Unless you have taken a particular interest in the history of ecological design, spent time in California during the 1970s, or happen to be connected to Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, you have likely never heard of architect Sim Van der Ryn. It is equally unlikely that you have been made aware of his role in architecture’s increasing focus on ecological sustainability since the 1960s environmental “awakening.” More than 40 years since teaching and practicing architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area, Van der Ryn, the previous State Architect of California, is still advocating for a “sustainable ethos” in design through writing and public lectures given predominately on the West Coast.
Van der Ryn’s newest publication, titled Culture, Architecture and Nature (2014), gathers a number of these public addresses to create an overview of his thoughts on American culture, the state of architectural practice, and the many as yet unrealized objectives of ecological design. Framing his ambitions as the “Great Turning,” Van der Ryn calls for an ecological revolution of the same magnitude as the cultural maelstrom that marked the generation of the 60s—nothing less than the redesign of human life, which he describes as the “shift from an industrial-growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”
Large in scale and interspersed with watercolor drawings created by the author, Culture, Architecture and Nature presents a genealogy of Van der Ryn’s experiences and insights, set against the cultural history of the late 20th century. Organized by decade, beginning with his most prominent lectures in the 2000s and moving back to the 1960s, the reverse chronological structure reveals the story of architecture’s failed environmental revolution, which according to Van der Ryn has resulted in regulations and the systemization of ecological design, rather than experimentation, innovation, and meaningful environmental reforms.
Some of the most engaging essays in the collection include “Greening Campuses, Greening Education,” a lecture presented in Los Angeles in 2006 that draws on Van der Ryn’s experience with green building projects, and confronts the limitations of the USGBC’s LEED rating system. “Integral Design,” delivered in Sausalito in 1988, outlines Van der Ryn’s notion of systems thinking that formed the conceptual framework for many of his most interesting architectural experiments, such as the Integral Urban House and the little known Energy Pavilion. Finally, the essay “Ecotopia Now: Utopia Brought Down to Earth,” is a critique of the 1970s architectural imagination that focused on the design of space colonies rather than addressing earthly urban decline. The essay concludes with a counter proposal for the “Ecotopian City” that prefigures many of the better ideas found in New Urbanism.
This collection of essays has much to offer to both a general audience and to scholars of Van der Ryn’s design ideology or the evolution of American ecological design. Notable is Van der Ryn’s ability to gather the foremost thinkers of the 20th century and create adjacencies between their work and his own ideas. With references and quotes from scientists, journalists, filmmakers, authors, and philosophers, he provides a rich resource of the most significant scholars and visionaries of ecology, appropriate technology, sustainable practices, and systems thinking. As a supplement to these references, every chapter concludes with a list of “seminal readings” from each decade, ranging from The Whole Earth Catalogue in the 1960s, to E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1975) and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004). Unfortunately, Van der Ryn’s own design projects, which pioneered many new investigations in architecture, are only alluded to in passing. Instead, the reader is directed to Van der Ryn’s previous publications, which cover much of the same territory as this text.
Yet despite Van der Ryn’s panoptic thinking through the last decades and his attempts to enact an ideological revolution, his ethos still champions the principles pioneered during the 1960s and 70s. Consistent throughout his writing is the reliance on biological metaphors to justify the radical functionalism of the 1960s, the mechanical model of ecology perpetuated by 1950s cybernetics, and the privileged knowledge of expert planners, architects, and scientists, despite all the evidence to the contrary. While Van der Ryn’s words and projects continue to empower individuals to re-imagine human life through design there is a potential darker side to his simple and universalizing manifesto. In championing the agency of each individual to bring about environmental change, his message could be understood as diminishing the need for collective action at city, state, and transnational levels to enact large-scale environmental projects and reforms. The legacy of the 1960s that remains relevant today is the evidence that collective organization holds the greatest potential for social change, and that the environment needs to be imagined at the planetary scale.