Architecture on Film: Buckminster Fuller Meets the Hippies / Counter Communities

14 July 2009 7.00pm

Buckminster Fuller Meets the Hippies

Rare documentation of a conversation on utopian aspirations, rational design, and Spaceship Earth as 'Bucky' speaks to a group assembled on Hippie Hill, San Francisco, at the height of the counterculture movement. This excerpt from a much longer recording, probably made for public access or student TV, serves as a compelling, if lo-fi, glimpse of a very particular moment in time and thought.

Due to the nature of this rediscovered archival footage, please do not expect normal feature film quality of image from this unique film.

USA, 1966 or 1968, director unknown, c.30 min excerpt.
Courtesy The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller and The Buckminster Fuller Institute


Counter Communities

Counter Communities

Artist Croy and architect Elser chart the contemporary legacy of the ‘utopian tendencies’ born of America’s 1960s alternative movements. Depicting five experimental architecture projects (Arcosanti; Earthships; The Lama Foundation; Nader Khalili and LA’s Dome Village) in their pioneers’ own words, the documentary examines applied utopian thinking in both built structures and concurrent ways of living, from a desert megastructure to a homestead inspired by ancient Persia and NASA research.

USA/Germany, 2003, Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, 59 min.

This screening was introduced by Liam Young; architect, critic, teacher (AA/Bartlett) and co-founder of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, an urban think-tank which explores the consequences of fantastic, perverse and underrated urbanisms. Liam's essay for the evening's programme notes follows below.

Programme Notes

Once Upon an Island: Utopian Cowboys, Guru Astronauts and Other Hopeful Tales of Misadventure

By Liam Young

The hippies gather round, they sit together on the grass as Bucky holds court at their centre, waxing lyrical, a suited up,  button down island in a sea of beads, headbands, beards and cowboy hats. Children giggle, smoke and optimism fill the air and the crowd blows bubbles that float off, glistening like the geodesic domes of Bucky’s utopian dreams. The hippies had lots of questions and it appeared Buckminster Fuller had all the answers. He was a prophet, a counter culture guru, a mad scientist and maverick architect. For Guinea Pig B, as he came to call the experiment that was the fashioning of his own life, we are all astronauts on this great spaceship earth, and any individual has the capacity to change its course.

Fuller’s vision of this ‘one world island’ as a wholly integrated system consuming the most minimal of earth’s resources finds its expression in the Counter-Communities of Croy and Elser’s film. Erupting from the utopian dreams of the 60’s and 70’s these green islands lie mostly in the deserts of New Mexico and California. Amidst the cults of UFO spotters resident believers tell their tales of turning the soil, looking out across the horizon and sewing the seeds of their ideal tomorrow. To re-evaluate these communities they can be sited within a history of utopian projects, an invisible geography of private revolutions and radical reinventions that embody a critique of the current state of affairs, and herald an audacious desire to change the world.

A part of this speculative atlas is the phenomena of self initiated Micronations. Suspended within the familiar spaces of the everyday a vagabond troupe of DIY eccentrics, adventurers and malcontents have conjured their own archipelago of ideal communities. These fictional states vary in physical scale from the islands of 17th century pirate utopias, to Sealand, an illegal radio station on an abandoned anti air craft tower in the middle of the North Sea or the  sitting room of a disgruntled postal worker in an anonymous flat in east London. Their founders are Robinson Crusoe’s inventing islands for ourselves to inhabit in an embrace of an alternative world, motivated by a disenchantment with the commonplace.

Parallels can also be drawn with the Gated communities born not from the hopes but from the fears of the time. They sit as protected pockets of picket fences and manicured lawns floating within the mean seas of the surrounding everyday. These physical boundaries are reimagined as states of mind in the chemical utopia of Aldous Huxley’s 1962 sci fi ‘Island’ where it takes but two pink pills before dinner to be cured of all our anti social tendencies. Another hallucinogenic counter community formed on a flight of fancy around the US aboard the technicolor bus immortalised by journalist Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. Their cocktails of cordial and LSD took those willing on a wild ride into the utopian dreams of a psychedelic destination simply named ‘Further’.

In a twisted echo a decade later the grape Kool-Aid death throws at Jonestown signalled the end of another counter community originally envisioned as self sufficient and free from the ills of racism and sexism. 900 disciples sipped that poisoned punch and followed Jim Jones, one more self styled guru all the way to a paradise lost. It seems that inevitably, with the maverick captains of the earth ships in the desert also comes the likes of David Koresh and the smoldering remains of his Branch Davidian compound in the aptly named Waco, Texas. These are the cancerous ends of 60’s and 70’s utopian tendencies, cautionary tales of when utopias of the imagination are projected into real world. One community’s dream of utopia is another’s nightmarish suicide pact. Ideal communities always tread the ambiguous line between fascism and liberation. Whether real or fictional they divide against themselves and reveal the inevitable contradictions within our culture and ourselves. It is these inconsistencies however, that also contribute to their vitality, and we should judge them not on the value of their physical manifestations but rather celebrate their will to experiment. This is a utopia not as ideal form but as ‘what if’ strategy. Occupying this space between the actual and the imagined is what gives utopias their critical edge.

Fuller himself has stated that although he invented throughout his life it is not the particularities of each invention that was of interest to him. His ambitions were rather the overall strategy of ‘humanities comprehensive success in the universe’ so, as he famously proclaimed, “I could have ended up designing a pair of flying slippers”. Similarily, when we reflect on the gallant astronauts of the Counter Communities we should focus not on the successes or failures of their architecture but the way the hopes and ideals to which they give expression compel us to confront issues that are now more urgent than ever. So in a moment of recession chic, as the temperatures rise, when it seems that the future must again become a project let’s look back to a time of rose coloured skies, tip our cowboy hats to guru Bucky and set sail for our own archipelago of brave new worlds.