So much depends on the perception of a post-petroleum future, a single tree, melting ice caps, Al Gore’s waistline, innovations in alternative energies, and designers who convince their clients to go green or, at least, adopt the rhetoric of green. Meanwhile, Americans are consuming more, driving bigger SUVs, buying more needless stuff, living in denial, and dumbing down. So can we still look to architects, planners and designers for new attitudes and new paradigms? Good architecture and design can help shape our expectations and give us an idea of what the future might bring, truly sustainable or not.
It’s a good time to look back to the originating seeds of green, to the anarchic 1960s and Bucky Fuller’s philosophy of “ephemeralization” (doing more with less.) Conspicuous similarities can be detected between then and now, certainly a general ennui and loss of confidence in the status quo, along with the urge to save our planet. Conventional parameters of city, community, family, and housing were all thrown out in the psychedelic era.
In 1965, a group of art students founded Drop City, a domed commune in Colorado. “Houses in our society are walls, blocking man from man, man from the universe, man from himself,” wrote Bill Voyd, one of the founders. Paolo Soleri was preaching arcology, a combination of architecture and ecology, back in the early ’60s, and instead of just theorizing, he went into the Arizona desert like an Old Testament prophet and began to actually build Arcosanti, the prototype for a new kind of organic, high-density city (without cars) surrounded by natural wilderness. It still thrives today, 38 years later. Steve Durkee and other members of USCO (“Company of Us”), a multimedia collaborative formed in New York in 1964, conjured up the idea of “Solux” in early manifestos and then went forth and built their “spiritual dude ranch” on a mountainside near Taos, New Mexico. (The name changed from Solux to Lama.) Anything seemed possible since young people were willing to give up the comforts of middle-class affluence and live in a state of what Ivan Illich, Austrian philosopher and anarchist, called “voluntary primitivism.” They did without television or plumbing or central heating while learning the ways of the compost heap, the privy, and the communal washtub.
With hallucinogenic drugs as lubricant, college dropouts who had never built much of anything felt empowered to move into the wilderness and create whole new communities. A group of Yale architecture students, led by Dave Sellers and Bill Rienecke, were sick of Modernist theory, moved to Prickly Mountain, Vermont, in the mid-’60s and started building houses with their own hands. A group of Princeton students, led by Steve Badanes, called themselves Jersey Devil and followed suit.
For many New Age utopians, Fuller’s geodesic dome offered the greatest promise, with its single embracing space, ideal for collective living, maximum enclosure constructed from minimum material. There seemed to be an inherent magic in all things circular. “Corners constrict the mind,” wrote one hippie builder. “Build circular musical structures and help destroy rational box-reality,” declared another who believed that the square had contaminated every aspect of Western civilization from the sandbox to the grid of corporate Modernism. While hundreds of domes had been built by 1959, Fuller’s vision flowered in the mid-to-late ’60s when the children of the counterculture adopted the dome as a symbol of both resistance and solidarity. Indeed, it could be seen as the seed for a whole new civilization, one that was communal, self-supporting, nonhierarchical. Its simple geometry suggested a multifaceted crystal, the eye of God, a circle of fellowship, and the mysterious oneness that so many had experienced on LSD and Psilocybin. “You merge with the dome; its skin becomes your skin,” said one geodesic convert.
Notions of sustainability, ephemeralization, simplifying life, and reducing our carbon footprint have come full circle and seem more urgent today than ever before. But while the shaggy ’60s may be up for review, they come with a haircut, shorn as they are of the social/cultural revolution that drove them. And the question remains, can you have one without the other? True sustainability without sweeping social change? True green without revolution? Consumers beware: When one hears companies like Exxon, General Motors, and Merck Chemical talking green, then you know it’s probably time to check in with Alice and slide back down the rabbit hole.
*DvH 2012 01 SW Colorado (adaptation)
*DvH 2012 02 Finger Lakes, NY (renovation)
DvH 2012 03 Scotland (maze design)
*DvH 2012 04 Scotland (house renovation)
*DvH 2012 05 Ireland Co. Limerick (barn conversion)
*DvH 2012 07 Silverlake(Los Angeles) California
*DvH 2012 09 Penthouse update
* DvH 2012 10 Liechtenstein Chalet “Gryffindor” (restoration)