by Avi Salem | CED Communications
When Associate Professor of Architecture Greg Castillo attended the College of Environmental Design as a graduate student, he enrolled in the final studio course taught by Professor Emeritus of Architecture Sim Van der Ryn before his retirement. A pioneer in sustainable environmental design, Van der Ryn based his work on principles derived from the counterculture movement of the 1960s, from low-tech, energy conserving innovations to the crowd-sourced activism responsible for Ohlone Park and People’s Park in Berkeley. Appointed by Governor Jerry Brown as California’s first State Architect, Van der Ryn achieved the goal of many other Bay Area artists, architects, and designers of his era: to go beyond cultural critique by achieving actual change—technological, political, and ecological—on the streets, in the classroom, and in government policy. The counterculture strategy of modeling alternative realities as a means of experiencing social transformation—not in some future utopia, but in the here and now – intrigued Castillo as the focus of his studies shifted to design history.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the momentous Summer of Love, the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) will launch an expansive exhibit exploring the intersection of radical art, architecture and design generated by the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia” is guest curated by Professor Castillo, who has added over 100 new works and archival images to the original exhibition shown last year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. An array of events and course offerings supports the expanded exhibitions, including a film series on Cinema and Counterculture, five public forums on topics ranging from hippie-era cyberculture to experiments in communality; weekly public lectures sponsored the UC Berkeley Arts + Design Initiative through the ‘Big Ideas’ program; kid-friendly museum workshops on fabric collage, analog lightshows, leaflet printing, and other counterculture arts; an upcoming Telegraph Avenue “Summer of Love” street fair; and a mobile phone app featuring a “Love Tour” of Bay Area counterculture sites. A common theme connects this sprawling collection of events: assessing the key role that the Bay Area -- and in particular Berkeley -- played as a crucible of counterculture activity.
Castillo, who has written and lectured extensively on the influence of the counterculture movement on architecture and graphic design, used archival research and oral history interviews to inform his work as guest curator. What follows is an interview with Professor Castillo on the impact that the hippie “struggle for utopia” had on the world we live in today.
What led you to curate a show on the counterculture movement of the 1960s?
One year after I began teaching at CED, the Occupy Wall Street movement galvanized campus activists. Students fought to set up an encampment in Sproul Plaza, where artists set up a mobile silkscreen station and distributed protest posters by the hundreds. I had this “déjà vu all over again” feeling that Berkeley had been here before. Student silkscreen artists had turned Wurster Hall into a protest poster factory back in the Spring of 1970 after Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. I wondered if the Occupy movement protesters realized that their political activism continued in the footsteps of that legacy.
In 2014, as part of the campus celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, I organized “Design Radicals,” a Wurster Hall exhibition that included anti-war protest posters made in the building in 1970. Andrew Blauvelt, the curator assembling the “Hippie Modernism” show for the Walker Art Center, happened to be visiting BAMPFA at the time to review loan possibilities for his exhibition. BAMPFA Director Larry Rinder pointed him towards the “Design Radicals” show in the Environmental Design Library. I took Blauvelt on a walk-through that resulted in the Walker exhibition’s inclusion of Wurster Hall protest posters and “eco-freak” material published by Van der Ryn and his associates.
Hippie Modernism was already scheduled to come to Berkeley, and over a dinner with Blauvelt and Rinder I was asked if I would guest curate the show for BAMPFA. My job has been — with enormous help from the staff of the museum and Larry Rinder — to scout out Bay Area material to round out the exhibit for its debut in time for Summer of Love celebrations. We’ve added about 80 objects and over 100 photographed images including many that have never been exhibited before. There are totally wild samples of hippie couture and fabric art; photodocumentation of extraordinary hippie handbuilt houses and of the Emeryville Mudflats Gallery, a D.I.Y. sculpture park that once bordered I-80; psychedelic florescent graphic arts prints made at the Drop City commune in Colorado; even decorated LSD blotter papers (their chemical content completely neutralized after fifty years of exposure to light and air – otherwise we never could have included them!)
From an architectural standpoint, how did hippie modernism influence environmental design?
The show’s title, “Hippie Modernism,” was intended more as a provocation rather than to declare a new stylistic category. That said, if modernism is an aesthetic response to the tumult of industrial society, hippie cultural production qualifies as one of modernism’s multiple experiments. While Bauhaus modernists glorified the mechanical technologies of mass production, hippies celebrated pharmacology and new media innovations in lighting and amplified sound as transformative technologies. And the rejection of mass consumption seen in hippie thrift-store couture and DIY building from salvaged materials was not so much a return to the past as a means of prototyping a new modernity premised upon environmentalism’s three R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle. As I’ve previously written, a Berkeley commune of the late-60s called Ecology Action devised and standardized our current practices of household recycling: a revolution considered rather bizarre by mainstream observers. There’s a wonderful 1970 New York Times Magazine article that reports on the behavior of Ecology Action communards – including separating recyclables from household trash, wearing sweaters inside rather than turning up the thermostat, and bringing a backpack to the supermarket to avoid taking shopping bags – as if these were the rituals of some remote and exotic tribe. Which I suppose they were, at the height of America’s era of throwaway consumption.
Getting back to the contemporary design implications of counterculture experiments, adaptive reuse and building from recycled materials is one of the most relevant. The Bay Area provided a precedent for this creative process in the work of the Beat-era artist Bruce Conner and the circle of artists he dubbed the Rat Bastard Protective Association, a name derived from the Scavengers Protective Association, a San Francisco trash collectors’ union. Connor assembled one of his most gruesome works, “Looking Glass,” from refuse dredged from condemned buildings in the Fillmore, which was being razed in a misguided urban renewal scheme. The title implied that the scabrous collage was a mirror of post-war society, a reflection based on the aftermath of consumption rather than its shiny enticements. This model of the creative process, of working with material deemed untouchable through previous use and quarantined as landfill, provided a radical alternative to postwar mass consumption. Suddenly trash was transformed into a resource from which to create something new, including a novel modernist culture.
What is important today perhaps isn’t the funky aesthetic of hippie handbuilt homes, but their approach to architecture as collage, as an assemblage of materials that exude their own time-depth and which invest new construction with what might be called temporal density. Rather than the thin “nowness” of classical modernism, hippie handbuilts expressed the multiple lives of materials – an approach less about style than process. And interestingly, the shift from an emphasis on form to process and performance is crucial to the emergence of what’s now known as contemporary art. We can also equate hippie handbuilts, usually created in defiance of building codes and permits, with design profession’s current fascination with temporary installation art as well as with favelas and shanty towns. Hippie structures represent a similar expansion of architectural vision beyond the monumental, and instead celebrate vernacular and temporary approaches to construction as an aesthetic resource.
What do you hope audiences will gain from the exhibition?
Our media stereotype of a hippie is the clueless clown – the stoned tree-hugging slacker in a tie-dyed tee-shirt. I think that’s deliberate in a way. The hippie message – that you’re not going to be fulfilled by a nine-to-five job rewarded with buying a new every three years because that consumerist dream is a lie – was radical and deeply unsettling. Hippies improvised alternative scenarios for modern life. “Create the condition you describe” was the motto of the anarchic San Francisco performance art commune called the Diggers. In experiments that ranged from successful to personally disastrous, hippies invented and lived out their utopian scenarios on the fly. If they were feared, loathed, and ridiculed it was for good reason: they embodied a fundamental challenge to postwar norms and the complacency that went with them.
Fifty years later, the Bay Area is in an amazing position to reassess a movement that’s regional, truly accomplished, and of course newly relevant. The techniques of building a counterculture, the imperative of mass protest as political performance, ways of living sustainably as a demonstration of our ecological sanity – all of those local historical legacies are there for us to examine and evaluate, the failures as well as the successes. More than anything else, I hope that visitors will walk away from the BAMPFA exhibition with a new respect for hippies as innovators in realms ranging from cybernetics and expanded consciousness to creative practices and liberation politics. The time has come, I think, to recognize their roster of accomplishments and to see what we can learn from them.