Beyond Buildings


Counter-Architecture: West of Center at the Denver Center for Contemporary Art

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The short-lived encampments that sprung up this fall in major cities to protest economic inequality bring to mind the much longer and more fertile period of rage against the machine that lasted between roughly the Summer of Love and the Oil Crisis. To get a sense of what it may have looked like, you can take a trip to Denver to see "West of Center: Art and Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977" at the Museum of Contemporary Art there (through Feb. 19, 2012; you can also catch it the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art next fall, September 19 through Jan. 13 of 2013; a lot more material is also at There you can see how things truly fell apart–in a beautiful way.

The encampments of the late 1960s were both shorter in duration and more ephemeral, or they lasted quite a bit longer–Drop City, the most successful commune, thrived in the arid plains of Colorado for more than seven years, between 1965 and 1973. Even the places that put down roots, however, did so lightly, and with messy, ad hoc buildings their collaborative makers cobbled together. The point was not to make structures, which were just the embodiment of power, or even things, which were the stuff of consumer society, but to tune in, turn on, and drop out. The counterculture was exactly that: against a coherent culture.

Drop City

Image credit: a scene from Drop City, a documentary film by Joan Grossman and Tom McCourt.

That makes it difficult to exhibit, and the Denver show suffers from the issues that bedevil most exhibits about process or events: the action has gone out of the debris that the curators have carefully collected as relics of the movements. The protest posters and magazines framed and laid under glass lack the power and punch they no doubt once had hanging on walls or passed from hand to hand. The handmade costumes drape rather than glitter and glow. What the show does have is video evidence of the real contributions the searchers, drop-outs, and rural revolutionaries had to offer: the making of virtual environments.

As the show and the catalog both point out, the counterculture moved away from and against the city as well as any enclosing and permanent structure. They dreamed of permanent revolution, women's utopias in Oregon, and other forms of communion with others and nature. The self-forming communities depended on happenings and events, often focused around music more than protest, to bring people together and create a temporary village. The light shows, some of which the organizers have lovingly recreated, offered participants at least visual access to other worlds. The magazines connected outlaw communities to each other across the country, announcing get-togethers as well as making social connections.

The core of "West of Center," both spatially and in terms of the arguments it makes, is an evocation through film and photographs of the collaborative dance performances Lawrence Halprin (the landscape architect who gave us Sea Ranch) and his wife Anna organized in Marin County. Participants explored their own and others’ bodies and the landscape in walks, dances, and exercises. If anything remained, it was piles of driftwood they assembled. The video recordings give some sense of the ways in which the Halprins and their friends –architects, dancers, laypeople of all sorts—sought to create not a physical new world, but a place of deep and embedded connection.

Zabriskie Point

You also get a sense of what it meant by watching the “orgy” scene Anna Halprin contributed to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point, in which the writhing bodies in the desert contrast with the slow motion explosion of the modernist house in which the film’s evil developer lives. Counterculture and counter-architecture, these makers were unmaking, un-building, and revealing architectures of sensual power. It is only too bad that we have to live with the ruins, but perhaps they can be the building blocks for other virtual worlds enabled by the kind of technology and community of which the subjects of this exhibition could only dream.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.