Reflections on the oil crisis of 1973 by critic Martin Pawley, in this excerpt from his Collected Writings
The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism: Martin Pawley Collected Writings, Black Dog Publishing, 2007. 480pp. £39.95
The great energy crisis began on 6 October 1973. It was what economists came to call an ‘exogenous shock’ to all the economies of the Western World.
With action at government level confined to so-called passive measures, it was left to enterprising individuals to explore the possibilities of an apocalyptic energy architecture. But all that could really happen at first was a change of leadership in the profession. This, of course, was what had happened during the ‘exogenous shock’ of the Second World War, after which the Modern manifesto writers of 1914 found themselves honoured academicians. It was their rule of sclerosed Modernism that was finally toppled by the energy crisis.
The confrontation of these two generations was characterised then by Sheldon Wolin when he said prophetically in 1971: ‘We are all behaving as though our only choice is between Werner von Braun and a bunch of hippies.’ What ‘Werner von Braun’ stood for at the time of the energy crisis was system building to solve the housing problem; freeway building to solve the traffic problem; airport building to solve the travel problem; and birth control to solve the population problem. The thinking of Wolin’s ‘bunch of hippies’ was more inscrutable. They had constructed an international revolutionary movement based on a mythology drawn from the Paris ‘events’ of May 1968; the Cultural Revolution in China; the music festivals that had started with Woodstock in July 1969; and opposition to the Vietnam War.
These disparate ingredients did not naturally give rise to an architecture, but an architecture emerged nonetheless. One strand was picked up in those remote corners of the US where the ‘bunch of hippies’ sought to establish self-governing settlements of their own. What determined the architectural form of these settlements? Not anthropology or politics but chance. According to the pseudonymous Peter Rabbit, author of Drop City, the original New Mexico counterculture builders of 1965 had intended to construct A-frames but, on their way to begin construction, had diverted to attend a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. The result was the famous car-top domes of Drop City destined to be illustrated all over the world.
Somehow, all the disparate dreams – from music and revolution to vernacular mud huts – were welded together into an alternative architecture that, by the mid 1970s, was ready to exploit the energy panic that was sweeping through the developed world. The old Modern world stood revealed as an energy junkie, driven mad by nonsense about ‘economies of scale’; addicted to its absurd, enormous cars, aircraft and skyscrapers.
If the scale of ‘Werner von Braun’s’ that few can grasp it even today. The work of the ‘Biological Architecture’ or ‘Biotecture’ school, the intellectual wing of the self-build autarchic housing movement, was similarly wish-fulfilling. Where the technological superhumanism of 1960s groups like Archigram and the Metabolists finally ended up in the art market instead of on the building site, ‘Biotecture’ led to an isolated series of small houses and backyard experiments. But their design never established a genuine low-energy lifestyle.
In the end, the energy crisis proved to be both less acute and more ambiguous than was expected. The real innovation occurred in the commercial sector. Born out of the synergetic conjunction of Modern steel-frame construction, satellite communications between financial centres, and the fabulous oil wealth generated by the 1974 and 1979 OPEC oilprice increases, the financial services building of superbank, ablaze with light and with its vast computerised dealing rooms generating 500 watts of heat per square foot or more, was ironically the one real and perverse architectural creation of the energy crisis.
Martin Pawley is a former AJ columnist
Resume: 1970s architecture deathmatch – Werner von Braun vs Drop City hippies