70's. Los Angeles, post Vietnam, pre Blade Runner. Computer aided design is still on baby formula, most everything is physical.
SCI-Arc, a Ray Kappe invention, with his gang and their students, is up and running, beaming with energy from 1800 Berkeley Street in Santa Monica. A hot-rodded school of experimental architecture, trials and errors. By its environment and output it is the House of Glen Small, a Los Angeles architect at the time and a founding member of the school.
Inside the 8000 square-foot, corrugated metal SCI-Arc, dismantled airplane wings along with the student models of space stations and large interplanetary cities built for zero gravity are suspended from the ceiling, and rhombic structures sitting like mushrooms on multi level platforms, housing the students who are living and working in them. There are other kids hanging out in the school that aren't students but are interested in futurism, film and art. Everything is interchangeable with “kee klamps, steel pipes and 8'x 8' modular wood panels”. A low, plus or minus 600 dollars (no big money even then), gets you a semester with a young faculty of talented architects and artists. Most people are attracted to SCI-Arc because, conceptually, it is a free thinking school and it is about the Future. The New School (its first name) is magnetic.
Peter Cook and Ron Herron of Archigram are fans. The AA in Europe; SCI-Arc in North America. Plug in City and Biomorphic Biosphere. Reyner Banham said it. Get it?
Glen Small's studio has been covered in the Los Angeles Times and other publications many times after they were exhibited in the ”˜main space.' SCI-Arc captured a lot of media attention.
Something quite powerful could have come out from his experimental Biomorphic Biosphere and the Green Machine or from all the student projects that were hanging around from the ceilings. Had it been ”˜installed,' which came really close, the Green Machine would have set the So Cal architectural route so differently that today perhaps less things would have “gone Dutch,” for example.
The 80's. Enter Reagan.
There also was a young, talented, de-, post- and sometimes accidental constructivist group of Los Angeles architects led by Frank O. Gehry. These latter-day stars of the local and international architecture scene made PJ & the NY5 of the East Coast old news and flew over them on the way to Europe...and didn't tell them what happened in Japan either.
They were the Cali people of the raw energy. Exposing plywood skin, torch-cutting, steel-rusting, the space-ballooning, structure-bending, shifting grids and colors-you name it- “ride that building until the fat lady sings” arrived with the Reagan years of private investment.
The young ”˜Works of Los Angeles' (Santa Monica/Venice Beach) made this thing fun again. Their designs could be marketable on 50 percent of the world's surface and it integrated seamlessly with other consumer industries. Some of them had killer architecture with beautiful spaces of light and atmosphere which suggested certain brands of clothing, eyeglasses and furnishings and underwear and so on. The advertisement industry was in love with architecture. The Dutch, German, Austrian, French, and Japanese all fell in love with the product and checked out the scene on the spot, going back home with interns from Los Angeles.
There was a little exploded geometry in every architect's heart in the Success World.
WorksLA provided avant-gardi homes and restaurants and galleries and work spaces. They made money for the investors and brought them social status and associated them with high taste; clients' oh-so-beautiful lives were on the covers of everything.
Buildings ”˜looked interesting' and ”˜creatively spacey' with the Reaganomic greenery feeding them. They seemed to solve lifestyle-type details in some unique ways, and looked great in ”˜money shots.' Indoor-outdoor living was beautiful.
At the time, any architecture that was associated with environment and its technology, issues of housing and city planning and preparing the cities for 21 st century, sustainability, space frames, solar collectors and geo anything, was dismissed by yuppies as being for hippies. Funny ain't it?
The decon-peddling was the zeitgeist for whatever the ”˜z' word rode on the building budget and image treatment..
Ultimately, the Green Machine's construction didn't happen and Glen Small was laid off from Sci Arc, no problem. The directors had worked out a game plan which didn't include him.
Yes, that was the first time the school fired a founder, punched its own soul, and on which, it still tries to ride.
Fast Forward to 2006
Natural disasters and global warnings have been increasing. Alternative architectures must be developed. Last few years I am again able to visualize Green Machine living. Maybe not on the semi-empty lot West of Venice Library, but more like attached to the bluffs of Palisades Park, nah not there either. Maybe over the LA River, because it can.
I am here to look at something, now present, which was ahead of its time when I first saw it in 1978...
Below is my interview with Glen Small, AIA
March, 2006. Olvera Street, Los Angeles
Orhan Ayyuce- What is the Green Machine and the Biomorphic Biosphere and where did they come from?
Glen Small- Well, in 1965 I believe, I took a Master's of Architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art under a Eliel Saarinen scholarship. It was an ideal situation and I was allowed to do whatever I wanted as long as I would. Project I selected was to redesign a city. So, being close to it, Detroit was the city I chose in terms of how to change. I approached from the stand point, what could you have in a city, rather than having the existing city and having to add on to it. It was an exciting time because the Metabolist group in Japan and Archigram in England and other architects around the world were thinking in terms of city scale for ideal solutions. I was very intrigued by and connected to nature. I wanted my city to be in harmony with the principles that nature sets up to design with. And I applied from that approach, in terms of structure, recycling, renewing, plan, and I was very interested in technology. I thought the ultimate technology was the nature, so when you start to apply the principles that govern nature to your design, you are going to end up with something that looks like the nature.
So I started to develop this thing called the ”˜Vertical City'. It was 5,000 feet high, and spanned over the lakes and rivers like an organism and I was really excited about it. It got published in PA and in France. Then two years later I moved to Los Angeles and decided to work on Los Angeles where I grew up. So that's how and where I started Biomorphic Biosphere. It was an eventual and conceptual continuation of Vertical City. It was an organism grew over Los Angeles, through the LA River and the Hills and the Valleys which was really pushing all the boundaries and barriers. Inside biomorphic biosphere, there was this gigantic condition where the air would rise, cool and fall and be collected in the reservoirs at the bottom. It expanded and re-claimed, restored and if the population declined, it reversed the building cycle and started to consume itself. It was doing all these things I thought were so great, but I found that nobody wanted to listen to it. Most people were interested for a day and of course the Megastructure ”˜era' died too. All the architects were in it at one time and they discovered they couldn't make any money in it, so it just died and everybody went back to doing single buildings. Whereas I was still involved and thought to students where the things should go., but I had to scale down in terms of my vision and decided to do the project called ”˜Green Machine.'
The Green Machine. Image courtesy of Glen Small.
Biomorphic Biosphere 1965-77 Biomorphic Biosphere. Image courtesy of Glen Small.
Was Green Machine, a small, scaled model of portion of Biomorphic Biosphere, also solving some of the real construction details and code issues?
That's right. It was reality. I always was thinking in terms of reality even when I was doing the BB, like Frei Otto was doing these fantastic tension structures and things like that etcetera and I've always had a good sense of structure so I thought I was always dealing with reality and when I decided to the smaller scale, I went to the systems that were already happening at the time, like space frames. I went to Peter Pierce, who eventually did Biosphere 2. I had the idea and he refined it and came back with some working details and solutions. When I went to him I had some money because I had NEA and Federal Block Grant to do a study and I could hire people. I could hire people who were thinking they could advance my direction and idea. It was easy to find people because people had a lot of sympathy in what we were doing, trying to make something self sustaining and we were using modular systems like large space frames and Airstream trailers which you could buy used at the time for five grand.
Better than the shipping containers?
Right. (laughs) Have you ever tried to work with shipping containers? I have, and by the time you get done with it, you have nothing left of it, trying to make it work. So, anyway, everybody related to Green Machine, I designed the modular, went to the factory and we got this 500 feet thing, with two-three bedroom units, I went to the state and applied all the codes and everything. So it was real. I designed this thing with real consultants, with real components and everything.
Where was the City of Los Angeles at this point?
My connection at the city was a planner named Calvin Hamilton, a flamboyant city planner who came and said “we are going to make something out of this town” and he worked around the idea of connected communities. He went out and identified Latino communities and reinforced them and connected them with rest of the town. That was his big thing. When he saw the Green Machine, he said “we're going to build this thing.”
And there was the councilwoman Pat Russell, who supported the project. The whole thing fell together, we got the money, we got the backing and the city was behind it and it was buildable.. We were flying high. Then the whole thing was in the press both locally and internationally. It was hot and written about all around the world. And I went to Washington to talk to housing authority and everything.. But it was just around the time Carter was going out and Reagan was coming in, and everybody was scared to death to back up anything experimental. And I remember sitting in front of the TV with councilwoman Russell, after Reagan won the elections, Reagan basically saying to us, “hey, we are trying to cut expenses, how dare you experiment with this kind of project using public money.” And this project cost about 1.5 million, like the price of a house in Bel Air at the time. Yeah, whole 24 units on an acre of public land, with recycled everything, solar power, community streets. It had everything.
1.5 million? Damn.. That's the average home price in Santa Monica nowdays.
So, after Reagan cut the idea generation off the lifeline, did you seek private backing?
Basically, I had this package with all the drawings, with all the financial info, down to congressmen's names. I remember going to Arco and they seemed to like all this, you know, I give them one copy and go away , then another copy. They never did anything. I went to Unical, Armand Hammer and a few others, 80s, you know. People were into shifting grids and rusting I beams and collecting art.
If the Green Machine was to be built today, do you think it would have the same excitement about it? Would it be feasible? Cost wise and everything...
I don't think the price went up that much. You can still buy an used Airstream trailer around that price and space frame systems have developed even more advanced and cheaper. Sure, it is even more feasible now.
Glen I always wanted to ask you this; do they have to be Airstream trailers?
I am a control freak. I didn't want everybody doing their own thing (laughs). Plus, Airstream owners usually keep their trailer in good shape.
I agree. I remember it from living in Village Trailer Park in Santa Monica, best kept trailers were Airstreams and their owners also had beautiful Karma Ghias, a car you used to drive, you had two convertible one silver one green..
Yep. Anyway, getting back to building Green Machine today part, see, when this thing was proposed, it was the hippie era. There was a certain adventuresome nature among the people, in a manner which was very, I would say, ”˜humble' or ”˜correc,' enjoying the company of others community-wise and so on. And then the 80s arrived and things went to different direction. So I think everything is still there, except the people aren't there, you know.. I think you could reasonably build it if you've got a land donated or something, but I am not so sure the powers in charge, want the poor to succeed, specially the intellectual poor. (laughs)
Also there is this thing, I remember in Washington D.C, one HUD guy told me “hey, my mother lived in a trailer and that's a substandard housing...,” so there is a curse about this type of modular ideas.. You have to be a sophisticated person to say, “look that's all I need to live and it provides everything I need and its comfortable and its delightful and so on..” they must understand the product without rebelling against it. Part of this exist today but not like it used to be. 20 years later the society is coming to grips with the haves and have nots, I mean, its getting severe, there are a lot of people can't buy into the system anymore.
There are a lot of young architects coming back to similar ideas you've worked on over the years because a lot of concerns are now reality; such as pollution, resource depletion, jobs and others, there is an awareness of the issues.
Well yes its always the young people with the ideals even when they are coming from rich families. There is this idealism about them. But later, they come to a point, they are more concerned about family, mortgage and car payments and school money for kids etc., and they say they can't do this. Because it doesn't pay.
You know, I see it myself, at my age which is 68, I am broke, it is scary... I didn't get any work in a year, I don't have a teaching position, my work in Nicaragua is done and I think is beautiful and all, but I am broke.
One of your biggest contributions to architecture and big pasion is teaching. How did you feel when you were asked to leave SCI-Arc which you were, pretty much number 2 man after Ray Kappe during the formative years of that school?
The way it was done, wasn't overnight like most people think. It was more systematic, it was sort of, they removed all the professors from the school who had sympathetic ideas to mine. They got fired first. So, the students who would come to my studio later weren't getting the education and had no one left there to point them to me when they've advanced. And the new directors would bring in people from the east coast and tell students they have to get those guys steering away my potential students and seeding, deliberately, of a deconstructivist and style-oriented era void of any political or urban thought, ecology, sustainability, etc. By the time I left, I felt beaten up you know.
The funny thing was, my daughter was interviewing Thom Mayne while making her film about me, he mentioned this thing, that I frightened them, that, I had the charisma and attracted the students with my ideas.. Basically, he said, I had that power with students and that was threatening to them (directors) and their ideas and what they wanted to do with SCI-Arc. So, they sure weren't going to nurture my game there. And they didn't want anybody there to tell them that stylistic stuff wasn't too meaningful. No they didn't want anybody saying that. They had to get me out.
Lets make one thing clear. Were you one of the original founders of Sci Arc?
Yes I was.
Do you want your job back in SCI-Arc? There is this SCI-Arc rules, the founding group couldn't be fired.
When we start the school we had this verbal agreement that the founding members, we, couldn't be fired. That is true.
I remember you being the only one in SCI-Arc with clear ideas when most faculty which included Mayne, Moss who are the most well known today, were hungry youth looking for an avenue, which later on, was open to them through Frank Gehry and SCI-Arc to further their talents. But the whole school was covered by the projects of your students and what came out of your studio at the time.
Right. The rhombics we built in the studio was on the school poster, which attracted most of the students and everything else.
Yes, I want to teach and I want my job back, either at Sci Arc or elsewhere... I'd like to interact with the students, what I found recently, walking through the school, I glanced over the student projects, everything is organic, they are all jumping at you like the nature produced them. And, I think it has a lot to do with these computer programs. But there seems to be a huge interest in what I'd say sensuality of shapes I've always enjoyed. And its back, it's here..
What do you think of today's computer design programs?
I realized, in that computer program, there is a certain limitation specially development of hierarchies of bones, of skeletal structures. It has to work like big bone little bone etc. it has to work. I see computer blankets things like it blankets reality. So, I think I could bring to students the ability to put it together structurally and then they take their computers and manipulate it, at the end it would have all the elements of a buildable building. Those projects probably lack reality. I did this project called “Turf Town” for Los Angeles. With elevated sidewalks and city blocks that are angled to receive optimum sunlight angles and leaving the ground to the mechanical transportation like cars, touching the edge in a minimized way to limit exposure to traffic, etc..
Turf Town, 1983 Glen Small. Image courtesy of Orhan Ayyüce.
Seems like Los Angeles stopped thinking and started building architectural trophies like Museums, Malls, Halls, Cathedral, Cal Trans and such, yet Los Angeles could really build some exciting futuristic ideas and solutions to environmental issues pressing today and by that I don't mean slapping solar collectors on the faÃ§ade arrangements. Most big projects got these detailistic and stylistic qualities to them, unaware of social context...
..And human warmth.. I think the older parts like Echo Park with the lake and the plants that people are gravitate towards and kids running all around. Than you have something like Thom Mayne coming alone with his Cal Trans building and puts a ”˜porcupine plaza' up there with all these cute details and it is celebrated by the architectural community. But from the humanist stand point, it is dreadful. It is not going to work. Ten years from now people are going to say ”˜why do we have this'..
Some say that now... I don't see Los Angeles came too far from, lets say... Case studies..?
Right. Like I was in Beverly Hills and the other day and I saw every conceivable style of architecture like the chateaus and such, with a few little modern architecture.
Moderns... They are there, mostly affected and footage maxed and pimped versions of mid century modern plans with European details, etc...
I just love the stuff, like in Mykonos or something with all white walls and pink doors and all that. I've been in Mexico where they build with these natural materials available to them, thick walls, cool inside and all. I find that stuff terribly attractive and I just don't see that happening anywhere here and I just don't know what the deal is..
You are a visionary architect, and, you are one of the few people who had ideas and urban scale projects about Los Angeles, other than museums and halls, hills and stuff like that, but, larger issues of growth, ecology, housing, incorporating technology to name a few.
As a visionary, what do you see in Los Angeles now?
I think its gonna get worst, I 'd like to say that because I'd like them to make me the chief..
And change everything. I mean I'd love to be that person but you have to be heavy-handed about it.. But seriously, this thing is going to be more people, more people and it is going to be less habitable, less habitable and less habitable. Sure we could identify with a monument here and a monument there but I don't see a sweeping idea that starts from Pasadena and runs down to San Pedro I don't see anything much happening with the LA River. I don't see people being nurtured... You know... I wrote this script on Los Angeles, being desperate and wanting to change, even wealthy realizing that their investments fall apart if they don't make the place better. And they are willing to put their money behind the projects like Biomorphic Biosphere and such...
But, anyway, I think it is getting more and more difficult to get people to agree on anything. It is ridiculous that a group like the Sierra Club might oppose some great ideas. People can't get together anymore in a manner that the decisions are going to benefit everyone. And I don't think this is only Los Angeles but a global problem. However Los Angeles has some sort of symbolic quality via Hollywood. Wherever you go there is certain attractiveness towards Los Angeles because of that, everybody thinks everything is possible in Los Angeles, so, if you get Los Angeles going, then it is an easy sell. Like we all want to be like Los Angeles, right?
If you can't get Los Angeles to do something Futuristic, what do you expect from the Basque? This city would look great with forward ideas and far out experiments, it is a great city to engage itself with future rather than say, Prada store. LA has many Prada stores already, plus Rodeo Drive is much more important.
(laughs) Well any of my projects would be fitting in that scnerio, ”˜Turf Town, Green Machine , Biomorphic Biosphere'..Turf Town occupied four blocks in downtown and it could grow so naturally and spread and eventually take the city over. Like I did this project for New York, called ”˜Jungle Theater,' at the time Phillip Johnson was building this building that everybody talked about (AT&T) and I said let him build, we'll just drape over with the net and than the next building and next building turning the city into a green house with water cascading down from the faces of buildings and everything... Now I see there are many projects in New York putting roof parks on buildings. Kind of garden sale for the rich on the penthouses.
Jungle Theater,1984. Image courtesy of Glen Small.
You are an experienced long time architect, you are AIA member, I think FAIA,...
No, just AIA, they wouldn't make me FAIA...
Well too bad, their loss.. Anyway, you have a lot of practical experience, you've built a lot of conventional buildings and all, and a lot of architects are busy right now, building new houses, remodels, school projects etc., I know you are broke, would like to work, but why people don't come to you often enough and hire you as their architect?
Well my daughter made that movie My Father the Genius and people are aware of that and potential clients watch that movie and they pull back and I figure basically they get frightened of me and think I might be assertive and have ideas and I am going to take their money and they can't push me around. Like I envy Frank (Gehry) that his clients come to him and say ”˜just do whatever you want Frank because you are the greatest.' They are not doing that to me. I really think if you know about coffee, if you know about wine, if you know about shi-shi food, if you know about golf and tennis maybe some knowledge of jazz and some knowledge of classical, with that you can literally build any building you want. Because its nothing about the building, its more about making someone comfortable. They go about that stuff all night and that makes them connected you know. They feel that... And I find that stuff nauseating, so I am broke..
Leiberman Residence, 1985. Image courtesy of Glen Small.
Thanks for having lunch with me and answering my questions Glen, I hope this interview will help people to learn more about your work and experience as an architect.
Thanks for the Lunch.
Glen Small, AIA, is a visionary Los Angeles architect and a founding member of SCI Arc. He currently practices architecture from his office in Waldport, Oregon and divides his time between Nicaragua, Los Angeles and Oregon where he has ongoing projects. He has an exhibition of his work in the SCI Arc Library through April 21, 2006. His work can be seen on his website and there is a feature documentary film directed by his daughter Lucia Small, My Father, The Genius.