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10/06/18 • Built Environments : Victoria Bugge Øye

When Architecture took to the Streets (and the Laboratory)

EN
10/06/18 • Built Environments : Victoria Bugge Øye

When Architecture took to the Streets (and the Laboratory)

The urbanization of the 20th century has led to more complicated and contested public spaces in which physical and social structures, new inventions and technology affect our movements, behavior and well-being. In this essay, writer and critic Victoria Bugge Øye takes as her starting point the current trend of creating “walkable” cities and emphasizing the centrality of pedestrians and pleasure in urban planning. She traces this lineage back to the intermingling art-and-architecture scene in Europe in the late 1960s; from the Paris Situationists’ creation of psychogeographic maps, to Viennese architecture groups’ invitations to pedestrians to play with gigantic inflatable soccer balls in the streets, and performances that coupled scientific research on pollution and its emotional effects on the city’s inhabitants. Øye delves into architectural practices that move beyond the idea of architecture as something "built", and rather view architecture as something to be moved around, sensed, played with, and experienced.

“Does the car turn us into slaves?” This was the ominous question plastered across the Opinions page of Stavanger Aftenblad on June 1, 1968. In his op-ed piece, liberal politician Øyvind Bjorvatn complained about congestion and stress from increased car traffic, and argued that Stavanger should look towards Europe, “where more and more cities are dealing with the consequences of not being designed for car traffic.” 1

  1. “Ute i Europa kan en se hvordan flere og flere byer tar konsekvenser av at de ikke er anlagt for biltraffikk. Bydeler blir avsperret for privatbiler, eller reservert for gående trafikk.” Øyvind Bjorvatn, “Gjør bilen oss til slaver i stedet for a tjene oss?,” Stavanger Aftenblad, June 1, 1968, 6.
In Europe, Bjorvatn explained, neighborhoods were being closed off for cars and opened up for pedestrians, connecting the city through public transportation instead. Wasn’t it time for Stavanger to follow suit? Bjorvatn was not the only one who suggested looking towards Europe. A few years later, even the United States Environmental Protection Agency quoted the newly opened car-free zone of Vienna as models to follow. 1
  1. “Progress in the Implementation of Motor Vehicle Emission Standards Through June 1974,” Report to Congress (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1974).
Stretching across the two main shopping streets in front of the city´s historical St. Stephan’s cathedral, a fussgangerzone opened in Vienna on November 27, 1971 to performances by two of the city´s most experimental architecture groups, and, eventually, riots. 1
  1. The pedestrian zone was a temporary project that became permanent in 1974.
But more on that later.

Today, the notion of “walkable” cities has become a habitual and important term for urban planners and architects, and prioritizing pedestrians is seen as progressive and sustainable policy for urban development. In the time since Bjorvatn´s op-ed, Stavanger has introduced several car-free streets downtown, and more recently Pedersgata was converted into a one-way street in an effort to curb traffic. Stavanger even funds public and urban art festivals to activate urban spaces and to make the pedestrian experience of the city more spontaneous and pleasurable. While all of these practices might seem very in tune with contemporary interests and concerns, most of them actually have their origin in the 1960s. By the late 1960s, the idea of introducing car-free zones in downtown areas, for example, was becoming increasingly popular for many reasons. Urban centers were hollowing out due to suburbanization and the construction of shopping malls, gas was getting more expensive (the 1973 oil crisis would force prices to sky rocket and leave traffic at a standstill), roads and neighborhoods were getting more congested as more and more people could afford cars, and pollution was becoming a serious health risk for people living in certain areas and threatened entire cities like Los Angeles.

The idea that the city should be more than a functional center, but also provide stimulation and creative inspiration, was also an issue raised by many artists and architects of the time.

The spread of designated pedestrian zones was in part also due to the Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen. Hailed as the inventor of the modern shopping mall, Gruen, who was Jewish, had immigrated to New York right before the onset of the Second World War. In the United States he made a career designing indoor malls. Later he would also develop the idea of downtown pedestrian zones or so-called pedestrian malls. 1

  1. For an entertaining podcast episode on Victor Gruen and the legacy of the American mall see Avery Trufelman, “The Gruen Effect,” 99 Percent Invisible, Episode 163, May 5, 2015, https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-gruen-effect/.
Both his ideas for the shopping mall and the pedestrian mall were inspired by his native city of Vienna, whose ample parks and plazas made for pleasant and varied areas not only for people to shop, but to gather, promenade, rest and partake in other urban activities. When Gruen returned to Vienna in 1968, however, the city was not exactly the pedestrian haven he had left in 1938. Automobile traffic was choking the city, he explained in an interview in the late 1960s, and he suggested a total car ban in the downtown area. 1
  1. Christiane Feuerstein and Angelika Fitz, Wann Begann Temporär?: Frühe Stadtinterventionen und Sanfte Stadterneuering in Wien (Wien; New York: Springer, 2009), 83.

The idea that the city should be more than a functional center, but also provide stimulation and creative inspiration, was also an issue raised by many artists and architects of the time. Bjorvatn´s suggestion that cars were also somehow detrimental to the human spirit (Did they turn us into slaves?) was in fact a sentiment shared by many European avant-garde artists and architects of the time. In the 1950s and 60s, the French Situationists drew psychogeographic maps to divide Paris into zones of emotional affect rather than activity or function. They also invented a tactical and spontaneous mode of wandering that they named dérive, intended as a way to experience the city outside of regular and “capitalist” patterns of use. 1

  1. See for example Guy Debord, “Situationist Theses on Traffic,” Internationale Situationniste #3 (November 1959), Translated by Ken Knabb, available from https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/traffic.html
According to the situationists, automobiles did not only ruin the urban fabric because of the road expansion and suburbanization they caused, but because the isolation of enclosed vehicles also hindered communal and sensuous experiences of the urban environment. Thus, the centrality of the pedestrian was also understood to be the insistence on a more pleasurable and sensuous life.

An Architecture of Play

Radical ideas like the ones outlined by the Situationists were also in play at the official opening of Vienna´s fussgangerzone. At the time, Vienna was a hub for several experimental architecture groups, and two of them, Haus Rucker-Co and Coop Himmelblau, had managed to get on the bill for the official opening. It is worth noting here that neither Haus Rucker-Co nor Coop Himmelblau should be understood as architects in any conventional sense of the term. While they had all met in architecture school, they were more interested in creating installations, inflatables, and performances than buildings. In fact, the ephemeral quality of their works seems to undermine the very idea of architecture as something “built” all together. Architecture, instead, was something to be moved around, performed, played with, and experienced. Architecture was something to make you feel.

The installations that the two architecture groups had devised for the opening day were all about feet (it was, after all, a fussgangerzone, literally meaning “foot” in German). Haus Rucker-Co had designed a “Walking School,” a sixty-meter long obstacle course that would allow participants to connect with their bipedal selves. “Send your foot back to school!” the project exclaimed, and invited pedestrians to experience “balance shifts” and “haptic walking” in order to train “a form of expansion of consciousness at the very bottom.” 1

  1. “Kunst,” Der Spiegel, December 13, 1971.
Feet, usually imprisoned in shoes traversing hard and flat asphalt, can be very sensitive and even erogenous organs, if only given some attention. Haus-Rucker Co´s Walking School was one way of unleashing some of the foot´s potential to give its owner pleasure and joy.

Coop Himmelblau also focused on feet in their project, City Soccer, or Stadtfussball. Four giant orange inflatable soccer balls were introduced to the streets, intended to engage city dwellers in spontaneous urban play by literally kicking the balls around on Kantnerstrasse. The balls were four meters tall and rose to the height of two-story structures as they were bounced around. With ten thousand visitors on opening day, the installations were a great success, even as the balls became increasingly dirtier throughout the day, as one local newspaper reported. 1

  1. Walfrid Reismann, “Zehntausende Stürmten Die Wiener Innenstadt,” Kurier, November 28, 1971, Sunday edition.
One of the professors from the architecture school, a long-time architecture critic in the Austrian newspaper Kurier, summed up the event in the following: "The street is finally being rediscovered as a space of play, a festival of liberation..." 1
  1. Günther Feuerstein, “Hilfe, Die Proleten!,” Kurier, December 16, 1971.

Architecture and Psychotropy

Walking School and City Soccer were not the first projects that Haus-Rucker Co and Coop Himmelblau had done that focused on play and sensuous experiences. In fact, a majority of their projects from this period were geared towards producing feelings of enjoyment and sociality in the user. Coop Himmelblau and Haus-Rucker-Co would include everything from tactile materials, music, and food to engage as many of the user´s senses as possible. On the occasion of the 1969 moon landing, for example, Haus-Rucker-Co devised a performance at Vienna´s historical Am Hof Square, which included a red heart-shaped inflatable, a three-meter long moon-shaped marzipan cake weighing 150 kilos, and a musical troupe performing Viennese folk songs. 1

  1. Günther Feuerstein, “Mondstrudel,” Kurier, July 22, 1969, Günther Feuerstein Archive.

But while all of Haus-Rucker-Co and Coop Himmelblau´s installations were intensely preoccupied with multisensory and bodily experiences, they were not all exclusively centered around play. Several of their projects actually focused on play´s opposite in terms of energy level: downtime, relaxation and rejuvenation. Coop Himmelblau´s Insider project, for example, consisted of a transportable and inflatable bed-pod where the user could retreat and enjoy soothing music accompanied by light projections. Haus-Rucker-Co´s installation Grüne Lunge (Green Lung) at the Kunsthalle Hamburg in 1973 consisted of an exterior platform with four transparent helmets where users could breathe air sourced from inside the Kunsthalle. Although Haus-Rucker-Co and Coop Himmelblau´s various installations from the late 1960s and early 1970s differed in some of their strategies and means, what characterized them all was that they seemed intent on manipulating the user´s mood by encouraging the release of dopamine or oxytocin, the hormones most commonly associated with feelings of pleasure, bonding, relaxation, and connection.

In his book Deep History and the Brain, historian Daniel Lord Smail proposes the term psychotropic mechanisms as a way to conceptualize social practices and behaviors that alter body-brain chemistry. Psychotropy basically refers to all the different things humans do in order to alter the mood of self or others, and are often geared towards increasing pleasure through the release of hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins, or serotonin. 1

  1. Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and The Brain (University of California Press, 2008), 157–89.
Today, this often means ingesting psychotropic or psychoactive drugs ranging from Xanax to marijuana, but what Smail pointed to is that a range of social or environmental practices can achieve similar effects. The notion of psychotropic mechanisms can be used to describe a wide range of behaviors, including everything from consuming mildly addictive and mood-altering foods such as coffee, tobacco, sugar, or chocolate, or engaging in behaviors like having sex, gossiping, modifying one´s environment, or playing with giant footballs. 1
  1. Benjamin Campbell, “On Deep History and Psychotropy,” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 38, no. 2 (June 2014): 171.

Even though Smail´s concept was not yet invented in the 1960s, Coop Himmelblau and Haus-Rucker Co would certainly have been very well aware of psychotropic effects. Countercultural experiments with LSD and other mind altering substances had also influenced the field of architecture: Austrian architect Hans Hollein had polemically suggested an “environmental pill” as a form of architecture, and several of Coop Himmelblau’s own installations had been designed with the specific intention of mimicking the effects of psychotropic drugs. 1

  1. Wolf Prix, Interview, January 31, 2017, Vienna.

Haus-Rucker-Co, Grüne Lunge (Green Lung), Kunsthalle Hamburg, 1973. Photo: Haus-Rucker-Co. Courtesy Archive Zamp Kelp.

Feeling Tired?

Performed in the city, making strangers engage in silly, playful and social activities, Haus-Rucker-Co´s walking school and Coop Himmelblau´s giant balls seems like the perfect examples of psychotropic mechanisms. Because Coop Himmelblau and Haus-Rucker-Co reimagined architecture as specific urban and spatial installations that could engage the user in multiple ways, their installations also seemed better able to provoke emotional effects than a conventional building might have been able to. On the November day that their foot-centric installations were presented, however, experimental architecture was not the only environmental factor with a potentially psychotropic effect. Air pollution was also at a record high in Vienna. While air pollution is not exactly psychotropic, it can still have a very strong effect on humans. 1

  1. Psychotropic substances can, however, be found in air pollution. See Mark Wasuita, ”Ecstatic Air,” E-Flux Architecture, March 24, 2018, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/superhumanity/179221/ecstatic-purification/.
Aside from the potentially carcinogenic effect of long-term exposure, carbon monoxide immediately limits the level of oxygen the blood, resulting in fatigue and poor concentration.

Coop Himmeblau in particular would have been very aware of the negative effects of pollution on the human body and brain. In 1970 the group had conducted experiments in collaboration with the newly founded Institute of Environmental Health at the University of Vienna. As part of the experiments, Coop Himmelblau had designed a cylindrical inflatable structure described as a “pneumatic test chamber.” 1

  1. Manfred Haider, “Umwelteinflüsse Im Wohnbereich,” Wohnbauforschung in Österreich, no. Heft 1/2 (1972): 1–7.
The Airbox, as it was called, was “a pneumatic test kit for the investigation of the impact of harmful air pollution on human behavior/performance” that could comfortably fit one person. 1
  1. Prix, Holzer, and Swi, “Coop.Himmelblau Zur Ausstellung in Basel, Galerie Stampa Und ‘offener Saal’, Kunsthalle,” Kunst Nachrichten 7, no. 10 (June 1971).
For the experiments, test subjects had been asked to sit inside the Airbox for around an hour. While seated inside of the inflatable, they would do specific tasks while being exposed to increasing levels of carbon monoxide. The test results clearly showed the subjects getting increasingly tired and unfocused as carbon monoxide levels rose.

The experiments were later featured on the national broadcasting channel in Austria as part of a series called Surviving in the Polluted Environment that addressed the increasing car use in the country. Towards the end of the 1960s, Austrians were beginning to experience the ramifications of two decades of increased urbanization and industrialization, as well as the influence of an emerging international environmental movement, and Surviving in the Polluted Environment was symptomatic of all of this. The opening logo was an ominous flickering image of a leafless tree with the word “Überleben” (Surviving) spelled out beneath, followed by a series of jump cuts of automobile exhaust pipes, conveying at once the country’s increased automobile ownership and its consequences for Austrian everyday life.

For the episode that featured Coop Himmelblau´s work, titled Pollution and Noise, a curious image materializes after the show´s intro: two disembodied arms emerge from off-screen to part the PVC curtains leading in to the Air Box, revealing a seated young man chewing gum and equipped with a headset and forehead electrodes. 1

  1. 'Abgase und Lärm,' Aktion Überleben in der Verschmutzte Umwelt (Vienna: ORF, May 5, 1970), ORF Archiv, Wien.
A text appears: Institut f. Medizin. Physik Wien. Standing in front of the Air Box, Dr. Johann Schedling explains how his research team has been measuring levels of carbon monoxide in traffic and its effects on the human body. After having explained the correlation between carbon monoxide and increased fatigue, the program cuts from the white lab coat environment of the institute to the streets of Vienna. “Do you ever feel tired in traffic?” we hear an empathetic journalist ask different drivers. To which all of the drivers emphatically concur: “Yes, indeed, I do feel tired!”

 

Breach of the Peace

The car then, not only reduced people´s capacity and potential for play because they were dangerous and took up a lot of space, but also because the carbon monoxide they excreted produced the need for the opposite: rest. No wonder then, that Coop Himmelblau and Haus-Rucker-Co´s projects were always accompanied by projects to rejuvenate and relax the user. In fact, after the experiment on air pollution, Coop Himmelblau and the Institute for Environmental Health would collaborate on another experiment on how to create architectural environments intended for relaxation. 1

  1. Victoria Bugge Øye, “On Astroballoons and Personal Bubbles,” E-Flux Architecture, April 17, 2018, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/positions/194841/on-astroballoons-and-personal-bubbles/.

Returning to the fussgangerzone, however, which was not about relaxation but all about fun. Perhaps too much fun. Several of the local shop owners had been resistant to the idea of a pedestrian zone, especially the kind of experimental foot-festival that was proposed by Coop Himmelblau and Haus-Rucker-Co. "We have an audience that is used to having a certain peace, a certain atmosphere," the complaint went as business owners expressed concerns that the spectacle would attract families looking for “free” entertainment, displacing the more affluent middle class clientele usually found on Kantnerstrasse. 1

  1. Feuerstein and Fitz, Wann Begann Temporär?, 84.
The Wurstelprater, the amusement park on the other side of the Danube River primarily frequented by the working class, was brought up as an example of what they did not want downtown to become. 1
  1. Ibid.

Perhaps the business owners were correct in assuming that Coop Himmelblau and Haus-Rucker-Co´s installations would be more than the Viennese could handle, perhaps their own bourgeois anxieties got in the way, or perhaps what happened next was exactly in line with Coop Himmelblau and Haus-Rucker-Co´s desire for an architecture that could rouse emotions. Either way, as the evening progressed, things began to get out of hand. Vandals attacked the giant soccer balls with knives; the foot school caused so much commotion and became so vandalized that it eventually had to be removed. People are unpredictable beings, feelings even more so. Especially when architecture tries to get the best of you.

 


Victoria Bugge Øye is a PhD candidate in the History and Theory of Architecture at Princeton UniversityHer field of research includes American and European architecture post-1945. She is a graduate from M.S. Critical, Curatorial & Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia University, where she was awarded the prize for best thesis. Her writing has been featured in Domus, E-Flux and Los Angeles Review of Books, and she has participated in curatorial projects for the Buell Center, Storefront for Art and Architecture, The Lisbon Architecture Triennale, and the Canadian Center for Architecture.