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Sim van der Ryn Interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

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A seminal proponent of sustainable architecture and green design, Sim Van der Ryn approaches architecture as an ecosystem, an ever-evolving, responsive organism. An unruly civil servant – both as Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and as the official State Architect under Governor Jerry Brown – Van der Ryn has published his visions of collaborative design and ecological principles in, among others, The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City (The Sierra Club, 1974) with Bill and Helga Olkowski; The Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water (Chelsea Green Publishing, 1986) and Sustainable Communities: A New Design Synthesis for Cities, Suburbs and Towns (New Catalyst Books, 1986), both with Peter Calthorpe; Ecological Design (Island Press, 1996) with Stuart Cowan; and most recently in Design For Life: The Architecture of Sim Van der Ryn (Gibbs Smith, 2005). Here, Van der Ryn discusses his radical seminars at Berkeley in which he developed a classroom-as-commune approach, eventually leading to the founding of the Farallone Institute and the ‘birth of green’.

Jeffrey Inaba: How do you think that the prevailing ideas about modern architecture played out at Berkeley in relation to the idea of alternative modes of design? Was it a response to various institutions or was it not really conscious?
Sim Van der Ryn: The problem with architectural ideology was that it was ideology [laughs]. But I wanted to know how architecture really related to human beings, and I didn’t see any answers in the ideology.

I wrote an article in Landscape Magazine called ‘Architecture: Art or Science?’ in which I interrogated the existing knowledge about how buildings address people. Most people think buildings are sculptural objects or works of art, but my view has always been that buildings are organisms and ecosystems, and humans make up an important part of those systems. Architecture critics never review buildings in terms of humans.

JI: Can you talk a little bit about the type of work you were doing in the 60s and to what it was responding?
SVDR: In 1961, Berkeley’s new hi-rise dormitories received great reviews from architecture critics. They were great and were modern, but I was really interested in the human response to them. I wanted to create some kind of science, so my research seminar and I implemented simple techniques to get a handle on this very question. We observed and interviewed students over one year and immediately found problems: they had big lounges that were never used, and the double-loaded straight corridor was noisy as hell. We then wrote a monograph of our findings in simple, non-scientific language. I wanted to call it The Ecology of Student Housing, but the head of the Facilities Lab suggested that no one knew what ‘ecology’ was yet – it was too arcane. So we called it Dorms at Berkeley. It was really the beginning of post-occupancy evaluation.

People’s Park

JI: Can you talk about how you began your research on communes and participatory design?
SVDR: Around 1967, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) gave me a grant to study alternative institutions. I travelled around California and New Mexico just as the first communes were springing up and as the idea of participatory designwas just emerging. After seeing the communes, the whole bureaucratic junkyard of architecture was just bullshit. Still is, as far as I’m concerned.

I had taken a year off to teach at Princeton and UPenn with Louis Kahn and Ian McHarg, respectively. When I came back to Berkeley, a whole scene had just taken over: drugs, hippies, Grateful Dead [laughs]. It was like coming back to a whole other city.

JI: How did you become involved in People’s Park in Berkeley?
SVDR: As a result of the monograph on dorms at Berkeley, they set up a new campus life committee on housing and environment, and I was the chair. Around that time, the Executive Vice Chancellor wanted to tear down four blocks of dense urban fabric right near campus, on Telegraph Avenue. It was a university-owned write-off not on the campus proper, actually about a block from where these dormitories had been that I had studied. There didn’t seem to be any good reason for what he wanted to do, and there were no budget projections. So we said no, but he did it anyhow. And they just demolished the block and left the site empty; it became another vacant lot. In April 1969, people started showing up with shovels to begin to make something themselves [laughs]. So I told my graduate seminar that we would study this, because this was really participatory design in action, and it was right here in our backyard just like the dormitories. And we did.

People’s Park was pretty amazing; hundreds of people would have spontaneous meetings. They would start to dig a pond and then someone would say, ‘Oh wait a minute, if we dig a pond a kid could fall in it and drown. Maybe we shouldn’t do that’ [laughs].

But soon, the park became a hot-button issue, and Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, said it was anarchy and illegal seizure. In response to Reagan, flyers began to be circulated that said ‘Illegal seizure of university property? They stole it from the Awani Indians’ [laughs]. I got the College environmental design faculty and the dean to agree to take it over as an experimental field space, and then Reagan said, ‘You’re just a bunch of commie, anarchist bastards, so I’m going to get you fired from the university’. The Chancellor called me up and told me that our committee had to negotiate with them. I told the Chancellor that there was no way the authorities would recognize the legitimacy of the leadership of People’s Park. I asked him if he had been down there, and he said he didn’t have time. I told him he should, but he never did. The inevitable happened: Reagan called in the National Guard, and Ed Meese, his legal advisor and later his Attorney General, called in the Oakland Sheriff thugs, and one night it was just shut down.

You know, 1969 was kind of an unraveling of the counterculture. People’s Park was of major importance for the whole movement, and for its opponents. When Reagan ran for re-election, he said he was going to shape up the University of California because was becoming an anarchist scene, and he was re-elected largely on that basis. The counterculture had become really wild in response to recent events. There was the 1968 Chicago Convention, and then the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was a chaotic time, and it’s hard to imagine unless you were there.

After that all happened, I was so traumatized that I moved with my wife and kids out of Berkeley Hills and into our cabin in Inverness. I realized when I was writing Design for Life that when I left Berkeley I had flashbacks of leaving Holland as a young child just before the Nazi invasion. When you see brute force exercised the way it was…a lot of people were just sickened by it and said, ‘Fuck this. I can’t do this anymore’.

The first year I was out here, I got a Guggenheim fellowship and wrote a self-published book called Farallones Scrapbook. I also self-published a book called Changing Space and Changing Places. I had done it on the cabin floor with my kids, but I sold 5000 copies in Berkeley alone. And then Random House picked it up.

JI: After People’s Park, did you move away from the university because you regarded it as another dysfunctional institution?
SVDR: I told the department that I had had enough, and that I wasn’t coming back to teach on campus. They asked me what I planned to do. I had just bought five acres near the Point Reyes National Seashore, and I said I was going to conduct a Berkeley class out there, with the students living there four days a week, and we would call it ‘Making a Place in the Country’. So we started building this little commune, which turned out to be a rehearsal for creating the Farallones Institute. And we did the Integral Urban House in Berkeley in 1974, which Fine Homebuilding called ‘the birth of green’. So it was actually an experiment in communal living and creating the entire infrastructure that we needed for all of that with practically no money. I learned how to forage salvaged materials, since at that time they were tearing down half of Oakland and half of San Francisco.

JI: You operated on both ends of the spectrum of the 1960s, both as an official – as the state architect for Governor Jerry Brown, as a member of the university administration, and through the institute – but also as an activist and a self-starter. How did you mediate between these seemingly opposing roles?
SVDR: You know, I was just an activist, an advocate. I wanted to question all institutional forms, as well as the role of architects in what I saw as extending the life of institutions that I thought were dysfunctional. So I started the Farallone Institute, and we did a lot of work in school classes in the 1960s. We found teachers that were trying to do things differently. I was friends with Ant Farm, and we’d go into schoolyards and make inflatables. I was also involved with Essalen; I became friends with Michael Murphy and I mostly just hung out there, but I eventually became their architect. Then I started another Farallone center; we had the Berkeley location already, and then I became interested in a rural-based center where we could see how far we could go towards growing our own food, producing our own energy, reducing our water use and using intelligent passive solar design.

JI: Would you consider that project to be part of the Back To The Land movement?
SVDR: Yeah, it was part of it, yeah. As a child, I spent summers working on farms and even when I was much younger than that, I would find haggard pieces of leftover nature in Queens [laughs] that were left from when the construction had stopped at the beginning of World War II. My connection with the natural world really began very young.

State Architect/Jerry Brown

JI: What do you think were your greatest achievements in the work you started in Governor Jerry Brown’s office and as a teacher at Berkeley?
SVDR: We became, and still are, the most energy-efficient state in the country. We reduced energy consumption by 40% from what was then the standard. If you talk about LEED platinum and all this crap – we were doing it forty-five years ago!

Jerry Brown is running for governor again and his announcement said, ‘What we need in Sacramento is someone with an insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s mind’. And those are almost the very words he used when he asked me to come to Sacramento and run the state’s design and construction. For me it’s been a trajectory. Those wild years in Sacramento were a wave; we just were there at the right time. Working for Jerry, I was able to get a lot done. I never took it that seriously [laughs].

I had really good press, because reporters would call me up, and I’d just tell them the truth and journalists appreciated that. I wasn’t badmouthing; I was just being pretty honest.

I worked for some pretty good architectural offices but I was always asking why we were doing something a certain way. One day, my boss at one of these offices just exploded at me and said ‘You ask too fucking many questions and I don’t think you should be here!’ I asked what I should do, and he said I should go teach. And I think, at this point in my life, I would say what I’m proudest of is that I accomplished a fair amount of things as a teacher for 35 years.

This article is published as online part of ‘Volume #24: Counterculture’.