Mimi Zeiger on the return of hippie architecture

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Google HQ by BIG and Heatherwick

"The insidious return of hippie architecture"

Opinion: Google's techno-utopian campus design by BIG and Heatherwick is part of a new wave of interest in surprisingly self-centred "hippie architecture", says Mimi Zeiger.


Let's talk about the insidious return of hippie architecture. Over the past year, as trend-watchers tracked the disciplinary resurrection of Postmodernism and the painful deconstruction of Brutalism, a shaggier architecture shuffled into the room bringing with it a waft of patchouli.

Viewers of Mad Men know what I mean. A chunk of the show's finale last month was set in a yurt-esque structure poised on the cliff edge of the Pacific. It was there, in a group sharing exercise, that ad man, philanderer, and searcher-for-identity Donald Draper found his enlightenment surrounded by longhairs and macramé, not bouffanted secretaries and glass curtainwalls.

For seven seasons we've kvelled over Knoll and Herman Miller office interiors: 92 episodes of expert art direction and set dressing produced a believable rendition of a mid-century world, spawned an avid fan base that furiously catalogued the vintage details, and influenced the marketplace.

Recently, the show was attributed in part for saving Norm's, a classically mid-century piece of Googie coffee shop architecture, from the wrecking ball. Yet for all the high style, the show didn't end with martinis at the Four Seasons, it ended with some pretty crunchy redwood architecture.

Weiner's show implied that Draper's inward search resulted in the creation of a Coke ad. Media writers debated whether the finale was cynical – the crass commercialisation of countercultural values — or enlightened — one man's enlightenment leads to revelations of belonging within the advertising world. And a brilliant commercial.

Is the architectural counterpart equally vexed in terms of meaning? And what was that building?

Raised in Berkeley, a child of the 1970s, I recognised the sweeping view of horizon and the darker undertones of the place: Big Sur. Henry Miller built a cabin here tucked in a grove of redwood trees. Jack Kerouac took the name for a novel.

It's here Michael Murphy and Dick Price founded Esalen Institute, the spiritual retreat centre rooted in the teachings of Aldous Huxley and Gestalt philosophy that Weiner replicated for the Mad Men soul searching.

In Weiner's TV universe, the Staude House by architect George Brook-Kothlow is the stand-in for Esalen. Completed in 1969, the home is an expressive celebration of handicraft and natural materials – a complicated radial array of reclaimed redwood bridge timbers form the roof, the hearth is an outcropping of boulders.

It was built for Tony and Marguerite Staude, a pharmaceuticals businessman and an artist/heiress who also commissioned the sculptural Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.

Richard Olsen, a Big Sur chronicler of handbuilt homes, tracks Brook-Kothlow's influences to an early encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin. Olsen places the architect within a vocabulary he terms Bohemian Modern, a group that includes grandly eccentric Bruce Goff and Post Ranch Inn architect Mickey Muennig.

Yet the linage is not so tidy. Brook-Kothlow died in 2012 and Olsen, in his obituary for the architect, points out that the organic forms and rough-hewn design were part of a larger countercultural statement.

The late 1960s and early 70s saw the rise of the back-to-the-land movement, a "gentle revolution" that turned away from activism, promoting instead an ideological, ecological lifestyle.

In California, some designers reclaimed Arts and Crafts philosophies, the writings of John Ruskin, and the ideals of William Morris. Rather than promoting a dropout mentality, these writings preached the moralities of beauty, craft, and labour.

Conflating lifestyle and righteous acts is a familiar trope for regular internet users who have seen micro-movements — eating locally, urban farming, tiny houses — gently march across their screens. In Los Angeles, followers of the burgeoning art-craft-fashion scene might have predicted the return of hippie architecture.

The 2012 release of The Source Family, a documentary that told the 1970s tale of a cultish Hollywood commune led by the charismatic Father Yod, set the initial tone. Soon, Los Angeles women began to take fashion cues from the long, white maxi dresses worn by the spiritual leader's thirteen wives.

Then, accessories and activities long seen as outmoded returned with high-minded execution and price tags to match. Design fairs and boutiques began to display hand-dyed linens and wheel-thrown ceramics. Soon knotty and macramed textiles filled the abodes of angel-headed hipsters, pushing out the Eames chairs and Nelson benches.

And last fall, the Graham Foundation resurrected a pair of unlikely heroes: landscape architect Laurence Halprin and experimental dancer/choreographer Anna Halprin.

The Graham's exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966-1971 presented images and artifacts from a series of cross-disciplinary workshops held in San Francisco and on the coast at Sea Ranch. The Halprins' brought together Gestalt theory, choreography, and Modernism to create "scores," or the loosely structured guidelines that underpinned nascent urban participatory practices.

The full mainstream resurrection of hippie architecture, which had faded into a mossy existence over the last couple decades, was illustrated in March, when the New York Times' T magazine ran a very sexy profile on the Shaw House, another entry in the Big Sur cannon.

Tastemaker Mark Haddawy impeccably and fashionably restored the 1974 home architect Will Shaw built for his second wife, Mary. The restoration of the original redwood three-bedroom showcases principles from the past and present – a catechesis of a design that is more about a morality of living than free love.

In the article, writer Amanda Fortini had Haddawy describe the fireplace, made of local stone: "As you drive down the road, you see these rocks, they're part of the vocabulary," he says.

"[Haddawy's] world in Big Sur is neither contemporary nor dated but oddly eternal, a place where time seems to have mysteriously expanded, contracted and folded in on itself," writes Fortini, before evoking the more mythical, more mystical. "With its stark, monumental rocks rising out of the Pacific like something from a sci-fi movie or an archaic Celtic myth, it feels ancient and futuristic at once."

It is this last bit, the mash-up of futuristic ambitions with the earthy tendencies of 1970s Bohemian Modern brings to mind a recent addition to the hippie roster: Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels' Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

Although more environment bubble than yurt, the renderings depict an archaic future steeped in the ethos of hippie architecture. One that is self-sufficient, ecological, technological, utopian.

It fits squarely into a Silicon Valley ideology previously described by Sam Jacob in Dezeen as he discussed Norman Foster's pastorial design for the Apple headquarters and Frank Gehry's green-roofed Facebook campus.

"With trees, landscaping, cafes, and bike paths weaving through these structures, we aim to blur the distinction between our buildings and nature," said Google in a post on its official blog.

Heatherwick and Ingels' design is unlikely to undergo revisions as the site moves to a different 18.6-acre location. In a piece in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller suggests that the new headquarters places its ideals in the monastic.

"Today, Google's architectural perplexity offers certain windows onto Silicon Valley's changing ideas about work culture and corporate community, a blend of workplace flexibility and intellectual hermeticism," he writes. "If the Valley has a premise these days, it is that anything is possible – as long as there are generous resources and no interventions from outside."

From Esalen self-help to Don Draper's enlightenment to Google's techno-utopian workplace, each example reflects a disengagement from civic life and privileges individualised self-fulfillment. This is the dark side of hippie architecture: the forms promise a collective embrace, but deliver a cold shoulder as chilly as the Big Sur fog.


Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic. She is the West Coast editor of the Architects Newspaper and has covered art, architecture, urbanism and design for a number of publications including The New York TimesDomusDwell, and Architect.