Survive the Future: A Lesson on Megastructures with Glen Small
By Anne Hars
“Glen Small is one of the dear eccentrics of American architecture, … an early leader both in the movement for green building and in keeping the faith with the happy, trippy-hippie hand-built morphologies of the ’60s and ’70s.” – Michael Sorkin, The Nation, June 9/16, 2014
I was introduced to the work of Glen Small when his daughter, filmmaker Lucia Small, debuted the movie My Father, The Genius. I was blown away by the images of his architecture. The movie addresses family issues that I considered as indicative of an entire generation. Glen was from what I called the ’70s “Bad Dad Generation,” the generation of urban intellectuals stuck in the suburbs, trying to be parents but longing for the city and youth culture of which they just barely missed being a part. My own dad was about the same age as Glen and was also an architect. The numerous forces and movements at work in 1960’s America shaped the ambitions and goals of architects beginning their practice. A population explosion and ecological degradation were met head on by the belief that modern architecture could help solve these issues.
But devious forces were to undermine any attempt to design a better future. The documentary The Myth of Pruitt-Igoe [Dir. Chad Freidrichs, 2011] portrays this kind of sabotage in the example of a public housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri that was demolished. The broader outcome of these targeted attacks on public projects was the scapegoating of the idealism of socially responsible architects—but housing projects failed because of a lack of funding, not because of the style of their design or the idealism that led to their creation. In the 1980s, the next wave of architects, L.A.’s own confederacy of Reagan-Thatcherites, succeeded because their architecture was tailored to the “Greed is Good” generation. Carter had solar panels on the roof; Reagan took them down.
But now there is renewed interest in socially and ecologically sound architecture. I wanted to learn more about architects who suffered through the 80s and then the McMansion/no-architect-needed building boom that fueled our bubbly economy for the fin du siécle years.
As I watched Lucia Small’s movie about her father Glen, I saw him take on the burden of his failings far too personally. I wished for him to see his life in the context of history—the way I saw my own father’s professional failings as really bad timing. I wanted to see Glen vindicated, and I also wanted to view his work in person. The opportunity came about in November of 2013 at a retrospective of his drawings and models at The Recovery Room in Culver City. There I met up with Glen and his many friends and acquaintances from his days as one of the founding members and principle teachers of Sci-Arc, the Southern California Institute for Architecture. Because the book Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, written by architecture theoretician Reyner Banham, came up a few times, I interviewed him to learn more about his work in this context.
Anne Hars: What is a megastructure?
Glen Small: A megastructure is a combination of a lot of parts fitting together to do a complicated job on a large scale. The Earth is a gigantic megastructure—all the elements coming together to allow the Earth to function: sun, water, fire, air, deserts, jungles, mountains, plants, animals, humans, etc. Our present cities, like Los Angeles, are megastructures—an overlay of roads, sewers, water, electricity, drainage, waste removal, transportation, habitat, security, offices, manufacturing, schools parks, communities, rivers, lakes.
AH: When did the megastructure movement begin, and what problems inspired the design solutions?
GS: Cities have been around forever, so the constructed megastructure movement is ageless. But the recent megastructure movement started around 1952 with the shopping centers and malls of Victor Gruen, whom I worked for in 1955. And Paolo Soleri doing Mesa City in 1955. I first saw Paolo Soleri’s megastructure ideas in 1962 in Architectural Forum magazine. I went out that spring to visit Soleri at Arcosanti.
The Italian Futurists headed by the architecture of Sant’Elia combined the love of movement via cars, trains, and airplanes all into mega buildings that pointed to our existing cities. Corbu did Radiant City in 1924 for Paris and mega buildings for Latin America with the continuous rooftop highways. Before 1955, Frank Lloyd Wright did numerous proposals combining mega buildings, including Broadacre City.
Reyner Banham included my Biomorphic Biosphere in his book Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past and wrote that it was the largest and most detailed of any proposal to date. He got that right. There was worldwide interest in the ’60s and early-’70s to solve the world problems of cities on a grand scale. The population explosion was a threat as well as an ecological assessment that mankind was destroying the world. There was also a fascination that technology would save the world, which Archigram demonstrated, but with no ecological consideration—in fact Archigram scoffed at eco systems.
The exciting part of the movement was mainly on paper and in world expos. Like Montreal 67, with Habitat 67, and the [Buckminster] Fuller Dome, and Osaka 70, in Japan, with all the high-tech stuff. An all-out love of technology! Complexes got built like Portman’s hotels and Cumbernauld Town Centre, but these were commercial and not all inclusive. Most big-time architects had their megastructure proposals, like Paul Rudolph, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Corbu. The movement persists today with China building whole new cities at once.
Mesa City first appears in Soleri’s drawings in 1955 as “Project Mesa: quest for an environment in harmony with man.” Over the next five years, Soleri would draw over a thousand feet of scrolls detailing the structures and landscape of this hypothetical city.
Mapped out on an imaginary landmass roughly the size of Manhattan, with a population of two million, Mesa City is centered around two nodes of peak density and activity: the theological complex in the north, and the higher learning center in the south, visible in the foreground of this shot. These nodes are connected by highways, underground bus tunnels, and the axial parks. Thirty-four villages will be grouped around civic buildings and shopping centers in clusters of five. This city plan begins with the conviction that the city is the most relevant aesthetic phenomenon on the Earth. Located on a semiarid plateau and surrounded by grounds for agricultural activities, the ecology is closely controlled by a complex system of watersheds, dams, and canals.
Metabolism was a post-war Japanese architectural movement that fused ideas about architectural megastructures with those of organic biological growth. It had its first international exposure during CIAM’s 1959 meeting, and its ideas were tentatively tested by students from Kenzø Tange’s MIT studio. During the preparation for the 1960 Tokyo World Design Conference, a group of talented young architects and designers, including Kiyonori Kikutake, Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki prepared the publication of The Metabolism Manifesto. They were influenced by a wide variety of sources including Marxist theories and biological processes. Their Manifesto was a series of four essays entitled “Ocean City,” “Space City,” “Towards Group Form,” and “Material and Man.” It also included designs for vast cities that floated on the oceans and plug-in capsule towers that could incorporate organic growth. Although The World Design Conference gave The Metabolists exposure on the international stage, their ideas remained largely theoretical.
Some smaller, individual buildings that employed the principles of Metabolism were built, and these included Tange’s Yamanashi Press and Broadcasting Centre and Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower. The greatest concentration of their work was to be found at the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka where Tange was responsible for master planning the whole site whilst Kikutake and Kurokawa designed pavilions. After the 1973 oil crisis, The Metabolists turned their attention away from Japan and toward Africa and The Middle East.
AH: What were their different approaches to the megastructure idea?
GS: The approaches were varied. Architects wanting to be hip and outrageous like Superstudio, people like me wanting to solve problems, and then there were those who wanted to make a buck.
AH: How have your ideas changed over the years?
GS: The megastructure movement died because it took too much money and control to build, so architects and planners retreated to their street furniture and building on single lots. But the mess has started to shut down cities and in new ways. The freeways in Los Angeles and most metropolitan cities are getting grid-locked at all times of day. Power outages, regional water fights. The public transit systems used to carry more people, but it does not get people to stop using the freeways. Crime is becoming a problem that stalks cities. Detroit is totally a shell of its former self, with other mid-Western cities following where the labor markets have been terminated.
The solutions are happening with pocket parks and greening rooftops of high rises. Elevated parks in New York, etc. are happening. BIG has some island developments that address being eco-friendly. The push is on to be green. China is trying to do it right sometimes with their new cities. Awareness is happening. So will it be implemented soon enough? I think not. There is a capitalist greed that is too strong and that now dominates the world.
The changes I have made are to conform to the way the present society does things. That is limited and has to deal with the existing mind-set. The Downtown Troposphere being my last big idea. I am presently doing a new town: no cars, lots of open space, trying to be zero-carbon footprint. It is a toss up at this point. It could show a different way, but not the big ideas of the Biomorphic Biosphere.
There is more interest today in megastructures, because of the eco-destruction and money to build large scale. I think we are too set in our ways to turn the tide of destroying the planet. But I am programmed to keep making proposals to save the Earth and will do so until I die. It is ironic that New York being so vertical is the model of the mega construction, and Dubai makes density without eco-infrastructure—all so wrong.
So is mankind.
Read more from Glen Small and his thoughts on temporary disaster housing, with a productive critique of the 2014 Pritzker Prize, on his blog, Small at Large.
“There is a huge need to address temporary housing that architects should get involved with that can celebrate space and inspire the dweller…. Shigeru [Ban’s work instigates] a discussion about light weight structures and how they can be used. That was the emphasis of [our] Natural Structures class. … He is one of the few students of mine, that I know of, to use the principles taught in Natural Structures to build at a scale that makes a difference.”
Anne Hars is an artist, activist, and master gardener, trained in architecture and fine art and currently working in the Rampart district of Los Angeles and Skidrow. She has exhibited her sculpture, painting, and performance works internationally and has been recognized with art and community grant awards. Recent local projects include The Foreclosure Garden-2010, where neighbors grew produce in the abandoned front lawn of a foreclosed property; The Oxygen Garden, an ongoing exploration of growing fresh air; and Maria’s Garden, an initiative that allowed an elderly neighbor to retain her garden that in the midst of gang activity and gentrification. She also fosters kittens and co-curates her home gallery The Thinkery with husband William Wheelock. “Social practice,” she said in a recent interview with Janet Owen Driggs,”has to do with stepping up, being willing to deal with issues where we live, as [both] artists and community members. Be an artist, live in your environment, and do what you can.”