2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, an important catalyst for social change on campuses in the 1960s. Last fall, UC Berkeley presented an exhibit entitled
What did they do?
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 be about $3,000 today. This was a broad-based, popular “graphic arts insurgency.”
Where did you find this information?
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, then California’s governor. Acting through the University of California Regents, he hired an accounting firm from San Francisco. 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 that, in fact, there weren’t any grounds for the assertion of misuse of state funds. 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. The report is on display in the exhibit.
What else does the project cover?
The other part of the exhibition tracks the work of a pivotal figure in countercultural design pedagogy, at least here at UC Berkeley, and that’s Sim Van der Ryn. Before being appointed California’s first state architect under Jerry Brown in the late 1970s, Sim sponsored a series of experimental studio courses. His collaborators called him the “Pathfinder,” 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.
Where does this story begin?
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. They found the conventional setup of children in ranks at desks facing a blackboard absolutely antiquated. They believed in craft and the notion that doing and making with your hands and doing things as collaborative activities would develop important skills in children—manual, intellectual, and social.
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.
What happened next?
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.” They were very conscious that they were taking what a rich consumer society threw away as trash, reusing it with very low environmental impact—they were early environmentalists—and using it creatively to teach students how to do things.
What were Van der Ryn’s teaching initiatives?
Van der Ryn and Campe created an architectural studio course called “Making a Place in the Country,” also known as the “Outlaw Builders Studio.” 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 setting, with sleeping shelters, a drafting studio, a mess hall, an outdoor oven, composting toilets, and a chicken coop.
Was this a utopian escape?
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. 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.
The project yielded a report that was called Outlaw Builder News, sold on Telegraph Avenue as a 75-cent 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.
What year is this?
1973. The students were trying to understand and put into practice ecological and solar architecture. 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. 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.
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 an “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.
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. But by then the Energy Pavilion was gone.