The Problem Is Still... The Environment

Page 1

The front cover artwork features a photograph of the full Earth, published in Progressive Architecture (July 1970), an image of the Roseau Children’s Centre, courtesy of Dudley Thompson (Praire Architects), and a photograph of Maison Lessard, found in the Canadian Centre for Architecture archives (Minimum Cost Housing Group fonds, ARCH273329).

A New Little Magazine The rise of an environmental con-

and international journals and magazines

sciousness in the 1960s and 1970s pro-

and a study of the archives of the Mini-

voked a number of experiments by archi-

mum Cost Housing Group of the McGill

tects, builders, and thinkers that defied

University School of Architecture, seen

conventions and offered spatial solutions

through the lenses of alternative technolo-

to ecological problems. These experi-

gy, vernacular architecture, and ecological

ments were part of a larger counterculture

systems theory.

movement: they challenged the modernist notion of “good design” while responding

This publication, inspired by the

to general anxieties of the time. A new

“little magazines” of the 1960s and 1970s,

feeling of architectural freedom, inspired

engages the knowledge and projects pro-

by back-to-the-land philosophies and do-

duced during the period within the wider

it-yourself approaches, led to the invention

framework of experimental environmen-

of a number of colourful technologies that

tal practices in design and architecture,

can now be re-examined. How effective

with particular emphasis on the work of

were geodesic domes, passive solar walls,

the Minimum Cost Housing Group. The

and mist showers in mediating social and

publication includes essays, timelines, and

environmental problems that were becom-

visuals, as well as an interview with Witold

ing increasingly global in scale?

Rybczynski, director of the Minimum Cost Housing Group between 1973 and 1988.

The Problem Is Still... The Environment is the product of a research residency

This is a new little magazine that

that was conducted between June and

shows that the problem was, and is still,

August 2016 at the Canadian Centre for

the environment.

Architecture in Montreal. The research focuses on a period when designers mobilized methods originating from the counterculture to develop projects that engaged ecological debates and that were disseminated through small publications. The

Lisa Chow, Michèle Curtis, and Geneviève Depelteau, Montreal, August 2016

perspectives presented in this publication result from a review of North American



What Makes an “Operation”? Three Projects, Some Publications, and a Bit of Sulphur



the economic, environmental, and health

By Lisa Chow

The Ecol House was the first demon-

benefits of this way of life. Although the

stration project in which the MCHG ex-

MCHG was based in North America, the

plored shelter, waste building, water use,

Ecol House was designed as a low-cost

and sanitation in a housing prototype for

dwelling prototype for developing coun-

developing countries. The group designed

tened a small, self-sustainable low-cost

tries, aiming to address needs for housing

the project according to their “12 Ways of

house, built in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue

and basic services. The first issue in the

Building Ecologically” guidelines.2 Large

near Montreal, as “Ecol.”1 The house was

group’s self-published The Problem Is se-

reserves of elemental sulphur were widely

constructed by the Minimum Cost Hous-

ries outlined their research on this subject,

available as industrial waste across Canada

ing Group (MCHG) of the School of

and was entitled “Prefabricated House

in the 1970s.3 Because sulphur requires

Architecture at McGill University. It was

for Developing Countries.” Later projects

very little energy to melt down and bind

conceived as the first in a three-part series

in the Ecol Operation were designed for

with other materials, and because it does

of built structures that the group designed

developed countries. The Ecol Operation

not require complex processing equipment

in the 1970s, in an initiative named “The

participated in the broader discourse

to transform it for use in construction, the

Ecol Operation.” Ecologically conscious

on ecology and appropriate technology

MCHG saw it as a low-cost and high-po-

designers in the 1970s believed that small-

through materials, sanitation technology,

tential material for housing in Canada

scale, decentralized, energy-efficient, and

and strategies of self-sufficiency. It can be

and in poorer countries. At the same time,

locally controlled technology provided

disputed as to whether Ecol’s projects truly

the Canadian government was interested

the answer to environmental concerns

demonstrated a commitment to ecology,

sulphur construction, and the MCHG re-

in developed countries. E. F. Schumacher’s

appropriate technology, low-cost mate-

ceived support from the Sulphur Institute

Small is Beautiful (1973) and Ivan Illich’s

rials, and a self-build approach, but each

and the Central Mortgage and Housing

Tools for Conviviality (1973) criticized

prototype does demonstrate an evolving

Corporation. The group first conducted

industrialized society and advocated a re-

response to governmental programs and

experiments with sulphur concrete, mixing

turn to popular practical knowledge, citing

economic incentives.

sulphur with different aggregates

In 1972, Buckminster Fuller chris-

Buckminster Fuller was in Montreal in 1972 to give a lecture at Dawson College and was invited by the Minimum Cost Housing Group to visit their newly built Ecol House at the MacDonald Campus of McGill. 1

Minimum Cost Housing Group, “The Ecol Operation: Ecology + Building + Common Sense,” The Problem Is 2 (Montreal, 1973), 9. 3

These twelve points include building with materials that can be recycled rather than discarded at the end of a building’s life, using renewable energy to generate electricity, using solar energy to purify water and for heating. See “The Ecol Operation: Ecology + Building + Common Sense” for a full list. 2

Fig. 1. The Ecol House (1972) was a prototype for a sustainable low-cost house. This photograph was published in “The Ecol Operation: Ecology + Building + Common Sense” (1973) as the cover page.



Fig. 2. The Saddle Lake Project (1973) was a sulphur-concrete community building built on an Indian Reserve. Canadian Centre for Architecture archives, Minimum Cost Housing Group fonds, ARCH273011.

while using various molds.4 They then

The Saddle Lake Project of 1973 was

Maison Lessard was a third applica-

continued with the Ecol House in 1972.

a further application of Ecol in the field. It

tion of Ecol carried out between May 1974

They pre-casted modular sulphur con-

was carried out in response to governmen-

and January 1975. The MCHG had by

crete blocks for the walls, cut sewer pipes

tal interest, with the aim of demonstrating

this point become known through press

for the roof, installed solar stills for an

how, with sulphur, First Nations people

coverage, publications, and association

off-the-grid sanitary unit, and assembled

could meet their own building needs.

with McGill. The project was for summer

a windmill at the MacDonald Campus of

Following the success of the Ecol House,

housing for nuns in Quebec City, and the

McGill in the spring and summer of 1972.

the MCHG was invited and financially

client was interested in sulphur-concrete

The group’s research on materials, sani-

supported by the Department of Northern

construction for a permanent building in

tation, and self-sufficiency informed this

and Indian Affairs to build a pavilion in

a Northern environment. The MCHG built

first project, and the project was in turn an

sulphur concrete at the Saddle Lake Indian

an insulated low-cost four-bedroom house

experimental learning process that would

Reserve in Alberta. In collaboration with a

using sulphur-concrete blocks. The group

inform later prototypes. Members of the

Cree community, the MCHG built a com-

also installed a composting toilet inside

MCHG lived in the house for two summers

munity building composed of four curved

the house as part of their research on san-

after construction. The group published

walls. The group, working with the Cree,

itation, which had begun in 1973 with the

their process in “The Ecol Operation: Ecol-

transferred photographs and images from

publication of “Stop the Five Gallo Flush!”,

ogy + Building + Common Sense,” as the

magazines onto the modular blocks, and

the third issue in The Problem Is. Accord-

second issue in The Problem Is, a series

topped the cylindrical building with

ing to Witold Rybczynski, the composting

that was part of a larger countercultural

a conical galvanized metal roof. Self-

toilet was not very popular with the resi-

press movement. The publication focus-

build construction, rather than ecolo-

dents of the house.8 The MCHG’s primary

es on sulphur concrete, sanitation, and

gy, may have been the MCHG’s primary

motive in the Maison Lessard project was

low-cost materials, mentioning ecology in

interest in this project, and they indeed

to prove further applications of sulphur

the first pages. Six thousand five hundred

found that with modular construction,

construction, and the group was therefore

copies were sold exclusively through mail

self-building by non-specialized workers

focused more on materials than on the

order over three years and three editions.

was possible.





The Ecol House was also widely covered in local newspapers, university journals, and the architectural press, appearing in the Montreal Star, Architectural Design, and The Canadian Architect. Publication of the project gave the MCHG publicity and momentum.



The experiments were conducted in the engineering lab at McGill’s Faculty of Engineering. 4

The MCHG collaborated with other research groups at McGill. For example, the solar still was designed and installed by the Brace Research Institute. 5

Minimum Cost Housing Group, “The Ecol Operation: Ecology + Building + Common Sense,” The Problem Is 2 (Montreal, 1973), ii. 6

The Saddle Lake Project was Jon Boon’s thesis project in Minimum Cost Housing Studies at McGill’s School of Architecture, with Witold Rybczynski as advisor. 7

The final phase of the Ecol Operation

Through the Ecol Operation, the

Thereafter, ecology is never mentioned,

was Ecol II, designed for a government

MCHG actively participated in interna-

and the subject is also absent from their

program and intended to reach a wide

tional development research, the appropri-

later publications. But if the group was

audience in order to publicize the MCHG’s

ate technology discourse, the countercul-

not ecological, it was nonetheless focused

work. In response to rapid urban growth,

tural publishing movement, and ecological

on reusing and recycling materials in

the Canadian Urban Demonstration

design. In addition to their own publica-

innovative ways in order to maintain low

Program called for socially sustainable

tions, the MCHG was covered in the

construction and material costs. The name

demonstration projects. The PEI Ark by

architectural press, university journals,

“Minimum Cost Housing Group” was, in

the New Alchemists— a habitable green-

local newspapers, countercultural maga-

this sense, quite well chosen.

house dubbed a “bioshelter”—was built at

zines, environment newsletters, and scien-

Spry Point in the context of this program.

tific journals at national and international

At the same time, the organizers of the

levels. Working in a spirit of experimen-

United Nations Conference on Human

tation and hands-on testing of ideas, the

Settlements, to be held in Vancouver in

MCHG developed many innovative, small-

1976, were welcoming demonstration

scale, and low-cost technologies within

project proposals. Ecol II was approved

the appropriate technology movement.

for the Canadian Urban Demonstration

Although the group was in contact with

Program, but the MCHG received a letter

developing countries, their prototypes

in July 1975 stating that funding for the

were never applied in these contexts, and

program was suspended indefinitely. Ecol

they ultimately did not succeed in their

II would have been a two-storey version

goal of implementing a housing prototype

of Ecol with a Trombe wall, a composting

outside of North America. Despite these

toilet, and a rooftop garden, but it was not

limitations, the Ecol Operation allowed the

planned to be built with sulphur concrete.

MCHG to launch its activities.


The project was not realized for the UN conference either, and the Ecol Operation

Oddly, it is possible that the MCHG

ended at this point. The MCHG moved

was not, in fact, ecological at all. In the

on to other projects, working on garbage

first pages of “The Ecol Operation: Ecology

housing and rooftop gardens in the second

+ Building + Common Sense,” the authors

half of the 1970s.

outline “12 Ways of Building Ecologically.”

Witold Rybczynski, interview by Lisa Chow, Michèle Curtis, Geneviève Depelteau and Kim Förster, 5 August 2016. 8

This is the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements convened by the UN, and it is also known as Habitat I. The purpose of these conferences is to formulate human settlement policies and spatial planning strategies, addressing inequitable economic growth and rapid urbanization. 9

Fig. 3. Maison Lessard was a four-bedroom summer house using sulphur concrete, and included a composting toilet. Canadian Centre for Architecture archives, Minimum Cost Housing Group fonds, ARCH273329.



Notes on the History of Architectural Collaboration with First Nations People



By Michèle Curtis

The 1960s and 1970s saw a sharp

effects. Cardinal explains that the holistic

today, these articles are appropriative and

philosophy of First Nations and Métis

frame sacred structures as do-it-your-

cultures extends beyond dwellings to

self craft projects. The articles reflect a

embrace the entire experience of living in

general pattern of liberal, reductive use of

a community.2

the forms and functions of First Nations architecture.

rise in environmental consciousness in North America. Sustainable design

The 1951 Indian Act amendment,


solutions were at the centre of the debate

followed by Jean Chrétien and Pierre

that resulted, and vernacular architecture,

Trudeau’s controversial White Paper

Nations architecture carried out in the

that is, structures produced not by archi-

policy of 1969 that meant to abolish the

1960s and 1970s are superficial, some

tects but by a community with a specific

act and to fully integrate all First Nations

North American architects did work

heritage and in a specific place, became an

people into Canada, led to social and

closely with First Nations people, gaining

important topic. Although writings such

political turmoil in First Nations commu-

insight into social and political situations,

as Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture With-

nities.4 Moreover, very little scholarship

environmental conditions, and traditional

out Architects and Paul Oliver’s Shelter

on First Nations architecture had been

vernacular building techniques. McGill

and Society were catalysts for discussion,

produced by the 1960s and 1970s. The

University’s Minimum Cost Housing

vernacular architecture in the contem-

Canadian Whole Earth Almanac’s 1970

Group (MCHG) and the Winnipeg firm

porary sense was already being practiced

issue on shelter featured the article “The

Prairie Architects led low-cost housing

by, among others, Douglas Cardinal, an

Sioux Tipi,” which includes a checklist

and communal building projects on First

architect and philosopher of First Nations

with simplified instructions, and another

Nations reserves in the 1970s. The projects

descent. Vernacular architecture in a

article on sweat lodges, structures in which

helped to improve living conditions on

First Nations context relies on natural

“the expulsion of dirt and germs through

these reserves, led to educational benefits

resources in the immediate surroundings

profuse sweating literally causes the re-

for the communities, and fostered collec-

but has minimal long-term environmental

moval of evil from the body.” Considered

tive involvement.



“What Is Vernacular Architecture?” Ethno Architecture: Architecture In Color, accessed 10 August 2016, http:// 1

Trevor Body and Douglas Cardinal, The Architecture of Douglas Cardinal with Essays by Douglas Cardinal (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1989). 2

Although most studies of First

The Indian Act only affects First Nations people, not Métis or Inuit. The act outlines governmental obligations to First Nations and determines “status,” a legal recognition of a person’s First Nations heritage that affords certain rights such as the right to live on a reserve. “Indian Act,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed 16 August 2016, http://www. 3

“The White Pater 1969,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed 16 August 2016, http://www. article/the-whitepaper-1969. 4

Canadian Whole Earth Almanac Research Foundation, “Sweat Bathing,” Canadian Whole Earth Almanac, Shelter issue (1970): 35. 5

Fig. 1. Checklist for the do-it-yourself construction of a tipi. This image was published in “The Sioux Tipi” article in the Canadian Whole Earth Almanac Shelter (1970).



In the summer of 1973, three mem-

low costs and investments, along with

a project for a community centre on the

bers of the MCHG—project director Witold

a high degree of collaboration between

Roseau River Reserve, south of Winnipeg,

Rybczynski, research assistant Wajid Ali,

architects, engineers, and the Band.

in collaboration with the Roseau Band.

and Master of Architecture student Jon

Joyce McArthur, a Band member, and

Boon—were approached by the Special

The Saddle Lake pavilion was the

Dorinda Vollmer, a United Church minis-

Assignments Group of the Department of

first trial use of the MCHG’s sulphur

ter, led fundraising efforts for the project,

Indigenous and Northern Affairs to partic-

concrete, an intermediate technology—

which resulted in a total sum of about

ipate in a pilot project on the Saddle Lake

technology suitable for use in develop-

$120,000.10 The main intention of the

First Nations Cree Reserve, near St. Paul,

ing countries, typically based on locally

project for the Roseau Children’s Centre

Alberta. Through this project, the MCHG

available resources and skills—that had

was to provide a low-cost building in order

intended to determine the potential for the

been initially developed in the group’s

to decrease dependence on outside energy

production of small-scale building compo-

Ecol Operation experiment. Jon Boon had

sources, to build using local labor, and to

nents out of their new experimental ma-

particular interest in collaborating with

allow for funds to be invested in program

terial: sulphur concrete. The goal was for

First Nations people; his thesis, “Sulphur

rather than in operating requirements.11

the Cree to adopt the new material and the

as an Intermediate Technology for Hous-

Intermediate technology was included in

MCHG’s building methods to meet their

ing within Community Development” drew

the project in order to provide employ-

own needs. The Saddle Lake Band Council

on precedents such as Inuit “self-help”

ment for the Band members. The design

suggested that the building be a com-

housing co-operatives in Frobisher Bay

of the centre was based on the ancestral

munity food and refreshments pavilion

and Inuvik, where the buildings were con-

earth lodge shelter, the dominant dwelling

in a public space in the lakeside reserve;

structed by the residents themselves using

of Central and Northern Great Plains First

people would be able to watch the work in

local material and traditional techniques

Nations village, and it was built in a circu-

progress and participate. Before construc-

at a low cost.9 With the Saddle Lake proj-

lar, dome shape with timber superstruc-

tion began, two Band members visited the

ect, Boon intended to show how people of

tures mantled by thick layers of earth.12

MCHG in Montreal to learn the construc-

different skills, backgrounds, and beliefs

The project featured sustainable energy

tion procedure and become acquainted

could benefit from collaboration, while im-

techniques such as passive energy gain

with the group members. The Saddle Lake

proving living conditions on First Nations

through site and structure, active energy

project demonstrated how a small factory


using wood, solar, and electrical systems,



could be established to process a raw ma-

and recovery energy systems.

terial, which was abundant in the remote area, at the building site itself.7 It involved

In 1978, Dudley Thompson and Paul Moody of Prairie Architects embarked on

Fig. 2. Construction of the Saddle Lake pavilion (1973). Canadian Centre for Architecture archives, Minimum Cost Housing Group fonds, ARCH273011.

Fig. 3. Minimum Cost Housing Group and members of the Saddle Lake Band (1973). Canadian Centre for Architecture archives, Minimum Cost Housing Group fonds, ARCH273011.

Jon Boon, “Sulphur as an Intermediate Technology for Housing within Community Development” (M.Arch diss., McGill University, 1974).




Minimum Cost Housing Group, “The Saddle Lake Project,” Open House International 13, no. 1 (1988): 12. 7


Witold Rybczynski, interview by Lisa Chow, Michèle Curtis, Geneviève Depelteau, and Kim Förster, 5 August 2016. 8

Jon Boon, “Sulphur as an Intermediate Technology for Housing within Community Development” (M.Arch diss., McGill University, 1974).

Anna Olson, “Indians Raise $107,000 and Build Passive Solar Centre,” Canadian Renewable Energy News, April 1979. 10

At an early stage, Dudley Thompson

collaboration between southern Canadi-

committed to working with sustainable

an architects and First Nations people,

design and intermediate technology for

which led to beneficial and progressive

environmentally conscious buildings. After

work in the 1960s and 1970s. The projects

starting his own practice in Winnipeg,

introduced intermediate technology and

Thompson began making connections with

low-cost building solutions, but would not

Band members from the Roseau Reserve

have been successful without the vernacu-

and was shocked at living conditions on

lar architectural practice of First Nations

the reserve.13 He was determined to carry

people. As David Suzuki writes:

out the project for the Roseau Children’s

Fig. 4. A member of the Roseau Band building the Children’s Centre (c. 1978). Courtesy of Dudley Thompson, Prairie Architects.

Centre with traditional techniques and

The environmental subsumes

recycled materials so that the Band could

every aspect of our activities, but

construct the building themselves and

we failed to make the point that

keep the labour money on the reserve.

our lives, health, and livelihoods

Women of the reserve were especially

absolutely depend on the bio-

involved, and they helped decide which

sphere—air, water, soil, sunlight,

functions and accommodations would best

and biodiversity. Without them,

suit the project. (Showers, reading rooms,

we sicken and die. This perspective

a game area, and a kitchen were ultimately

is reflected in spiritual practices

included.) In addition to the project’s

that understand that everything is

collaborative ambitions, the Roseau Chil-

interconnected, as well as tradi-

dren’s Centre had ecological importance:

tional societies that revere “Mother

Thompson and his team received the Low

Earth” as the source of all that

Energy Building Design Award for the

matters in life.16


project.15 The architects of the Roseau Children’s Although there is no consistent his-

Centre and the Saddle Lake pavilion

toriography on the topic of First Nations

learned building systems from First Na-

architecture, both the MCHG’s Saddle

tions Bands, creating harmonious environ-

Lake pavilion and Prairie Architects’

ments not only in architecture, but also in

Roseau Children’s Centre are evidence of

the communities.

Dudley Thompson and Paul Moody, “Roseau Children’s Centre: Low Energy Building Design Awards Competition Submission” (1978). 11

“Earth Lodges,” Encyclopedia of Great Plains, accessed 16 August 2016, encyclopedia/doc/ egp.arc.020.xml. 12

Dudley Thompson, email message to author, 8 August 2016. 13

Dudley Thompson and Paul Moody, “Roseau Children’s Centre.” 14

Paul Cosgrove, Public Works Canada, “Winning Low Energy Building Designs: Existing Buildings—Roseau Children’s Centre Details,” Ottawa, 1980. 15

David Suzuki, “The Fundamental Failure of Environmentalism,” Science Matters, 3 May 2012. 16

Fig. 5. Early timber construction of the Roseau Children’s Centre (c. 1978). Courtesy of Dudley Thompson, Prairie Architects.







Futuro House by Matti Suuronen Trombe Wall Experiment by Felix Trombe Passive solar building design

Carboard Dome by Buckminster Fuller

Drop City by Steve Baer

“Voyage en Orient” by Le Corbusier

New Gourna Village by Hassan Fathy

St by

Villa Moissi by Adolf Loos

Garden Cities Movement by Hebenezer Howard Self-contained communities surrounded by greenbelts Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted

Theory on plant community

Plan for the Valley by Patrick Geddes



Sea Ra by Law A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold





Zome House by Steven Baer PEI Ark by the New Alchemists

The Integral Urban House Farallones Institute

The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment by Reyner Banham Garbage Housing by Martin Pawley Earthship House by Michael Reynolds Kelbaugh Solar House by Douglas Kelbaugh

Shelter and Society by Paul Oliver

t-Mary’s Church y Cardinal Douglas

Spinach House by Michael Reynolds House Form and Culture by Amos Rapoport

Creation of ICOMOS Le Conseil international des monuments et des sites

anch (Ecoscore) wrence Halprin

Arcosanti by Paolo Soleri

Suburban community design by Ian McHarg

Take Me to the Mountain by Charles Tapley and Associates

Ira Keller Fountain by Lawrence Halprin

Our Common Future Brundtland Commission Report on Sustainable Development



ECO LOGY Architecture and Ecology in Practice: The Ecosystem Paradigm



By Geneviève Depelteau

effect on the healthy balance of the planet,

be a culture vessel, a space capsule, a crop

and in order to find solutions, design pro-

field, a pond, or the earth’s biosphere.”3

fessionals turned to biologists and ecologists, who had first pointed to evidence

This holistic approach of looking at the

of these ill effects. Consulting with these

world provided theorists and others well

Earth Jamboree took place in an uninhab-

scientists led architects, designers, and

beyond the field of ecology with a new,

ited valley in California, to celebrate the

planners to reflect on the interconnection

quantitatively measurable, analytical

Whole Earth Catalog’s tenth anniversary.

and organization of living systems and the

method. Landscape architect Ian McHarg

Stewart Brand, pioneer of “do-it-yourself”

application of these systems to the built

is renowned for his application of ecology

and alternative technology, and editor of


as “the single indispensable basis for land-

On 25 and 27 August 1978, the Whole

the catalogue, invited important people he had collaborated with over the years

scape architecture and regional planning.”4 During the 1950s and 1960s, the

In a 1967 article published in Landscape

to mingle and chat. On the invitation list

prevalence of system theory in science

Architecture, he used health and city plan-

were names such as Lewis Mumford, Luna

contributed to the establishment of

ning to build a parallel with system theory.

Leopold, Howard T. Odum, R. Buckmin-

ecology as a discipline. Among others, the

In his model, any system “going towards

ster Fuller, Witold Rybczynski, and Lloyd

American ecologist brothers Howard T.

simplicity, uniformity, instability with a

Kahn, showing the close relationship

and Eugene Odum wrote prolifically on

low number of species and high entropy is

between ecological theorists and counter-

the recently developed concept of ecosys-

retrogressing; any system moving into that

culture architects whose work had marked

tem, and published numerous books that

direction is moving towards ill health.”5

the 1970s. The epithet biologist was as-

became part of the ecology curriculum in

Based on this principle of equilibrium,

cribed to each person listed—bioarchitect,

the United States. In their early research,

McHarg developed an ecological inven-

biohistorian, dwelling-biologist, and even

the Odum brothers described ecosystems

tory method that worked as a checklist of

minimum cost housing biologist—every-

as closed and self-regulated entities, where

interrelated systems inherent to the re-

one was a biologist of something. But what

all living and non-living organisms inter-

gional identity of a place. Applied with the

could architecture learn from ecological

act in order to reach a state of equilibrium.

method of map overlay, the methodology

theories? And, how did this relationship fit

Once disturbed, feedback mechanisms

that he called “physiographic determin-

within the growing environmental move-

are generated until equilibrium is reached

ism” provided him with a strategy to locate

ment of the 1960s and 1970s?

again. In this paradigm, ecosystems could

places of opportunities, as well as areas for

be understood in broader terms: “We

development with the least ecological con-

might say that ecology is the study of the

sequences. In The Woodlands, a suburban

that arose in North America following

structure and function of nature, if we de-

community development near Houston,

the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent

fine nature as any life-support system (i.e.,

McHarg put his methodology into practice.

Spring in 1962 involved the realization

any ecosystem) functioning within what-

The environmental assessment of The

that human activities had a destructive

ever space we chose to consider whether it

Woodlands determined the final form


The environmental consciousness

Invitation for the Whole Earth Jamboree, Canadian Centre for Architecture archives, Minimum Cost Housing Group fonds, AR2016.0046.018. 1

One of the leading textbooks of the time was Eugene P. Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1953). 2


Ian McHarg, “The Ecology of the City,” Journal of Architectural Education 17 (1962): 101–103. 4

Ian McHarg, “An Ecological Method for Landscape Architecture,” Landscape Architecture 57, no. 2 (1967): 105–107. 5

Eugene P. Odum, “The New Ecology,” BioScience 14, no. 7 (July 1964): 14–16. 3

Fig. 1. “Where should highways go?” is a comprehensive study by Ian McHarg for the development of highway 1-95, and includes a detailed explanation of the map overlay method. The article and photographs shown above were published in Landscape Architecture (1967).



of the project, in which roads, houses,

their first housing prototype, Ecol I, in

As historian and landscape architect David

and open spaces were entirely designed ac-

1972, using appropriate technologies

Streatfield suggests in a 1972 Landscape

cording to the area’s hydrological system.

popular for small-scale living, such as

Architecture article, groups and architects

passive solar energy, water conservation

such as Fuller and Reyner Banham created

techniques, and recycled waste. However,

technological solutions that “ignore the

tects, less concerned with the specificities

the idea of the Ecol House as an “ecologi-

most fundamental dimension of the prob-

of the region, and motivated by an anti-es-

cally-responsible-building” became clear-

lem, the relationship between man and his

tablishment agenda or by environmental

er two years later in the Ecol Operation

natural environment.”9 Although McHarg’s

concerns, applied ecosystem theory to

Report, which summarized the evolution

practice was to develop the landscape for

the questions of housing and technology

of the project and introduced Ecol II, a

human activities that are harmonious

with the goal of reducing human stress on

prototype designed to be “quantitatively

with nature, his attitude toward human-

earth. The house, understood as a life-sup-

instrumented to measure water utilization,

ity as a “depletive organic system”10 and

port system, engendered a new generation

temperature, incident solar radiation,

cities as a “pathological environment”11

of “bricoleurs”6 seeking self-sufficiency

and power utilization.” Ecol II embodied

clearly demonstrates a separation be-

and a return to the land, and publications

the logic of a closed system that could be

tween humans and nature. The idea of the

such as the Whole Earth Catalog broad-

quantitatively measured. To frame their

ecosystem as a closed system raised some

casted innovative soft technologies that

approach, the MCHG invoked Howard T.

questions during the 1970s, with the inte-

built on the idea of a self-regulated ecosys-

Odum’s principle of competitive ecology

gration of population genetics and biology

tem. This was a rich period for small, inde-

and energy flow, showing the influence of

suggesting “the dynamic and changing

pendent publications discussing ecological

ecological theories. The group continued

nature of communities and ecosystems.”12

topics along with design–build projects.

to develop autonomous and ecological

Population ecology studied the complex

Mainstream architectural magazines

building ideas throughout the 1970s,

relationship of species populations with

increasingly acknowledged ecologically

including research on greenhouses and

their environment, which automatically

driven architecture and the limited-run

composting toilet systems, before taking

integrated human cultures with the rest of

publications that members of this coun-

a shift towards international development

the environment. Some of the most con-

terculture established to disseminate their

and urban planning.

structive critics of system theory in design

A number of counterculture archi-



came from former students of Ian McHarg

projects. But can an autonomous house be

at the University of Pennsylvania, such as

truly ecological with no connection to a

Anne Whiston Spirn, Michael Hough, and

(MCHG) at McGill University was interest-

specific region? And can ecological plan-

Frederick Steiner, who applied McHarg’s

ed in self-sufficiency for low-cost housing

ning be successful without the complete

systemic approach to planning to the na-

in developing countries. The group built

integration of cities and human activities?

scent field of urban ecology.

The Minimum Cost Housing Group

Witold Rybczynski uses this term to describe counterculture architects. Witold Rybczynski, interview by Lisa Chow, Michle Curtis, Geneviève Depelteau, and Kim Förster, 5 August 2016. 6

Minimum Cost Housing Group, “The Ecol Operation: Ecology + Building + Common Sense,” The Problem Is 2 (Montreal: 1972). 7


Fig. 2. Publicity for the Whole Earth Almanac, the Canadian version of the Whole Earth Catalog. This advertisement was published in Progressive Architecture (1970).




David Streatfield, “Ideas into the Landscape: Leaders Do Not Wait to Be Called,” Landscape Architecture 62, no. 2 (1972): 148–151. 9

Ian McHarg, “The Ecology of the City,” Journal of Architectural Education 17, no. 2 (1962): 101–103. 10

Ian McHarg, Design with Nature (Garden City, NJ: Natural History Press, 1969). 11

The new ecological paradigm taking

had been director of the MCHG for about

shape at the end of the 1970s accepted that

four years, came to the conclusion that for

the composition of a community was not

pragmatic observers interested in solving

completely predictable, and that it could

problems, “appropriate technologies have

be transformed by factors outside the

little to offer. It is a movement that is long

ecosystem, including the role of human

on polemic and pitifully short on actual

culture on all natural systems. With this


paradigm, human cultures embodied cities as a natural habitat. While working on

As the Whole Earth Jamboree attend-

The Woodlands with Ian McHarg, Anne

ees were packing their tents and saying

Whiston Spirn wrote, “In fact, nature is

their goodbyes, perhaps some felt the end

a continuum; city and wilderness are its

of an era, as autonomous buildings and

poles,”13 arguing for an understanding of

alternative lifestyles would no longer be

cities as a natural evolution of the human

seen as effective responses to the environ-

ecosystem. Defining the city as an eco-

mental debate. In a period of time when

system called into question the conserva-

the predominant definition of humanity’s

tion strategies and planning boundaries

stewardship of nature shifted from conser-

between cities and regions. This view

vation, to preservation, and to sustainable

of ecology was especially relevant given

development, cybernetic architecture and

that economic and power structures were

ecological planning evolved along with

increasingly attributed to cities: as Michael

changes happening in the field of ecology.

Hough argues, “environmental solutions to

The new ecological paradigm, building on

problems in the larger landscape have their

nature as a continuum, generated a new

roots in cities and must, therefore, also be

dialogue on temporality and the impor-

sought there.”14 In this context, an ecolog-

tance of the site in both architecture and

ical approach based on decentralized and

landscape architecture. As Steward Brand

small-scale autonomous systems praised

would conclude sixteen years later: “A

by the counterculture builders, such as

building is not something you finish. A

solar-heated systems, spray showers, and

building is something you start.”16

Fig. 4. Examples of ecological counterculture magazines published in Methane: Atomic Rooster’s Here (1973).

greenhouses, did not offer viable solutions to the environmental problems that were growing in scale and complexity. In an article published in CoEvolution Quaterly in 1977, Witold Rybczynski, who by this point Robert E. Cook, “Do Landscapes Learn? Ecology’s ‘New Paradigm’ and Design in Landscape Architecture,” in Environmentalism in Landscape Architecture, ed. Michael Conan (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2000), 115–132. 12

Anne Whiston Spirn, “The Role of Natural Processes in the Design of Cities,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 451 (1980): 98–105. 13

Michael Hough, “The Urban Landscape: The Hidden Frontier,” Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 15, no. 4 (1983): 9–14. 14

Witold Rybczynski, “Appropriate Technology: The Upper Case Against,” CoEvolution Quaterly (1977). 15

Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (New York: Viking Press, 1994). 16

Fig. 3. Ecol II was a prototype proposed for Habitat Forum 1976 in Vancouver. Unpublished proposal for Ecol Operation (1974). Canadian Centre for Architecture archives, Minimum Cost Housing fonds, ARCH2016.0046.021.



An Interview with Witold Rybczynski

By Lisa Chow, Michèle Curtis, Geneviève Depelteau, and Kim Förster.

Witold Rybczynski is a writer, archi-

Witold Rybczynski est un écrivain,

tect, and emeritus professor at the Univer-

architecte et professeur émérite de l’Uni-

sity of Pennsylvania. For most of the 1970s

versité de Pennsylvanie. Pendant une

and the 1980s, he was involved with the

bonne partie des années 1970 et 1980,

Minimum Cost Housing group (MCHG)

il a été impliqué avec le Minimum Cost

of the School of Architecture at McGill

Housing Group (MCHG) au département

University, first as a student and later as

d’architecture de l’université McGill, tout

the group’s director. We spoke with him

d’abord comme étudiant, ensuite comme

about the work of the MCHG and its po-

directeur. Nous avons discuté avec lui du

sition within a countercultural movement

travail réalisé par le groupe et leur relation

in architecture, which was triggered by a

avec la contreculture, éveillée par une nou-

new environmental consciousness and an

velle conscience environnementale ainsi

interest in problem-solving designs.

qu’un désir de résoudre les problèmes à l’aide du design.



What was the original intention of

As we understand it, the Ecol House

the MCHG? Did you work within a

was a central project for advancing

Operation this whole world of alternative

certain academic framework?

the goals of the MCHG. When you

technology which we didn’t know about

started the project, did you know

at all—particularly in California but really

that it would evolve into the Ecol

all over the United States and England,


and to some extent in France. People were

There was no specific theory here. Theory has become a very popular notion

We discovered when we did the Ecol

doing these solar houses and autonomous

in architecture today, which I don’t necessarily agree with—architecture is much

Oh, no! Again the idea came from

houses and ecological houses, and what

too practical for theories. It was bricolage,

Ortega’s experience working with the UN.

we had done, although it had been aimed

and at the centre of the exploration was

The UN believed very much in demonstra-

at issues in Third World countries, actually

Alvaro Ortega’s experience as a consultant

tion projects. They didn’t have big budgets,

fell into this camp. So part of this shift

at the United Nations. As a consultant, he

so they would build one house in a certain

from demonstration to operation was be-

had been thinking about various complete-

way to demonstrate the idea. You could

cause we discovered this broader world—

ly disconnected things like water issues,

show people how something worked on a

although it was a tiny world—of autono-

sanitation issues, construction materials,

small scale, and then you could communi-

mous ideas.

and particularly sulphur concrete. For

cate that idea in built form rather than just

example, he had this idea of using volcanic

on paper. The name for the Ecol Operation

sulphur, which you find in many moun-

came from Buckminster Fuller. We were

What role did publication play in

tainous countries, as a cheap building

sort of sheepish; we didn’t have a name

disseminating ideas, in comparison

material. He started the Minimum Cost

for it, and he said, “Oh, you have to have

to demonstration?

Housing graduate program to explore

a name.” Fuller was a master of publicity.

some of these things and I ended up being

We said, “Well, maybe something like the

his first student. If there was a theme,

Ecol House.” He went off in a corner and

first. When we discovered to our sur-

it was minimum-cost housing, that is,

thought for a while, and then came back

prise that people were interested, we put

housing for Third World or developing

and he said, “No, it should be the Ecol

more emphasis on publication. The first

countries that would reduce the cost of


The Problem Is booklet had no price tag,

The dissemination certainly came

construction in one way or another. I think

because we didn’t really think that people

the ecological theme was just in the air

would buy it. But by the time of the Ecol

at that time—things like solar energy and

Operation, we were selling copies, and

water distillation sort of came along.

later on we discovered that through the Whole Earth Catalog and other publications people found out about us and wrote to us, so we had a fairly steady number of followers. So yes, it was very much about

Theory has become a very popular notion in architecture today, which I don’t necessarily agree with—architecture is much too practical for theories.

dissemination. We didn’t have any budget from the university, and that is indeed one reason why we were active in developing publications. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it was enough to hire people in the summer and to buy material. I suppose today we would be online and it would all be different; we’d probably reach more people, but in those days that was how you could reach out.



We saw that you had a subscription

but there was a kind of shared interest in

Despite your work in developing

to Rain Magazine, wrote for CoEvo-

technology, because these were interest-

appropriate technology with the

lution Quaterly, and participated

ing technical problems, such as trying to

MCHG, the article that you pub-

in the Whole Earth Jamboree. How

do something with the least resources,

lished in CoEvolution Quarterly in

much was the MCHG’s work influ-

or more efficiently, or with larger appli-

1977, followed by the book Paper

enced by the counterculture move-

cations. I thought about this in my book

Heroes, are critical of appropriate

ment? Were there any figures that

Paper Heroes—people approached it from

technology. What created this shift?

were especially influential?

so many different angles. The California people and the alternative technology

The article that you mentioned was

people were very different from the Small

my first piece of non-academic writing,

bly the largest influence in terms of an

is Beautiful people and from Third World

and I discovered that if you write some-

iconic figure. Some people working in the

countries people, but there was a lot of

thing, you could actually think it through.

counterculture movement were influential

overlap. If you look at something like the

I had just been to an appropriate technol-

because the work they did was interesting,

Whole Earth Catalog, you sort of get a

ogy conference and I wasn’t happy with

innovative, and successful. I’m thinking of

sense of how broadly you could do this.

the way I felt about it. Writing the article

Steve Baer in New Mexico, who did some

That was one of Stewart Brand’s great

was a way of discovering what I really

really beautiful work. The thing about

insights. This culture was very big, and so

thought, and I turned that idea into the

culture is that you don’t know you’re in it

the catalogue covered all sorts of things.

book Paper Heroes, which was a critique

when you’re in it; it’s like fish in water. We

In that sense, Brand was a very import-

of appropriate technology. It was mostly

recognized that there were people around

ant figure. He was not an idealist or an

a critique of the idea that, if you define

the world doing work, not always for the

ideologue, but with the catalogue being so

something as sustainable, then it becomes

same reasons—the motivations varied—

successful, he brought a very big vision.

good and you don’t have to worry about it.

Buckminster Fuller was proba-

I believed that was false. There are many kinds of technology, and the truth is that

all technologies can fail. It’s very hard to

The thing about culture is that you don’t

know you’re in it when you’re in it; it’s like fish in water.

technology, so you have to go back to the The book was also an attempt to show that there are small technologies that have had

Writing the article was a way of discovering what I really thought, and I turned that idea into the book Paper Heroes, which was a critique of appropriate technology.


way people use technology changes the traditional long-term cost-benefit effects.


predict the outcome, partly because the

very bad effects. It pointed out the failures of many of the small technologies, the biggest of which was the Cultural Revolution in China, which of course we now know was a drastic failure. This wasn’t so clear when I was writing the book; people were still pointing to Mao as a great saviour.

In addition to this critique, would

building—at least from the architectural

Looking back at the countercul-

you consider that appropriate tech-

side. Certainly on the Third World side

ture movement and the work of

nologies were successful in mediat-

it was really about economics and social

the MCHG, what are the lessons

ing environmental problems dis-

justice. For instance, Ortega’s interest in


cussed during this period? And what

sanitation came from the fact that water

about appropriate technology in the

was a big issue. Availability of water, clean

current context of climate change?

water, infrastructure—all this had nothing

I think back on it, it was a very unusual

to do with the environment. It was about

period. In universities today, everybody

economics and health. One thing I didn’t

is jumping on the bandwagon because

gy was successful because it did instill the

like about the CCA show 1973: Sorry, Out

there is money available, but do they have

idea that choosing the right technology is

of Gas was that it implied that a lot of

an idea? Do they have curiosity about

important. This idea of morality connected

this alternative technology had to do with

something, or are they just following the

to technology did catch on, and in some

the gas crisis, which is completely false;

research money? In some ways, the free-

ways sustainability is a direct descendant

it predates the gas crisis. The gas crisis

dom we had is very different from today’s

of appropriate technology. But at the same

was important because it focused public

universities, where research agendas are

time, appropriate technology gives you the

attention. We were suddenly getting calls

much more defined. You probably have

idea that you can build anything, and that

from journalists who realized that these

to see the MCHG as part of that moment

if you put a green roof on it, then you’ve

autonomous houses would be an interest-

when research in architecture was not

done something good, which is ridiculous.

ing story because people were thinking of

usual. You had people like [McGill School

So we didn’t succeed there. And the small

conserving energy. I think with climate

of Architecture Director at the time of the

scale of it did not work out. Appropriate

change and global warming most people

MCHG] John Bland, who still thought that

technology was more about building things

have a defined context, so that certainly is

building things is what architects should

on your own, the rediscovery of crafts and


do, so if you’re doing research it should

In some ways, appropriate technolo-

That’s a hard question because when

result in something practical and useful. As for the counterculture, it sort of disap-

This idea of morality connected to technology did catch on, and in some ways sustainability is a direct descendant of appropriate technology.

In some ways, I suppose, you could say that the most beneficial outcome of the counterculture was simply pointing at problems rather than finding solutions.

peared, and that’s because it didn’t make a lot of sense; it didn’t have an agenda. It was more about dissatisfied people who liked the idea of doing something on their own and were interested in technologies. It turns out that if you get extremely skilled people with enough resources pointed at the problem, they can find some very good solutions. In some ways, I suppose, you could say that the most beneficial outcome of the counterculture was simply pointing at problems rather than finding solutions.



Editorial Coordination Andrew Goodhouse Contributors Lisa Chow Michèle Curtis Geneviève Depelteau

We wish to acknowledge the support and guidance of our research director Kim Förster and project coordinator Benjamin Leclair-Paquet. We would like to express our appreciation to the Canadian Centre for Architecture librarians and archivists— Pamela Casey, Renata Guttman, Catherine Jacob, Colin MacWhirter, and Mathieu Pomerleau—as well as Natasha Leeman for their valuable assistance during our research residency. Finally, a special thank you to Witold Rybczynski for his time, and to the Power Corporation of Canada for funding this residency.



The back cover features a mold of a sulphur-concrete block designed by the Minimum Cost Housing Group. This drawing was published in “The Ecol Operation: Ecology + Building + Common Sense� (1973), 49.