Q&A with Lee Stickells: Environmental Influences in Counterculture Architecture

We chat to A/Prof Lee Stickells about the Aquarius Redux Symposium.

University of Sydney Associate Professor Lee Stickells of the Cities Network will be convening the upcoming Aquarius Redux Symposium: Environmental Keynotes, Mon 4 – Tues 5 July 2016. We chat to Lee about the roots of ecological architecture, the environmental influences in counterculture architecture, the focus of the symposium and much more…

How and why do you think ecological design experimentation emerged?

I don’t think we can point to a specific event. Just as histories of modern ecological thinking and environmentalism can stretch far back in time, ideas of “green”, “organic” or “ecological” architecture have deep roots. However, something shifted around 1970. The flourishing of ecological design experimentation during the 1960s and 1970s was part of a broader, exponential increase in the scale of environmental concern. There was a search for appropriate architectural responses to the environmental dilemmas projected earlier by publications such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972): finite resources, nuclear threat, rising population and the explosion of metropolitan regions. A shift in the focus and practices of environmentalism into the 1970s nurtured this.  Ecological design experimentation reflected the way that an urban focus had grown within environmentalism – it was not just about wilderness-focused conservation but also about the quality of people’s everyday environments. Buildings have a big part to play in that.

Tropes of the period such as “whole earth” thinking and the rhetoric of “Spaceship Earth” also fostered a sense that architecture needed to be part of a global stewardship of the earth. That global imaginary took in a series of “world conferences” during the 1970s, such as the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972) and “Habitat I”, the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (1976). Within this arena architects began to see their work as relevant to the international task of managing environments, populations, food, the sea, and, of course, human habitats.

However, while ecological awareness, struggles against pollution, and activism around the quality of urban life were influences, if a catalyst needed to be named, it would be the 1973 oil crisis. It galvanised architectural research and experimentation addressing the use of energy to construct and operate buildings. Some of this was already in progress. For example, “solar house” prototypes had been around since at least the 1930s.  But with the energy crisis, the activity accelerated, inside and outside universities: architects, engineers, backyard inventors, hippies and others experimented with and tested architectural projects that used renewable energy, new forms of energy conservation in buildings and new production methods, or were based on radical new models of social and political organisation.

What is the importance of the Aquarius Redux symposium to bring together leading thinkers in this area?

The importance of Aquarius Redux is in its opening of a space for historical reflection that can highlight a set of alternative, radical technologies, events, discourses and practices from the 1960s and 1970s, while also providing insight into their bearing on the urgencies of the present.

The symposium is bringing together leading thinkers in this area who are extending existing scholarship and providing more nuanced accounts of the ways that countercultural architectures of that period resonate with contemporary concerns. The experiments of the ‘60s and ‘70s are often thought to have failed (think leaky domes and failed communes) or to have positively underpinned aspects of contemporary life (think participatory design, or non-hierarchical and laid-back workplaces). The aim for the symposium is to continue to unsettle dominant narratives so that architecture’s political and environmental implications are illuminated. Rather than being understood as necessarily liberatory or oppressive, architecture can be seen to have an ambivalent role as a tool of territorial management and security. An underlying assumption of the symposium is that historical acuity can help in productively discerning its potential.

Currently, architecture is again concerned with how it can operate at a global scale, responding to questions of environmental and humanitarian crisis, and confronting the transformation of its practices in the face of phenomena such as computerisation, big data and networked culture. The speakers at Aquarius Redux are concerned with excavating the history of a period that seems to echo in our own (the projected architectural futures of the 1960s and 1970s often seem uncannily contemporary) in order that it might productively inform current debates about strategies for the present.

What are the environmental influences in counterculture architecture?

The influences were varied. To give an example from my own research, the 1970s fascination with designing prototype “autonomous” houses involved a really diverse set of designers and motivations. The houses were intended to be completely off-grid – self sufficient in energy, water, waste management and even food. Now we might refer to them as “sustainable living experiments”. Of course many were motivated by the sense of an environmental crisis, in terms of limited resources, pollution, nuclear threat, rising population and the explosion of metropolitan regions. So, how the design of buildings could figure in reducing pollution, conserving energy and reshaping settlement patterns became a matter of concern.

These sorts of questions also overlapped with the interests of the Appropriate Technology (AT) movement the emerged in the late 1960s. The AT movement was characterised by serious distrust of the concentration of political and economic power through centralised industrial capitalism, and aspired to develop uses of technology and engineering that would produce less negative impacts on the environment and society. As one AT handbook put it, the purpose was “to make people more self-reliant”; using AT, “you could supply all your energy requirements with largely non-polluting, completely renewable sources of power that you control.”

There was further intersection with the living experiments of the counterculture. Back-to-the-land communards, outlaw dome-builders, and the ecological design research of organisations such as the New Alchemy Institute, were looking for shelter solutions that would be more attuned to the forces of nature, less economically exploitative, and would cultivate people’s self-sufficiency and agency.

The appeal of the autonomous house idea across these different domains meant that experiments in autonomous dwelling involved individuals as diverse as architects, hippie communards, biologists, and schoolteachers.

The projects ranged from government funded, research programs, with highly detailed technical proposals and professionally constructed prototypes, to unauthorised, self-built rural retreats captured in personal diaries and cartoonish sketches. However, amongst all the diversity in participants, networks, sites, funding, forms and discourse, the vision that a dwelling could (and should) be designed as autonomous – as self-sufficient and independent – was consistent.

Autonomous house designers believed that more than just a technical fix (such as being efficient in the use of energy) was required to address pressing environmental, economic, social and political problems; rather, a fundamental change – focused on autonomy – was required in how people lived. A new kind of dwelling was to be the instrument for effecting that change.

Are there elements of design in the 1970s that should be utilised today in order to build a sustainable future?

If we were to think about how might we learn from the experiences of the 1970s I’d suggest we should think less about applied design concepts than better understanding the ways architecture has been historically enrolled in techniques of power, as a technology of shelter or dwelling. However, the symposium will accommodate a broad discussion about those connections between the past and present, and the lessons that might be learnt. They will be discussing topics such as:

  • the connections between contemporary sustainable design and 1970s’ ecological design experimentation;
  • the emergence of participatory and social engaged practices from radical challenges to conventional architectural practice in the 1960s, and;
  • the links between the DIY, networked ethos of countercultural design and current open-source design-sharing concepts.

How does Australia rate in comparison to other countries regarding ecological architecture?

I’m not sure how we might rank Australia’s ‘ecological architecture’, or whether there might be much utility to that kind of exercise. However, one of the important aspects of the symposium is its development of a more internationally focused counterculture scholarship – trying to understand the flows and exchanges of ideas, materials and people connected to ecological architectural experimentation. In that respect it is part of a growing body of historical scholarship that is revealing a rich, lively and internationally connected history to Australian ecological architecture experimentation.

Australia had its own back-to-the-land movement in which ‘new settlers’ often built their own homes in ways that sought to reduce environmental impacts and provide for lifestyles that ‘touched the earth lightly’. In architecture schools research and experimentation was carried out into underground and earth dwellings. Solar houses were trialled and the International Energy Society even moved its headquarters from the US to Melbourne in 1970. From amongst this and other radical activity there were even uniquely Australian contributions, such as Bill Mollision and Dave Holmgren’s concept of permaculture, which has gone on to be hugely influential internationally. The concept and practices of permaculture emerged from 1970s countercultural ferment and the radical educational experiment that was Tasmania’s Environmental Design School, led by Hobart architect and educator, Barry McNeil.

Lee Stickells is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. He teaches across the areas of architectural design, urban design and the architectural humanities. Lee has a range of professional experience in urban design and architecture – predominantly in Australia and Asia – including with leading Australian practices Donaldson + Warn and Woods Bagot. Before moving to the University of Sydney in 2008, he was Senior Lecturer in Architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the West of England, where he taught in architecture and urban design as well as directing the Master of Urban Design program. Lee has also been a sessional tutor and visiting critic at University of Strathclyde, TU Eindhoven, University of Bath, University of Western Australia, University of Technology, Sydney, Curtin University and the University of South Australia.

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