Learning from Hippie Modernism

Building sustainably is the mission of the rebelling generation, again. A conscious environmental avant-garde already grew out of the resistance against the post-war society of the late 1960s. While their efforts to create self-sufficient buildings from garbage, re-use and bricolage were still derided as esoteric by the intellectual and academic establishment, the time has come to learn from these pioneers, because looking back is a valuable step in moving forward.

Today, the architectural avant-gardes may be dead and buried, but there is a well-established architectural profession. So, when you read a description of a self-sufficient, low impact cabin that can “be tailored to the local climate and topography, along with a client’s specific needs,”1 you would expect architects to be around — at least to provide that familiar lingo. In that recent case, even if the so-called ZeroCabin did not scream of revolutionary forms, you would suspect a few architects to be involved in the mix. Yet, as underlined in architectural outlets, this project was created by a multidisciplinary team of six people, none of whom had “formal training in architecture.”A Rather, they had backgrounds in civil engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, sustainable farming and, eventually, interior design.

When reading this, I remained perplexed at the utter absence of contribution from the architecture realm and had to dig a little deeper to finally discover some glimpse of an architectural input to the cabin project. As it turned out, one of the team leaders confessed his inspiration came from the hero-like protagonist of the 2007 Garbage WarriorB documentary, American architect Mike Reynolds. This motivational figure, who is still building ‘earthship’ passive solar houses in New Mexico, ended up surfacing as the architectural key for the whole cabin endeavour. But he also emerged as a typical remnant of a lost environmental avant-garde, a momentous trend which now seems to belong in an alternative architectural universe.

Early Ecological Advocate

Shortly after he graduated from the University of Cincinnati, in 1969, Reynolds had his thesis published by the Architectural Record and surfed the wave of a peculiar architectural avant-garde concerned with emerging environmental concerns. He was part of a wider movement that, during the
 early 1970s, responded to ecological impacts made clear by
 Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) seminal book Silent Spring, in 1962, or, later, Buckminster Fuller’s (1895-1983) 1969 Spaceship Earth. He integrated a group of architectural visionaries that anticipated and acted on the implications of Club of Rome’s report on the limits of growth, in 1972, or the major oil crisis of 1973. Long before the University of Auburn’s Rural Studio made it a tenet of its design-build pedagogy, he deployed waste materials and soil to achieve what he still calls today “earthship biotecture.”

As stated on a Wikipedia page, “with the rise in concern over global warming, Reynolds has been elevated as a prophet of the green movement.”2 Indeed, with his direct recycling practices, Reynolds was an early advocate of ecological reduction and of 
the proactive reuse of common trash, such as aluminum cans and tires. With these, he made way for architectural insulation and thermal mass with soil filling, which he even patented for the United States. One could picture him as the inventor of the yet inexistent practice of architectural compost.

More importantly, as others at the time, he investigated how to make his structures off-the-grid, by deploying initial versions of solar panels, geothermal cooling or regenerative food production. The prominence of his work at a given period even prompted some Californian celebrities to commission him new projects. Given the experimental, anti-building code nature 
of his work, however, he ended up facing lawsuits, losing his architecture license, and heading into a depression. He was suffering the same fate as the 1970s environmental avant-garde: a fatal inadequacy to find its proper place within both the architectural orthodoxy and a consumption-driven society.

It definitely felt to me like Mike Reynolds’s trajectory could provide some clues to that ultimate question of what ever had happened to the environmental avant-garde. And over a phone conversation, some clues did emerge. As he confided, while a new ecological conscience was discreetly popping up around California, he was down in the deserts of New Mexico, much by himself, making his recycling experiments with what most would call garbage. Out of curiosity and a desire for an alternative way of life, others came and
 went. They would usually give up, as they got frustrated at
 their own inability to sustain themselves off-the grid. Reynolds, however, stubbornly stuck to his ideas, attempting to devise this architectural system that he would call “biotecture.”

As Reynolds put it, at the time “they didn’t realize it was going to take fifty years to figure out how to make buildings heat and cool themselves, how to make them catch their own water, how to make them treat their own sewage, how to make them make electricity, how to make them produce food, how to deal with this natural resource we call garbage.” Thinking ahead of technological possibilities can make it hard to realize your visionary dreams, as logical as they may sound. If you are only part of a cultural avant-garde, you may expect ideas to produce immediate effects as they are reproduced by others. However, when your forward thinking implies immediate practical achievements, your commitment to a certain way of thinking may inevitably fizz out before you reach your goals. And yet, as Reynolds said, those precursors “served a purpose.” Even if experiments like his did not always work, indeed “their ideas, their thoughts, their reactions were relevant.” It was worthwhile to persist.

It was only much later that he found that, with changing conditions, more people were “lending a hear” to that anticipatory way of thinking. As he noted, “we’re ruining the place where we are living, and it is showing.” Through the media, people are gaining a new awareness about ecological issues. “So,” he concluded, “people are again turning to these directions, not from a moral standpoint, but because they feel insecure about the way things are.”

Hippie Modernism

At the time of his early work, however, Reynolds was being ridiculed and condemned. “I was called a disgrace to the architecture community because I was building out of garbage,”
as he recalls it. But, while working isolated, he had enough praise and recognition coming his way to make him persist. So, even if he wasn’t aware of the avant-garde spirit of his practice, he just kept on doing it. Unknowingly, Reynolds was part of an alternative, transient architectural movement that a recent exhibition dubbed “Hippie Modernism.” Protagonists of this ‘drop-out’ version of modernism, as Andrew Blauvelt calls it in the exhibition catalogue,3 included artist-architects such as Ant Farm or Site, Vienna-based Haus Rucker-Co, Florence-based Superstudio, Californian architects Sim van der Ryn and Lloyd Khan, but also ’zomes’ inventor Steve Baer or Cal-Earth Institute founder Nader Khalili (1936-2008), instigator of another earth-based architecture practice still active today.

These pursuers of alternative architectural practices 
were not only proto environmentalists, but part of a wider counterculture that, out of the social conflicts of the late 1960s, and from different fields, questioned organizational models of post- war society. So they fought the political and artistic establishment, as well as what was seen as a destructive consumeristic society. As Blauvelt notes, this counterculture, like others in the past, operated through “a diverse range of refusals.”4 In the architectural realm, their refusals included the rejection of 1960s High Modernism, with its “lack of social engagement,” as well as its growing distance from any holistic vision of nature and technology. Only informally did they aggregate as a neo-avant-garde. They came up with a new aesthetic and radical practices that, after the period’s zeitgeist, sought to catalyse “a new social, cultural, political, and ecological utopia.” As they “challenged the disciplinary boundaries of architecture,” they also opposed those “late stages of a modernism that had failed in its earlier utopian, avant-garde promise of social transformation.”5

In California’s Bay Area, these avant-garde architecture environmentalists arose with a strong emphasis on ecological issues. In Europe, on the other hand, ecological concerns were but a part of a larger agenda, which included the contestation of architecture’s static monumentalism through performative and perception-altering actions. Haus-Rucker-Co’s intervention at 
the referential 5th edition of Documenta, in Kassel, Germany, consisted of a bubble ‘environment’ that not only addressed issues of pollution and self-sufficient ecologies, but also commented on the institutional character of the building to which it attached itself as a parasite.6 As for Superstudio, they went as far as refusing design and formal structures as expressions of consumer culture — leading them to imagine dystopian ecological scenarios as a form of social and political critique. In common, however, all these architecture collectives shared a nascent awareness of environmental catastrophe, and a need to respond to it with radical new practices.7 In this sense, another contributor to the Hippie Modernism catalogue points out that this counterculture’s “design efforts in ecological sustainability and classroom liberation invite comparison to the reformist programs of previous modern movements.” As Greg Castillo goes on to suggest, similarities of this movement’s pathos to the Bauhaus’ joyful Gesamtkunstwerk are defensible.
 But only if underscoring that interdisciplinary collaborations were directed towards holistic and critical considerations of nature and Earth’s wholeness, rather than just embarking on a design-based wish for “aesthetic totality.”8

Battles Of Countercultures

At the core of Castillo’s historical account are the counterculture battles that opposed these early environmental innovators to other critical thinkers of Western society at the time. The events at the Freestone Conference, a seminal gathering that took place north of San Francisco, in March 1970, reveal that the specific concerns of the environmental neo-avant-garde were much ahead of their time, even when it came to other forward-looking political positions.

While the hippie designers “embraced recycling and bricolage as totems of a post-Fordist culture,”9 they invited the attacks by intellectuals that remained referential in the academic establishment of the coming decades. As Castillo reports, 
while Reyner Banham (1922-1988) showed his “disdain for ecofreaks that were ‘getting preachy’,” Peter Hall (1932-2014) demanded that “they stop talking about the coming apocalypse, alleging that the Bay Area environmentalists were simply hypocrites.”10 And if that sounds incredibly akin to contemporary climate denialism, the final blow was yet to be perpetuated by French sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007). The New Left representative defended his own understanding of the political role of the avant-garde by fiercely attacking ecological activism. He claimed its environmental strategies, such as addressing pollution or announcing an ecological catastrophe, “were pure social manipulation” and “a new opium for the people.”11 In hindsight, one recognizes Baudrillard’s argumentation as the expression of a time before extractive practices and consumerism went beyond the French intellectual’s wildest dreams. But it also revealed how foreign and esoteric those ecological concerns were half a century ago. This was the expression of a truly visionary perception of potential ecological disarray, which still today is barely catching up with mainstream discourse.

As Castillo notes, Baudrillard, Banham and Hall were 
all proven mistaken, and “the ecological crisis was neither a
 hippie hallucination nor an illusion produced by Marxist false consciousness.”12 However, with its blatant failure to cater to the support of critical minds of the period, it was no wonder that, despite its clairvoyance, this environmental avant-garde was soon to fall into oblivion. With its failure to get traction even if only within architectural discourse, this alternative form of practice was clearly condemned to fail the battle with the self-perpetuation of mainstream trends of architectural modernism. Late 1970s post- modernism was but a fleeting aesthetic bump in the road of modernism’s way forward. Similarly, the environmentalist avant-garde was also a brief and marginal deviation in that heroic historical course.

Back to Eco-Modernism  

Apparently, such freak deviation would leave no impact 
in mainstream architectural discourse, had history not shown 
that its themes were not to go away easily. Even if, like capitalism, modernist architecture proved highly effective in eliminating alternative models of practice and becoming utterly global, the seeds of this eco-modernism lay buried, waiting for a wake-up call.

Breeding on modernism’s apparent success at formal self- preservation, a steady discourse on architecture’s aspirations for autonomy has also thrived to this day. And that has essentially guaranteed that any calls for practice to again find its intrinsic motivations in everyday urgencies — as it is typical in avant-garde thinking — were hygienically kept at bay. As these orthodoxies went, essential drives for architectural creation had to be found within its own formal and typological history, within its aesthetic traditions and within the repetition of accepted formulas. Thus, any alternative interpretation or critique of a consensual notion of modernity was suppressed. While seen as steered by external forces, environmental avant-gardes too were to be buried, thus leaving architects unprepared to accept ecological concerns as potent creative drivers for architectural practice.

As the climate emergency became more evident, however, the motivations and prompts behind that specific strain of the architectural neo-avant-garde were back in full force. And so our attention was driven back to those early ecological visionaries. As Castillo concludes in his essay, “whatever might be said about their motley raiment, grab-bag philosophies and clown-car comportment, ecofreaks reassessed as hippie moderns demand re-evaluation as an avant-garde galvanized by the radical mission of inventing environmentalism’s everyday material culture.”13 Further, this environmental avant-garde also encourages a re-appreciation of how design practices can be at the forefront of climate action, both in terms of activism and the integration of technological innovation in ecologically driven projects.

Seen from today’s perspective, it is only understandable that there is again an appeal to counterculture movements of the early 1970s. Faced with the global impacts of an increasingly savage system of consumption, we can again feel attracted to move forward by taking a step back, looking instead for exploratory experiments in self-sufficiency. Faced with the mounting evidence of a pressing ecological distress, even as suddenly expressed in unexpected pandemic outbreaks, we can again feel the plea of refusing business-as-usual in any sector of practice, including the creative and design ones. In the midst of the successive crises of advanced capitalism, we may again lust for the bold creative ingenuity of the avant-gardes. We may indeed wonder where that avant-garde spirit has gone, and ask ourselves if we may hack some of it back.

Vehicle of Dreams

Now, perhaps the messy, hippie looks of the early 1970s avant-garde do not appeal to our sophisticated, stark aesthetic sensibility. But, as we now know, remixes are never quite like the original. Think of pop music re-edits of vintage 1970s funk, and you may quickly reckon that what they lack in dirty authenticity, they conquer in subtle adaptation to contemporary taste. We will never go back to “hippie modernism,” but we may well enter into a fruitful conversation with it.

One good example of such dialogue appeared during the first Chicago Architecture Biennale, in 2015, taking the form of a collaboration between New York practice WORKacC and the remaining elements of radical practice Ant Farm, Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier. While Ant Farm dispersed in 1978, after their archive burned down, the interest of WORKac in their countercultural explorations prompted the recreation and upgrade of some of 
their lost projects. Thus appeared 3.C. City: Climate, Convention, Cruise — a new design intended to bring earlier ideas up to date in a context in which “climate change is challenging architecture to engage in urgent diplomacy and become an agent of change.”14

Described as a hack of Ant Farm’s polemical proposals at several scales, the new floating city concept most notably evolves to “facilitate dialogue and debate between people and other species.”15 While Ant Farm’s avant-garde inflatable aesthetics guides the design of this “vehicle of dreams,” the current Anthropocene discourse on interspecies conviviality discretely informs the conceptual remix. As noted on WORKac ́s website, “solar panel shingles, pockets of greenhouses and gardens, an algae farm for biofuel and a water-collection river” are added to provide for “a new symbiosis between ecology and infrastructure.”16 Importantly, green infrastructure is newly welcomed as a structural part of architecture’s basic vocabulary for form-making. The dialogue with the representatives of the previous avant-garde has indeed produced a breakthrough.

So, we should celebrate these new “vehicles of dreams,” which allow us to revisit visionary ideas of the past. Yet, it is still also relevant to ask again where the environmental avant-garde ended. Not because of some nostalgic notion of the role and potential of the avant-gardes themselves, but because the early environmental architecture responses to the ecological crisis are still mostly valid today. Hippie mystique aside, the philosophical principles that regard the holistic integration of ecological concerns into architectural design are still sound enough.

So, we can start by revisiting their failures so as to simply guarantee that, this time, we get it right. We can indeed recover some of the 1970s counterculture early environmental insights, as well as their political prowess, and update them to inform our current technological and design capacities. Even as we have now gathered how to deconstruct
 its defaults and failures, we can still learn from the lessons of
 the environmental avant-garde. Like the interdisciplinary team that came up with the ZeroCabin, today’s architects can also find inspiration in the stubborn hopes and critical thrust of our ecologically concerned forebears.

This essay is an edited excerpt from Climax Change! How Architecture Must Transform in the Age of Ecological Emergency, ACTAR Publishers: New York / Barcelona 2022

Learning from Hippie Modernism

5/24/2023

Whatever happened to the environmental avant-garde?

Building sustainably is the mission of the rebelling generation, again. A conscious environmental avant-garde already grew out of the resistance against the post-war society of the late 1960s. While their efforts to create self-sufficient buildings from garbage, re-use and bricolage were still derided as esoteric by the intellectual and academic establishment, the time has come to learn from these pioneers, because looking back is a valuable step in moving forward.

1 Jenna McKnight. “ZeroCabin in Chile designed to operate off the grid”, accessed 15 April 2020.

2 Michael E. Reynold

ZeroCabin

Garbage Warrior

Today, the architectural avant-gardes may be dead and buried, but there is a well-established architectural profession. So, when you read a description of a self-sufficient, low impact cabin that can “be tailored to the local climate and topography, along with a client’s specific needs,”1 you would expect architects to be around — at least to provide that familiar lingo. In that recent case, even if the so-called ZeroCabin did not scream of revolutionary forms, you would suspect a few architects to be involved in the mix. Yet, as underlined in architectural outlets, this project was created by a multidisciplinary team of six people, none of whom had “formal training in architecture.” Rather, they had backgrounds in civil engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, sustainable farming and, eventually, interior design.

When reading this, I remained perplexed at the utter absence of contribution from the architecture realm and had to dig a little deeper to finally discover some glimpse of an architectural input to the cabin project. As it turned out, one of the team leaders confessed his inspiration came from the hero-like protagonist of the 2007 Garbage Warrior documentary, American architect Mike Reynolds. This motivational figure, who is still building ‘earthship’ passive solar houses in New Mexico, ended up surfacing as the architectural key for the whole cabin endeavour. But he also emerged as a typical remnant of a lost environmental avant-garde, a momentous trend which now seems to belong in an alternative architectural universe.

Early Ecological Advocate

Shortly after he graduated from the University of Cincinnati, in 1969, Reynolds had his thesis published by the Architectural Record and surfed the wave of a peculiar architectural avant-garde concerned with emerging environmental concerns. He was part of a wider movement that, during the
 early 1970s, responded to ecological impacts made clear by
 Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) seminal book Silent Spring, in 1962, or, later, Buckminster Fuller’s (1895-1983) 1969 Spaceship Earth. He integrated a group of architectural visionaries that anticipated and acted on the implications of Club of Rome’s report on the limits of growth, in 1972, or the major oil crisis of 1973. Long before the University of Auburn’s Rural Studio made it a tenet of its design-build pedagogy, he deployed waste materials and soil to achieve what he still calls today “earthship biotecture.”

As stated on a Wikipedia page, “with the rise in concern over global warming, Reynolds has been elevated as a prophet of the green movement.”2 Indeed, with his direct recycling practices, Reynolds was an early advocate of ecological reduction and of 
the proactive reuse of common trash, such as aluminum cans and tires. With these, he made way for architectural insulation and thermal mass with soil filling, which he even patented for the United States. One could picture him as the inventor of the yet inexistent practice of architectural compost.

"Beth" – © Earthship Biotecture
"Joe laying dome" – © Earthship Biotecture
Wall construction from cans – © Earthship Biotecture
Picuris Global Earthship, Taos, New Mexico – © Earthship Biotecture
The Phoenix Earthship, Phoenix, Arizona – © Earthship Biotecture
The Phoenix Earthship, Phoenix, Arizona – © Earthship Biotecture
Earthship Biotecture Visitors Center, El Pado, New Mexico – © Earthship Biotecture
Beer Can Thumb House, Taos, New Mexico, 1972 – © Earthship Biotecture
Vallecitos Earthship, El Pado, New Mexico – © Earthship Biotecture
The Phoenix Earthship: Construction, Phoenix, Arizona – © Earthship Biotecture
Mike Reynolds – © Earthship Biotecture
01 | 12
"Beth" – © Earthship Biotecture

3 See Andrew Blauvelt (ed.), Hippie Modernism: The Struggle For Utopia. Edited by Andrew Blauvelt, Minneapolis 2015.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid

More importantly, as others at the time, he investigated how to make his structures off-the-grid, by deploying initial versions of solar panels, geothermal cooling or regenerative food production. The prominence of his work at a given period even prompted some Californian celebrities to commission him new projects. Given the experimental, anti-building code nature 
of his work, however, he ended up facing lawsuits, losing his architecture license, and heading into a depression. He was suffering the same fate as the 1970s environmental avant-garde: a fatal inadequacy to find its proper place within both the architectural orthodoxy and a consumption-driven society.

It definitely felt to me like Mike Reynolds’s trajectory could provide some clues to that ultimate question of what ever had happened to the environmental avant-garde. And over a phone conversation, some clues did emerge. As he confided, while a new ecological conscience was discreetly popping up around California, he was down in the deserts of New Mexico, much by himself, making his recycling experiments with what most would call garbage. Out of curiosity and a desire for an alternative way of life, others came and
 went. They would usually give up, as they got frustrated at
 their own inability to sustain themselves off-the grid. Reynolds, however, stubbornly stuck to his ideas, attempting to devise this architectural system that he would call “biotecture.”

As Reynolds put it, at the time “they didn’t realize it was going to take fifty years to figure out how to make buildings heat and cool themselves, how to make them catch their own water, how to make them treat their own sewage, how to make them make electricity, how to make them produce food, how to deal with this natural resource we call garbage.” Thinking ahead of technological possibilities can make it hard to realize your visionary dreams, as logical as they may sound. If you are only part of a cultural avant-garde, you may expect ideas to produce immediate effects as they are reproduced by others. However, when your forward thinking implies immediate practical achievements, your commitment to a certain way of thinking may inevitably fizz out before you reach your goals. And yet, as Reynolds said, those precursors “served a purpose.” Even if experiments like his did not always work, indeed “their ideas, their thoughts, their reactions were relevant.” It was worthwhile to persist.

It was only much later that he found that, with changing conditions, more people were “lending a hear” to that anticipatory way of thinking. As he noted, “we’re ruining the place where we are living, and it is showing.” Through the media, people are gaining a new awareness about ecological issues. “So,” he concluded, “people are again turning to these directions, not from a moral standpoint, but because they feel insecure about the way things are.”

Hippie Modernism

At the time of his early work, however, Reynolds was being ridiculed and condemned. “I was called a disgrace to the architecture community because I was building out of garbage,”
as he recalls it. But, while working isolated, he had enough praise and recognition coming his way to make him persist. So, even if he wasn’t aware of the avant-garde spirit of his practice, he just kept on doing it. Unknowingly, Reynolds was part of an alternative, transient architectural movement that a recent exhibition dubbed “Hippie Modernism.” Protagonists of this ‘drop-out’ version of modernism, as Andrew Blauvelt calls it in the exhibition catalogue,3 included artist-architects such as Ant Farm or Site, Vienna-based Haus Rucker-Co, Florence-based Superstudio, Californian architects Sim van der Ryn and Lloyd Khan, but also ’zomes’ inventor Steve Baer or Cal-Earth Institute founder Nader Khalili (1936-2008), instigator of another earth-based architecture practice still active today.

These pursuers of alternative architectural practices 
were not only proto environmentalists, but part of a wider counterculture that, out of the social conflicts of the late 1960s, and from different fields, questioned organizational models of post- war society. So they fought the political and artistic establishment, as well as what was seen as a destructive consumeristic society. As Blauvelt notes, this counterculture, like others in the past, operated through “a diverse range of refusals.”4 In the architectural realm, their refusals included the rejection of 1960s High Modernism, with its “lack of social engagement,” as well as its growing distance from any holistic vision of nature and technology. Only informally did they aggregate as a neo-avant-garde. They came up with a new aesthetic and radical practices that, after the period’s zeitgeist, sought to catalyse “a new social, cultural, political, and ecological utopia.” As they “challenged the disciplinary boundaries of architecture,” they also opposed those “late stages of a modernism that had failed in its earlier utopian, avant-garde promise of social transformation.”5

Ant Farm: Dream Cloud, Installation by Doug Michels and Chip Lord, 1969.  – 
    Collection SFMOMA © Ant Farm
Ant Farm: 50 x 50’ Pillow, 1970; temporary installation, Saline Valley, California, for Whole Earth Catalog supplement.  – Photo: Curtis Schreier, courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Ant Farm: Clean Air Pod at the Air Emergency event, 1970; performance, lower Sproul Plaza, University of California, Berkeley. – Photo: Chip Lord, courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Superstudio, Atti Fondamentali: “Amore” (La macchina innamoratrice), 1971-72. – © MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Roma. Collezione MAXXI Architettura. Archivio Superstudio
Superstudio, Atti Fondamentali: “Vita - Supersuperficie”, 1971. – © MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Roma. Collezione MAXXI Architettura. Archivio Superstudio
Superstudio, Le Dodici Città Ideali. Città di Semisfere, 1971 – © MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Roma. Collezione MAXXI Architettura. Archivio Superstudio
Haus Rucker Co., Laurids, Zamp and Pinter with Environment Transformer, 1968, from the Mind Expander project.  – photo: Gert Winkler © Haus Rucker Co
Haus Rucker Co., Laurids, Manfred Ortner, Pinter, Zamp Kelp, Oase No. 7, Documenta 5 Kassel, 1972.  – © Haus Rucker Co
01 | 09
Ant Farm: Dream Cloud, Installation by Doug Michels and Chip Lord, 1969. – Collection SFMOMA © Ant Farm

6 Esther Choi, “Atmospheres of Institutional Critique: Haus-Rucker-Co’s Pneumatic Temporality", in: Blauvelt (2015).

7 Ross K. Effline, “A Tentative Embrace: Superstudio’s New Media Nomads”, in: Regarding the Popular: Modernism,the Avant-Garde and High and Low Culture, Berlin 2011.

8 Greg Castillo, “Counterculture Terroirs, California’s Hippie Enterprise Zone”, in: Blauvelt (2015).

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

In California’s Bay Area, these avant-garde architecture environmentalists arose with a strong emphasis on ecological issues. In Europe, on the other hand, ecological concerns were but a part of a larger agenda, which included the contestation of architecture’s static monumentalism through performative and perception-altering actions. Haus-Rucker-Co’s intervention at 
the referential 5th edition of Documenta, in Kassel, Germany, consisted of a bubble ‘environment’ that not only addressed issues of pollution and self-sufficient ecologies, but also commented on the institutional character of the building to which it attached itself as a parasite.6 As for Superstudio, they went as far as refusing design and formal structures as expressions of consumer culture — leading them to imagine dystopian ecological scenarios as a form of social and political critique. In common, however, all these architecture collectives shared a nascent awareness of environmental catastrophe, and a need to respond to it with radical new practices.7 In this sense, another contributor to the Hippie Modernism catalogue points out that this counterculture’s “design efforts in ecological sustainability and classroom liberation invite comparison to the reformist programs of previous modern movements.” As Greg Castillo goes on to suggest, similarities of this movement’s pathos to the Bauhaus’ joyful Gesamtkunstwerk are defensible.
 But only if underscoring that interdisciplinary collaborations were directed towards holistic and critical considerations of nature and Earth’s wholeness, rather than just embarking on a design-based wish for “aesthetic totality.”8

Battles Of Countercultures

At the core of Castillo’s historical account are the counterculture battles that opposed these early environmental innovators to other critical thinkers of Western society at the time. The events at the Freestone Conference, a seminal gathering that took place north of San Francisco, in March 1970, reveal that the specific concerns of the environmental neo-avant-garde were much ahead of their time, even when it came to other forward-looking political positions.

While the hippie designers “embraced recycling and bricolage as totems of a post-Fordist culture,”9 they invited the attacks by intellectuals that remained referential in the academic establishment of the coming decades. As Castillo reports, 
while Reyner Banham (1922-1988) showed his “disdain for ecofreaks that were ‘getting preachy’,” Peter Hall (1932-2014) demanded that “they stop talking about the coming apocalypse, alleging that the Bay Area environmentalists were simply hypocrites.”10 And if that sounds incredibly akin to contemporary climate denialism, the final blow was yet to be perpetuated by French sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007). The New Left representative defended his own understanding of the political role of the avant-garde by fiercely attacking ecological activism. He claimed its environmental strategies, such as addressing pollution or announcing an ecological catastrophe, “were pure social manipulation” and “a new opium for the people.”11 In hindsight, one recognizes Baudrillard’s argumentation as the expression of a time before extractive practices and consumerism went beyond the French intellectual’s wildest dreams. But it also revealed how foreign and esoteric those ecological concerns were half a century ago. This was the expression of a truly visionary perception of potential ecological disarray, which still today is barely catching up with mainstream discourse.

As Castillo notes, Baudrillard, Banham and Hall were 
all proven mistaken, and “the ecological crisis was neither a
 hippie hallucination nor an illusion produced by Marxist false consciousness.”12 However, with its blatant failure to cater to the support of critical minds of the period, it was no wonder that, despite its clairvoyance, this environmental avant-garde was soon to fall into oblivion. With its failure to get traction even if only within architectural discourse, this alternative form of practice was clearly condemned to fail the battle with the self-perpetuation of mainstream trends of architectural modernism. Late 1970s post- modernism was but a fleeting aesthetic bump in the road of modernism’s way forward. Similarly, the environmentalist avant-garde was also a brief and marginal deviation in that heroic historical course.

Back to Eco-Modernism  

Apparently, such freak deviation would leave no impact 
in mainstream architectural discourse, had history not shown 
that its themes were not to go away easily. Even if, like capitalism, modernist architecture proved highly effective in eliminating alternative models of practice and becoming utterly global, the seeds of this eco-modernism lay buried, waiting for a wake-up call.

Breeding on modernism’s apparent success at formal self- preservation, a steady discourse on architecture’s aspirations for autonomy has also thrived to this day. And that has essentially guaranteed that any calls for practice to again find its intrinsic motivations in everyday urgencies — as it is typical in avant-garde thinking — were hygienically kept at bay. As these orthodoxies went, essential drives for architectural creation had to be found within its own formal and typological history, within its aesthetic traditions and within the repetition of accepted formulas. Thus, any alternative interpretation or critique of a consensual notion of modernity was suppressed. While seen as steered by external forces, environmental avant-gardes too were to be buried, thus leaving architects unprepared to accept ecological concerns as potent creative drivers for architectural practice.

As the climate emergency became more evident, however, the motivations and prompts behind that specific strain of the architectural neo-avant-garde were back in full force. And so our attention was driven back to those early ecological visionaries. As Castillo concludes in his essay, “whatever might be said about their motley raiment, grab-bag philosophies and clown-car comportment, ecofreaks reassessed as hippie moderns demand re-evaluation as an avant-garde galvanized by the radical mission of inventing environmentalism’s everyday material culture.”13 Further, this environmental avant-garde also encourages a re-appreciation of how design practices can be at the forefront of climate action, both in terms of activism and the integration of technological innovation in ecologically driven projects.

Seen from today’s perspective, it is only understandable that there is again an appeal to counterculture movements of the early 1970s. Faced with the global impacts of an increasingly savage system of consumption, we can again feel attracted to move forward by taking a step back, looking instead for exploratory experiments in self-sufficiency. Faced with the mounting evidence of a pressing ecological distress, even as suddenly expressed in unexpected pandemic outbreaks, we can again feel the plea of refusing business-as-usual in any sector of practice, including the creative and design ones. In the midst of the successive crises of advanced capitalism, we may again lust for the bold creative ingenuity of the avant-gardes. We may indeed wonder where that avant-garde spirit has gone, and ask ourselves if we may hack some of it back.

Vehicle of Dreams

Now, perhaps the messy, hippie looks of the early 1970s avant-garde do not appeal to our sophisticated, stark aesthetic sensibility. But, as we now know, remixes are never quite like the original. Think of pop music re-edits of vintage 1970s funk, and you may quickly reckon that what they lack in dirty authenticity, they conquer in subtle adaptation to contemporary taste. We will never go back to “hippie modernism,” but we may well enter into a fruitful conversation with it.

3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise, for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial 2015, WORKac recreated lost drawings of Ant Farm’s iconic projects. Plan of Ant Farm's Convention City. – © WORKac 2015
3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise: Section of Ant Farm's Convention City. – © WORKac 2015
Ant Farm: Convention City 1976, 1972, wood, clay, neon, plastic, model 18 x 24 – Collection SFMOMA © Ant Farm
Ant Farm:  DOLΦN EMB 1 (Dolphin Embassy), Curtis Schreier 1974-1975; hand colored brownline; 18 x 22. – © University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise: Plan of Ant Farm's Dolphin Embassy. – © WORKac 2015
3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise: Section of Ant Farm's Dolphin Embassy. – © WORKac 2015
01 | 07
3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise, for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial 2015, WORKac recreated lost drawings of Ant Farm’s iconic projects. Plan of Ant Farm's Convention City. – © WORKac 2015

14 Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, 3.C.City, assessed 16 May 2020.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

WORKac

One good example of such dialogue appeared during the first Chicago Architecture Biennale, in 2015, taking the form of a collaboration between New York practice WORKac and the remaining elements of radical practice Ant Farm, Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier. While Ant Farm dispersed in 1978, after their archive burned down, the interest of WORKac in their countercultural explorations prompted the recreation and upgrade of some of 
their lost projects. Thus appeared 3.C. City: Climate, Convention, Cruise — a new design intended to bring earlier ideas up to date in a context in which “climate change is challenging architecture to engage in urgent diplomacy and become an agent of change.”14

Described as a hack of Ant Farm’s polemical proposals at several scales, the new floating city concept most notably evolves to “facilitate dialogue and debate between people and other species.”15 While Ant Farm’s avant-garde inflatable aesthetics guides the design of this “vehicle of dreams,” the current Anthropocene discourse on interspecies conviviality discretely informs the conceptual remix. As noted on WORKac ́s website, “solar panel shingles, pockets of greenhouses and gardens, an algae farm for biofuel and a water-collection river” are added to provide for “a new symbiosis between ecology and infrastructure.”16 Importantly, green infrastructure is newly welcomed as a structural part of architecture’s basic vocabulary for form-making. The dialogue with the representatives of the previous avant-garde has indeed produced a breakthrough.

So, we should celebrate these new “vehicles of dreams,” which allow us to revisit visionary ideas of the past. Yet, it is still also relevant to ask again where the environmental avant-garde ended. Not because of some nostalgic notion of the role and potential of the avant-gardes themselves, but because the early environmental architecture responses to the ecological crisis are still mostly valid today. Hippie mystique aside, the philosophical principles that regard the holistic integration of ecological concerns into architectural design are still sound enough.

So, we can start by revisiting their failures so as to simply guarantee that, this time, we get it right. We can indeed recover some of the 1970s counterculture early environmental insights, as well as their political prowess, and update them to inform our current technological and design capacities. Even as we have now gathered how to deconstruct
 its defaults and failures, we can still learn from the lessons of
 the environmental avant-garde. Like the interdisciplinary team that came up with the ZeroCabin, today’s architects can also find inspiration in the stubborn hopes and critical thrust of our ecologically concerned forebears.

This essay is an edited excerpt from Climax Change! How Architecture Must Transform in the Age of Ecological Emergency, ACTAR Publishers: New York / Barcelona 2022

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