Author Alastair Gordon gives a preview of his upcoming book, Spaced Out: Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties
Alastair Gordon -- Interior Design, 4/28/2008 12:00:00 AM
People in the 1960's spoke casually about infinity as if it were just across the living room. Abandoning conventional practice, a wave of young design rebels set out to translate their experiences into spaces that grew increasingly elastic and zoomy. One critic called it LSDesign, and it was intended to liberate interiors—even whole buildings—the way Jimi Hendrix was liberating rock music.
In my book Spaced Out: Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties, being published in June by Rizzoli International Publications, I actually begin the story back in the 1950's, when early psychedelic explorers such as Aldous Huxley chronicled the way that edges softened, corners vanished, and boundaries dissolved along with the drug-induced dissolution of ego. "The walls of the room no longer seemed to meet in right angles," Huxley wrote after ingesting half a gram of mescaline. Rooms appeared to rearrange themselves, breathe, flutter, pulsate with mystic emanations, or explode with color.
Even the mainstream journal Progressive Architecture acknowledged LSD's potential as a creative tool when a 1966 issue included interviews with several architects who tried designing under the influence. "Cobwebs, blocks, and binds just disappeared," one participant said. "Anything was possible." But no one seemed quite sure where all this might lead. How would hallucinogens change the built environment? What would a psychedelic house or city look like?
Design critic C. Ray Smith wrote about "aiming at expanded consciousness through expanded spaciousness." The idea was to turn everyday architecture into spectacle, altering scale and breaking down the tyranny of the orthogonal. Sight lines were skewed. A person no longer inhabited a room but rather an environment. Floors were landscaped into mounds and valleys of fuzzy carpet, ideal for tripping, making love, crawling, or otherwise recapturing an infantile relationship to the ground plane. Residential design would be less about upward mobility and more about personal transformation. As architect-activist Sim Van der Ryn put it, "Change your surroundings and change yourself."
Van der Ryn's Envirom, an inflatable ring of transparent vinyl that accommodated as many as 20 in a healing circle, group grope, or sensitivity session, could be purchased through the Whole Earth Catalogue for $60. A San Francisco State University student, Charles Hall, designed a sleeping concept called the Pleasure Pit, a vinyl bag filled with water and held in place by a wooden frame. After his friends tried the invention out and raved about their sexy, sloshing encounters, he patented what came to be known as the water bed.
Two former Yale University architecture students, David Sellers and Tom Luckey, transformed part of a Vermont house into a "spooky space landscape," as one critic described it. Randomly placed steps, ramps, and terraces ascended to the ceiling, and surfaces were sheathed in woolly orange carpet. Elsewhere in the house, a cylindrical rotating room replicated the spatial transmutations of LSD with a bed that became the back of a sofa, a table that morphed into a seating platform that became a desk, and so on.
Space could also be made to twist and torque by undulating walls or fabric scrims. Aleksandra Kasuba, a Lithuanian-born artist, turned a New York town house into seven cocoonlike chambers with the help of a continuous membrane of translucent white nylon stretched into softly flowing partitions. "The intent was to abolish the 90-degree angle," Kasuba said. One space, the Greenery, was covered with real moss. Another, the Sensory, was a spiraling tube with a mirrored floor and scents that wafted up from a concealed nozzle. A visitor compared the Sleeping Bower—a dome made from yak hair knitted into a cellular pattern—with the hive of an "exotic, heavenly insect."
Vinyl inflatables became ubiquitous at be-ins, rock concerts, and antiwar demonstrations. In the U.K., Archigram's Peter Cook offered plans for a Blow-Out Village that deployed itself like the ribs of a giant umbrella spreading beneath clear plastic. In Paris, the Utopie group proposed a whole world of inflatable structures, from housing units to traveling theaters, while French-Vietnamese designer Quasar Khanh took the bubble aesthetic to another extreme with an apartment where walls, floor, ceiling, even furnishings were inflatable vinyl.
The U.S. guerilla collaborative Ant Farm traveled across the country erecting inflatables at college campuses and antiwar events. At Antioch College, students designed the Pneumatic Campus as an alternative to the typically "oppressive" classroom setting. The 40-foot-high bubble of translucent white and yellow polyvinyl—partially sponsored by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company—was big enough to accommodate 300 students. Plastic inflatables suggested an idealized kind of equilibrium between inward and outward pressures as well as the promise of softer things to come.
But the bubbles bubble was bound to burst. A malfunctioning vent or the malicious stab of a pocketknife could reduce them to pathetic heaps. In addition, a maturing environmental consciousness would no longer tolerate toxic, smelly plastics or the wasteful notion of disposable architecture. During a storm in 1973, Antioch's Pneumatic Campus blew away and punctured itself ignominiously on a traffic sign. The pneumatic moment ended before it truly began.
To see images from Alastair Gordon's book, click to start the slide show at right. For more information, go to spacedoutthebook.com.