Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Tyranny of the Straight Line

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1954

“I have a bicycle. Paris is big. I think that the lines I draw through this city with my bike are wonderful. The lines I draw are just as wonderful as all the other lines that I cross over, which other people have left behind. I ride around people and obstacles. I am happy that as a painter that I am finally in harmony and in direct contact with others. These lines, which cost me many hours and make me tired, and have become giant circles by the time of my return, are more beautiful, truer and more justified than those which I can draw on a sheet of paper." 
- Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Nearly 20 years ago, when we were starting the massive cob, strawbale and earthbag structure that was to become The Green Dragon, we wondered whether we had been wise to listen to Bob Kornegay, who was a biodynamic landscaper. Bob had insisted that we needed to avoid corners and follow the lay of the land rather than level the foundation. Now that we have the experience of years in the building to draw upon, we can know how right he was. The building is alive. 

From the moment you enter you feel a sense of wonder and magic in the space. The sloping floor and round pole ceiling give you a sense of a Neolithic cave or a cathedral of boughs in the forest. You feel secure. The light, entering through odd shaped and unevenly placed windows, plays off the irregular surfaces in a dance of color, form and life. The building makes you happy.

Pleasant Hill Shaker Village
We are between conferences this week, having just come from the Communal Studies Association annual meeting at Pleasant Hill Shaker Village and being about to leave, after a short workshop in Natural Building Construction this week, for the Natural Building Colloquium at Black Range Lodge in New Mexico. Curiously, we found in a talk given at the former by Professor Gerald Macdonald of Bochum Germany a perfect bridge between these two worlds – community and architecture.

Steiner's Goethaneum
Rudolf Steiner was an enemy of the straight line. In anthroposophical architecture he conceded posts and corners to rise against gravity and hold stress, but he rounded edges wherever he could. In 1941 when Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland and was interned before he could meet with Churchill, Hitler in his rage blamed Steiner's influence and banned all his books and all esoteric groups.

It was small wonder then that little Friedrich Stowasser would be deeply affected by Steiner, whether he learned of him through the Montessori School in Vienna in which he was enrolled in 1935, later from the news surrounding Hess, or from his connection to Heinrich Himmler's astrologer WilhelmWulff, a Steiner devotee.

Stowasser was fond of art and would eventually pursue a career in it.  Like Steiner, he became an enemy of the straight line.

When Hitler annexed Austria, Stowasser, age 10, suddenly had his world turned upside down. His Montesorri School was closed in the Anschluss. His mother was Jewish and to avoid suspicions, she enrolled Friedrich in public school and urged him to join the Hitler Youth, not atypical for Jews trying to hide their identity. The Stowassers survived the war but 69 of little Friedrich's cousins, aunts and uncles went to the furnaces or starved in camps.

In 1948 Friedrich enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and began signing his works Hundertwasser ("Sto" means "hundred" in most Slavic languages). He dropped out after one semester and travelled to Italy, Paris, Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily, learning English, French and Italian quite well and some Japanese, Russian, Czech and Arabic. He held his first art show four years later.

In 1953, Friedrich painted his first spiral, which became something of a trademark, but it was in 1959 that he stepped out from the art world in a more profound way. As a visiting professor of fine arts at Hamburg University he staged his first political theater.

On December 18, 1959 at 3:11 o’clock in the afternoon, a date and time recommended to him by his friend Wulff, the astrologer, he began painting an endless line in room 213 of the University of Fine Arts building.

Together with a group of students working non-stop, Hundertwasser painted a continuous line around the walls of the room, including doors, windows and radiators. His intention was for the line to entirely cover the walls and then wander outside of the building into the neighborhood until the entire city district was literally contained in a spiral. He would not only to take the art into the community, but to draw the community into the art. So when newspaper reports about the project implied that it was open to the public, people came. The university, which had approved the work, was unable to deal with the masses storming through its halls in an attempt to enter or at least peek into room 213.

The university ordered Hundertwasser to stop painting and the project ended abruptly 46 hours after it had begun. The line had been competed to a height of about 9 feet. Hundertwasser was not fired, he just declined to return to the university after the Christmas break.

As his students might attest, he vehemently criticized Hamburg’s pragmatic post-war architecture with its sterile straight lines, calling them a tool of the devil. He denounced the profession of architects as a closed club of elitists. Architecture, he claimed, was no more than a conspiracy of straight-liners.

"I dare say that the line that I draw with my feet in order to go to the museum is more important than the lines that one finds on the actual paintings hanging in the museum. And I take endless satisfaction in seeing that this line is never straight, nor, however, is it random. Rather, it is just as it should be. And this holds true in its each and every segment. Beware of the straight line, and of the inebriated line. But especially beware of the straight line. Following the straight line will someday lead the human race to its doom."

In the early 60s, on a visit to Japan and trying to translate his name into kanji, he realized another possibility: Friedensreich, which means either Kingdom of Peace or Rich in Peace. So he became Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

In 1967 he made his now-famous “naked-speech” in Munich, in which he made the case for people’s right to a “third skin.” According to Hundertwasser, people have three skins: their epidermis, their clothes, and finally their shelter.

"A person living in a rental apartment must have the right to lean out the window and scrape away the stucco as far as her hands reach. And she must have the right to take a long paintbrush, and without falling out the window, paint everything pink as far as she can reach so that from the street people can see: A human being lives here."

Later, in 1972, Hundertwasser added two additional layers of skin: our social environment of family, friends and nation, and the biosphere and its role in clothing, sheltering and protecting us. He took the name Regentag (Rainy Day"). He later added the word “Dunkelbunt” (“dark-colorful”), so his full name became Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser.

In 1981 Hundertwasser wrote his treatise “On the Relationship of Architecture to Nature," while in Venice. In it he laid out his love of the colors found in nature, rather than by mixing chemicals, and his distain for smooth surfaces. "Nature, the definition of life itself," he wrote, "is inherently uneven. It is rough, rugged and curvy. Nothing pleases the eye more than an old farmhouse with its corners, curves, warps and crookedness. Such houses appear to grow out of the ground like plants. They appear to belong there."

With modern apartment blocks. One person, the architect, determines how the building is to look, right down to its uniform color. The inhabitants become slaves to the will of the architect. Hundertwasser proposed that apartment dwellers shape the appearance of their apartments, not only on the inside, but on the outside as well. Paradoxically, this expression of individualism creates the diversity that humanizes the space. Not only are the inhabitants humanized, but passers-by as well. Consequently, such a building has a positive effect on the entire community.

According to Hundertwasser, vertical spaces belong to humans (we construct and shape the walls), horizontal spaces belong to nature (grass and trees belong on roofs and walkways). Floors should never be level. From a bird’s eye view, the building is invisible.

We will be taking these ideas to the Natural Building Colloquium, not as new things, but as reminders. Natural building is not a new thing, it is ancient. These structures resonate deeply. Requiring neither architects nor professional builders, they are a people's art. Each structure is an individual expression. It has roots in the earth and touches the sky. It soars, and it burrows. Natural buildings are something very much in alignment with Hundertwasser's powerful vision of human reinhabitation.

Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser died on February 19th, 2000, at the age of 72, on board the Queen Elizabeth II, while en route from New Zealand to Europe. He had chosen an ocean voyage over flying because he loved the experience and he had hoped to paint while on the seas. Had he lived he would be 87 now and could explain himself much better than we have.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dancing with Doom

"The Shakers believed they were living in the last millennium, the final page of humanity, and since all people shared a brother/sister relationship, they should not marry as there was no longer a need to procreate."

What do you do if you think the world as we know it is about to end and the human race, at its crowning glory, go extinct? That was what confronted Ann Lee in the squalid English dungeon where she had been tossed for espousing a radical form of Christianity.

If you are Ann Lee, you sing and dance.

Ann Lee responded to her powerful, apocalyptic doomer vision of 1722 by creating a whole new religion, one its detractors called the “Shaking Quakers” (because they danced and were pacifists) or simply “Shakers.” When she was released from prison she took her vision out into the world and found a large following.

In Mother Ann's view, the Second Coming had already happened, and the world was inhabited now, not with a Christ in the flesh but in Spirit. The world of industrial capitalism, clearances, sweat shops, child labor, closures of the commons, oppression of women and minorities, colonial wars, militarism and slavery is doomed to fail (as Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier presaged a century later with his discovery of the civilizational heat engine and the greenhouse effect), as are people, and our role now, in the remaining days, is to return Earth to a heavenly garden for eternity.

Therefore, no one needs to be acquiring and owning private property. What is it good for, if abundance is everywhere? No one needs to have slaves. No one needs to go to war. And no one should bother to have children, because this is the final generation.

To borrow the opening lines from Arthur Bestor's Backwoods Utopias,
The American Republic, remarked the aging James Madison to an English visitor, is 'useful in proving things before held impossible.' Of all the freedoms by which America stood, none was more significant for history than the freedom to experiment with new practices and new institutions. What remained mere speculation in the Old World had a way of becoming reality in the New. In this process, moreover, the future seemed often to unveil itself.
Little wonder then that Ann Lee escaped re-imprisonment in England for her scandalous beliefs in peace, gender equality, antislavery and common property by crossing the ocean and finding land in the North American wilderness, near to where Emerson would later stand and remark:

If the single man plant himself indomitably in his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.
Unfortunately, the Shakers were sometimes met by violent mobs and Ann Lee suffered violence at their hands more than once. Because of these hardships Mother Ann became quite frail; she died at Watervliet, NY on 8 September 1784, at the age of 48.

In August of 1805, three Shaker missionaries, John Meacham, Benjamin Seth Youngs and Issachar Bates (our Great-Great-Great Grandfather, more to be written on this), having traveled more than a thousand miles into the western lands by way of Cumberland Gap and the Ohio River, mostly by foot, arrived at a lovely knoll above the Kentucky River which they called Pleasant Hill.

Within a year, they had 47 converts living together on a 140 acre (57 ha) farm, the twelfth Shaker Village in North America. As new converts came in, they added more buildings and land, eventually reaching 4,369 acres (1,768 ha). By 1812 three communal families — East, Center, and West — each with about 100 members, had been formed, and a fourth, North, was established as a gathering center for prospective converts. On June 2, 1814, the Believers bound themselves together in a more formal covenant with the Shaker Ministry at New Lebanon, New York.

The year 1805 falls into a period of US history that is for some a touchstone of the birth of a great nation, and for others the point of disembarkation for genocide and clearances that continue today. It fell between the War of Independence and a failed British attempt to re-establish a colonial outpost in North America that would only end with the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. In March, 1805, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in for a second term. In April, Beethoven held his baton aloft in Vienna for the first performance of the Symphony Number 3. U.S. Marines stormed the shores of Tripoli in search of Barbari pirates while Napolean was crowned King of Italy. On June 13, Meriwether Lewis and four companions first sighted the Great Falls of the Missouri River. In France, on July 29, Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville and Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, having just dodged the guillotine, gave birth to their son, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Tocqueville would later write, after visiting the Shakers:
"I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it."
The Shakers believed they were living in the last millennium, the final page of humanity, and since all people shared a brother/sister relationship, they should not marry as there was no longer a need to procreate. Instead they believed people should live communally as a family of brothers and sisters. Children who arrived with married converts or were produced through accident or divine intervention could decide whether to remain in the community when they reached the age of majority.

The site in Kentucky was on poor land a great distance from Eastern markets, but by pooling their property and skills and adopting wholesome, mindful work as their primary spiritual practice, the colony prospered. They raised broom corn and made flat brooms so good that when floated to New Orleans by river they returned home by the Natchez Trace with saddlebags full of gold. They raised fruit and sold it dried or as preserves (more than ten tons in one year). Like the other emerging Shaker communities, they sold garden seeds through catalog sales and by 1825 were a thriving, handsome community with large stone and brick dwellings and shops, grassy lawns, and stone sidewalks.

 Their 40 miles of stone walls took 12 years to build.

They had a municipal water system well before some towns in their area. By 1825 they had spigots in their kitchens. Their mill had an elevator for moving grain to the upper floor, and they had a mechanical corn sheller. Each large dwelling, housing 50 to 100 residents in apartments, had a central kitchen and did laundry in machines run by horse power.

One of their barns included an upper floor for storage of grain and hay, a cutting machine for chopping fodder, and an ingenious railway for delivering feed to the cattle. Even though it was the end of the world, their sense of security endowed them with creative energy that knew few limits.

Their association, according to the Shakers,
is one of joint-interest, as the children of one family, enjoying equal rights and privileges in things spiritual and temporal, because they are influenced and led by one Spirit and love is the only bond of their union: As it is written, 'All that believed were together, and had all things common — and were of one heart, and of one soul.'
In the words of Horace Greeley,
Not through hatred, collision, and depressing competition; not through War, whether of Nation against Nation, Class against Class, or Capital against Labor; but through Union, Harmony, and the reconciling of all Interests, the giving scope to all noble Sentiments and Aspirations, is the Renovation of the World, the Elevation of the degraded and suffering Masses of Mankind, to be sought and effected.
The promise of such an undertaking was seen by the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1840:
Can society ever be constituted upon principles of universal Christian brotherhood? The believing Christian, the enlightened philosopher, answer — IT CAN. Will this organization commence with the entire race of man? With existing governments? Or with small isolated communities. Doubtless, the principles of this new organization must be matured in the hearts and lives of individuals, before they can be embodied in any community, but when the new organization commences, it will doubtless be in small communities.

By the autumn of 1808, Pleasant Hill was established in its current location and in 1809 the Center Family Dwelling, now the Farm Deacon's Shop, was finished. The following year a stone Meeting House was built across the road from Center Family, but the New Madrid quakes of 1811-1812 damaged its stone foundations. The foundations were elaborately rebuilt with two-foot-thick freestack supports every eight feet, and the roof made of great engineered arches to both support the stomping and dancing of 500 Shakers on the first floor, and to permit them to dance and sing unobstructed by support columns, which were made more massive and placed into the 2-foot-thick outer walls.

Access to distant markets for their goods and necessities required them to lay roads and navigate the treacherous Kentucky River. In 1813, they established the first Shaker Ferry five miles North of Pleasant Hill and constructed a wagon road on both sides of the river, lined by their distinctive stone walls. They constructed a North-South road that ran from the river, through the center of their village and then South to Harrodsburg. When the railroad arrived, it crossed the river by high iron trestle just upstream of the Shaker landing.

Economic sustainability was a cornerstone, so brooms, seeds, medicinal herbs, cheese, canned goods, buckets, straw hats, carpets, cloth and shuttles moved on the river, first by flatboat, then keelboat, and later by steam paddlewheel to Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and New Orleans. Tool castings, building materials, pickling spices, tea, sugar and glass jars came back the other way.

Deacon's House, likely home of Issachar Bates
Something still more important was exchanged. “Shaker” as a brand became associated with purity, frugality, and wholesomeness. This was achieved first by the Seed Division, which produced the nation's first mail order seed catalog and became the largest seed company in the Hemisphere. Later it would be synonymous with Shaker furniture, with its clean lines, lightweight sturdy material, and perfect joinery.

As pacifists and abolitionists the Shakers ran afoul of local opinion, especially in times of heated tempers, before and during the War of Northern Aggression.

It is ironic that it should be the Great Civil War that brought Pleasant Hill low, because that was a war, first and foremost, between combatant paradigms. The rapidly industrializing northern states, fueled by coal, oil (including whale oil), and the latest energy saving machinery from England and Germany, could afford to replace human slaves with energy slaves to considerable financial advantage. They eyed the slave economy of the South, with its cotton and coal wealth, as a way to supply their machines.

Abolition of slavery was not a central goal of the war-makers, and indeed, the Union, as it formed to oppose the Secessionists, contained the slave states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia.

The Shakers at Pleasant Hill were devout abolitionists. They adopted the practice of buying and freeing slaves, and since freed slaves could not work or own property in Kentucky, they offered them sanctuary and equal stake as members of Pleasant Hill. In 1825 a pro-slavery, anti-pacifist mob attacked Pleasant Hill and destroyed some of its facilities.

Nonetheless, during the War the community fed thousands of soldiers, from both sides, who came marching up the North-South road, the main artery between Harrodsburg and Lexington, that passed straight through the center of the village. Given the choice between rape, pillage and plunder and Christian charity, the Shakers poured out of their dwellings and placed food in the hands of weary soldiers and cared for their wounds. Both armies "nearly ate [them] out of house and home," a Shaker witness reported, but they survived the war intact.

The worse tragedy came after the war, when Lincoln's policy of reconciliation and restoration died with him and the original Northern industrialist goal of regional subjugation returned to the fore. The Shaker's lifeline, the river, was cut off to them, with all Southern commerce on the Mississippi banned and high tariffs imposed on Kentucky trade goods. Living in rural Tennessee, where rural internet and cell-phone service resembles what was available to Californians a quarter century ago, we can personally attest that these policies continue in more subtle forms to the present and most strongly affect border states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where children are still forced by economic necessity (student loans and medical blackmail) to go down into the mines and pick at hard rock seams or operate giant bulldozers, scrapers and cranes to remove whole mountains, to extract coal too dirty to be burned in the United States for export to China.

The policy of celibacy insured that the Shaker religious society would not long outlive the first generation, and by 1900, only 34 remained at Pleasant Hill. The Shaker community was dissolved in 1910 and in 1923, the last member, Mary Settles, died. She was pleased to live long enough to see women's suffrage and planned to vote a straight Democratic ticket on her first ballot. She said that Shaker sisters had always had equal rights within their communal society.

After her demise, the village slowly began going back to nature. Some of the pasture land was used or absorbed into neighboring farms, but occasionally pilgrims would arrive and marvel at what remained. One such visitor was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote:

[T]he marvelous double winding stair going up to the mysterious clarity of a dome on the roof ... quiet sunlight filtering in—a big Lebanon cedar outside one of the windows ... All the other houses are locked up. There is Shaker furniture only in the center family house. I tried to get in it and a gloomy old man living in the back told me curtly 'it was locked up.' The empty fields, the big trees—how I would love to explore those houses and listen to that silence. In spite of the general decay and despair there is joy there still and simplicity... Shakers fascinate me.

After Mary Settles passed, the land went into private hands and was parceled up. The Meeting Hall, with its well-supported grand ballroom, became an automobile repair garage. Oil stains the hardwood floors.

In 1961 a group of Lexington-area citizens launched an effort to restore the property. By 1964 the Friends of Pleasant Hill had organized a non-profit corporation, raised funds for operating expenses, and secured a $2 million loan to purchase and restore the site. Eight buildings were restored by 1968 and placed on public display.

Today, with 34 original 19th-century buildings and 2,800 acres (1100 ha.) of restored farmland, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is "the largest historic community of its kind in America." It is a place of continuing enchantment. Ann Lee herself recognized how revolutionary her ideas were when she said, "We [the Shakers] are the people who turned the world upside down." The walls echo the music and dance of a people who believed they were the last of their kind, but as it turned out, they weren't. At least, not yet.





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