PRINT April 2008


“1973: Sorry, Out of Gas”

IN “1973: SORRY, OUT OF GAS,” a show currently on view at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the image that first arrests is of President Richard Nixon addressing the United States on November 7, 1973. A thin trickle of what is evidently sweat runs down his lip. He reads not from a teleprompter but from a sheaf of handwritten notes. The lighting is clinically unflattering. The scene is astonishing, especially if you can’t remember the last time you saw any departure from a fully scripted, stage-managed presidency, but the words are even more so: Calm and stern, Nixon comes across like a premature Green Party aspirant, condemning the profligate consumption integral to the American way of life. “In prosperity,” he notes, “what were once considered luxuries are . . . considered necessities.” How many times, he wants to know, have you driven down the highway and seen “hundreds and hundreds of cars with only one individual in that car?” The speed limit should be reduced to fifty miles per hour, he says. We should learn from the forward-looking fuel-saving policies of the “state of Oregon.” The US, he admonishes, has 6 percent of the world’s population but consumes more than 30 percent of its energy. “It may become necessary to take even stronger measures,” he warns.

The whole thing stands in such stringent contrast with the feel-good palaver and head-in-the-tar-sand myopia we’ve come to expect from the White House that it feels like it took place in a forgotten epoch. Where did this language come from, and where did it go? That is one of the questions posed by the CCA’s exhibition, which centers on the response of architects to the deprivations brought on by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo—with which the Arab oil-producing nations retaliated against the West for its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, and which immediately resulted in oil prices reaching record highs.

The footage of Nixon’s speech, presented here on one of several video monitors showing various leaders delivering austerity spiels (and the oil minister of Saudi Arabia calmly deflecting a combative BBC reporter), is just one of a number of startling images in the show. Others include a photograph of an empty autobahn during a driving ban in Germany and a collection of board games hinting at the decade’s underlying anxieties—including, most inauspiciously, 1975’s Oil War: American Intervention in the Persian Gulf. That such an intervention recently came to pass, orchestrated by American officials with deep-seated ties to the oil industry, is just one of the unsettling indicators of a point the CCA wants to make: Though 1973 feels a world apart, it never really went away, and its histories and counter-histories are particularly salient to the present moment.

To those of a certain age, like Mirko Zardini, the CCA’s director (and cocurator, with Giovanna Borasi, of this exhibition), the history is also biography. “In 1973 I was eighteen and living in Verona, Italy,” he told me. “On Saturday night I had to drive home before midnight because of the ban on the circulation of cars on Sunday.” This fairy tale–like episode sounds appropriately fantastic—one of many unlikely moments in an extraordinary year, in which not only the petroleum dependence of the West but much else it had taken for granted was forcibly questioned, and architects in particular responded with visions of alternative futures. “Nineteen seventy-three is not the beginning of the story,” Zardini said, “but it’s a moment in which the story becomes very interesting.”

Although the embargo had a knock-on effect all over the world, its consequences for the United States, the world’s largest consumer of oil, were particularly far-reaching. Moreover, 1973 was a year in which several seismic shifts were occurring at once, as political analyst Joseph Nye has noted. The unassailable hegemony of the US in the postwar years suddenly seemed fragile. The last troops left Vietnam that March, and, perhaps more pressingly, the so-called long boom that had seen the country’s economy grow an average of 4 percent annually since 1950 was definitely over. Domestic oil production had peaked in 1971, and the country increasingly relied upon imports; America’s dependence on oil suddenly looked like a house of cards. Nationalism was ascendant in the producer nations, making it hard to influence their prices and policies. The US had recently abandoned the gold standard and, consequently, the dollar had become cheaper and OPEC producers, who were used to dealing in dollars, were losing revenues. The organization had already begun raising prices when the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 provided the perfect opening for a more radical move: the embargo, which resulted in the price of oil quadrupling between October 1973 and January 1974. In Brooklyn, gas station owners started carrying pistols to protect themselves against increasingly petulant customers. The US Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1974 designed and printed ration coupons (displayed at CCA) featuring the image of George Washington and the words ONE UNIT GASOLINE. They were never used, however, as the intensity of the crisis abated after the embargo was lifted on March 17 of that year.

As severe as it was, however, the oil shortage was only the most immediately life-altering manifestation of a larger anxiety that the way of life the West had become accustomed to was no longer sustainable. In 1972 the Club of Rome’s report The Limits to Growth, with its neo-Malthusian message, was a global best seller. Book after book in the early 1970s featured the word survival in its title or referred to “Spaceship Earth,” Buckminster Fuller’s phrase for a planet with limited resources: Earth: Our Crowded Spaceship; Deciding How to Live on Spaceship Earth; The Survival Greenhouse; Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction; Ecological Crisis: Readings for Survival. Behind many of these books was the idea that we needed more fuel-efficient machines for living. In 1972 the magazine Architectural Design extolled the spirit of the times with a “Design for Survival” feature (which, ironically, included an article for a development project in Iraq, noting that the country’s “[oil] reserves will probably be exhausted within 25 to 30 years”).

As “1973: Sorry, Out of Gas” and the accompanying catalogue document, the response of architects was Janus-faced, looking forward to new ways of living even as it reached back to neglected impulses in the “old, weird America.” And so the “garbage houses” of Michael Reynolds, made from used tires and empty cans, recalled the sod-and-earth houses of nineteenth-century prairie settlers, which were heated by renewable “buffalo chips.” Architect Douglas Kelbaugh’s passive solar home in Princeton, New Jersey, begun in 1973 and riffing on French engineer Félix Trombe’s thermal storage wall, had in its lineage lost antecedents like the house built in 1949 for Amelia Peabody in Dover, Massachusetts—the first inhabited solar-powered home, which featured large drums that alternately absorbed and released heat. Wind-power projects like the Lebost wind turbine that was erected on New York University’s Barney Building in 1979 harkened back to the old Jacobs and Wincharger turbines that once populated America’s self-sustaining countryside.

Spurred on by the oil crisis, strands of Popular Mechanics–reading Yankee ingenuity and Whole Earth Catalog, Drop City–style social reinvention were merging. Seat-of-the-pants idealism was evident in projects like the Integral Urban House promoted by the Farallones Institute in Berkeley, California, or the bio-shelters of the New Alchemy Institute, called “arks,” which had intensive aquaculture facilities and wind- power plants. In an interview included in the exhibition, Reynolds speaks of how the mainstream began to engage with alternative forms of living: “They came out and tried to live differently,” he says, before adding, “They couldn’t do it. . . . They didn’t know how to build . . . they all went back to the way they used to live.”

The most radical architectural response to the energy crisis was a spate of “earth-sheltered building” projects, ranging from DIY schemes to the University of Minnesota’s high-tech Underground Space Center. The efficiency of earth-bermed and underground homes was undeniable (in the exhibition, the cover to a catalogue for Shelterra Earth Homes Inc. trumpets: “Energy Cost? $100/Year!!”), but there was a question as to just how far people were willing to go to change their ways. Were Americans really ready to adopt a lifestyle associated more with troglodytes than with the modern age? The images on view here, of houses nestled into traditional urban neighborhoods with only their roofs visible, or of the La-Z-Boy recliner and shag-pile carpeting inside the stone-walled Davis Cave in Armington, Illinois (where the roof is mowed grass), both play with and unsettle our conceptions of contemporary domesticity.

Indeed, no matter what their functionalist ethos, underground homes couldn’t help but have a whiff of millenarian doomsday about them. The Underground Home Pavilion shown at the 1964 World’s Fair (and depicted at the CCA), for example, was designed by Jay Swayze, a Texas builder who had been commissioned to construct model fallout shelters after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apart from guarding against radiation, the houses, Swayze soon realized, offered other protections: “The clamor of traffic, jets, noisy neighbors—all are gone with a turn of a switch and you are free to rest in silence, or experience for the first time the full range of sensations that today’s sensitive stereo systems are able to produce.” Only a few Swayze homes were built, and they are truly surreal artifacts. The one I have visited, built for Avon founder Jerry Henderson a few blocks away from the Las Vegas strip, has an Astroturf lawn, a Jenn-Air grill, and dreamlike “views”—actually stylized representations of the owner’s favorite landscapes—painted on the walls, enclosing the space into which the quite normal suburban-style house was placed: Thanks to fluorescent paints, the lights of Los Angeles glitter on one wall at night.

In Domesticity at War (2007), architectural historian Beatriz Colomina argues that the Swayze project was as much war itself as protection from war: “‘Peace’ is achieved in this war by environmental control, control over the ‘exterior’: temperature, noise, air, light, view,” she writes. “In the 1970s, with the oil crisis, the emphasis would turn toward energy saving, and in the 1980s toward ecological concerns. The description of the battlefield changes.” This raises a point that “1973: Sorry, Out of Gas” leaves largely unexplored. The oil crisis unleashed a wave of utopianism, but it also gave birth to a kind of brutal survivalist mind-set that recast the traditional icons of domesticity (e.g., ranch houses, La-Z-Boy recliners) in a form that not only suggested a return to sustenance-level cave dwelling, but, dialectically, was at one with the technological determinism of the space age. As historian Peder Anker has noted, many of these projects took on, either overtly or obliquely, the ethos of a reigning architectural motif of the time: the space capsule. Nothing quite so enchanted the imagination of ecological architects as these technologically advanced constructions, with their design priorities of self-containment in harsh conditions, recirculating processes, and absolute streamlining. NASA was itself a big backer of solar power, while companies like Grumman, suffering through a defense-spending slump, unveiled domestic living schemes—an “Integrated Household System” (the title echoes the Farallones Institute’s project)—based on space capsule designs. Perhaps we were all astronauts on Spaceship Earth, but, as Anker writes, architects were too often sealed in their own intellectual capsules: “Their some- what narrow focus on the circulation of energy and the efficiency of buildings came at the expense of a wider cultural, aesthetic and social understanding of architecture and the human condition.” Home, in other words, is more than a heating bill.

Nevertheless, the public acceptability of energy conservation reached another high point at the end of the decade. The country was by this time importing almost half its oil, and when the second oil shock struck in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, pushing the price of oil higher than it had ever been before, President Jimmy Carter installed a solar water-heating system on the White House roof. But even so, in conjunction with the fumbled endgame in Tehran and runaway inflation, the crisis ended up dooming his presidency. Then, in 1986, the Reagan administration removed the solar panels; it was morning in America, after all, and as the sun rose the White House had little call for its energy (those panels, one of which is displayed at the CCA, were acquired by Maine’s Unity College and were still being used years later). With his soothing reassurances (“trees cause more pollution than automobiles”), Reagan had what Alan Weisman calls “an instinctive grasp of our own desire to deny looming environmental limits.” And where are we today? Dubya has solar panels at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, but fights against the Kyoto Protocol and higher emission standards for cars. The questions raised by the CCA show are more relevant than ever: To what extent are we willing, architecturally or otherwise, to change our way of life in response to dwindling energy supplies? And what, if anything, did we learn from 1973? As I write, oil is again at record highs (exceeding $105 a barrel). The price during the second oil shock reached $39.50. Adjusted for inflation, in today’s prices that would be, it turns out, $103.76. Crisis, anyone?

“1973: Sorry, Out of Gas” remains on view at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, through Apr. 20.

Tom Vanderbilt is a writer based in New York.