How the 1960s and 1970s inspired radical architecture

Imagine hanging out inside a PVC bubble, moving to a town made up of construction cranes, or living in a house built ...

Posted: May 16, 2018 10:53 AM
Updated: May 16, 2018 10:53 AM

Imagine hanging out inside a PVC bubble, moving to a town made up of construction cranes, or living in a house built with metal mesh. These are the kinds of futuristic architectural designs dreamed up during the 1960s and 1970s: a period when politics, pop culture and technology collided to spawn a new era of radical creativity in architecture.

In the US, the 1960s and 70s was a time of unrivalled socio-political activism -- hippies protested against war with a message of love, the civil rights movement reached a crescendo with the death of Martin Luther King, the LGBT community celebrated the first Gay Liberation Day, and the world stood still to witness the Apollo 11 moon landing.

"The events that were happening on a local, national and regional scale arguably affected the way in which architects and designers started to approach not only for whom they were designing, but why (they were designing)," says Sean Anderson, associate curator for the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

Seminal American architect and scientist Buckminster Fuller, who passed away in 1983, is one of the earliest and most celebrated minds of the radical period. Fuller famously popularized the concept of the geodesic dome -- a spherical structure made with a network of connecting lines, rather than from a singular curved surface. It was displayed for the first time at the 1954 Triennale in Milan, Italy, and paved the way for radical architecture in the decades that followed.

Read more: The rise of mimetic architecture

"He gave rise to a whole realm of production that is about really rethinking the way we build ... and radicalizing the way we live," Anderson says.

While Fuller worked alone, many architects who came after him put their minds together to bring their ideas to life.

Haus-Rucker-Co: ahead of its time

Architectural firm Haus-Rucker-Co was founded in 1967 in Vienna by Austrian architects Gunter Zamp Kelp and Laurids Ortner, and artist Klaus Pinter. The collective created "Mind Expander," a series of air-inflated installations that came out of a desire to look at space and the urban environment through a different light.

"We intended to give something to society -- (to) look at and experience spacial conditions of the world in a new way," says Zamp Kelp, who is now aged 77 and lives in Berlin.

"Balloon For Two," created in 1967, is a transparent PVC inflated bubble that is designed as an expansion of an existing structure, envisioned as a relaxation area with seating for two.

There is a "temporary aspect" to Haus-Rucker-Co's designs, he explains. "The balloon came out every hour for 10 minutes, out of a window, (or) an apartment ... then it disappeared again. So there's a provisional aspect (to it), and a contrast to the normal, urban environment."

In the same vein was "Cover: Survival in a Polluted Environment," unveiled in 1971. Haus-Rucker-Co covered the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, with a translucent material made of reinforced PVC, resulting in a spherical, dome-like layer. "It is a look into a possible future, when air in the cities is polluted and living spaces have to be covered with shelters of clean air," explains Zamp Kelp.

The "Mind Expander" series was created from a "dystopian perspective," Kelp says. But he thinks that the concerns behind his designs are very much relevant today.

"Balloon for Two" could encourage communication between people, for example. "If you look at our situation now, everybody is looking at their personal little computer."

Read more: Why postmodern architecture is making a comeback

"'Cover: Survival in a Polluted Environment' is unfortunately becoming a reality," he says. "It was a revolutionary idea in the 1960s ... (but) a visionary statement has become, in some way, realized."

Haus-Rucker-Co, which had offices in Dusseldorf and New York, closed in 1992. Much of their work went on display in museums around Europe.

Archigram: an alternate reality

UK collective Archigram, headed by British architect Peter Cook, emerged around 1963-1964 and was active until 1975.

The group of six was formed "in response to the 'boring-ness' of much British architecture," says Cook, who designed one of Archigram's best-known projects, the "Plug-in City," in 1964.

It's a radical proposal: a mega-structure that calls for the use of construction cranes as permanent buildings that can be used as residences and offices alike. These can be added and removed constantly to facilitate development. Depicted in drawings, the complex designs of "Plug-in City" could be likened to science fiction -- even more than 50 years on.

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"We always thought that many of the design ideas could be implemented," says Cook, who now runs London-based architectural firm CRAB Studio with fellow British architect Gavin Robotham.

"The purpose (of these futuristic designs) was to move architecture forward," Cook says. "It was to challenge existing concepts in architecture."

Ant Farm: malleable architecture

Chip Lord and the late Doug Michels ran architectural practice Ant Farm between 1968 and 1978.

After graduating with a degree in architecture in New Orleans in 1968, Lord wanted to do something different. "We were all facing the draft and the Vietnam War was still raging," he says. "It felt like there was revolution in the air, and none in my graduating class wanted to go to work for corporate architecture." He moved to San Francisco, where he met Michels and founded what they dubbed an "alternative" practice.

Ant Farm's ideas pushed the envelope on what "architecture" meant, with performances, installations and videos that often had an activist undertone. They were influenced by Buckminster Fuller, as well as Archigram.

Read more: Can the building industry break its addiction to concrete?

Their use of inflatables -- made with polyethylene and tape -- became the hallmark of Ant Farm's work. "Inflatables were lightweight, malleable, transportable, and they were alive in a sense," he says. Ant Farm designed them as temporary, affordable structures that could be used as a shelter, in response to excessive consumerism in America. Their experiments were documented in "Inflatocookbook," published in the early 1970s.

Then there was "The House of the Century," built in 1971, commissioned by a friend of Lord's. Working with architect Richard Jost, they built the home on the edge of a man-made lake southeast of Houston. The cutting-edge shape of the house paid tribute to the major developments in space. It had a shell made with ferrocement: a layer of cement applied over wired mesh. "It was, in a sense, an inflatable made into stone," remembers Lord.

Today, Lord is based in San Francisco. His works are exhibited at MoMA in New York and the Tate Modern in London, among others.

"We strove to define what psychedelic architecture might be," he says.

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