Students turned hallways and classrooms into impromptu print shops in the wake of U.S. military incursions into Cambodia in May 1970, producing anti-war posters now featured in graphic arts exhibitions and collected by museums from Oakland to Washington DC. Self-styled “Outlaw Builders” launched hands-on ventures in pedagogy, including a mobile lab for elementary school teaching interventions, a communal settlement built from salvaged materials, and an early iteration of ecologically sustainable, “autonomous” home technology. The story of these innovative enterprises is told in Design Radicals: Creativity and Protest in Wurster Hall, an exhibition in the Environmental Design Library showcasing the rich holdings of the Environmental Design Archives and the privately held Docs Populi poster collection.
As alternatives to postwar consumer culture, scavenging and hand-crafting combined a sense of play with the cultivation of new skills, liberated social relationships, and developed ecological consciousness. These qualities pervade the protest posters created by two CED-based graphic arts collectives, Gorilla Graphics and Kamikaze Design, in response to the expansion of the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia in 1970. CED Dean William Wheaton endorsed the appropriation of Wurster Hall’s first-floor classrooms and hallways as a “headquarters for… anti-war related activities,” as he testified in a subsequent investigation. The CED became a round-the-clock propaganda factory, with students cranking out press releases and galvanizing silkscreened images. At a donation of one cent for a poster and one dollar to silkscreen a design onto a t-shirt (supplied by the customer), Gorilla Graphics raised as much as $500 dollars daily –corrected for inflation, an amount over $3000 today. The phenomenal ease with which money was raised for student anti-war activities conveys the scale and popularity of the CED’s graphic arts insurgency.
Anti-war protest was a high stakes pursuit, however. Incensed by campus faculty and administration support for student activism, the Regents of the University of California, at the behest of Governor Ronald Reagan, launched an inquest into the “possible misuse of University equipment, facilities, funds or personnel time.” The San Francisco accounting firm of Haskins & Sells was hired to conduct a thorough audit of resources used in protest activities within three hotbeds of rebellion: the School of Law, Eshelman Hall, and the College of Environmental Design. The investigation was no shot over the bow: any diversion of resources “considered to be improper with respect to pertinent provisions of the Constitution and the Education Code of the State of California or University policies and regulations” would establish grounds for the expulsion of student activists and a purge of faculty and staff.
The inquiry failed to produce evidence supporting disciplinary action. Typewriters and mimeograph machines used by activists had been “assigned to students for their own use” or requisitioned from surplus stock. Accountants painstakingly traced the source of paper used for the production of anti-war posters back to the refuse bins of the campus Computer Center. The Regents’ expenditure of taxpayer funds for an investigation conducted by a top-shelf accounting firm did have a positive outcome: it generated a trove of detailed information on the strike of 1970 for future historians of campus counterculture.
The power of the handmade to forge a new political and social awareness also infused a series of pedagogical experiments launched at the CED in the early 1970s. In a studio course dedicated to “freeing up the classroom for learning by doing,” architecture students working with Professor Sim Van der Ryn collaborated with teachers and elementary school students to restructure classrooms and playgrounds. The standard phalanx of desks made way for flexible spaces in which to build things. Children learned geometry, measurement, and simple construction skills using salvaged materials. Jim Campe, an enthusiastic CED lecturer, spearheaded an initiative to transform a surplus mail van into a nomadic platform for one-day classroom makeovers. A handmade, self-published record of the school reform venture, The Farallones Scrapbook, quickly sold out of its print run of 5,000 copies. Picked up by Random House, it became a “West Coast lifestyle” bestseller, and helped fund the CED design collective’s next enterprise.
In the summer of 1971, Van der Ryn and Campe proposed a studio course titled “Making a Place in the Country” that would bring Berkeley students to a remote five acre site in northern Marin county for three consecutive days every week. The design/build experiment tackled the construction of a commune premised upon ecological integrity. According to a student’s journal entry, it was an opportunity to “build a house in which my physical self could exist and… a consciousness in which my spiritual self could exist.” This “living-learning experience” began with a crash course in foraging for forest mushrooms, collecting mussels at a nearby beach, and scavenging redwood from disused Petaluma chicken coops. Students designed and built sleeping platforms and tree houses, a collective kitchen and meeting room, an outdoor oven, a shower and a composting toilet. Participants received a certificate entitling them “to be known to all as [an] OUTLAW BUILDER with all the rights and privileges attached thereto.” A report on the experiment, designed and printed as an underground press-style publication titled Outlaw Building News, sold out at local bookstores almost as fast as they could be printed, providing cash for the next “outlaw building” enterprise.
A patchwork tower of timber and machine parts took shape on a patch of grass in front of Wurster Hall in the spring of 1973, the final project for a Van der Ryn studio on “Natural Energy Design.” Built of lumber salvaged from a demolished Hayward barn, the student-designed “Energy Pavilion” incorporated a small wind generator, a homemade solar collector, a stationary bike that alternately drove an electrical generator or a mill to grind grain, steel barrels as rainwater reservoirs, a greenhouse bedded with lettuce and snow peas, and a composting toilet. The odd structure was, in fact, a freestanding service core of an ecologically sustainable autonomous home. After an intensive research phase informed by the few books and journal article available on the topic, students compiled a 150-page document, The Natural Energy Handbook, which, marketed as an underground publication, funded the construction of the Energy Pavilion. Promoted by Bay Area newscasters, the quirky tower was an instant attraction, generating long lines of visitors — as well as the unwanted attention of the Campus Esthetics Committee. Disdaining the notion of “outlaw building” on campus, the Committee demanded that the structure be removed before commencement exercises. It disappeared before the visiting families of new graduates could be shocked into some semblance of ecological awareness: a task accomplished a few months later by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. By the time OPEC’s massive spike in oil prices had produced the first global energy crisis, the CED’s early experiment in sustainable building technology had come and gone like a counterculture hallucination.
Design Radicals: Creativity and Protest in Wurster Hall can be viewed from Thursday 16 October through Friday 5 December in Wurster Hall’s Environmental Design Library. See the UC Libraries website for opening hours.