gordon explores were merely
resourceful constructions made of materials that would otherwise have
been discarded as waste. Handmade adobe plaster, wood from demolished
buildings, metal sheathing from old car bodies, diaphanous sheets of
plastic and faded Indian bedspreads were all used to make shelters
that were considered bizarre but unexpectedly became case studies for
architects in the decades that followed.
Some of those unconventional buildings, it turns out, were created
because the amateur builders could not quite figure out how to
construct Fuller's dome of conjoined triangular components.
Nevertheless, you might see links between those forms and the wild
imaginings of architect Eric Owen Moss in Culver City; Frank Gehry's
roof forms for the Bilbao Museum Guggenheim and the twisting, shiny
Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; the wacky, wonderful main library
in Seattle by Rem Koolhaas; and even the Federal Building in San
Francisco by Thom Mayne.
Homage in the Wine Country
Bay Area fans of such buildings can look forward to Gehry's first
such structure in the Wine Country, for the Hall Winery's visitor
center, now under construction. Its undulating roof will be covered
by what looks like jute sacking material, as if in homage to '60s structures.
San Francisco architect Cass Calder Smith, who designed the cavernous
Lulu restaurant, spent a few years during the early '70s, when he was
a teenager, on communes on the East Coast and on the Peninsula. He
says those environments influenced his work today.
At the Mill commune in an abandoned sawmill near Pescadero, his
family and others set up the Star Hill Academy of Anything, where men
and women in their 20s created odd and wonderful homes using
discarded logs, lumber and cables found on the property. "Neil Young
was our neighbor," Smith recalls. With the songs of protest in the
air, they built homes that broke all the norms of building, in part
because they did not know the rules.
"One man built a 50-foot-high tree house that was suspended 50 feet
above the ground within old-growth redwoods. He did it without any
nails," says Smith. The man eventually fell from it, but that's
another story. Smith's mother retrieved discarded wood windows from a
glazier's trash bin, and Smith and "the elders" around him built
their walls and roof with them. And almost every commune Smith
remembers visiting, from California to Oregon and the East Coast, had
some version of a geodesic dome - the greenest, most democratic
structure of its time because presumably anyone could build one with
virtually anything at hand.
This month's Metropolis magazine cover story is dedicated to Fuller,
"the sustainable dreamer" and inventor of the geodesic dome. Famous
architects and former students who knew him discuss why he "still matters."
But perhaps the most complete answer to Fuller's enduring appeal and
also to why so many of his era's buildings are seminal to
eco-conscious thinking today is contained in "Spaced Out." His
structures echoed the sentiments of the mid-'60s, when people
rejected conventional hierarchies - such as conventional post and
lintel constructions - and for the sake of the planet wanted to use
the least amount of material to create the most amount of shelter.
During the '60s, Bay Area hippies didn't venture only across this
country. They went, seeking drugs and free thinking, to the beaches
of Goa, India, or to the temples of Kathmandu in Nepal. Or they went
to build Utopian cities like Auroville in Pondicherry, South India.
As Gordon writes, cities were imagined expanding and contracting or
suspended in midair by such groups as the British
architectscollective Archigram. French artist Yves Klein proposed a
city of Fire and Smoke (a conceptual ancestor of Diller & Scofidio's
Blur Building - described by the firm as "an inhabitable cloud
whirling above a lake" - for Swiss Expo 2002).
Right angles disappeared
Gaudy paint transformed Victorian buildings in the Haight-Ashbury
district, and like colonial Victorians who brought back baubles and
oddities from diverse cultures, hippies returned from their travels
with odd architectural forms and embellishments. Houseboats in
Sausalito and communes in Sebastopol and Sonoma were soon sporting
makeshift cupolas and spires. Temple pagodas, free-form adobe
structures with living roofs and tepees were the containers for
experimental lifestyles. Hippie creations effected a quiet
architectural revolution, which Gordon describes as a "sudden
revelation of personal experience. ... It was far more subversive
than the big revolution that everyone was waiting for."
The fractured sense of space, the softened corners and dissolved
boundaries of domes, yurts, tepees and hand-built shelters by such
architects as Paolo Soleri, whose Arcosanti buildings in Arizona are
like the insides of an anthill, were partly the result of
drug-induced hallucinations, Gordon suggests in his book. He quotes
from Aldous Huxley, who wrote, after ingesting half a gram of
mescaline: "The walls of the room no longer seemed to meet at right angles."
"Extraordinary experiences demanded extraordinary settings," Gordon
concludes, and the new radical consciousness brought on by social
change and such experiments called out for a different approach to
space, namely a release from the tyranny of right angles.
In Millbrook, N.Y., on the 2,500-acre Hitchcock estate, Peggy
Hitchcock and her twin brothers, William and Thomas Mellon Hitchcock,
provided rooms for Harvard's LSD guru Timothy Leary and his
adherents. They transformed the mansion with psychedelic art, but
"the Haight-Ashbury, more than New York" was Leary's "largest
undergraduate college in the psychedelic movement."
Bill Graham, whom Gordon describes as a pioneer of West Coast
psychedelia, called San Francisco of the late '60s the Paris of light
shows because of places like his Fillmore Auditorium, where even
lighting effects were considered space.
"Space or the idea of space became elastic, almost acrobatic," Gordon
writes. Visionary architects such as Sim Van der Ryn, who lived on a
houseboat in Sausalito, advocated the era's morphed surrounding as a
means to change oneself. Square was bad and round was good, Gordon writes.
Perhaps it was a little like making good compost, because every
organic idea was welcome.
As a result, Gordon writes, "the beginnings of environmental
consciousness were also quite filthy."
The San Francisco Chronicle reported back then that at 408 Ashbury
St., walls had bizarre murals and "there was little furniture, the
flat was populated by fifteen men, nine girls, three cats, two dogs,
and two hamsters."
Now think of crowded cities today and the similar conditions of an
American war abroad and protests at home, Gordon wrote in an earlier
essay. Faced with such anxiety, overcrowding and dirt, who wouldn't
start a green architectural revolution? Who wouldn't build freely in
trees, live atop an inflated balloon, fashion spacious domes and pick
personal space under a tepee?
DID THESE FANCIFUL FORMS ...
-- Organic buildings took shape at the Ilan Lael compound at Santa
Ysabel (San Diego County) from 1958 to 1970.
-- The Wadsworth House, built outside Warren, Vt., in 1967 with a
steep slate-covered snow-shedding roof, was inspired by a multilevel
crash pad tacked together by Yale architecture students.
-- Aleksandra Kasuba's Cocoon Dwelling at Whiz Bang City East,
Woodstock, N.Y., was made in 1972 by stretching fabric between the
branches and trunks of trees.
-- Buckminster Fuller's influence was prevalent in '60s architecture.
This geodesic dome was painted by Dean Fleming at Drop City commune.
... INSPIRE TODAY'S TOP ARCHITECTS?
Clockwise from above left:
-- An interior view of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert
Hall in Los Angeles.
-- A model of the Hall Winery in the Napa Valley, also designed by
Gehry, which will be composed of glass, stone, plaster and wood and
crowned by distinctive undulating trellises that will echo the
mountains and vineyards in the background.
-- Seattle's Central Library, whose design is by Pritzker
Architecture Prize winner Rem Koolhaas.
-- San Francisco's new Federal Building office tower by Thom Mayne at
Seventh and Mission streets.
FAR-OUT FACTS FROM GORDON'S 'SPACED OUT'
-- People in Sonoma and Sebastopol liberated settlement zones for
communes. Lou Gottlieb left his job as music critic at The Chronicle
and opened his land, 30 acres in Sebastopol, which became the Morning
-- In 1963, Mill Valley poet Gerd Stern created his first kinetic
environment at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art titled "?Who R
U & What's Happening?"
-- In 1965, the San Francisco Examiner wrote about a cafe in the
Haight-Ashbury that referred to its clientele as hippies, the first
time the word was used in print.
-- By 1966, 1 million Americans had tried LSD, according to Life
magazine, and by 1967 3 million more had.
-- Architect Sim Van der Ryn created Envirom, an inflatable ring for
many people to lie in. It sold in the Whole Earth catalog for $60.
-- "But not everyone wants to live in a balloon," declared architect
Nicholas Negroponte (founder of the One Laptop Per Child project).
Smelly plastics and disposable architecture were not OK.
-- Charles Hall, a design student at San Francisco State, created the
Pleasure Pit, a vinyl bag full of water held in place by a wooden
frame. It was the first water bed.
-- Anna and Lawrence Halprin added to the Back to Earth movement away
from cities and organized marches to the woods in 1968.
-- In 1969, artist Wendell Castle made Reclining Environment for One,
a carpeted wooden chamber for one that was both womb-like and coffinlike.
-- Aleksandra Kasuba's "The Spectral Passage" was shown at the M.H.
de Young Memorial Museum in 1975.
Zahid Sardar is the Chronicle design editor. E-mail him at
"Spaced Out" by Alastair Gordon
Review By Nilay Oza
(7/24/2008) Alastair Gordon's new book, "Spaced Out," reveals
something fundamental about how and why we build our habitats. This
book underscores a basic truism: Our lifestyles define what we choose
to build, while our built environment, in turn, determines
significant aspects of who we are.
A couple of centuries' worth of research in "tribal"
anthropology has rendered this statement all but obvious. Indeed,
this interrelationship between society and its built environment is
now readily recognized in our suburbias and our urban ghettos as well.
In revisiting the hippie lifestyle of the 1960s, and
notwithstanding the title, Mr. Gordon is quite balanced in his
approach. He does not moralize about its obvious destructive aspects,
nor does he sensationalize its more creative achievements. Rather, he
creates a window through which we can appreciate a specific cultural
time and place and, in so doing, allows us to connect the hippie
culture to built environments created by it through the 1960s.
"Spaced Out" reads like a refreshing, nonacademic perusal of a
segment of architectural history that has been all but trivialized by
institutional historians. Unlike those for Art, Architecture's
keepers have been more concerned with the mainstream of society and
have disdained taking a comprehensive look at the "environments"
described in this book.
Mr. Gordon clarifies that it did not start off that way. In
1966, "a mainstream journal like Progressive Architecture
acknowledged LSD's potential as a design tool when it published
interviews with several architects who had tried the drug."
However, by the end of the '60s, the voices that recorded this
history had gone silent. None of this would matter, or they would be
of anecdotal interest at best, if these "radical environments" did
not have an impact on architectural design since the '60s.
That is not the case. Mr. Gordon provides a convincing thesis
for the perpetuation of the design sensibility. Even though the
hippie way of life itself has been marginalized in popular
consciousness today, what got built because of it remains with us.
For example, the shag-carpeted sunken living rooms of the '70s
began their ascendancy to an iconic entertainment space, from common
crash pads of New York's East Village and San Francisco's
Haight-Ashbury. These crash pads were communal living spaces "where
the domestic movement was downward" and "unnecessary furniture was
limited or done away with and the floor itself became a primary piece
The crash pads were rigged to become conducive to this "tribal
mindset that would shape so many environments of the '60s," became
fashionable less than a decade later, and came to represent a
suburban, decidedly noncommunal lifestyle.
Often built environments were simply meant to replicate a tripped-out
"mindscape," to be simulacras of vivid psychedelic trips. This
imagery also happens to be the source for most popular notions of the
hippie decor, characterized by vivid color, diaphanous forms,
backlighting, and Eastern iconography.
One of the most important contributions Mr. Gordon makes is to
show us that these physical environments became more than just trippy
decor. They developed throughout the decade to keep up with the
changing hippie subculture changing, for instance, as the locus of
that subculture moved away from cities like San Francisco and New York.
This reflected, in part, an underlying change in the
sociopolitical climate of the time, pushing the flower children
further from society's disapproving gaze. Mr. Gordon records this as
a corresponding shift in the built environments he studies, from
urban crash pads to rural communes. He stresses that what started as
little more than settings for psychotropic experimentation, like the
crash pads described above, became something more fundamental to the
Aquarian world view.
The 1960s were a time that brought us the new age. This new age
embraced a fantastic future while mining the mythical past unsullied
by the coal stacks of postwar industry. The new age was being defined
in the backdrop of the hippie exurban foray into rural America.
Survival required one to parlay past and future in the
definition of the present. Myth and mysticism, science and
rationality were all forged together into this new age. To underscore
this synthesis, Mr. Gordon dedicates a chapter to an architectural
phenomenon perfectly suited to this world view geodesic domes.
Developed by Buckminster Fuller, the dome-like constructs are
made by joining short sections of lightweight material into
interlocking polygons. These structures were popularized in large
measure by the hippies and developed a particular affinity with them.
It is easy to see why. They were mythical structures, evocative
of primordial yurts with their single curving volume organized around
a center, and they were ideally suited to a communal lifestyle.
At the same time, geodesic domes were rational structures, an
architectural expression of precise mathematical formulae, a simple,
communal way of living in a structure laden with numerological
significance. Geodesics were tailor made for the Aquarian Age.
Moreover, they were cheap to build and replicate. This made them
ideal to house the exodus of hippies leaving behind urban centers.
(As an aside, there is a great exhibit at the Whitney Museum on
Buckminster Fuller. It lasts until September and displays the results
of more than five decades of Fuller's integrated approach toward the
design and technology of housing, transportation, cartography, and
communication, much of it for the first time.)
The built environments described in Mr. Gordon's book run the
gamut from urban crash pads to the mobile dwellings and hippie
homesteads of later years. Since public spectacles, outdoor concerts,
and happenings were very much a part of public life, Mr. Gordon also
takes a look at structures related to them, including outdoor arenas,
artworks, or simply centerpieces for large gatherings of people.
These taken together are what Mr. Gordon calls the "radical
environments of the psychedelic '60s." While in themselves distinct,
they did have some common characteristics of being unconventional,
nonhierarchal, spontaneous, and shared.
While "Spaced Out" makes for a fascinating historical record,
the book could have done with a chapter on contemporary communities
that were inspired by those of the 1960s. Hippie communities and all
that they stand for are an anachronism in today's post-Generation Y
America, yet they, or aspects of what they represent, have continued
elsewhere. Mr. Gordon does little to explain what "outsider"
communities of today have in common with communities in the '60s he
re-examines so well.
Even a cursory overview of places like the Aurobindo Ashram in
India, complete with its requisite geodesic dome, would have, along
with Arcosanti and a few other places of significance, helped
establish historical perspective and continuity with Aquarian
communities like Drop City or Solux of the 1960s.
But that is really a matter of opinion. What matters most is
that "Spaced Out" is a fresh and informative read. With its wonderful
images, "Spaced Out" could grace any coffee table but be just as
comfortable on a shelf of late-20th-century architecture. If you have
space on your table or room on that shelf, buy it.
Alastair Gordon had a house in Amagansett for many years.
Nilay Oza is an architect and builder who lives in Sag Harbor.
He spends most of his waking hours figuring out how to build, at the
contemporary housing development the Houses at Sagaponac, the visions
of architects far more famous than he.