Friday, December 5, 2014

Part Two: Design Radicals: What Does It Mean Now?

Farallones Institute's radical recycling project
courtesy: Jim Campe

The first part of the interview with Greg Castillo looks at the “Design Radicals” exhibit that he cocurated for the University of California, Berkeley. This second part looks at the legacy of these efforts and what they might portend for the future.

Interviewer: I want you to try and put this brief shining moment in a larger context.

Greg Castillo: The “Design Radicals” show is part of a larger research project trying to understand the role of Berkeley as a nexus of countercultural design. Currently, I’m putting together some ideas and writing an article for a catalog for an exhibition that’s being put together by Andrew Blauvelt at the Walker Art Center called “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.”

That show really is the first venture to elevate hippie cultural production as something that we can study as a facet of modernism. My contribution for the catalog is an essay, which I’m calling “Counterculture Terroir: California’s Hippie Enterprise Zone.” My organizing idea for that piece is that Northern California, with Berkeley occupying an important position, was this nation’s (and thus the world’s) preeminent nexus of networked countercultural enterprises. Richard Florida has argued that San Francisco became a premier “creative class” enclave because some key attributes were present—talent, tolerance, and technology. The same Bay Area resources yielded an amazing variety of experiments in counterculture design. Of course, you had San Francisco as a pilgrimage site for hippies from all over the world. And even though things got ugly there after 1967 and the Summer of Love, that very crisis increased Berkeley’s importance as a haven for hippie enterprises.

Interviewer: Berkeley replaces San Francisco as a counterculture center?

Castillo: As an intellectual center and also a very political center of alternative culture, Berkeley became much more important after the Summer of Love. When hippies who were living in the Haight saw what was happening there, many of them got turned off and moved to Telegraph Avenue. They made the street one of the Bay Area focal points of countercultural activity, as we see with the subsequent “guerilla gardening” that created People’s Park.

The university had a special role to play in this. It’s a place that had an enormous amount of brainpower that was also politically galvanized and open to countercultural activities. For example, in Berkeley, a “pharmaceutical dilettante” named Augustus Owsley Stanley III looked up the recipe for LSD in the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Library, perfected it, and started producing it in a home lab in Orinda. He was the Henry Ford of psychedelics transport, providing the transport mechanism for the Summer of Love. You also have people like Sim Van der Ryn, whose position—with one foot in academia and the other in the counterculture—allowed him to write grants to federal funding agencies and get resources to conduct social research and building experiments. And you had an inexhaustible supply of students—a human resource of very committed people willing to labor for close to nothing on projects they identified with quite passionately.

I’m currently trying to track down web of enterprises that spread out from or crossed paths with Berkeley. I want to map this countercultural network, this hippie regional enterprise zone, that flourished here in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Interviewer: But don’t you think that there’s a split between the work of this Wurster Hall political poster factory and some of these later enterprises? Because they get co-opted into the mainstream via institutions like the Whole Earth Catalog or Esalen. Even Sim becomes the state architect during Jerry Brown’s first term! They don’t challenge the dominant narrative but end up going mainstream.

Castillo: That’s a narrative I reject. I don’t buy the argument that Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog was hopelessly compromised by its relationship to American consumer culture or its military connections. Energy-conscious architecture certainly goes mainstream with Sim’s program of energy-efficient state office buildings for Jerry Brown, for example, but that’s far from complicity with the dominant narrative of U.S. energy use. This was a radical intervention into a building type. Some of those experiments worked, some didn’t. To make the argument that they’re co-opted implies that the counterculture can never replicate itself or transform itself: it has to remained locked in a single, historical moment of resistance. But the strategies of resistance have to be able to change. I see resistance in later projects, as well, like in Sim’s book Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water. It’s very interesting, and has certain parallels with French critical theory. Do you know the book titled History of Shit?

Interviewer: No.

Castillo: That was a book by a French philosopher of the early 1970s, Dominique Laporte: it’s been translated by Rodolphe el-Khoury, who’s now the dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture. Both books explore an area that’s off limits for cultural discourse. In France, it’s approached by a philosophical radical through a very convoluted discourse. It’s a textual performance piece about the relationship of waste management and emergence of modern cities, nation-states, and individual identities. In Toilet Papers, Sim’s basically saying, “You know what? Shit is, shit happens, and our response to it has been, ‘Let’s make it disappear. Let’s make it disappear visually, physically, and especially culturally and mentally.’” Sim is looking for an alternative to the technological absurdity of a complex system that uses water as a resource to flush waste away and then separates the waste back out so that water can be returned to the environment.

In one of Sim’s courses, I think it’s the energy course, we have a paper written by a student which is the autobiography of a turd—the story of a turd emerging into the world, immediately being shunted through a labyrinthine set of conduits, through a building, under streets, to end up in the Bay or a sewage treatment plant. In a way, it’s impossibly vulgar, even now really crazy to think this was an undergraduate research paper, but fundamentally it’s radical for students to be thinking about ecologically vital things that are supposed to be so off limits that we can’t even discuss them.

courtesy: Jim Campe

Interviewer: I see a split along Marxist lines between these two activities. That is, I think that the production of graphics to stop the war was more about challenging the sociopolitical/economic dominant culture. But the work of some of these teachers and students here might have been influenced by the radicalism but is not challenging the basic economic order.

Castillo: I would disagree with that. First, I wouldn’t want to mix too much Marxism in it, because I think that these students may have had some ideas about communality that were wonderful, but also quite utopian and abstract. They really weren’t Marxists. And while they were not in it for profit-making, they did sell things at a profit that they poured into other projects. Yet many of these projects involve enormous resistance to the idea of a consumer culture. The recycling of everything, the idea that you would scrounge through trash and take it to children as a resource to teach them things, was an affront, in a way, to what middle-class America would consider good parenting: you don’t bring stuff from the trash to your children to play with or learn from.

There is an argument to be made that their idea of alternative building was quite naïve, the idea that cities are becoming impossible, so let’s move to the countryside, let’s live off the grid. They’re using Buckminster Fuller’s systems idea to understand the world as a totality, as a system in which everything’s plugged into everything else. But there’s a part of them that believes in a place outside of that system; when we move to the countryside and start growing our vegetables and using recycled things, we won’t be a part of the system.

Clearly there’s a logical inconsistency in that. But I would give them a break. One walks away from the city in order to have space to become somebody else. For some of these young people, it meant trying to invent a life that wasn’t confined by the strictures of “When you ‘grow up,’ you’ll have your own family, and you’ll live in your own suburban house.” They wanted to see if there was a place outside of that hand-me-down world.

Interviewer: So do you think there is the link between the antiwar movement and some of the early hippie enterprises? Do you think that the Free Speech Movement and the war resistance are part of that link, allowing everyone to rethink everything, to think, “It’s all up for grabs”?

Castillo: A lot of things are up for grabs at this time. And we can’t deny the role of psychedelics in that. It’s odd now, because we think of them as recreational drugs today. And it’s so hard to imagine a time when somebody would take LSD and experience an entire world, one they had never understood was a construct, suddenly being deconstructed. We all sort of accept that, you know, you’ll take some mind-altering substance and you’ll live a different reality for a little while. But at that point, mood- and mind-altering technologies were new and crude, and made the airtight totality of a world collapse for people.

In looking back at the counterculture era, you can see drug use as utterly self-indulgent, just like you can create a narrative about antiwar resistance that makes it utterly self-serving. Campus antiwar resistance happened after Nixon installed a selective service system that worked by lottery, which essentially overrode all student deferments. So for the first time, students whose social privilege included being in college confronted the notion that next year they might find themselves in a jungle shooting it out with guerilla fighters. It’s not surprising that campuses didn’t blow up before that. It was the coming of the lottery system that generated the anguish and anger that’s expressed in the poster-making project.

Interviewer: Because now privileged, middle-class white boys are going to war.

Castillo: Of course American college students at that time tended not to be disadvantaged minorities. Even blue-collar working-class people were relatively underrepresented. It was really the privileged middle-class white men who suddenly realized that they weren’t immune to the risk of dying in a jungle.

Interviewer: Do you see a link to what’s happening now, this movement of architecture and social activism in organizations like Public Architecture, Mass Design, and even the Autodesk Foundation?

Castillo: I hope that, in looking at this particular historical moment, students in architecture school would read it as a potentially usable past and recognize that it isn’t a moment of hippie nonsense but an extremely productive, challenging, and interesting if frenetic activity. There are connections to our state of perpetual warfare and social inequity. I think that’s what gives this particular historical legacy its bite today.

Of course, just as there should be questions about architecture students going “back to the land” to build communes, there are enormous problems today with the model of architectural students going into Haiti for a one-time intervention. These problems exist on many levels, on cultural levels, on the fetishistic notion of professional expertise. I find it especially disturbing when these paradigms of help for the global south get fed back into glossy journals as an exciting new exploration area for modes of architecture which look pretty damn cool, which some of them do, while purporting to address these problems. But these tensions are normal and have to be acknowledged. You could not have students from the United States go to Latin America or to Africa, or even rural Mississippi, and make those kinds of interventions and not ask questions about it. I think that’s a good thing. But it does have at least as many tensions embedded in it as any of the student work of the counterculture era does.

Interviewer: In an earlier document, you wrote about the Aspen Design Conference and the French critics challenging these activists from Cal.

Castillo: That’s not part of this show. But it’s very much a part of the larger project.

Interviewer: Could you expand on that?

Castillo: It’s another one of Sim Van Der Ryn’s creative uses of grant money. Some of his research funds end up being used to rent a bus to transport ecological activists—self described “eco-freaks”—to the Aspen Design Conference. It’s like Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters descending on the Aspen, a conference attended by designers who are empowered, entitled, and often part of the extremely provincial New York design world. They are flying to Aspen to talk about their glossy ideas, and suddenly there are people playing drums and doing ritualistic dances and psychodramas about environmental warfare in front of them. It was an intervention that was intended as a disruption, and it did cause people to wonder if the Aspen Design Conference had a future, whether it was time to disband it or not; whether it had lived out its purpose.

Sim also funded travel for group of French philosophes to the same Aspen conference. And they had no time for the hippies, because their view of activism was largely Marxist. When Jean Baudrillard and Jean Aubert saw these eco-activists acting out as shamans, they feel it is utter nonsense. In a statement titled “The Environmental Witch-Hunt,” the so-called French Group attacked the idea of ecology that these hippies stood for, saying the whole idea of an ecological crisis is a lie, a form of “boy scout idealism” that creates a false sense of social interdependence between class antagonists. To the philosophes, the idea that the environment is at risk of collapse was a hoax intended to perpetuate the collusion of workers with the owners of the means of production. Any idea that ecology would be an issue worthy of being addressed was, for Baudrillard and Auber, a feel-good fantasy that would unite class elements that would otherwise be locked in mortal combat, making the eco-freaks who were “shouting apocalypse” nothing more than quislings dressed as medicine men.

Interviewer: Do you think the philosophes were right?

Castillo: I think theirs was the last gasp of a totalizing ideology that could exist as such in its own airtight world. A world on the verge of catastrophic climate change couldn’t register as a problem to the philosophes because it didn’t conform to the Marxist rule book of historical transformation through class struggle. It is an interesting moment that highlights the weaknesses of both camps because, if you see the film that was made of the eco-freaks at Aspen, the counterculture camp seems fixated on disruption rather than dialogue. Their intervention was a psychedelic variety of narcissistic psychodrama.

Interviewer: But who controls the corporations that have brought us to this moment of collapse?

Castillo: You mean because the oil companies’ profit model is predicated on the demolition of the planet?

Interviewer: Right. And they are able to keep electing politicians that support them. So is there some part of the Marxist argument that still holds up?

Castillo: But the part of it that is problematic, unless you’re going to buy into the notion of false consciousness, is the fact that it is working-class people, people who buy at Walmart to get it for cheap and get the next one even cheaper when it breaks, who are pouring in the money that bankrolls the destruction of the planet. In other words, when we offshore production to China, we are ensuring that we will buy products that have generated the maximum amount of pollutants into the air, that we all breathe. Production is offshored because a part of the savings in production cost comes from not having to account for how much air, land, and water gets polluted. That we like to buy cheap stuff and throw it away makes us accomplices to the ecological demolition derby, whether our collar is blue or white.

Interviewer: So you’re saying in a way that these design radicals were onto something key because they were posing a criticism of consumer culture, which has both the working and middle classes involved because they’re consuming?

Castillo: Absolutely.

Interviewer: So the standard Marxist argument falls apart because the middle and lower classes are complicit in consumerism.

Castillo: Ecological activists and radical recyclers, who were at the heart of the Bay Area design radicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, posed the idea that a new evolution in consciousness would be one in which you understood the world as a closed system, that essentially any pollutants that you created, either in manufacturing something or with your body, would need to be accounted for, and you should take responsibility for it. That was the idea that percolated through architectural coursework and experiments by Sim Van der Ryn and Jim Campe. It started with their reuse of castoff materials to create new learning environments at Berkeley elementary schools, using a retooled mail van as a mobile lab with the motto “trash can do it.” It continues with the Outlaw Builders Studio, with its commitment to building a new community in both the social and physical senses through collective foraging and reuse of found materials. Scavenging as an art form was a regional specialty, by the way; it goes back to the Beat culture of the 1950s and the emergence of Bay Area assemblage as an art movement. Sim’s architectural contribution includes the Energy Pavilion, which was the initial step toward the later Integral Urban House experiment, where many of his ecological ideas came together.

Outlaw Builder
courtesy: Jim Campe
Outlaw Builders Communal Studio Building
courtesy: Jim Campe

OutlawBldrs hanging sleeploft
courtesy: Jim Campe

Sim and organic gardeners Bill and Helga Olkowski and the crew at the Farallones Institute found a turn-of-the-century worker’s cottage for sale in West Berkeley in the mid-1970s. At the time, this was a pretty undesirable neighborhood, and houses were cheap—this was a sort of “trash can do it” approach to urban homesteading. And while the house was cheap, they were also looking at it from a different perspective. This part of Berkeley, along the waterfront freeway, has the town’s richest soil, because it’s where the alluvial wash flowed down from the hillsides.

They rehabbed this cottage to create a self-reliant life support system—the Integral Urban House. Philosophically, it’s related to the counterculture’s romance with holism and systems design, a topic that Simon Sadler at Irvine has written about. The result was a demonstration house, staffed by volunteers and open to the public, where you could find out how to apply environmentalist principles to your own life. It was an educational tool designed for mass ecological transformation. They raised varieties of local freshwater fish in an experimental aquaculture pond in the front yard. The small backyard had fruit trees, chicken coops, rabbit hutches, beehives, and raised vegetable beds; they were fertilized with compost made from chicken manure, rabbit droppings, plant clippings, and kitchen waste. Greywater from sinks and drains went to water plants. The house also had a composting toilet from Sweden that wasn’t code-legal in the United States, so its wastes couldn’t be used in the garden. A solar heating panel supplied hot water. South-facing windows dropped sunlight on an indoor wall of water bottles as a heat sink. On sunny days, they used a solar oven to bake bread.

Sim and the Farallones Institute got another popular book out of this project. The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City, published by the Sierra Club, became a sort of bible for urban homesteaders. Of course, there are many tensions in the idea of an autonomous house. The claim was that even an apartment dweller could switch to self-reliant homemaking and participate in an ecological revolution while keeping their urban lifestyle intact. But how many people want to come home from work, change, and then go out to slaughter and gut a rabbit? The Integral Urban House worked as an ecological display until the early 1980s, at which time the neighborhood begins to gentrify. And lo and behold, the new neighbors did not appreciate the smells coming out of composting toilets and rabbit hutches next door. What really ended up killing this autonomous house experiment was the fact that it wasn’t really autonomous, that flies and smells leave your yard and go next door where somebody has just mortgaged themselves to the hilt to buy a fixer-upper in the next good neighborhood.

Interviewer: You’re part of a larger ecosystem wherever you are. So what’s next in terms of your research?

Castillo: The next step is a “Design Radicals” anthology that will assemble stories of many of these experiments to paint a broader portrait of the Bay Area as a hub of counterculture innovation. The scale and number of activities going on here exceeded those that could be found anywhere else in the world. When you start looking at some of the institutions that are hallmarks of the counterculture, for example, underground presses, the number was enormous in the Bay Area compared to New York. From the beginning of the poster renaissance of the 1960s through the present, the Bay Area has produced more independent political posters than anywhere else on earth, as Lincoln Cushing has pointed out. And our local counterculture legacy is attracting international research interest.

For the Design Radicals anthology, a distinguished architectural historian from Paris, Caroline Maniaque-Benton, is looking at the way French visitors saw and reinterpreted Bay Area experiments. Lionel Devlieger, one of the co-curators of last year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale exploring the desire for sustainability, which included a number of Sim’s projects, will be writing about the Outlaw Building Studio for the anthology. From the University of Sydney, Lee Stickells will be putting the Integral Urban House experiment into its international context. This wasn’t cultural imperialism, where things are being sent out and transplanted exactly as they are in the United States. Very different versions of alternative culture were built based on local interests and conditions in different places.

There are other forms of hippie globalization that the anthology will address. For example there is a piece by Padma Maitland, a South Asia Studies scholar at UC Berkeley, on the mandala as an icon of Bay Area graphic arts counterculture. Pat Morton from UC Riverside will be writing on J.B. Jackson’s impact on the architectural thought and practice of a number of alternative design talents. Marta Gutman from CCNY, who’s one of the foremost scholars of the childhood design environments, will be contributing a piece on Jim Campe and the Odyssey elementary school experiments and countercultural educational reform. And Anthony Raynsford, who’s giving a talk in the Design Radicals lecture series in November, is working up a chapter on Wurster Hall’s relationship to the making of People’s Park, an early and important example of guerilla gardening and the grassroots creation of public urban space. The Bay Area’s counterculture design legacy is a rich, rich topic, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Sim Van der Ryn
courtesy: Jim Campe

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Part One: The Design Radicals Exhibit

Modern architecture has its roots in social change. On the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which was an important catalyst for social change on campuses in the 1960s, it is worth documenting the intersection of design and radicalism that followed. This fall, an exhibit entitled “Design Radicals: Creativity and Protest at Wurster Hall” will be on view in the Wurster Hall library at the University of California, Berkeley. The show is curated by associate professor of architecture Greg Castillo and exhibition designer Kent Wilson. What follows is a two-part interview with Greg Castillo.

Interviewer: “Design Radicals” is both an exhibition and a series of events?

Greg Castillo: The show opens on October 16 with a talk by the scholar of political poster art and archival activist Lincoln Cushing, who maintains the Docs Populi website of graphic arts dedicated to social justice. While most of us know the outlines of the story of the Free Speech Movement, we are not so clear on the impact that it had on visual arts and design. Was there any crossover? How could that have informed people’s work in design? I started to investigate that. This is a first pass at some of those findings.

Interviewer: What’s in the show?

Castillo: A large part of the show is dedicated to posters that were made in Wurster Hall in 1970. At that time, Nixon’s Cambodian incursion, the Kent State shootings, and the shootings at Jackson State in Mississippi had started a campus conflagration felt across the United States. Administrators at U.C. Berkeley, and also within Wurster Hall, decided that they would allow students to use their time productively to create antiwar committees, to mobilize Berkeley neighborhoods in terms of antiwar activities, and to essentially turn the first floor of Wurster into something very much like a propaganda factory. Instead of Andy Warhol’s pop factory, this was Wurster Hall's political poster factory.

CED posters of May 1970
poster by Jay Belloli 

Interviewer: What did they do?

Castillo: During that period, it's estimated that 50,000 posters were printed. Students sold the posters for a penny apiece. Or you could pay more to have a silkscreen image put on the back of a shirt, but you had to bring your own garment. And we know that on a good day, they were able to raise about $500, which adjusted for inflation would about $3,000 today. This was a broad-based, popular “graphic arts insurgency.”

Interviewer: It's not typical for student movements to keep such diligent books. Where did you find this information?

Castillo: The reason we know so much about the finances was that these activities, and especially the fact that the campus administrators sanctioned them, outraged Ronald Reagan, who was then California’s governor. Acting through the University of California Regents, he hired an accounting firm from San Francisco called Haskins & Sells—it’s still in existence under a different name. They did a very careful audit to see whether materials and equipment that were supplied by the State of California expressly for the purpose of educational use were being used to make protest materials. I think it’s pretty clear that, had the accounting firm found evidence of misuse or misappropriation of that material, there would have been a purge of student activists, and probably more to the point, a purge of faculty and administrative staff who had been their accomplices.

We know from looking at the documents produced by Haskins & Sells that, in fact, there weren’t any grounds for the assertion of misuse of state funds. From their report, we found out that almost all of the paper for the posters came from the refuse bins in back of the campus computer center. This was an early example of recycling and radical repurposing of materials. Along with the Wurster Hall protest posters loaned by Lincoln Cushing, the Haskins & Sells report is on display in the exhibit.

Interviewer: What else does the project cover?

Castillo: The other part of the exhibition tracks the work of a pivotal figure in countercultural design pedagogy, at least here at U.C. Berkeley, and that’s Sim Van der Ryn. Before being appointed California’s first state architect under Jerry Brown, Sim sponsored a series of experimental studio courses. His collaborators called him "Scout" because he would chart a path, find a new thing, ride that wave, and pull people behind him. While his colleagues were doing the project, Sim would be off looking for the next big idea.

Interviewer: Where does this story begin?

Castillo: The first big idea was an intervention in elementary school education here in Berkeley by a cohort of young professors and lecturers, some with young children. Sim’s main compatriot in this project was a young lecturer named Jim Campe, whose wife was an elementary school teacher. Together, they looked at what was happening in elementary school teaching and thought—now this is my interpretation—“We’ve made all of these breakthroughs; we’ve walked away from some of the stultifying aspects of mainstream culture. And then we’re going to put our children into schools, that inculcate mainstream thinking? How can we find an alternative that will yield a liberating pedagogy for children?” They found the conventional setup of children in ranks at desks facing a blackboard absolutely antiquated. Their alternative was to have children build things. They believed in craft and the notion that doing and making with your hands, doing things as collaborative activities, would develop important skills in children— manual, intellectual, and social skills.

They had children assemble geodesic domes and cover them with army surplus parachutes to play and hide in. They built inflatable structures in classrooms and had kids running in and out of them, very much like an Ant Farm dream. They had kids build their own “carrels,” little two-story nooks where children could claim their own place in the classroom to cool out. They were creating an informal urbanism within the classroom with these favela-like self-built structures.

Interviewer: What followed that? There must be a bus involved! Geodesic domes and buses!

Castillo: Jim Campe spearheaded an initiative to buy an old U.S. mail services surplus van and rehabilitate it. They painted it up, called it the Eagle, and went around doing mobile interventions at local schools. They would have all of the stuff they needed, much of it acquired for free from castoff materials. Their motto was “Trash can do it.” So they were very conscious of the notion that they were taking what a rich consumer society threw away as trash, reusing it with very low environmental impact. They were very early environmentalists—using it creatively to teach students how to do things.

Odyssey School Experiment
Campe inflatable design
photos courtesy: Jim Campe

Interviewer: Was there an anticapitalist thread here?

Castillo: One often thinks of the counterculture as being against capitalism and commodity exchange. But that’s actually the opposite of what happened. So, for example, for this school initiative, the Odyssey School Initiative, they put together something that they called the Farallones Scrapbook. It was a document of their classroom modifications and a do-it-yourself guide to primary school reform. The Farallones Scrapbook was initially printed up in a small number and sold as more or less an underground publication. It was part of a general trend in local counterculture reexamining child education. There was also a journal called Big Rock Candy Mountain, which was modeled on the Whole Earth Catalog and published here in Berkeley; it also looked at ways of teaching children that were not so stultifying.

The Farallones Scrapbook sold out very quickly and was picked up by Random House as a West Coast lifestyle publication and sold tens of thousands of copies. That turned into a successful commercial venture. This Bay Area circle of counterculture folks were like venture capitalists, taking that money and putting it into the next initiative.

Interviewer: Tell me about Sim’s teaching initiatives.

Castillo: Sim and Campe created an architectural studio course called “Making a Place in the Country,” also known as the “Outlaw Builders Studio.” Sim was one of the very first people, as an architecture instructor, to reject the traditional preponderance of male architecture students. One of the guidelines for selection was achieving a 50-50 mix of women and men: something that was not easy to do in 1972. The students who were selected would have to agree to leave campus for three full days every week. They would go up to a remote forested area in Inverness, in Marin County. First they would learn how to forage for food in the forest and dig up mussels at Point Reyes, for example. They would then proceed to plan and build their own communal settlement, with sleeping shelters, a drafting studio, a mess hall, an outdoor oven, composting toilets, and a chicken coop.

Interviewer: Was this a utopian escape?

Castillo: At this moment in time for the counterculture, people were trying to figure out whether they should stay in cities or move back onto the land. You have to remember that this was after the confrontation at People’s Park, when Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies fired shotguns at protesters, sending dozens to the hospital and killing a bystander; this was after the National Guard sprayed tear gas indiscriminately over the campus using the same kind of helicopters deployed in Vietnam. Sim’s studio was geared to provide students with a set of skills that they would need if they decided to go out in the country and start new communities. Construction materials included old virgin redwood chicken coops from Petaluma that were being removed.

Interviewer: What about the criticism that these kids were just building Sim Van der Ryn’s country house?

Castillo: I think that came mostly from other faculty members. In fact, Sim has a house there, but they didn’t build it. They built what are today a collection of outbuildings. Some of them have had to be pulled down because they were not built according to any code: that was one of the notions of the “Outlaw Builder.” This studio was an exercise in teaching building and social skills. People were put in a difficult situation, having to just eke it out on a plot of land, and had to learn how to live together as a community. That was an important point. Students had to keep journals for this course, and one of the students said that she was learning to build both a place on the land and a home for her spirit. There were a lot of levels of meaning to what was going on.

Interviewer: And was there a monograph?

Castillo: Like the previous project, this project yielded a report that was called Outlaw Builder News, sold on Telegraph Avenue as a $0.75 underground journal. They were able to sell as many as they could print. And that provided money for a final project that we look at in this exhibition: an experimental structure called the Energy Pavilion that came out of a studio called Natural Energy Systems.

Interviewer: What year is this?

Castillo: 1972-1973. The students were trying to understand and put into practice ecological and solar architecture. Incredibly enough, from our perspective now, there were so few articles and journals on that topic that the first quarter of the course was dedicated to simply finding enough materials to put together a course reader. Again, there was a financial payoff. The course reader was picked up by Random House, titled Natural Energy Systems, and became one of the very first mainstream handbooks on solar architecture.

Students started by trying to formulate an alternative to what they called a “techno-fantasy house,” an alternative to a house that sucked up water and external energy sources and generated wastes that just disappeared down sewage lines, never to be thought about again. They were trying to figure out the internal infrastructure for an autonomous house. And they built that autonomous house service core as another outlaw building in front of Wurster Hall in the spring of 1973. That structure was called the Energy Pavilion. Students manufactured very early solar panels, hot water solar panels, right here in the Wurster Hall shop. They manufactured parabolic solar reflectors and rainwater collection devices; they had a little wind-driven generator that generated electricity. When the wind wasn’t blowing, they had a bicycle device which would either power a generator or, believe it or not, a grain-grinding mill.

Interviewer: Like on Gilligan’s Island?

Castillo: Exactly. They created a closed-loop system for food production with beds of snow peas and lettuce which, according to their proposal, would be fertilized by a composting toilet. I’m told by Sim that this thing was picked up as a curiosity by a local television station, and within days they had lines of people wanting to visit it. It also attracted unwanted attention from the Campus Aesthetics Committee, which did not like the idea of “outlaw building,” especially on campus. So they told Sim, “Okay, great, you’ve done it. That thing has to be torn down before commencement exercises. We don’t want to expose these poor students’ parents, who are coming from all over, to this bizarre-looking object with a composting toilet in front of one of the buildings.” Sim was disconsolate, but the Energy Pavilion came down.

Interviewer: He was incredibly prescient.

Castillo: The interesting thing is that that it happened in June 1973. That October, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided to punish the West’s support for wars in Israel by creating an artificial spike in oil prices. The result was the world’s first energy crisis, the incredible spectacle of cars waiting hours in line trying to get gasoline, the speed limit going down to 55 miles an hour to conserve energy. These are conditions of a world that Sim and his students were predicting, or showing a solution for. That world came into being just a few months after they built their weird-looking experiment in natural energy systems. But by then the Energy Pavilion was gone.

I should mention that the Energy Pavilion was also built primarily out of recycled materials, in this case a redwood barn in Hayward that was too close to train tracks and which Union Pacific Railroad wanted removed. Again, Sim volunteered students to demolish it for parts. Can you imagine university lawyers allowing the students to do any of that stuff today?

The Energy Pavillion
courtesy: Sim Van der Ryn

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Slowing Alcatraz Down

Alcatraz is full of myths. Some true, some false. The park service has done a good job of underplaying the dramatic potential and introducing some interpretation, but not too much. Even so, the voices of birds on the ferry’s loudspeakers, the audio phones, the introductory materials, and the large crowds make it difficult to experience this solemn place as more than a quick trip between Fisherman’s Wharf and the highbrow shopping emporium at the Ferry Building. Is it possible to slow this experience down?

Ai Weiwei’s show “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” is probably not going to mean a great deal to first-time visitors looking for Al Capone’s cell, the hospital room where Birdman of Alcatraz stayed, or the answer to how a trio of prisoners escaped through the ventilation system. But for return visitors, Ai Weiwei’s installation offers a chance to interact with several different kinds of spaces and experience a deeper insight into the meaning of freedom.

The New Industries Building has not been open to the public previously. This factory structure offers vistas of the bay and the Golden Gate, which the prison blocks do not. Prisoners had only endless days in tiny cells, so factory work offered variety to an otherwise monotonous routine. Above the prisoners was a gun gallery with armed guards ready to shoot if a whistle’s shrill was heard from the factory floor. In this spare building, the artist has created three large-scale but very different works.

With Wind, 2014
photos: Kenneth Caldwell

With Wind is the first piece after the beautiful uphill walk from the ferry dock. Wind, a force that cools you in the heat, also makes a kite soar in the sky. The beautifully detailed dragon is not frightening, nor is it alive—like any prisoner, it is waiting for an unseen force. A viewer can look at the beautifully detailed structure and painting, but I found myself concentrating on the sharp contrast with the ugly peeling workplace where prisoners and their guards toiled, counting days to release of one kind or another. Another view of this cloth serpentine-like form can be seen from the upstairs gun gallery. This narrow space, barely wide enough for two to pass, was filled with sunlight on the day I visited but felt unbearably claustrophobic. I couldn’t focus on the work again until I left the building. It is no mistake that Ai Weiwei chose a dragon kite, a stereotypical Chinese icon, to begin his complex and enormous multimedia essay on freedom.

Trace, 2014
photos: Kenneth Caldwell

In the next room, Trace portrays over 170 faces of political prisoners and exiles using plastic LEGO bricks. Foregrounding something as serious as the injustice of governments (democratic as well totalitarian) acting against their own citizens in the medium of children’s toys seems like an odd juxtaposition. Each pop portrait looks like a pixilated heat scan, not far from abstraction—perhaps inspired a little by Warhol silk screens or distant cameras? What remains is just a bright trace of the individual. At first, it’s tempting to look for the more famous names, the late Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Chelsea Manning, and of course, Edward Snowden. But like the LEGOs themselves, these are points of access. And then I was overwhelmed by the enormity of all these human beings suffering for advocating freedom and justice. Thankfully, the @Large website has biographies of each person so their memories are not left on the factory floor.

Refraction, 2014
photo: Jan Stürmann

Interestingly, the most physically beautiful and complex piece in the installation, Refraction, can only be seen from a distance in the lower gun gallery. After being immersed in viewing the kite and walking around (although not on) the LEGO tiles, seeing this sculpture—wings made of metal panels from Tibetan solar cookers—serves as a reminder that art, like freedom itself, is not guaranteed. You can barely experience the most beautiful form in the island, a wing too heavy for flight. Freedom is never certain.

After the claustrophobia of the gun galleries, being outside with vistas of the bay—which prisoners rarely saw—is restorative. A further walk leads up to the door of the main cellblock, where you enter as prisoners did and are faced immediately with the same series of completely open showers that they saw. The associations with the final solution, though not intentional, are obvious.

Blossom, 2014
photo: Jan Stürmann

photo: Kenneth Caldwell

photo: Kenneth Caldwell

Up the stairs are the hospital and psychiatric observation rooms, which are usually closed to the public. In the sinks, tubs, and toilets of the hospital, the artist has inserted precisely measured groups of porcelain flowers. At a distance, they appear to be bunched-up paper, some kind of waste. On closer inspection, they reminded me of kitschy trinkets that tourists might find in Chinatown a few miles away. Weiwei entitled these groupings Blossom. The longer you look at them, the more they turn into groups of pure white blossoms, white like the porcelain containers they rest in. They are monochromatic, a commentary perhaps on a colorless life behind bars. Yet they are also a contrast to that life because they are so delicate, so fragile within the stolid vitrines of fluid waste inside an oppressive monolith. One color, many layers.

Ilumination, 2014
photos: Kenneth Caldwell

Nearby, in the psychiatric observation rooms, I felt another sudden urge to get out as fast as possible. But I was drawn in by an almost hypnotic chanting of Tibetan monks and Hopi Indians. This piece, entitled Illumination, reinforces the well-known link from Chinese dissidents to Tibet. But few people are aware that Hopis were imprisoned on Alcatraz in the 19th century when they wouldn’t let their children attend U.S. government schools. I was also reminded of the Native American occupation of the island for nearly two years in the late 1960s/early 1970s.

Stay Tuned, 2014
photos: Kenneth Caldwell

Back downstairs and over to A Block, which was not renovated when the military prison became a federal penitentiary. The cells were later used by prisoners for typing up their correspondence and for storage. Here, the artist has turned each cell on the ground level into a space commemorating a well-known political prisoner. Stay Tuned encourages the visitor to sit on a simple stool in the small cell and listen to some kind of text or song created by prisoners such as Russia’s Pussy Riot, Chilean poet and musician Victor Jara, Tibetan singer Lolo, and of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their voices reach across oceans, years, and concrete walls. With so little “art,” this installation finally causes you to just sit and feel the tiny enclosure that is a prison cell.

Yours Truly, 2014
photo: Jan Stürmann
photo: Kenneth Caldwell

Exhausted from the walking and contemplating, you end up in the former cafeteria wondering, what can one person do in the face of all this oppression? Instead of predictable organic snacks on beautifully made, locally sourced wood tables that you might expect in the Bay Area, there are pens for you to write a note on a pre-addressed postcard with images of the countries where today’s political prisoners are being held. Yours Truly is a tidy conclusion to the show, but it does serve to remind us that one person can make a difference and help free people. Each of our voices helped Ai Weiwei get released from prison so he could, with help from hundreds of people, make these pieces of art. We hope that one day he and the other prisoners will be able to physically stand with us. As Edward Snowden has shown us, preserving freedom takes a lot of thinking and a lot of action. But one person can make a difference.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Back to Work: Design Still Gives Me Hope

Pioneer Place

The return from our three-week holiday in France and the United Kingdom has been more disorienting than usual. First, we had to give up wine at lunch! Then we gave up wine on school nights. Being self-employed means I can’t travel without internet access at each hotel, house, or apartment we stay in. So we never really get away from the tumult.

Before we left for Europe, the battle for Gaza upset me tremendously. While it is pretty clear to me who is occupying whom, it still means civilian deaths on all sides. It’s hard to see a peaceful resolution, given the violence. Trying to make sense of the conflict practically requires a degree in Mideast history.

We returned home to the tragic news about Bay Area resident Robin Williams, who was universally adored. It seems that everybody here has a story about meeting him, seeing him live, or working with him. Although his politics were always left, he volunteered to perform for U.S. troops overseas. It didn’t matter whether he agreed with the politics of a specific conflict, he empathized with the situation the soldiers found themselves in. They didn’t start the stupid wars; they need support. Of course, they need it when they get home, too, but that’s another story. It is strange how ubiquitous Williams was, and yet none of us knew him or the depth of his struggles. Let’s remember his lesson: compassion.

Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000

The Gas Company

Museum of the African Diaspora

The images from Ferguson are connected to the historic oppression of African American males by largely white male forces. This is old news to black folks, but maybe this time white folks will get it too. I remember years ago attending a reading at Black Oak Books with Walter Mosley. An audience member asked innocently, if naively, whether indeed the situation in America wasn’t better for African Americans than it used to be? And Mosely said something like, “No. Every night in America, a black man is beaten by a white police officer.” Not only has the systemic mistreatment of African Americans been pointed out, we are also seeing how our police have become militarized. Another outcome of the Military Industrial Security Corporate Complex that the Republicans built in the wake of 9/11. The enemy has been misidentified.

1984 Los Angeles Olympics

And then yesterday, in the design industry where many of my friends work, the death of Deborah Sussman, the noted graphic designer. She was 83, though that was hard to believe. She was a protégé of the Eameses and grew to become a brilliant designer in her own right. Her graphics for the Joseph Magnin stores illuminated my childhood and adolescence. What she could do with mall architecture! During the 1990s, she used to come to the ELS office to work on retail projects, and the whole place felt a surge when that little lady came up the stairs. Those spectacles! Her work for the 1984 Olympics not only branded the Olympics, but it also helped rebrand Los Angeles. Although her work was temporary and largely based on color, it had a permanent effect. Los Angeles became a leading global city after the Olympics. Amazing what a bit of colored paper can do. Looking at Sussman’s work cheers me up and helps me get back to work, which means sharing the work!

Deborah Sussman
Photo by Laure Joliet for the NY Times

Other articles to look at:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Postcard from Tucson

Tucson remains the strangest of cities. Surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, majestic mountain ranges, pockets of charming neighborhoods, and the most hideous of American boulevards. On this trip, we were encouraged because downtown Tucson is buzzing. The Hotel Congress and the Rialto Theatre have long anchored one side of downtown. There was a good restaurant in the old train station and a few other decent eateries scattered around, but it didn’t seem to hold together.

Hotel Congress from Connect coworking space

Inside the Connect coworking space (CoConnect)
in the Rialto Building (designed by FORSArchitecture)

But now with the new housing complexes (which are rather bland) and several well-designed new restaurants (many created by our pals Miguel and Sonya at FORSarchitecture + interiors), there is a new vibrancy downtown. There was even a pop-up shop outside the FORS office. Folks are out at night despite it being summer and the University not being in session. A handsome large coworking space upstairs at the Rialto just opened. Rather like New York or San Francisco.

While downtown, we stopped in at a party for the magazine Edible Baja Arizona, which comes out six times a year. The publication is beautifully produced and celebrates the emerging food culture near the border. It includes recipes, reviews, and interviews. Weirdly enough, it’s free. We found out about Whiskey Del Bac, which is being produced right in Tucson. Worth a sip! The new Sun Link streetcar will connect downtown to the university. Hopefully, this will mean fewer cars for students. If only the entire town had rail service. I know, one step at a time.

The Arizona Inn remains largely unchanged. They no longer bring a glass of water when you sit down at the pool. That was a nice touch. We miss the free breakfast that used to happen in the summer too, but we still enjoy the free afternoon ice cream, although I wish they served it up a bit earlier than five o’clock.

Arizona Inn

Shortly after we arrived, there was a monsoon, which cooled things down, brought up the humidity, and also brought out that beautiful desert creosote smell. My second cousin, Carolyn Burns, came to visit for a day with her new husband, Raed Haddad. Carolyn met him in Phoenix just after she signed up for a year of teaching in Egypt. Despite this obstacle, their relationship flourished, and they married when she returned to Arizona. Raed hails from Amman, Jordan, and it was fascinating to hear the stories about his homeland and family. For many years, Raed wanted to come to the United States because of educational and career opportunities, and the University of Arizona was one of the only universities here that responded to his inquiries. Although he is a well-paid engineer at Intel, he drove an Uber car for a few months because he wanted to understand the business model. We look forward to seeing them again when they venture out to California at Christmas.

On July 4, we visited Miguel’s sister Anna and climbed up on the roof of her William Wilde–designed midcentury house. We watched the fireworks and, most interestingly, some kind of laser-light show on the Santa Catalina Mountains. A big family BBQ is the best way to celebrate Independence Day.

Pool at Anna's house
Celebrating the 4th

We also drove up to Mount Lemmon, which we had never done before. The hoodoos on the drive were exceptional, as were the views. The town of Summerhaven, at the top, was destroyed by a fire in 2003, but the settlement that has been rebuilt is forgettable. Because of rain, we didn’t go for a hike.

Hodoos on the road to Mount Lemmon

The great discovery this trip was the work of architect Juan Wørner y Bas. He was one of the favored architects of local developers John and Helen Murphey. They found him when they stayed at his Continental Hilton in Mexico City. (Torn down in 1985 after the earthquake). His work in Tucson might be considered critical regionalism in that he combined modernist ideas with the local vernacular, or colonial vernacular. He loved introducing statues into the mix, sometimes atop his buildings! His annex to Josias Joesler’s quaint Broadway Village shopping center is an eclectic masterpiece. Butt-glazed windows, tiled arches, and ceramic statuettes atop the columns. What’s not to love? I just hope it doesn’t get renovated out of existence.

Broadway Village Plaza Annex
by Juan Worner y Bas

One of his best works is the fountain at the entrance to Catalina Foothills Estates No. 7, which reminds me of Barragán’s work. Apparently the water blew all over hell and gone and they turned it off. It feels like a modernist cactus marker. He also designed two condo developments near Campbell and Sunrise. One of them even has plaster longhorns decorating the wall next to the pool. Next to the pool is a koi pond, and in the distance, a view of the Catalinas. Might be a good spot to read books in my retirement.

Catalina Foothills Neighborhood entry fountain
by Juan Worner y Bas

Koi pond and plaster long horns
at Juan Worner y Bas designed condo.