Design Radicals: Spaces of Bay Area Counterculture

Greg Castillo, Professor of Architecture


Co-Editor: Greg Castillo, Professor of Architecture
Co-Editor: Lee Stickells, Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Sydney

University of Minnesota Press: slated for publication Spring 2021

Project Description

During the long-‘60s, Northern California nurtured radical ideologies of everyday life, redefining the region as an incubator of multiple countercultures. In claiming space for new identities, geographic enclaves conveyed “a dimension of territory, of real physical space, to the consciousness of those within,” according to political activist Tom Hayden. This collection of essays examines the spatial imaginaries and place-defining practices deployed by Bay Area hippies, Aquarian feminists, Native Americans, avant-garde queers, Black Panthers, disability rights activists, Chicanos, ecofreaks, and cyberfreaks to advance overlapping cultural revolutions. Situating these interdependent enterprises within their regional context, a multidisciplinary group of authors remaps the Bay Area as a site of maker cultures whose design experiments in media and habitat heralded decisive shifts in postwar modernity. Design Radicals documents how, fifty years ago, the synergies of urban adjacency, outlaw style, and shared tactics of spatial occupation propelled multiple emancipatory movements toward their transformative goals.

A Preface by Michael J. Kramer glosses the historiography of counterculture studies, arguing that its foundational discourses, forged in the 1980s, reproduce that decade’s politics and controversies. An Introduction by the collection’s co-editors, examines the role of counterculture ventures within appraisals of postwar California design and reviews emerging analytical paradigms as tools with which to refine historical assessments of alternative environmental design efforts.

Frames of Rebellion, the collection’s opening section, provides an orienting context for the case study essays that follow. Greg Castillo reviews mental maps of a Bay Area “freak enterprise” zone, from its geographies of innovation and cross-disciplinary networks of actors to attempts to define “a place in space” for newfound ecological subjectivities. Simon Sadler assesses “hippie holism,” a philosophy uniting Buckminster Fuller’s systems- thinking with the maker ideology of the Whole Earth Catalog and the approach to design thinking outlined in The Universal Traveler, a pioneering manifesto. Craig J. Peariso examines performance art as a nexus of counterculture aesthetic practice across a variety of media and a touchstone for community formation and political engagement.

Counterculture Subjects and Spaces, a second cluster of essays, explores the emergence of novel subjectivities within environments designed to support them. Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo examines how gendered spatial programs within communes fostered a “difference-based” feminism at variance with contemporary feminist ideology. Noam Shoked examines urban landscapes reshaped by intersecting sexual and homosexual liberation movements. Marta Gutman surveys the Free School Movement, a pivotal but overlooked enterprise that advanced radical critiques of child education and the reform of its pedagogical tools and spaces. Bess Williamson chronicles the Berkeley culture hearth of the disability rights movement and its invention of prototypes for sidewalk curb cuts, accessible building design, and transit interfaces as tools of spatial liberation. Juan Herrera examines Chicano activism in Oakland’s Fruitvale district through projects centered on community care: a grassroots urban redevelopment program that superseded masculinist militancy with female-gendered nurturing practices. Lisa Uddin examines expressions of liberated territory in Black Panther Party visual culture and its use of print media to claim and expand Party turf. Sherry L. Smith reevaluates the hippie infatuation with Native American culture, assessing the partnership of indigenous activists and counterculture supporters in recognizing tribal rights and sovereignty through spatial claims, including the occupation of Alcatraz Island.

A third tranche of essays, Lived Design Alternatives, reviews building practices intended to support performances of social and cultural transformation. Greg Castillo traces the history of “outlaw builder” production from an initial infatuation with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesics to a “funk and junk” sensibility consistent with D.I.Y environmentalist ideals. Castillo and Lee Stickells appraise Sim Van der Ryn’s Outlaw Builder Studio at Berkeley’s School of Architecture as a subversion of professional design education in favor of back-to-the-land ecological settlement skills. Lee Stickells examines Berkeley’s Integral Urban House, a nationally publicized ecological model home, as an alternative to back-to-the-land pastoralism that remodeled marginal housing stock to create an urban commune prototype for a future ecotopia. Meredith Gaglio chronicles the work of California’s Office of Appropriate Technology, the world’s first state bureaucracy dedicated to mainstreaming ecofreak tools and values, from renewable power sources to environmentally sustainable architectural and urban design. Ruth Dusseault surveys the contemporary echoes of the original back-to-land movement in Generation Y technology-enabled homesteads and their use as climate change classrooms, remote maker spaces, design-build workshops and laboratories for post-cataclysmic lifestyles. 

Public Spheres, the fourth section of Design Radicals, assesses spatial practices of counterculture recruitment, communication, and cultural expression. Lincoln Cushing and Greg Castillo examine Bay Area alternative print media as a forum for cultural insurgency. Robin Oppenheimer traces the genealogy of the light show back to its Bay Area Beat Generation roots, and explores its use as a catalyst of new communal relationships. Joey Enos chronicles the Bay Area legacy of assemblage art as counterculture mass-media in a crowd sourced public sculpture park built at heroic scale from recycled tidal flotsam beside a major interstate highway. Anthony Raynsford investigates Berkeley’s embattled People’s Park as a laboratory for participatory urban design and ecological activism. Felicity Scott examines Bay Area commune-based experiments that merged alternative lifestyle and cyberculture innovation.

A concluding Epilogue by David Farber, a founder of the emergent field of counterculture studies, assesses the contemporary legacies of Bay Area spatial strategies intended to invoke a “beloved community” characterized by disruptive forms of freedom, aesthetics, life actor performances, and modes of environmental sustainability.