Green ’70s Flashback with Smiles and Shades of Blue

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Craig Hodgetts’ 1978 vision for the cult novel “Ecotopia” includes balloon generators over San Francisco Bay, with a maintenance gondola in the foreground.

A recent New York Times article piqued not only a literary memory of the cult classic Ecotopia, but also a visual memory from an early work by the exemplary West Coast practitioner Craig Hodgetts.

Writing from what used to be called “Berserkley,” California, Scott Timberg begins his article with these observations:

“Sometimes a book, or an idea, can be obscure and widely influential at the same time. That’s the case with Ecotopia, a 1970s cult novel, originally self-published by its author, Ernest Callenbach, that has seeped into the American groundwater without becoming well known. The novel, now being rediscovered, speaks to our ecological present: in the flush of a financial crisis, the Pacific Northwest secedes from the United States, and its citizens establish a sustainable economy….

“White bicycles sit in public places, to be borrowed at will. A creek runs down Market Street in San Francisco. Strange receptacles called ‘recycle bins’ sit on trains, along with ‘hanging ferns and small plants.’ A female president, more Hillary Clinton than Sarah Palin, rules this nation, from Northern California up through Oregon and Washington.”

What the article doesn’t say is that in 1978 the architect Hodgetts produced a wondrous set of drawings for a Hollywood movie adaptation of the pulp classic. With plenty of savvy and pop-culture sensibility, the script was translated into awe-inspiring architectonic visuals. The drawings were exhibited and published, but alas, the project never made it to the silver screen.

High-speed mag-lev trains utilize a lifting body profile to reduce gravity forces at speed, allowing lightweight bridges that act in tension rather than compression. Solar panels charge large-scale capacitors (the big cylinders) between pulses which drive the train out of the station.

High-speed mag-lev trains utilize a "lifting body" profile to reduce gravity forces at speed, allowing lightweight bridges that act in tension rather than compression. Solar panels charge large-scale capacitors (the big cylinders) between "pulses" which drive the train out of the station.

We got in touch with Hodgetts to get his take on the reopening of this late-’70s time capsule. He responded via email (and supplied captions to these marvelous renderings) with wry amusement:

“Ernest Callenbach and I had distinctly different approaches. I was interested in making a popular movie with an appeal to 12-year-olds, complete with aftermarket consumables! And Ernest, with a pure, almost religious zeal, was preaching ecology. In fact, if the movie had been made—the producers had optioned the novel some years earlier—we were going to retitle it and make up our own story.”

A train station beneath the solar canopy, showing bean-bag group seating, overhead view windows within gull-wing doors, the mag-lev track, and an ecotopian decorative motif.

A train station beneath the solar canopy, showing bean-bag group seating, overhead view windows within gull-wing doors, the mag-lev track, and an ecotopian decorative motif.

“Seems the right time for this rediscovery,” Hodgetts added. “It was just 30 years too early, and yours truly could never get the film off the ground. Architects and publishers at the time were seriously not interested in the subject.”

The power plant utilizes helium-filled mylar balloons to lift and orient a wind-powered generator. A power umbilical cable runs to land and serves as a tether which can be ascended by a maintenance gondola.

The power plant utilizes helium-filled mylar balloons to lift and orient a wind-powered generator. An umbilical power cable runs to land and serves as a tether which can be ascended by a maintenance gondola.

Indeed a cultural re-examination of eco-science fiction would be a welcome development in architectural circles and beyond, since it seems we’ve been living within the dark cold-war schizoid-paranoia of sci-fi madman Philip K. Dick for far too long. And while we’re at it, why not—with a smile—revive the ecology flag from 1969, whose graphic design by Ron Cobb was proudly placed within the public domain and embraced by the environmental movement?

An ecotopian fighter plane with tensile hang-glider wings on hydraulic fingers, husband-and-wife teams in the cockpit, and composite construction of titanium and bamboo with teflon-coated fiberglass wings.

An ecotopian fighter plane with tensile hang-glider wings on hydraulic "fingers," husband-and-wife teams in the cockpit, and composite construction of titanium and bamboo with teflon-coated fiberglass wings.

Maybe now is the time for a holiday blockbuster movie adaptation of Ecotopia, with lots of spin-off eco-toys for the kids (under a renewable tree, of course). And also for an alternative approach to our everyday life. Callenbach is quoted at the end of the Times article with a fitting call to action for the architect-visionaries among us: “It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now,” he said. “But without these alternate visions, we get stuck on dead center.”

“And we’d better get ready,” he added. “We need to know where we’d like to go.”

The president of Ecotopia is a woman! Her office is an eco-retrofit in a mirror-glass building with gardens inserted between floors and rustic arcade appendages.

The president of Ecotopia is a woman! Her office is an eco-retrofit in a mirror-glass building with gardens inserted between floors and rustic arcade appendages.

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