Andrew Blauvelt

Andrew Blauvelt

The Walker Art Center, in collaboration with the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive, explores the intersection of architecture, art, and cultural issues surrounding the 1960s and ’70s counterculture in its upcoming exhibition,

The Architect’s Newspaper: Hippie and modernism are considered antithetical in some respects. Are you challenging that assumption?

Andrew Blauvelt: Yes, I am looking at the moment where those two things collide. I think the typical version of modernism, what I call high modernism, existed in the late 1950s and early ’60s. When I talk of hippie modernism, I’m not really referring to a style per se, but rather a time period somewhere in between high modernism and what we would later call postmodernism in the late 1970s. And what I’m looking at is how ideas about modernism, technology, rationality, and the like are highly influenced by a countercultural ethos in philosophy.

The counterculture that was forming was one of those movements where there is a theory about developing it as it is happening. I think it was Theodore Roszak who coined the term “counterculture sociologist.” And when he was explaining it, he also used terms such as “technocracy” and “technocratic” to talk about life in postwar America, as well as one’s relationship to technology and rational planning.

A term like technocracy is easily transformed into the countercultural ethos. A classic case is how computing was originally corporate and military based. There were large mainframe systems, but there was also a dream of having personal computing, which we now know about and that was birthed in the counterculture in the 1960s.

This is one example of how something that we think of as modern, like technology, would get transformed due to the context.

A lot of the works you show aren’t what we would think of as traditional, architectural design. How did you address these alternative formats and experiences with visitors in mind?

Well, due to the fact that architecture takes up real space, you can’t really move it—which kind of makes it hard to do a show! It’s usually models, pictures, and drawings, but in this case it was easier because a lot of the designers constructed environments instead of buildings.

For example, we have a reconstruction of a dome in a show—it’s a particular kind of dome, most people call it a geodesic—that was created by the guys at Drop City and will feature a collaborative painting that they made. It was actually originally sent for an art show back in 1968, but it was lost so we recommissioned it for the space.

There’s also a project by Ken Isaacs called the “Knowledge Box.” It’s a volume of ten cubic feet, the size of a room that contains multiple side projectors. Subsequently there are images that are projected onto all the surfaces, floors, ceiling, and walls.

I guess his idea was that the future of education would be more derived from images than words. This project tried to find spaces where these images could go.

These are the kinds of projects that we can display because architecture at the time, or rather the radical architecture at the time, wasn’t about building buildings as much as it was thinking about the concepts of space and the environment.

And then there is the other design stuff, something we called anti-design at the time, which went against the traditions of product design. As a result, you would be more experimental with furniture and create do it yourself furniture-like products that maybe wouldn’t fit in the mainstream. Almost all young people were radical: students and recent graduates from architecture programs in the 1960s and ’70s didn’t want to participate in the traditional forms of practice and didn’t want to wait until they were 50 or 60 years old to build a building! These people were more interested in doing more conceptual and projects that almost verged into the realm of art.

A lot of those experiments dealt with questions of media and technology. How do you think that some of those ideas, projects, and critiques have aged, especially in relationship to democratizing social experience and creating new power structures and economies?

Right, well, there are some direct examples like Archigram that did a huge number of speculative projects. A good example is “Info Gonks,” which today we would call Google Glass. It’s a wearable form of technology, except then it was framed in the context of educational television. Back then television was a relatively new thing, and the architecture group Archigram was more interested in this notion of educational television and how you could redirect television, which was largely comprised of big corporate dominated broadcast like NBC, ABC, and CBS, and then use it for different ends. Their vision goggles were about learning and things like that.

The larger versions of technology like the “Knowledge Box” I mentioned earlier, that’s kind of mainstream thinking today, the notion that most people learn through images. Back then maybe it was more containable than now with the internet. Now you think, “Oh my god, there are millions and billions of images, how could it all be handled?” But then I think that their archives, so to speak, were smaller and more containable.

The idea that you might just be able to assimilate lots of imported images was just part of what was happening in the media. Life magazine and Look magazine were called picture magazines because they were largely photography-based and there were fewer words and articles. They have the same thing now with writing on the internet, right? The stories get shorter and shorter, there’s more and more media and imagery. So these designers were anticipating what we have now as a normal everyday situation.