Lessons From A Radical 1970s Architecture Collective

The work of Environmental Communications explored the uneasy relationship between architecture, visual media, and perception.

Columbia architecture professor Mark Wasiuta and his academic partner Marcos Sanchez were working on a research project recently when they made an unusual discovery: thousands of 35mm color slides that documented the environmental history of L.A. in the 1970s.

Created by a loose collective of architects, photographers, and artists called Environmental Communications, these slides documented L.A.’s physical and social landscape: geodesic domes, vans converted into houses, people waiting for the bus, labyrinthine highways, shoppers perusing record stores, peep-show storefronts, inflatable architecture, women sitting in salons, and more.

The snapshots, often mundane, embodied an experimental approach to architecture that was less about designing physical buildings than about shaping perception. The group eventually photographed beyond Southern California and packaged their slides up in heady-sounding libraries like “Shelters for Mankind” and “Venice of America: Canals, Calliopes, and Chaos” and sold them to universities as a way to “infiltrate” traditional modes of teaching with their unusual perspective on space and place.

Many of these slides are included in Environmental Communications: Contact High, a new exhibition at the gallery LAxArt. To assemble the archive, Wasiuta and his co-curators Sánchez and Adam Bandler spent years tracking down ephemera, calling universities (USC especially useful as a resource), and hunting through garage boxes to assemble as complete an archive as possible.

“I think it helps to think about [Environmental Communications] as one of many experimental collectives in the ’60s, like Ant Farm and Superstudio, that thought about architecture as a form of media and media as an experimental medium,” Wasiuta says.

In the 1960s, mainstream architecture was mostly concerned about professional practice, form, and a singular expression of capital-M modernism. “It doesn’t engage new media practices or environment,” Wasiuta says.

However, at the time, some schools were beginning to change their approach to design and architecture to think more holistically about space. The University of California, Berkeley, merged its architecture, landscape architecture, and city planning schools into the College of Environmental Design in 1959, which then impacted how California architects thought about their role beyond a singular building. That, plus the political environmental movement, elevated and changed the meaning of the word “environment.”

“As architecture shifted its institutional and theoretical stance toward environment, the group realized that no one knew what ‘environment’ looked like,” Wasiuta says. “The way environment was described, especially in environmental design discourse, was a term that stood for social relations in urban space. So how do you make the image?”

Environmental Communications dove right into the challenge of updating the way designers thought about design starting with the images students and professors saw in lectures. By exposing them to different photographs than what they would encounter in normal courses of study–the greatest hits that make it into textbooks are usually devoid of life–Environmental Communications thought that they could “infiltrate” their minds and pique curiosity beyond what generations of scholars have anointed into the canon.

Creating the images was only half of the equation–the other was actually getting these images in front of people. To that end, the collective created catalogs and sold images (think of Environmental Communications as the Whole Earth Catalog for media) to anyone who would buy them, but mostly targeted educational and cultural institutions. Wasiuta and his co-curators found invoices from hundreds of universities and museums. They even found records showing that the CIA and military purchased some slide libraries.

“The environmental image becomes a tool or weapon against establishment pedagogy,” Wasiuta says. “They’re trying to design systems of perception–and who knows precisely what that means.”

To Wasiuta, the early slide libraries are the most interesting. He particularly likes the “Urban Crowd Behavior” and “Human Territoriality In the City” compilations. “They sound dry, academic, and severe but the images aren’t,” he says. “[The collective] is stridently trying to position themselves in an institutional context [with the nomenclature] but the images are full of curious and anomalous and accidental moments in the city. There’s something in the intersection of this kind of haphazard photographic encounter with the city and how it’s framed as an academic thesis. That tension is interesting.”

Though Environmental Communications distributed work around the world, it’s impossible to know just how much influence it had on students and to Wasiuta that’s okay.

“It can’t be diagnosed,” he says of their impact. “We’re attracted to Environmental Communications not because they’re really going to spark a cognitive revolution, but because there seemed to be a certain clarity of the media apparatus of architecture in the 1970s and they seemed to understand the state of audio-visual education. That’s why the slide library is an interesting story. The most ‘boring’ place in a university–the slide librarian with their slides–is in other ways the most fascinating because it’s a radical transformation of education through audio-visual techniques.”

Despite their ambition, Environmental Communications was a failure from a business sense, and the group ran out of money and ceased operating by the 1980s. Because of this, Wasiuta thinks of Environmental Communications as one long performance piece. “They’re performing as a collective and a business,” he says.

Environmental Communications occupies a fascinating moment in architecture for historians and designers from the angle of understanding the role of architects, counterculture movements, and the power of media–whether real or perceived–to shape a discipline. Outside of that, the photographs offer a chance to look back nostalgically at L.A. in the 1970s and in a medium that’s all but dead.

“I suspect that’s what most people will want to see,” he says. “Seeing those images of Venice and Windward Avenue, the social groups fashioning and self-posturing–that reveals something about the moment and the social fluidity of Southern California.”

Environmental Communications: Contact High is on view until April 1, 2017.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.