How Radical Sixties Architecture Let It All Hang Out-By Shumon Basar

From Koolhaas and Balmond’s 2006 floating Serpentine Pavilion to Felicity Scott’s reappraisal of art-architecture activists Ant Farm in her book Architecture or Techno-Utopia, we have recently been reminded of that potent band of time between the end of the sixties and the start of the seventies.

Perhaps most acutely played out in Superstudio’s 1971 MoMA film, Life, Death, Ceremony, you realize that a real contest was on between the vestiges of hippie idealism and the encroaching, engulfing power of capitalism.

Superstudio’s infinite grid— an augur of global networked technologies of communication— is seen to be the exclusive province of two flouncing, white-robed hippie survivors. Little do they know that they’re about to be extinguished by the very thing they deliriously chant about: the free flow of bodies, and therefore the free-market flow of labor and capital.

Alastair Gordon’s engrossing and intimately well researched book on the radical, experimental environments from this period, and a little to either side, recollects: “Psychedelic explorers of the early sixties noted a transformation of conventional space into vibrating space. Edges softened. Corners vanished. Boundaries dissolved along with the simultaneous dissolution of ego.”

If this sounds eerily like the nineties computer software-aided blobisation of the world, the difference comes down to chemistry, not electronics. LSD, pot, magic mushrooms — take your pick: “My left side is now my right side, and my right side is my left side,” noted psychiatrist Art Kleps. This inversion of everyday perception unsurprisingly led to a series of revolutions in the spaces the tripped-out generation chose to live, dance, and love in.

“The walls of the room no longer seemed to meet in right angles,” wrote Aldous Huxley after a gram of mescaline. “This is how one ought to see. This is how things really are.”

And throughout this richly illustrated tribute to tripping, you notice how few right angles there were back then. Instead, a primeval, uterine fascination with domes, eggs, spheres and soft curves dominates. Straightness, it seems, was a condition of oppressive geometry.

Not being able to see what was ahead of you meant you could look into yourself. Herein lay the galaxy of innerness, a spatiality of outward, exhibitionist navel gazing.

You can’t help but snigger at the sheer profusion of nudity. If straight lines were the geometry of conservative oppression, then clothing was the personal imprisonment from which every right-minded, enlightened soul had to be liberated. I haven’t done a body count, but it did seem that more women than men were in the (pre-“Brazil”) buff, with the men lurking behind the cameras. Perhaps with people not wearing clothes, the various inflated plastics and fabrics took on the role of prosthetic skins.

One of my favorite images is of a class of architecture students, all taking a communal (naked) bath in a biomorphic tub. The free love extended to their professors as well, making this situation utterly unthinkable in today’s lethally litigious world.

Underneath all the drug-induced, drop-out desire ran some pretty radical politics. One chapter looks at the ways in which a whole generation did away with the traditional American dream — detached house, garden, picket fence — and opted for the migratory existence of gypsy trucks, caravans and mobile homes. Nothing less than building an alternative society to the one that Guy Debord warned against in the Society of the Spectacle was at stake: Drop City, Colorado, was the most famous and largest, dome-driven formal commune in the US.

There were also forays into the structures Native Americans had been building for centuries — anything, just anything, but suburbia.

If this book has something really serious to say, it’s that the dazed and confused generation saw environmental armageddon coming — and tried to do something about it. In tune with being in tune with Mother Nature, the early seventies saw an incredible explosion of environmentally minded houses, in part precipitated by the 1973 oil crisis.

All trips, no matter how good, have to end. “The freaky, free-form era faded into the self-conscious seventies,” writes Gordon in the epilogue. “The momentum was lost, as if everyone had taken an amnesia pill and resumed a former level of mediocrity.”

In some strange parallel that I can’t quite fathom, the demise of modernism in the early to mid-seventies parallels the death of radical, alternative society in the US. “What had seemed epic was now mocked and marginalized, reduced to a cliché… Yippies became yuppies. LSD and pot gave way to cocaine and meth. Disco ascended the charts, as did big hair and heavy metal.”

Long live the revolution, long live long, unwashed hair.


Reprinted with permission from Building Design