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Sources of the Alternative Architecture Movement

Caroline Maniaque-Benton
, Université Paris-Est / École nationale supérieure d’architecture Paris-Malaquais
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, November 1 – December 30, 2012


The Journal of the New Alchemists, volume 4 (1977),
cover. Library of Congress

The countercultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States has normally been studied in terms of its effects rather than its causes. I have been researching the underlying ideas that sustained the movement, using as a starting point the books and articles recommended to readers in Stewart Brand’s hugely successful Whole Earth Catalog (2.5 million copies sold in 1973). Although the publication represented a wide variety of literary genres — from scientific abstracts to works on spirituality — a common theme emerges. In opposition to the specialization of modern society, the authors promoted a more holistic and human understanding of the world. For example, one of the books they highlighted was Heinrich Engel’s The Japanese House: A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture (1964), which included not only precise structural details but also an extended explanation of the traditions and beliefs associated with the Japanese home.

One of the cases I studied while at CASVA, as part of my work on a documentary history of alternative architecture, was that of the New Alchemy Institute (NAI), an indoor and outdoor research laboratory on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, an exemplar of engagement in scientific research in support of an alternative lifestyle.

Environmental scientist John Todd, aquaculturist William McLarney, and writer Nancy Jack Todd cofounded the NAI in 1969 to carry out research in the biology of self-sustaining food production systems. Their aim was to demonstrate how a small farm could be made almost self-sufficient without damaging the environment. As with many other groups in the alternative culture of the 1960s and 1970s, the institute was a response to concerns about degradation of the land, the food chain, and human health by the use of chemicals in agriculture, the consequences of industrialization, and patterns of consumption that resulted in monocultures and the exhaustion of the soil. Like most American groups of its kind, the NAI emphasized practical experimentation, learning by doing, and personal commitment.

But the aims of the NAI were not purely scientific. In reviewing the Todds’ book Bioshelters, Ocean Parks, City Farming: Ecology as the Basis of Design, Carl H. Hertel compared the New Alchemists’ “firm belief in the relationship between mindscape and landscape,” in the “interconnectedness between the human and non-human worlds” to the thinking of the twelfth-century scholastic Hugh of St. Victor, who “viewed science as a search of remedy to human weakness.” “From this perspective,” Hertel wrote, “science works with natural models to heal and remedy what humans have wrought instead of working to dominate or exploit Nature. Similarly, the New Alchemy Institute practices a kind of Science of the Concrete.” In this vein, the NAI emphasized small-scale, decentralized organization and ecological modeling, an attitude that contrasts with the dominant cultural, scientific, and technological practices of the industrialized world.

Unlike many other groups, the institute outlived the period of the counterculture and created a number of satellites, some of which are still active. This survival was due in part to the professional management of the project and in part to its success in inspiring and gaining converts to its cause. Another distinctive feature was its willingness to search for funding and to integrate its aims, at least to a limited extent, with those of the market.

As I studied the well-produced publication The Journal of the New Alchemists at the Library of Congress, a vivid image of life in this community became clear. Its emphasis on experimentation and learning by doing, its evangelical zeal, its commitment to pass on beliefs and knowledge to future generations, all reflect ideas related to those of the editorial board of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Caroline Maniaque-Benton has returned to her position as associate professor in the École nationale supérieure d’architecture Paris-Malaquais. “Whole Architecture: A Field Guide,” which she is coediting with Simon Sadler, will be published by The MIT Press.

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