People’s Park; or, the Crisis of Humanist Architectural Environmentalism

By Daniel Barber

The events at People’s Park, in the spring of 1969 at Berkeley, California, are seen by many as the end of the counter-culture of the 1960s. This thesis explains how People’s Park also signaled the end of an era for architecture; symbolic, if nothing else, of a dramatic shift in the self-defined purview of the field away from socially-oriented proposals. The College of Environmental Design (CED) at UC Berkeley, just blocks away from the Park site, was on the forefront of theoretical and methodological innovations in architecture that emphasized its ability to instrumentally impact social conditions. The legacy of the social project of modernism merged, at Berkeley, with a rapidly ‘scientificating’ academic culture, producing a series of systematic design approaches focused on the improvement of the social and physical ‘environment’. For some architects at the CED, however, the stand-off over People’s Park, between the power of the state and the desire of the people, was an indication of the inability of architectural processes to impact a bureaucratically organized world of market efficiency. The power of the institution was greater than the rational logic and humanist intent of architectural proposals.

After an introduction framing the events through a description of post-war humanism and its goals, the first chapter discusses the articulation of humanist architectural environmentalism in the development of Environmental Design as a new model for architectural practice. The innovative and influential work of Serge Chermayeff, a selfdescribed ‘scientific humanist’, grounds the first part of this story. The institutionalization of his methodological principles in the curriculum change at the College of Environmental Design in 1966 is then described. The second chapter pursues the methodological proposals of one of the main players of the CED curriculum change, Sim Van der Ryn, through his writings and the story of his interaction with the events at People’s Park. Van der Ryn’s proposal for the ‘radical planner’ will be seen as a step towards a new theory of causality in architecture, one which ultimately rejects the transcendent cause of humanism for the immanent production of change within social relations. Van der Ryn’s theories of the radical planner and of the module will produce the framework for an anti-humanist environmentalism, in which activist tactics are used to pursue short-term goals. The conclusion discusses the ramifications of this framework for contemporary discussions of environmentalism in architecture.