The Bateson Building, Sacramento, California, 1977–81, and the Design of a New Age State explores an origin of architectural sustainability in the 1970s California governmental programs of Governor Jerry Brown and the circle around Brown and his consultant Stewart Brand, a countercultural entrepreneur. Focusing on the Bateson Building, designed by State Architect Sim Van der Ryn and his team to be the world's first large energy-saving, climate-modulating building, Simon Sadler traces the ambition of the first Brown administration to reinvent the state as a unified ecology founded on New Age principles, notably those drawn from the second-order cybernetics of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who served as an adviser to the governor. Drawing on archival and published sources from government, environmental policy, cybernetics, and architecture, Sadler recounts an ambitious ecological agenda that included the new Office of Appropriate Technology, a projected space program, and a water atlas for the state of California. Sadler argues for a reconsideration of the history of sustainable and postmodern architecture alike.
E. F. Schumacher said this summer, “Learn to distinguish between unity and uniformity—between God and hell.” That abouts summs [sic] up the 20th Century problem. And my confidence in your administration.—Stewart Brand, letter to Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, 19751
There is no such thing as a New Age politics. Ask yourself, would you like to work in the environment that government is in? Have you even gone into government buildings? Have you ever spent time in places like Washington or Sacramento?—Sim Van der Ryn, California state architect, talk to the Lindisfarne Fellows, New York, 19782
In Sacramento, the capital of California, a new midtown government administration building, designated “Site 1-A” during design and construction from 1977 to 1981, was named at its opening ceremony for anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson (Figure 1).3 It was commissioned following the narrow 1975 electoral victory of the thirty-six-year-old Governor Jerry Brown, and the building is acknowledged as “the first large-scale building to embody what we now call sustainable architecture.”4 It was referred to as “climate modulating” at the time, and the very word sustainable acquired early currency among its designers during construction.5 It was intended as a showcase for ecological design, integrated into what we might now describe as policies of “resilience,” demonstrating national leadership in an America newly attentive, since President Richard Nixon's 1970 signing of the National Environmental Policy Act, to the nation-building potential of the environment.6 Yet the building's place in history remains unclear. Why?
By examining the Bateson Building and the moment of which it was a part, this article explores some origins of sustainability, before it became normative as a technically verifiable, market-oriented response to environmental concerns integrated into building production. The Bateson Building belonged to a moment of big ecology, so to speak—a convergence of cybernetics, human ecology, “appropriate technology,” and reformist government, as the Golden State was reimagined once again as a state of exception, possibly as an “ecotopia” of the sort projected in Ernest Callenbach's best-selling 1975 science fiction novel.7 That moment was hugely ambitious, so that one project (such as a building) was only part of a greater system (technology, the state, water, housing, mental health, planet Earth, outer space), tending toward greater or lesser capacity to “learn” or to maintain “sanity,” as Bateson's cybernetic anthropology presented the objective of his Steps to an Ecology of Mind, the compendium of his life's writings published in 1972.8 The scope of the approach taken by Brown's administration evoked the New Age ideals of the 1970s—a holistic view of the world, carried over in part from hippie counterculture, in which the governor was “perceived as educable,” as Stephanie Pincetl concluded shortly after, “the politician for the New Age. It was a time of optimism, of possibilities for change.”9
Revisiting a historical episode such as that represented by the Bateson Building is itself historically implicated, of course. As this article is being written, Jerry Brown is again governor; concerns about water, central to Brown's administration in the 1970s, have become critical to Californians; and Brown's legacy of environmental concern furnishes something of an example to other leaders, like Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City.10 Moreover, these environmental concerns have again taken on some of the spiritual cast that they had in the 1970s, when Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, was influenced by Zen Buddhism. In July 2015, Brown, de Blasio, and other political leaders met in Rome at an environmental summit called by Pope Francis. Much as the pope warns of the perils of untrammeled want, New Age–era Jerry Brown and his appointee Sim Van der Ryn, the state architect who had overall responsibility for the Bateson Building, called for an end to the politics of self-interest through design, reason, and consciousness.
The Bateson Building as an Ecology: Energy Efficiency, Social Interaction, and System
The Bateson Building was the first of a series of eight experimental state buildings created by the 1975–81 Brown administration. Three of these buildings were constructed on blocks adjacent to the Bateson Building, one was in a Sacramento suburb, and three were elsewhere in the state (Long Beach, Santa Rosa, and San Jose).11 Offering general-purpose state offices and taking up a city block of midtown Sacramento, the Bateson Building featured an exposed reinforced concrete frame that acted as a pergola and hanger for an infill of painted wood, windows, and canvas shading devices.12 The highlight of the design was within: a four-story atrium, 150 feet by 144 feet, topped by north-facing monitor skylights (Figure 2). Majestic atria had been features of office buildings since Frank Lloyd Wright's 1904–6 Larkin Building in Buffalo, becoming a modernist signature in designs like Kevin Roche's Ford Foundation Building, New York, 1963–67; Norman Foster's Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters, Ipswich, England, 1970–75; and Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers's Pompidou Center, Paris, 1971–77 (which also shared the open frame motif of the Bateson Building, allowing the flexible placement of internal walls).13 But none of these buildings, which came to exemplify the flamboyance of 1970s high tech, could be confused with the Bateson Building, which downplayed iconic, complex, expensive architectural engineering in favor of a strenuous and purposeful informality, inside and out.14 Eschewing the industrial iconography of steel and glass, the Bateson Building made do with concrete and wood, and not even with the formalist surface plays of Louis Kahn's architecture—from which the Bateson Building clearly evolved—but in order to maximize thermal performance and economy in the blazing Sacramento summer sun. The building's understatement, which bordered on a functionalist antiaesthetic and surely contributed to its disappearance from the canon, was central to its broadly ecological mission. That mission seems to have had three main aspects: energy efficiency, interaction, and an attentiveness to systems. In pronouncing that mission, the Bateson Building represented the state's pursuit of interdependence, adaptability, and self-reliance.
Energy Efficiency and Appropriate Technology
The Bateson Building aimed to deliver unprecedented energy efficiency, in part through the passive solar energy storage and deflection afforded by the massive frame and in part through the building's most remarkable and controversial feature, a rock bed beneath the atrium floor that would use 660 tons of thermal mass to absorb and store heat energy during the day. This energy could be released on demand, with the air moistened by evaporative spray washers and pumped in or out by reversible fans (Figure 3).15 The atrium was not air-conditioned; rather, it acted as a sort of lung for the building, which was designed with the aim of achieving an unprecedented 80 percent reduction in energy use compared with the norm for other buildings of its type, in the hope that it would pay for itself over twenty to thirty years. (It probably achieved about 50 percent of that target.)16 Vertical louvers automatically closed the south-facing clerestory surfaces in the summer; banner screens bounced sunlight into the space during the winter. Large vertical canvas tubes hanging in the atrium were equipped with fans to destratify and recirculate air. Cool night air was drawn down large air shafts, while hot air was purged through skylight vents. Sensing devices and a computerized central control unit adjusted fans and rolled the fabric shades on the east and west up and down throughout the day to exclude sun or allow views, and water was heated by 2,000 square feet of solar collectors.
This comparatively low-tech approach can be attributed in part to the impression made on the Brown administration by Ivan Illich, the Austrian philosopher and critic of Western education, industrialization, and cultural imperialism who in Deschooling Society (1971) and Tools for Conviviality (1973) argued for the capacity of self-directed learning, innovation, and community.17 Perhaps still more pronounced was the influence of E. F. Schumacher, whom Brown met at the outset of his period in office and at whose funeral Brown spoke in 1977.18 In his landmark 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, Schumacher argued for “appropriate technology”—small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled.19 When Brown appointed Van der Ryn as state architect in 1975, he agreed to Van der Ryn's condition that the Office of Architecture and Construction be renamed the Office of the State Architect “so people could identify with a person, rather than a faceless bureaucracy.”20 Further, the leading-edge Office of Appropriate Technology was to be lodged within the Office of the State Architect.21 During Van der Ryn's tenure, the office was constantly busy with myriad small local projects, advising on waste reduction and management, energy efficiency, sustainable food systems, biofuels, drought-tolerant gardens and clean soil, solar and wind energy, and a project for bicycle sharing in the flat streets of Sacramento; additionally, policy studies and competitions focused on urban growth and affordable housing.22
Yet the OAT struggled to translate its futurist-ecotopian interests into governance.23 For instance, Van der Ryn complained in 1978 about his experience installing a solar system for heating water in the governor's apartment.24 He noted, “As soon as I did this kind of experimentation in the hot lens of publicity, Murphy's Law took over,” going on to explain the lesson he had learned:
I'm fed up with Government by symbol… . What's real is direct action, and the only people who can take direct action are you. It's practice, it's attention to particulars, it's attention to the land, it's caring, it's mindfulness, carefulness in terms of other people and living things, and government can't do any of these things.25
Much of the OAT's efforts were expended in trying to explain its mission, notably in its 1977 New Possibilities Show, which toured the state with interactive demonstrations of appropriate technology, an undertaking that prompted allegations that the OAT was a political gimmick (Figure 4).26 “An ideological touch of humor is evident,” reported a visitor to the OAT in 1978, “in an old, ill-fitting doorway whose jamb has been stuffed with newspapers to keep out the wind. A hand-lettered sign on it reads, ‘Home weatherization demonstration program, supported by funds from the Federal Department of Energy, Contract No. 209-137001.’ ”27
The Bateson Building, to which the OAT relocated from its overcrowded digs in a former Mexican restaurant, was in effect the most important statement of the energy-consciousness of the OAT and the Office of the State Architect of which it was a part.28 But the building, too, struggled to be understood, first because of its designers' reluctance to build symbols—this at the peak of a semantic, postmodern turn in architecture—and second because of the difficulty of relating the larger, ecological ambition of which it was a part.29 (As a draft for the OAT's 1981 affordable housing competition put it, “California is the rest of America ten years sooner.”)30
The building's atrium, designed to convey pleasant working conditions unexpected in government buildings, modeled an ideal of social interaction exemplified by Eero Saarinen at Bell Telephone Laboratories, the 1959–62 research and development facility in New Jersey that, complete with a conversation pit, exemplified the design of the “post-Fordist” workplace and its generation of a “hive mind” (Figure 5).31 If the Bateson Building's low energy use was a contribution toward resource sustainability, its spatial excess was a gesture toward social sustainability: “hard,” engineered systems of energy conservation intermingled with “soft” social systems.32 The building's design encouraged workers to walk the circulation walkways, people-watch from the office windows, and avoid the social awkwardness of elevators by enjoying the convivial alternative offered by the building's prominent main stairs. The atrium, one early visitor noted, had a sidewalk-café feel, designed to be planted with trees and drawing pedestrians through it from nearby office buildings on the way to parking, bus stops, or the capitol, while the building's decks, panels, and yellow fabric shades lent the space “a noninstitutional informality.”33 The perimeter offices were not especially anti-institutional in feel, although the atrium put all work spaces within 40 feet of a source of daylight, and the designers planned that workers would be organized into small groups of twelve to twenty-four people.34 Indirect ambient lighting and direct task lighting, controlled at the individual desks, reduced the amount of lighting energy needed and also afforded workers some control over their immediate environments.
The building was an expressionless machine of sensory change, above all that generated by natural light. “We found,” Van der Ryn explained,
we could consider the wall of the building not as a static two-dimensional architectural element, but as a living skin that is sensitive to and adapts to differences in temperature and light. We are not adapted to live or work at temperatures or lighting that are uniform and constant. We are most alive when we experience subtle cycles of difference in our surroundings.35
Thus the system of inhabitation was nudged away from entropy. By focusing on the differences inherent to variable daylight, the Bateson Building's design was not simply energy efficient but was also trying to synchronize human relationships with the circadian cycle and the perception of time, while the plans of most U.S. office buildings were becoming ever deeper and more remote from the outside through their utilization of air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting systems. In a nod to Gregory Bateson's view of a patterned and interconnected world, Van der Ryn held that
the building itself becomes “the pattern which connects” us to the change and flow of climate, season, sun and shadow, constantly tuning our awareness of the natural cycles which support all life. Maybe this is what esthetics and beauty are all about. Maybe what we find beautiful is that which connects us to an experience of difference—to an experience of the patterns of wholeness which distinguish the living world from the mere works of man.36
The Bateson Building's presentation of state, government, and nature interacting was evident too at the metascales mapped in two further concurrent projects: one on the ground—the survey for the 1979 California Water Atlas—and the other sky-high—the state's proposed space program. As the journal California Geographer pronounced, The California Water Atlas was “an American atlas without peer in this century” (Figures 6 and 7).37 Conceived by Berkeley geographer Ted Oberlander and made by the Governor's Office of Planning and Research (under which the Office of the State Architect and the OAT also fell), the atlas revealed to ordinary citizens and the offices of state alike the massively complex distribution of the state's lifeblood—water—through a system that had been the key endeavor (alongside the expansion of the state's public university and highway systems) of Jerry Brown's father, Pat Brown, California governor from 1959 to 1967.38 Using the latest computer technology at the Cartography Laboratory of California State University, Northridge, the Water Atlas presented maps of staggering beauty and clarity (given the complexity of the information), spread across an oversized format, to represent California as a coherent, natural, technological, and cultural assembly.39 The brilliance of the atlas was to depict a resource that, whether wild in nature or domesticated in channels, was clearly beyond the agency of any single citizen or branch of government, making it a matter of general political concern. Although water distribution was absolutely a responsibility of top-down government at both the federal and state levels, by revealing its natural and design history, the atlas made it a medium between all levels of government and all sorts of citizenry, between one industry and another, one region and another: the Water Atlas was a medium about water as a medium.
An ongoing drought lent urgency to the atlas and to the governor's project for a new peripheral canal, which would have been the last major component of the state water project, the gigantic postwar supplement to the mighty federal water project of the first half of the twentieth century.40 The governor's project was ultimately defeated in 1982 by environmentalists, small farmers, Northern California regionalists, and taxpayers, all coordinated by large agribusiness—a coalition even more unlikely than the makers of the atlas could have imagined. Indeed, the atlas's presentation of water as a system of shared interest was called out by a reviewer who suggested “that a more appropriate title might have been Water in Conflict,” given the complications of “property rights and the role of the market in allocating water.”41 Indifference to such politics and economics was a hallmark of the governor's special adviser Stewart Brand, who chaired the board directing the production of The California Water Atlas. Brand had propelled himself to fame over the preceding decade as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, first published in 1968, with which personnel in the Brown administration (such as Huey Johnson, environmentalist and state secretary of resources) were connected.42 Why, Brand now asked in an extension of the Whole Earth Catalog's global systems utopianism, should the localization and boundaries of the system be hemmed in by the boundaries of the state, or even of planet Earth?43
“I'm operating on a paradoxical vision,” Brand wrote excitedly to Brown in 1975.44 The first part of the paradox was “that we convert Earth-surface economics to something more like Herman Daly” (the ecological economist, and later an economist at the World Bank, who edited Toward a Steady-State Economy, 1973), “or in its romantic form to Ecotopia (enclosed—California secedes and becomes like Green Gulch—interesting book).” (Green Gulch was the Zen Buddhist retreat and organic farm owned and managed by the San Francisco Zen Center, where those in Brown and Brand's circle discussed their coming ecological state.) The second part of Brand's paradox was
to invest the 100 billion and get the space colonies going—in nearby free space there is more energy, material and open possibilities than a geometrically increasing humanity could encompass in centuries… . Industry and growth and outward adventure in space. Culture and balance and inward adventure on Earth. The two visions serve each other.45
Brand urged Brown to initiate a California program for outer space. Brown's interest in space would earn him the notorious nickname Governor Moonbeam, and it is not difficult to see why skeptics scoffed at Space Day, the governor's August 1977 conference at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles.46 Space Day combined the expertise of the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California, and NASA with the New Age mood brought to the event by former Beat poet Michael McLure's “philosophical poems,” written on the day, one of which opened with lines from French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, who was in attendance (Figure 8).47 And there was perhaps a sophistry in Brown's arguments justifying space exploration as a means of addressing the challenges of poverty, democracy, and the environment.48 But it was not quite as bizarre as it seems in retrospect if, as Brand claimed, more than half of NASA's procurements already came from California and Brown was simply attempting to restore the New Frontier vision of John F. Kennedy.49 As Space Day was taking place, the space shuttle Enterprise, which could easily be imagined as transport to a space colony, was scheduled to soon touch down at California's Edwards Air Force Base, the movie Star Wars was drawing summer cinemagoers, and the space station Skylab, launched in 1973, was orbiting the Earth.50
My concern here is to acknowledge the way in which Brown imagined his state as a compartment of “Spaceship Earth,” coordinating all design, from appropriate technology to the space program, as elements in a unitary systemic whole in which the visionary was presented as pragmatic political calculus.51 Brown summarized this calculus as “Awareness of limits leads to awareness of possibilities”—here talking about space, although he could have been talking about water, solar energy, economics, or politics.52 Space potentially altered the systemic limits in which ecology (and the economy) were operating.53 Space Day provided an opportunity for Bruce Murray, head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and “avid reader of Schumacher and Illich,” to explain the relationship between appropriate technology and space exploration, as panelists from the Brown administration responded under the moderation of astronaut Russell Schweickart.54
The Bateson Building as an Envoy of the New Age State
The OAT showed Californians how to remake an energy-efficient state systematically from the bottom up, while from the top down, the Water Atlas and Space Day guided Californians in systematically future-proofing the natural limits of the ecosystem. In the middle, the Bateson Building systematically realigned government work somewhere between a rock bed and the sun. The building was then a component of a larger state system, and it was to some extent a model or projection of the Brown administration's ideal governance of that state in microcosm: a self-effacing medium interrelating energy, matter, people, civilization, and nature into a new “whole” or “mind,” synthesizing a decade or more of thinking in Northern California about systems and ecology. The building represented a New Age state, which revived the spirit of earlier human–environment holisms, like those of the Chicago School, Patrick Geddes, Catherine Bauer, and Lewis Mumford.55
Brown was already highly conversant with the ecological literature of the New Age before he was introduced to Gregory Bateson.56 To detail the beguiling philosophy of this New Age state, I return to Bateson's thought, which had such a profound influence on Brand that he began to sideline the Whole Earth Catalog's first guiding light, Richard Buckminster Fuller. Brown appointed Bateson his adviser and a regent of the University of California (Figure 9).57 As remote as Bateson's ethereal ideas seem from application through government and design, in October 1970 Bateson had himself convened a conference on urban ecology at the office of New York City mayor John Lindsay, providing the basis for the final papers Bateson published, which were on policy.58 At the 1979 dedication ceremony for the Bateson Building, Van der Ryn explained the retroactive decision to name a state building after the British émigré anthropologist and intellectual outlier.59 “In the last month of his life I asked him what single thing was needed for people to grasp a new way of looking at their world and he told me, ‘people are mad for quantity, yet what is significant is difference.’ ”60
This quality of “difference” had been central to the lecture Bateson delivered to the Institute of General Semantics eleven years earlier, which Bateson regarded as a capstone of his intellectual career.61 Bateson's career had been revolutionized by the discipline of cybernetics, which was assembled at the Macy Conferences from 1941 on, expanding into a concern with ecology at large.62 Bateson's cybernetics and ecology were unlike the engineering bias that characterized early, “first-order” cybernetics, dominated as they were by the analogy drawn between the ways animals and machines alike use feedback to self-regulate as closed systems. Bateson's “second-order” cybernetics instead emphasized the interconnection of many systems, of which the observer her- or himself and the observer's language and mental processes were also subsystems: there was no ultimate outside, center, control, or truth. The whole—in effect, a Mind of minds, organic and inorganic, technological and natural—was instead bound by pattern, connection, and difference, tending toward sanity or madness, that is, toward the maintenance or otherwise of multifarious life.
Van der Ryn thus invited visitors to imagine the Bateson Building as a Batesonian instrument for the sensing of that difference, the building's perforated wall a boundary mediating the movement of the Sacramento sun (one system) and the mental and bodily well-being of the government worker (another system). Difference constituted information moving from one subsystem to another, the better to cohere as Mind. For Van der Ryn, such an integration of the greater socio-psycho-ecological whole was the central purpose of design. “The process of institution building and institutional innovation becomes more than a technical problem,” he wrote in 1968 with his then assistant, the political economist Robert Reich, who later served as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. “It becomes part of an overall design. It becomes utopian.”63
Van der Ryn brought to Sacramento a concern with architecture as a social ecology that characterized the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley during the tumultuous Berkeley 1960s, from the Free Speech Movement of 1964 to the direct activism of 1969's People's Park.64 The Batesonian trope of pattern was echoed in the search for a pattern language led at Berkeley by Christopher Alexander and Murray Silverstein (the latter also a collaborator of Van der Ryn).65 The massive communal space of the Bateson Building recalled the putatively bottom-up, self-organized requisitioning and forming of social space in the Bay Area's new communalism and People's Park, which historically closed a chapter in Berkeley's radical history, prompting a change in strategy for the elite segment of Bay Area counterculture to which Van der Ryn belonged. In 1974, in the period between the violent showdown with the state at the People's Park and his appointment as state architect, Van der Ryn cofounded the Farallones Institute, dedicated to research in appropriate technology, most prominently at the Integral Urban House in Berkeley, which for a decade offered a problematic and malodourous demonstration of a closed-system urban habitat (Figure 10).66 This hint of a swords-to-plowshares strategy—from the extemporaneous illegal appropriation of space to its deliberative legal and technical reform—augured Van der Ryn's reluctant ascent into the offices of an erstwhile reactionary state, which he had fought at the People's Park.67 The OAT's initial insignia, which depicted a mule eating oats, was practically pacifist in its symbolism (Figure 11).68 After World War II, the Office of Architecture and Construction in Sacramento was likely the largest architectural office in the world.69 It was “created to plan and execute the tremendous volume of new facilities in health, education and general government growth,” as Van der Ryn wrote, hoping to recover his office's sense of mission. “This cycle began to slacken in the 60s, and the importance of the office was further reduced through the assignment of major State projects and State college construction to private firms.”70 A small-government policy of renting space for government workplaces from the private sector had prevailed under Governor Ronald Reagan (1967–75), but it proved (somewhat ironically) uneconomical, handing Brown and Van der Ryn an opportunity to create a building program through which “the State architect should take a more active role in helping to set standards and policy.”71 Van der Ryn was a high-risk appointment, Brand later recalled: the Brown administration “had other New Age types in government (such as myself) but they were advisors, consultants, and commission members. State Architect was a line position—highly visible, highly responsible.”72
Brand, too, had now to reconcile with his old adversary of government per se. His Whole Earth Catalog, a sister enterprise to Van der Ryn's Farallones Institute under the umbrella of the nonprofit Portola Institute, had declared in its 1968 preface, “So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains.”73 But as consultant to the governor from 1975 to 1983, Brand found himself close to a governance that the Catalog had intended to circumvent. Interest in overturning or seceding from “the system,” for instance, through the communalist and back-to-the-land movements that the Catalog was founded to support, and that its associated publication the CoEvolution Quarterly (1974) deliberated, mellowed to acceptance of the possibility of a larger systemic change.74 If the state had “lost its mind” in 1969 when it used tear gas against encircled demonstrators at Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, then “ecological mind” would close the feedback loop, Brand hoped, by making the state sane at all its interacting levels.
The anomalous result represented in the Bateson Building was of a New Age state moving away from the revolutionary, drug-altered, and communalist tendencies of counterculture toward rational, consensus-building reformism in tandem with a Zen-like reduction in the expenditure of all energy, including that of protest politics on the one hand and the political machine on the other. Van der Ryn despaired at the violent end of the People's Park, which he perceived as the lost Eden for a natural, self-organizing community: “When I left Berkeley,” he has since recalled of his panic at the collapse of the People's Park, when on 15 May 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan used Oakland police and the National Guard to confront its guardians, “I had flashbacks of leaving Holland as a young child just before the Nazi invasion.”75 Nonagonistic change would be the way forward: Brand already prohibited overtly political discussion in the Whole Earth Catalog, tacking toward libertarianism during the 1970s. Brown came from a Democratic Party political dynasty, but he was so alienated by the party machine of his father's era that he was drawn back to Catholicism, like Schumacher and Illich, initially choosing the Jesuit seminary.76 In a 1975 article (a clipping of which Brand kept), the Village Voice claimed about Brown:
There's the story of his command to one government official requesting expenses for a trip to Washington. Cancel the trip, Brown told him. “You can't learn anything in Washington, they're all fucked up there. Stay here and meditate.”77
Green Gulch Zen Center was a center for this intersection of progressive politics and ecology under the oversight of its abbot (rōshi), Richard Baker.78 Van der Ryn and Huey Johnson were recruited to the Brown administration there; the center was where Brown consulted with Paul Ehrlich and Ivan Illich on the future of the Earth, with Rusty Schweickart and Gerard O'Neill on the future of space, and with the poet Gary Snyder and writer/farmer Wendell Berry on the question of humankind's relationship to nature.79 John Nathan, a translator of Japanese and a filmmaker, archly recalls his two-week stay in Baker's salon at Green Gulch in 1978:
We spent our evenings in the living room of his private residence, off-limits to ordinary students and all but the most enlightened monks. The abbot presided over a salon of new-age futurists: the entrepreneur Paul Hawken; Michael Murphy, the proprietor of Esalen and author of The Inner Game of Golf; Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog; and the architect Sim Van der Ryn, among others. Brand and Van der Ryn had been appointed special advisors to the progressive governor of California in those days, Jerry Brown, who was also a frequent visitor at Green Gulch. Brown was dating the singer Linda Ronstadt… . They would sit together on the couch, cuddling beneath a blanket, while Baker-rōshi discussed sustainability or gnosis or the nutrient value in a placenta.80
This vignette is partly satirical, of course, though if the new makers of California regarded self-awareness and the mystical enlightenment of gnosis as relevant to statecraft in 1979, it was in reaction to the violent political reordering and social breakdown, real or threatened, in which they had grown up.81 They came of age during the Cold War, as the relative clarity of a clash between freedom and oppression in the world war of their childhoods gave way to mutually assured destruction and the confusion of the intervention in Southeast Asia, with its associated culture war inside the United States. The apparently imminent ecological collapse of industrial civilization was meanwhile warned of in a series of popular books by credible ecologists, from Rachel Carson (Silent Spring, 1962) to the Club of Rome (The Limits to Growth, 1972).82 Politico-ecological despair registered with mainstream popular culture, too, with the tracks of Marvin Gaye's 1971 album What's Going On expounding on a sequence of keynote calamities, Joni Mitchell foretelling the paving of paradise in her song “Big Yellow Taxi” (released 1970 and 1974), and filmmaker Roman Polanski dramatizing the corruption of Southern California water in Chinatown (1974).83
Following the post–World War II expansion of consumerism and the military-industrial complex, and following countercultural dissent in reaction to that expansion, would come the whole state.84,E pluribus unum—Out of many, one—this was the Latin motto on the Seal of the United States until 1956, when Congress resolved to put its trust instead in God. Brown's administration hoped that California, labeled by historian Carey McWilliams in 1949 as “the great exception” for its pluralism, would become again that American “one from many,” simultaneously a space of difference and a space of unity.85 Bateson complained to Brand about “all these definitions of self as over against other people or the environment”:
The truth which is important is … a truth of complexity … of a total eco-interactive ongoing web in which we dance… . The whole of good and evil gets wrapped up in the dance of Shiva. And in ancient Hebrew good-and-evil is a single word meaning “everything.”86
The New Age state addressed a skepticism about government that ran even deeper than the culture wars. Its cybernetics and ecology countered pessimism about whether a selfless politics was even possible, a gloominess traceable back to Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. Biological drive did not eviscerate the possibility of the cooperation necessary for a state, the argument now ran, but encouraged it: “CoEvolution,” Brand explained in 1977, was
a term of recent coinage co-conceived by biologists Paul Ehrlich and Peter Raven to explain something terribly obvious but not before formally recognized about living organisms. They spend most of their adaptive effort getting along with other life which is likewise busily competing, cooperating, and avoiding at them [sic]. Life co-evolves with life.
That includes us. So as you study your work, your yard, your watershed, your bio-community and human community, your weather, your access to tools, your night sky, and your prospects in Space, be aware that they are studying you.87
Much more than a Hobbesian state offering security, and advancing beyond the redistributive state of the New Deal characteristic of Pat Brown's administration, Jerry Brown's mindful California aimed to offset entropy and imbalance (the problems studied by cybernetic systems theory).88 It would accomplish this by mitigating energy loss, inertia, imbalance, and depletion (the business of first-order cybernetics theory), and then by relating different layers, entities, and subsystems of the nation, the world, and eventually space, so that there would be no outside to the system (the business of second-order cybernetics).89
Lightly steering the system, attentive to feedback, was the governor's office, and appropriately so, given the etymological root of the word cybernetics in the Greek for governor.90 Resonances with the expertise, unity, and happiness of Plato's Republic were striking: this imminent and immanent systemic harmony had found its guardian philosophers and their techne in Brown, Brand, Van der Ryn, and the counsel of Bay Area counterculture, who placed themselves above the conventional political fray by their unbounded regard for natural law.91 Proceeding beyond the self-adjusting, homeostatic closed-loop cybernetics of the 1940s—which lately had characterized Stafford Beer's Project Cybersyn for socialist president Salvador Allende's Chile—second-order cybernetics helped the guardians of New Age California to imagine competition and disagreements as drivers rather than as destroyers of a whole system.92
At the center of Allende's cybernetic system was a control room with a now-iconic circle of Gui Bonsiepe white control panel chairs (Figure 12). At the center of Brown's system, the governor admitted, he simply “set themes and created tension,” with nary a computer or interface in sight.93 “Enjoying your dialectical approach to truth—and gladly learning from it—may I add something perhaps?” Brand asked Brown in 1975:
The process has structure—“logic”—as you know. Cybernetics—conceptual cybernetics—has the best formal handle on that structure that I've seen. It yields not only the most direct learning mode—felt paradox—but also excellent diagnosis (& principles of cure) of social pathologies: the business of governors.94
Such iterative models were core to the various design methods being developed by Van der Ryn's colleagues in the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley, such as Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel, and Melvin Webber. But where these colleagues quickly ran up against constraints—limits famously described in Rittel and Webber's 1973 paper on the “wicked” unpredictability of interdependences—Van der Ryn and his colleagues saw a holistic interdependence and a tendency toward self-management.95
Brown and Brand's studies of water and outer space recapitulated an American “technological sublime.”96 Brown and Brand believed, like the transcendentalists and progressives before them, in a national capacity to take control of human destiny through schemes that would secure the American continent's astonishing natural resources.97 Much as conservationists had been shocked in 1895 by Patrick Geddes's approval of hydroelectricity as the conjunction of nature and culture into the machinery of life, some environmentalists were dismayed by Brown's commitment to the continued hydraulic engineering of his state.98 In Brown's first term as governor, his administration had little need for radical inquiry into the commons, and some in the appropriate technology movement were frustrated with the OAT, seeing in it a fig leaf for politics as usual.99 Brown's embrace of appropriate technology seemed driven as much by the need for California to survive the energy crisis as by an effort to initiate the even economic development and capital redistribution called for by appropriate technology's key theorist, economist E. F. Schumacher. California's tentative space program in particular was much more a pursuit of American frontier exceptionalism than of Schumacher's Buddhism, Gandhism, and Maoism.
The Technical, Aesthetic, and Ideological “Disappearance” of the Bateson Building
The significance of the Bateson Building, in itself or within this grand holistic vision, is very unlikely to be apparent to the casual observer today and was probably lost on Californians at the time: it “disappeared” technically, aesthetically, and ideologically.
The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 and the Earth Week of 1970 had endowed the baby-boom generation, whose members were starting to reach positions of influence, with a wariness of the risk of eco-disasters.100 In the wake of the 1973 energy crisis, environmentalist and energy analyst Amory Lovins—introduced to Van der Ryn by friends during the period when Lovins was drafting his famous 1976 essay “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?”—authored Friends of the Earth's Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace, published in 1977, to argue that a centralized energy system based on fossil and nuclear fuels could be steadily replaced by energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.101 The Bateson Building's energy-saving features accorded with the environmentalist mood in California and the nation, then, but they were not well communicated, creating a missed opportunity.102
The Bateson Building's innovations met with immediate skepticism from the state budget analyst and the state employees union, for instance.103 The building's systems were subject to only cursory testing before occupancy, and, incongruously for an ecological design culture dedicated to integration and long-termism, management and maintenance were not embedded in the building's plan.104 A possible miscommunication or lack of communication among the building disciplines working on the design meant that no one fully explored the interplay of all the systems together. Many buildings exhibit technical shortfalls postoccupancy, but the Bateson Building's innovations set it up for more such shortfalls than the average office building. The louvers stopped working automatically, so the building required more lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilating energy than expected, especially under the duress of improved environmental health standards after the 1970s.105 The state deactivated the rock-bed system following a class-action lawsuit filed in 1981 on behalf of state employees worried about mold infestation.106 The solar water-heating system was removed mainly because of roof load, and the air destratification socks in the atrium were disconnected because there was too little stratification to merit their use.107 The building now runs off the same grid of steam and chilled-water services as other government buildings in the area. The cumulative effect of the building's technical shortfalls was likely to knock it off the pedestal to which it had been raised.108 Ultimately the Bateson Building was to be technically overshadowed by other energy-efficient office buildings, including those built in downtown Sacramento, where the Bateson Building had been the leader. Yet the state's Department of General Services has declared that “the building … remains among the state's most energy efficient, comparable to those built in the last 5 to 10 years.”109 Further, a recent audit on the building commissioned by the state even recommended the reinstallation of the rock-bed system, with some modifications.110
And so the building's “disappearance” was perhaps as discursive as it was due to any absolute technical failure. During Brown's second term in office, the momentum of his administration was diverted into the governor's ill-starred presidential campaign, and the 1980 election of Brown's gubernatorial predecessor, Ronald Reagan, as U.S. president marked a conservative sea change in U.S. politics, including the curtailing of energy-saving initiatives introduced by President Carter. When California's conservative 1978 constitutional amendment Proposition 13 choked state funding by freezing property taxes, the OAT decided, characteristically, that it would become more “self-reliant.”111 The agency was closed anyway in 1982 by Brown's successor, Republican governor George Deukmejian.
In effect, most of the Bateson Building's innovative but moribund technologies became symbolic for those few visitors able to read devices as arcane as air destratification socks, “legible signs of the designer's concerns vis-à-vis systems and ‘energy flows,’ ” as the Architectural Review put it.112 The building's rectangular, concrete austerity played to the parsimonious image of government that the American public had come to expect with the waning of the New Deal, but that was about be challenged by the carefree flourishes of Michael Graves's Portland Building (Figure 13).113 On its 1982 opening, the Portland Building offered a decorative and strikingly different image of government a year after the completion of the Bateson Building, the largely functionalist aesthetic of which offered perilously little to the erupting postmodern architectural scene.
To make another comparison, in 1978 New Orleans unveiled a divergent notion of “publicness,” the sensational Piazza d'Italia by Charles Moore, a former colleague of Van der Ryn at Berkeley in the early 1960s. Moore and Van der Ryn had collaborated, with Donlyn Lyndon and Patrick J. Quinn, on an essay that was formative for its authors, “Toward Making Places,” which argued for the cultural and ontological immediacy of place making as the basis of an architecture succeeding the technocratic universalism of modernism.114 Van der Ryn focused on process and activism, in which Moore had expressed an interest in the 1960s, but it was Moore's spatial and iconographic devices that attracted the most attention.115 True to its functionalist program, meanwhile, the envelope of the Bateson Building eschewed the formal invention and allusion of the Kahnian wall that had been such a revelation to postmodernists of all stripes, and the building's late Brutalism presented a directness and economy that leading tastemakers of the era had declared moribund.116 Introducing the landmark Five Architects show at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1972, curator Arthur Drexler derided the hubris of social and environmental reform through architecture, singling out Brutalism as “architecture in blue jeans and other effete mannerisms of proletarian snobbery.” He called instead for a return to architecture as an “art,” pursued by “men of talent.”117
We might then blame the Bateson Building's “disappearance” on the changing fashions of architecture, but perhaps we could better tackle this issue by using the tacit aesthetic ambitions established by the building itself, and those of its designers, and of the ecological melee of which they were a part. Also looking a little bleakly institutional and underpopulated by this time, for instance, was Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti, under construction in Arizona since 1970, which was comparable in its ambition to create concrete megastructures adequate to the “noosphere” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's term, following Vladimir Vernadsky, for the final stage of our planet's evolution through the collective human mind).118 Van der Ryn's Capital Area Plan for Sacramento, meanwhile, tried to create an “urban village” of quarter blocks “to encourage variety and mixed use,” and the Bateson Building's perforated, gridded shell was “eroded” so that pedestrians would not be confronted on all sides by four-story walls, which were slotted with a series of small outdoor spaces to acknowledge the midtown Sacramento tree canopy and grid.119 But it would be hard to argue that the façades of the Bateson Building were a gift to the street in the same way as were the district's threatened Victorian homes then being rehabbed by Governor Brown's young staffers.120 The Californian public constituency imagined by Brown's state could then have had little sense of the experiment in statecraft being undertaken in the Bateson Building. Nor did the building's “circadian” design publish well in architecture magazines. Its socioecological program was difficult to read from the outside and was likely misunderstood even by environmentalists, for whom Gregory Bateson remained an obscure figure.121
The building ultimately failed to express adequately Bateson's relational epistemology, it would be fair to say. True to that epistemology, Van der Ryn's team had approached the building as a set of environmental patterns, not simply as an object, and its open grid sought extension into other environmental systems. But consider the Bateson Building as a shell—to follow Bateson's own pedagogy, in which he would present students with crab, lobster, and conch shells and ask them to “produce arguments that will convince me that these objects are the remains of living things.”122 What traces of life were made apparent by the Bateson Building's carapace? Much beyond its capacity to modulate differences in daylighting effects, or its staircases' staging of impromptu meetings, the Bateson Building was not a particularly strong engine for producing relationships and connecting patterns in the manner that Bateson himself described. The building's shell suggested no great potential to bring external processes and relations into the structure, or to reciprocate by networking across space and in time.
Indeed, the OAT's emphasis on data, prompted by its attention to energy savings, detracted somewhat from Bateson's call for an ecological urbanism of qualitative overcapacity and redundancy, open to change and adaptive relationships beyond efficiency or quantitative systemic management. This was the central pursuit of Bateson's ecological aesthetics—an empathy for interacting systems, human and nonhuman, the better to understand and expand upon them.123 Something of this empathy might have emerged at the People's Park, albeit chaotically and without much regard for differentials in power, ownership, and control among the actors (without much regard for politics, in other words—marginalized in hippie statecraft and in Bateson's own work alike). But conserving physical energy and system stability, as the Bateson Building's designers mandated—somewhat homeostatically, to use the central figure of early cybernetics—mitigated the exchange of information.124
The Bateson Building was actually in something of a “double bind,” as Bateson and his colleagues termed their famous explanation for schizophrenia, wherein a subject is faced with irreconcilable demands.125 The building had to both hunker down and open up, at once closed off from the political lassitude of modern America and the roller-coaster summer climate of Sacramento and still accessible to the greater cultural, urban, and natural system of the state. Although saving energy, emphasizing social space, and sustaining the urban grain, the building was nonetheless only a staging point for an infinitely grander Batesonian aesthetic. The building honored that aesthetic, retroactively, but was not born directly from it.
Screen walls became a subject of interest to psychoanalytically influenced postmodern criticism, and an application of such critical methods to the Bateson Building—appropriate for a supposed architecture of Mind, forged by a culture fascinated with the self and its relationship to the environment—might skeptically read its functional façade less as the “living skin” claimed by Van der Ryn than as a mask or portrait.126 The portrait was not an especially appealing depiction of the coterie of initiates within, government workers managed by hippie graduates of the Bay Area's universities, communes, and Zen centers who had transplanted themselves to the capital, bearing their “smiling revolution,” as Tomás Maldonado described the counterculture in 1970.127 These managers wore the “happy face” attacked by punk band the Dead Kennedys in their 1979 single “California Über Alles,” the cover of which featured Jerry Brown as a führer: “Zen fascists will control you / 100% natural / You will jog for the master race / And always wear the happy face” (Figure 14).128
In fairness, Brown endeavored to include more women and minorities in government, precisely to deepen his vision of government as mediator between constituencies drawing on a common environment, mobilized by new technologies, and exercising their right to representation.129 Brown even replaced the heraldic trappings of government in his private office with Chicano art.130 But an ascendant postmodernism would degrade all totalizing epistemologies, showing little interest in common biospheric limit conditions and the morality that might ensue from them, holding in a far higher regard organization through culture and language.131 The Bateson Building was a system of difference, but of “circadian” difference, not of the irreconcilable, categorical difference that might form at the conjunctions of different modes of life and circumstance diminished by an eco-state and its biopolitics, to use Michel Foucault's term for governmental techniques of population control.132
It is striking, however, that by the late 1970s and early 1980s appropriate technology, the New Age, the New Left, punk, and Reaganism alike were pursuing the reduction of government. What differed among them were the means, rationales, and objectives for so doing. The meaning of limited government was one of the topics of Brown's very first conversations with Bateson, and by the end of the decade, as the Brown administration slid into the crisis of Proposition 13 (a herald of the neoliberal era at large) the politics of limited government were deep and blurred.133 In 1981, a book issued by the OAT—Working Together: Community Self-Reliance in California—made its case through quotes from Ronald Reagan as well as from E. F. Schumacher and Ivan Illich.134 The book's ecumenical appeal was probably intended to distract from the preponderance of case studies the OAT had drawn from minority groups, co-ops, and organized labor, but nevertheless the effect was to convert any appeal to justice to an expectation of self-help. Such was Brown's core fiscal conservatism that the Wall Street Journal asserted “that he had out-Reaganed Reagan,” even if Brown had reached this reputation from a position diametrically opposed to that of Reagan, having concluded from reading Schumacher that he was governing in the “era of limits”—resource, fiscal, and governmental.135
In fact, the New Age eco-state was a brief encounter even for its leading protagonists. “Any career advocate might do well by cycling through occasional policy and assistant positions, both in government and business,” Brand breezily reflected on Van der Ryn's term as state architect, while surely contemplating his own future, in which he would find a more comfortable fit in management consultancy and technological advocacy, ultimately becoming a mentor for Silicon Valley.136 In 1975 Van der Ryn claimed that “Government that regulates least encourages responsibility and clearly defines personal freedom.”137 Three years later, irascibly reflecting on his time in office, Van der Ryn complained, “The process of Government is mostly about building and maintaining your turf, and that's why the best thing people can do is cut off the water and dry up the turf, like Proposition 13.”138 In the following decades the basic principles of sustainability and of the urban village, explored in Sacramento in the 1970s, became familiar through the traditionalist, market-oriented solutions of the New Urbanism, inspired in part by the Bateson Building's midtown environment of glorious Victorian houses and tree canopies, which was promoted by Peter Calthorpe, a Bateson Building co-architect.139 Distancing himself in his second term in office from the huge moral burden of New Age state management, Brown gravitated toward the more pragmatic political persona that eventually saw him reelected as governor in 2011.140
Bateson himself, while happy to join in the conversations in Sacramento before his death, did so as a stranger to government—as an anthropologist, he explained.141 In some ways his ideas were mismatched with the functionalism of the building that bore his name. For Bateson (and Brown) the role of system, by seeing all things interrelated, was precisely not to seek rigorous order in the things over which one had oversight; it was to accept the “muddle” of which the observer (or governor) was a part. Bateson's ideas in relation to design, for all their promise as “pattern,” were challenging to translate into built form when compared with the pattern languages of, for example, Christopher Alexander, György Kepes, and Buckminster Fuller.142 Indeed, Bateson's epistemology would contribute to the very poststructuralism that rejected an understanding of ecology as an intelligible whole.143
Whether it is sought out as a pioneer, an outlier, or a cautionary tale, the Bateson Building, with its empty atrium, its disconnected systems, and its lost chance to make ecology a public project, is an intriguing and melancholic thing to visit. It is a memorial to a vision of a holistic California about to be overtaken by another organizational mode that adherents would again claim to be “natural” (that of markets); a hubristic, postcountercultural undertaking in social engineering sponsored by a state since in retreat as a benefactor (if not a force); and a grand application of appropriate technology destined to seem instead like a primitive exercise in sustainability.
Rather than reinstating the building as a misunderstood exemplar, we might accept its elusiveness as characteristic of the design and culture of the 1970s, a period of burgeoning interest for scholars curious about the way in which modernist and social democratic consensus gave way to the putatively postindustrial, information-driven present. The Bateson Building was at once a coda to a decades-long modernist search for interdisciplinary, progressive, and positivist environmental design (of which Van der Ryn's home school at Berkeley was traditionally a national center) and an advent to postmodern architecture as a communicative medium, its very matter and energy a conduit (according to the Batesonian reading that Van der Ryn invited) for information.144 In a sense the building was set up to fail as architecture traditionally defined: it had to “disappear,” to become environment, an ecological medium integrating subjects and systems.145
This makes it a potentially instructive historiographical challenge. It can provide a case study in biopolitics, or it can drive home the message left to us by Arthur Drexler and others at the time: that architecture should stick to architecture. Alternatively, the building can remind us that architecture inevitably deals with matters other than itself, so completely imbricated with its economic and physical environment that its pursuit is de facto statecraft.146 The Bateson Building not only “disappeared”—an avowedly Batesonian architecture has yet to appear, assuming such a thing is possible.
I wish to acknowledge the support of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, Irvine, and my colleagues there in the 2014 Urban Ecologies seminar, and the encouragement of the University of California Critical Sustainabilities Multicampus Research Group, convened by Miriam Greenberg. My thanks too to Tom Phillips, Sim van der Ryn, Gui Bonsiepe, Meredith Gaglio, Bob Judd, Patricia Morton, Judy Selhorst, and the anonymous reviewers of this article.
Stewart Brand to Edmund G. Brown, Governor, n.d., Folio 6, correspondence 1975–76, Stewart Brand Editorial Files, Series 1, Box 1, Whole Earth Access/CoEvolution Quarterly Records, M1045, Stanford University Special Collections.