Stanislaus  von Moos: Space, Time and Turbulence
Space, Time and Turbulence
(S. 219 – 232)

Notes on Swiss-Californian Architecture and »Counter-Culture«

Stanislaus von Moos

Space, Time and Turbulence
Notes on Swiss-Californian Architecture and »Counter-Culture«

PDF, 14 Seiten

Paffard Keatinge-Clay (* 1926) is probably best known—at least among Northern Californian and some scattered European cognoscenti—as the architect of the San Francisco State University Student Union (1969–73), although the building’s bold presence amidst mostly undistinguished campus buildings (figs. 1a/b, 2, 5, 18) is now considerably obscured by a patchwork of later modifications. Still, the building’s relative invisibility cannot solely be attributed to subsequent neglect, nor to its absence from Paul Turner’s canonic monograph on American campus architecture (1984). There must be other reasons, connected perhaps with the complexities of its origins. The architect himself gives the following, rather candid description of the dilemma inscribed in this sort of commission:

“In the days of the turbulent life in the campuses of America and the wave of the Hippie movement to San Francisco, an extraordinary challenge was presented whereby the work of the architect had to fulfill this revolution and at the same time be approved by the establishment. No easy task. One architect had already tried and failed.”

In fact, previous to the choice of Keatinge-Clay for the job, the Student Union had become notorious because of a widely publicized project by Moshe Safdie for this site, a design allegedly “initiated and approved by the students,” and whose “rejection by the College Board of Trustees in 1968 incited Campus riots,” as the Safdie saga would have it (fig. 4). Though Keatinge-Clay had already participated in the first round of the competition, it was only the second, limited competition that finally brought him the commission. 

As a result of these events, the campus was endowed with a colossal architectural curiosity, expressive both of San Francisco’s status of a “hippie Lourdes” and (albeit more indirectly) of the cultural surplus generated, throughout the sixties, by the Bay Area’s booming war industries. In its plastic gesticulation, the student center thus proclaims nothing so much than a “howl of freedom” against conformity, evocative of the “Summer of Love” and of the Beat rhetoric of “being roughed up by life.” As to the structural acrobatics involved and the dramatic cost overrun it engendered (and that ultimately forced the architect to declare bankruptcy and to leave the country shortly after the building’s completion in 1975), it tells its own story about the more down-to-earth politics involved. 

Keatinge-Clay’s addition to the San Francisco Art Institute may be less spectacular as a project if compared to the SFSU. Yet it is no doubt a more accomplished work—apart from being much better preserved. And it is the testing ground for some of the Student Union’s key elements. The Art Institute itself is an institution of mythic fame in the American West. Its original seat had been built by Arthur J. Brown as an Italian village overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf, all in concrete, in reaction to the 1906 earthquake (it was completed in 1926; fig. 7). After 1945, the quasi-monastic complex became the base for such painters as Richard Diebenkorn, Clifford Still, and Mark Rothko as well as for Ansel Adams, who opened his photo class in the building, the first such studio created anywhere in the U.S. 

The earthquake is also the subject of Diego Rivera’s large mural in the school’s main hall, entitled The Building of a City and executed between 1929 and 1931. What we see is a trompe-l’œil scaffolding with Rivera provocatively displaying his butt as he sits on a high beam above his patrons, including the architect Arthur J. Brown (on the right). The painter is examining the picture of the colossal worker as it emerges before his eyes and ours. On either side, we see glimpses of the city as a huge building site. The red steel girders of the skyscrapers that will one day punctuate the city’s skyline are particularly evocative (fig. 6). Paffard Keatinge-Clay could be said to have picked up from this ‘constructivist’ understanding of building as process when he designed the addition, practically doubling the size of the school. For, while the romanticizing of béton brut is an obvious reference to Le Corbusier (fig. 9), it also resonates with the rough concrete surfaces of the old building, where Spanish tile and wrought iron are displayed to “reinforce the ‘primitive’ qualities of the building,” suggesting that it is “in the same state of rough formation as the students’ emerging artistic talents.” 

The complex as a whole could be described as Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard in reverse. Whereas at Harvard they are lifted up high above the ground, the new studios with their armature of brise-soleils are here sunken into it, inevitably blocking off some views from the older building. On the other hand, the added studio, teaching, and student life spaces created a huge platform emerging northward from the old building’s piano nobile. This landscaped roof, dramatized by the slopes of the auditorium roof—the acrobatic triangulations of the SFSU in a nutshell—is doubtlessly the most memorable part of the entire complex. Defined only by the limits of San Francisco Bay, with its volumes and surfaces playing against the profile of Sausalito and Alcatraz, if not metaphorically reverberating with the Athenian Acropolis, the terrace is arguably the closest match with the archaic Grecian magic of the Unité d’habitation’s roof garden an architect has ever tried to achieve in North America (figs. 8, 10).

Key Concepts

Behind the building’s belligerent opposition to Postmodernism (a movement that was most authoritatively represented in California by Charles Moore) one discovers these basic themes: a passion for the structural possibilities of concrete construction, a fascination with geometry and its effects on the human psyche—and for expanding the limits of architecture toward sculpture. 

Although the San Francisco Student Union can be regarded as the conclusive episode in this personal saga, the themes are present since the architect’s student years at the Architectural Association in London, in the 1940s. In his unpublished autobiography (“The Adventure of a Twentieth-Century Architect”) Keatinge-Clay recalls Félix Samuelly’s teaching there, and in particular his insistence on the fact that all the principles of engineering can be reduced to three basic laws, that is, that every force has an equal resistance, that all horizontal forces must add up to zero and that all vertical forces must equally add up to zero. The way he recalls these three principles in his autobiography suggests that he considers them to be the hinge of his own program. 

The chord Samuelly must have struck becomes clear when Keatinge-Clay recalls long walks with his mother from his native medieval village to a group of enormous beech trees that “reached naturally to form a vaulted space high above,” as he puts it. This group of trees, the “cathedral” of Dinton Woods, will reappear time and again in the ruminations of the architect’s later work. As a concept, the “vaulted space” recalls earlier spaces such as Viollet-le-Duc’s drawings of the forests near Pierrefonds—or should one think of Victor Baltard’s voutes anglaises in this context? Keatinge-Clay always thought of himself as a “constructor”: His formation at the AA had been that of a structural engineer and his initiating fascination in this context was the Swiss engineer Robert Maillart (see figs. 11, 17). It thus appears almost providential that, when he went to work for Le Corbusier (in 1949) he was assigned the detailing of the pilotis upon which the Unité d’habitation in Marseille was to rest. He even recalls how … 

“Le Corbusier sat at my drafting board and added two vertical strokes at their joint, rather like the stripes of an infantry soldier’s trousers, which I do not understand to this day, and which he would not explain, so that is the way it was built …” 

Some time after his internship with Le Corbusier, Clay went to work with Wright, in Taliesin West; and it once again appears as almost predictable, in hindsight, that his first autonomous project, a small desert pavilion in Arizona, minimal as it is, should reconduct Wright’s teachings to their very structuralist essence—as if Clay wanted to remind himself (or perhaps even the master) of Wright’s own description of what work at Taliesin is all about: “to begin at the beginning, and to think about structure as an interpretation of life is fundamental to our way of work,“ as Keatinge-Clay quotes from a letter sent to him by Wright.

For this architect, the purity and structural transparency of the desert pavilion must have been something like the sublimation of this experience with Wright (fig. 12). And while there is no need to insist that the prehistory to such ‘structuralist’ exercises goes back to Laugier, it is worth signaling that ‘structure’ in the Frank Lloyd Wright tradition (as opposed to nineteenth-century ‘structuralism’ which remained loyal to Laugier in this respect) implies eliminating rather than emphasizing the corner post. For Keatinge-Clay this understanding was sacrosanct. 

With the desert pavilion, he had paved the way toward his own appropriation of the third of the “Master Builders” (after Corbu and Wright)—Mies van der Rohe, whom he met, appropriately, in Chicago, where he had moved in 1955 in order to work with S.O.M. Predictably, the work done during his tenure at S.O.M. is heavily Miesian (given the Miesian prejudice of that firm at the time). It thus comes as no surprise that he should choose Mies as a reference for his perhaps most ambitious project—the project for the addition to London’s Parliament House (1970; fig. 13). Maybe it is even less surprising that he should choose the most “bracketed” among Mies’s projects as a reference, that is, the Chicago Convention Hall of 1953/54 with its exposed bracework, made necessary, in Mies’s case, by the will to cover a colossal interior span of no less than 720 ft. “The structure, as with Gothic cathedrals, is expressed on the exterior,” Keatinge-Clay states in the project description—and he goes on, as if to make the link between the genius loci of Westminster and the memory of Dinton Woods even more explicit: 

“The bronze-clad trusses allow the building to bear on four pyramidal points of support thus spanning the underground railway and hovering free of the site at the corners.”

In such a way, the corners are set free and Mies becomes associated with an adventure of structural acrobatics that seems to point to yet another direction: that of Buckminster Fuller. 

2. Swiss Connections and World Affairs 

Zurich and the ‘gnomes of Zurich’ have long become colloquial bywords for the obscure financial transactions in the years immediately preceding World War II, transactions that left a stain in the publicly perceived record of the Alpine confederation. What is less known is that the city and the country had also played a considerable role in organizing and consolidating the kind of architectural cosmopolitanism that turned out to become the leading visual idiom (if not the “ruling taste”) of the Pax Americana. In fact, this kind of Swiss postwar cosmopolitanism may not even be entirely unrelated to the prewar sacrifice of political innocence, in so far as both are due to the peculiarly Swiss mix of pragmatism, political neutrality and anticommunism. This mix appears to have contributed much to the lure of Switzerland as an island of peace in the heart of Europe where milk and honey appeared to flow, while the rest of Europe stood in ruins— enticing, among others, quite a number of architects in Britain. 

Returning to Keatinge-Clay, it’s worth recalling that at the origin of his interest in Switzerland was a fascination with Robert Maillart. It is to a large degree thanks to this fascination that he decided to make Zurich the base camp for his “Grand Tour” to the West. At Bedford Square, in the AA library, Keatinge-Clay had discovered Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, where these works are documented and discussed at considerable length (fig. 14). The book, written by a Swiss expatriate teaching at Harvard, is not only a prime factor in this transatlantic or more specifically U.S.-Swiss constellation, it rapidly became what must have been the most successful architectural textbook published anywhere during the war. At about the same time, with canonical reference books like Le Corbusier’s and Pierre Jeanneret’s Œuvre complète and Alfred Roth’s The New Architecture (published in 1941, like Space, Time and Architecture), Zurich had managed to establish itself as a hub of advanced architectural publishing. Thus, no later than 1947, Keatinge-Clay headed to the headquarters of CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne), in fact Giedion’s private home in Zurich, to connect with what appeared to him as the core of the modernist avant-garde. The rest of the story is reported in the autobiography of Lancelot Law Whyte, a British physicist who in the 1950s had visited Sigfried and Carola Giedion-Welcker at their Zurich home: 

“One day a young student, Keatinge-Clay, had knocked at their door and asked if he could see Giedion. They talked, and as he was short of Swiss money and hungry, they gave him first a meal, then a bed, and in return he had run off with their daughter.” 

There are good reasons therefore for the scenario of Clay’s subsequent career to look like an extrapolation of the various anchor points between which the “New Tradition” proposed in Space, Time and Architecture unfolds. Giedion in fact drew the history of modern architecture by ways of a pantheon of master figures whose erratic natures make them improbable as a group and ineffective as a movement except for the shared pathos of renewal and authenticity: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto. More than any other, the book has contributed to defining the kind of “modern architecture” that came along with American cultural supremacy after 1945. 

Space, Time and Architecture quite naturally became Keatinge-Clay’s Vademecum. Like Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar following the stars on the firmament, the young architect spent the first ten years of his professional life looking up one Bethlehem of modernity after another—determined to reach the absolute while not betraying his intellectual penchant for the “Both-And” as opposed to the “Either-Or” (a process that generated some gnawing conflicts of loyalty as the Wanderjahre went on). Once Zurich was adopted as point de vue, an internship at 35, Rue de Sèvres, in Paris, that is, Le Corbusier’s studio, was an inevitable must (Keatinge-Clay stayed there for almost two years, 1947–1949). After which he joined Frank Lloyd Wright for a few months at the two Taliesins and designed a “light dome” for the Carl Cherry Foundation in Carmel, CA (fig. 15). Then, he moved to Chicago and ended up working with S.O.M.—and established a friendly contact with Mies.

The proposed light dome, to be built in Carmel, California, is probably one of the more curious of his projects. It was done in 1951, that is, two years after his separation from Wright. The idiom is still late Frank Lloyd Wright techno-romanticism charged with a structural logic that Wright’s work in general lacks and that relates, as far as the dome itself is concerned, to the work of Buckminster Fuller. Other, perhaps more remote echoes reverberate in this project, too, echoes from structural engineers like Nervi, Candela, and Catalano as well as, indirectly, from the constructivist dreams of expatriate Russian sculptors like Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo. As it turns out, these fascinations are not wholly unrelated to those of his father-in-law, Sigfried Giedion. In a book that appeared in 1958, Architecture, You and Me, Giedion in fact devoted some of his more mystifying passages to the new language of engineering and its capacity to express the “innermost urges” of contemporary man. Not by coincidence, perhaps, one of the projects shown in Architecture, You and Me, Naum Gabo’s proposal for the Palace of Soviets in Moscow, appears to strangely prefigure Clay’s for San Francisco (see fig. 16). At one point Giedion even included an illustration of his son-in-law’s project for Carmel in the book so that one is tempted to suspect that this project may have altogether played its part in triggering the historian’s enthusiasm for the world of paraboloid surfaces and bowls adventurously held in space and defying all traditional notions of tectonic plausibility (see fig. 15). 

3. Order and Expressive Urge

More would need to be said regarding the form, the symbolism, and the rhetoric of triangle and pyramid in modern architecture. Le Corbusier had included both triangle and pyramid in his panoply of “formes primaires,” though in later years, the pyramid’s primordial symbolism of ‘permanence’ (pérennité) was replaced by more emphatically expressive functions: such as in the steep and tilted pyramidal top of the oratory in the cloister of La Tourette (the Cestius pyramid reduced to an archisculptural signal effect). Or at Ronchamp, where cones, either concave or merely painted, appear to relate to a postcubist iconography of visual perception: such as in the arrow-slit-windows of the south wall, and in the faux-relief of the pilgrimage hostel down the field. 

One should also not forget that in the 1950s, the geometry of triangle and pyramid had again become highly visible as both conceptual tools and as symbolic forms in the work of Buckminster Fuller and Louis Kahn, the titans of American Structuralism—in his proposed City Hall Tower for Philadelphia (1952–1958), Kahn created the archetypal American counterimage of sorts to the Student Union, linking the Fullerian geometry once again to the idea of permanence and stability, as one would expect him to do in his praise of ‘institutions’ (as opposed to ‘revolution’). Nor was Clay’s Swiss background in this context totally irrelevant, and more specifically his connections with Maillart, Giedion—and Max Bill. From a European perspective, the site plan of the San Francisco University Student Union could easily be mistaken as an illegitimate offspring of Swiss “concrete art.” Seen in plan, the parti is reduced to a pattern of triangles, like an inflatable lifeboat at rest waiting to open up upwards and sideways potentially to form a crystalline cluster of elementary geometric braces conquering the void—rather like Max Bill’s “Construction made of 30 Identical Elements” (1938–39). For Bill, the resonance of engineering in art and vice versa was the springboard for his work as an artist (fig. 17). 


As architecture in an age of Modernism after Modernism can no longer be cast in a “New Tradition,” history inevitably resembles a mosaic rather than a linear evolution. At the same time, by mere analogy with one randomly selected architect, some recent and not so recent phenomena emerge as if to form a perhaps arbitrarily structured web of undeclared utopian alliances. The general theme is building defined as structure and geometry in space. Mies, Buckminster Fuller, Kahn are the fixed points. The metabolists with Izozaki and Kurokawa later projected the imagery into the scale of urbanism (see fig. 20). As to Max Bill, he had stopped short of such extravagance long ago. Keatinge-Clay, in turn, saw no reason why the conceptual conjunction of “mathematical thinking” and art should stop short of building. Was it because the result of the adventure turned out to be a mixed blessing that he never felt the urge to project his vision into the scale of urbanism? 

4. Triangle, Pyramid, and the Eclipse of Utopianism

When Robert Owen and his disciples and followers around the middle of the nineteenth century visualized the setting for their ideal community somewhere of the plains of the American Midwest, they may not have been aware of the fact that they were adopting a model that already had a solid tradition in America. One of its archetypes is surely the college of New Jersey, founded in the seventeenth century, later to become Princeton University. This syndrome of interchangeable typologies probably reflects one of the deep-rooted cultural traditions of America. In fact, the American campus is itself a social experiment; not by chance, it has become both the platform of social thought and social struggle as well as an often turbulent laboratory of utopianism. When Le Corbusier visited the United States in 1934, it was at Vassar College that American life and society suddenly occurred to him as a social experiment, mysteriously disjointed from the secular laws of urban civilization. As it turned out, it was only with this disjointed world of the campus that the seeds of his own utopianism could ultimately grow and produce fruit—as happened at the Carpenter Visual Arts Center at Harvard (which in many ways is the direct ancestor to the San Francisco Art Institute). 

Keatinge-Clay’s American romance began in the Desert, with Frank Lloyd Wright, in Taliesin West, and ran parallel for some time with the hippie movement and culminated and ultimately collapsed with the agonizing experience around San Francisco Student Union. The idea of redefining life, society, and architecture from the grass roots up and according to the laws of structure, geometry, and art is inscribed in it as a central theme, as it is in so many among Wright’s house plans (fig. 19). No doubt the key theme, perhaps the key problem, of the San Francisco Student Union is its complicated combination of geometries: square and rectangle, but then also cylinder and pyramid, cube and tetrahedron: Throughout, diagonals and triangulated forms are assigned demonstratively structural and expressive roles. Structure in the San Francisco State University Student Union is an athletic tour de force that combines a Corbusian with a Wrightian principle: the idea of liberating the ground with the help of pilotis (Corbusian), and the idea of freeing the corners from their function as architectural “crutches” (Wrightian). In such a way Clay tries to accomplish the impossible: to marry the Unité with Taliesin West. 

As a structural artist, he tends to see his project altogether as art. It is therefore not inappropriate to think of Herbert Read, who described certain modern sculpture as “the geometry of pain,” suggesting that only the agony of asymmetrical composition can be evocative of progress and change. That abstract geometries have a distinct impact upon the human psyche was an idea Clay himself had developed from ideas received from the biophysicist Lancelot Law Whyte. Law Whyte at one point had wooden models made of the simplest regular solid, the regular tetrahedron, and also of the simplest skew object—a particular kind of skew tetrahedron that looks asymmetrical or oblique from every aspect. He then amused himself dividing any group of observers into “classical” and “modern” temperaments depending on their reaction to those models. Since there are no images shown of these models in Law Whyte’s book, it is tempting to use the model that represents Moshe Safdie’s rejected project for the Student Union as a substitute. As to Keatinge-Clay’s hidden agenda as sculptor, it is enough to consider his proposed rather Di Suveroesque Franklin Delano Roosevelt monument in Washington (1960), a configuration of eccentric pyramids which very directly relate to both San Francisco projects discussed in this essay.

Seen against this background, the Student Union building is an exercise in “anticlassicism.” Blooming upward like a desert cactus, the building displays a rhetoric that appears inherent in the triangle ever since El Lissitzky’s use of it in his emblematic poster “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” (1919; see fig. 3). In such a way, a building that might otherwise be understood as a symbolically gratuitous, yet colossal (and colossally expensive) formal capriccio has been charged with meanings related to the ideals and turbulence of the 1960s. It can thus be described as monumentalizing the libertarian romanticism of the counterculture in terms of a formal language borrowed from European High Modernism—and with the help of a bold configuration of pyramidal shapes and structural space frames. With its two pyramidal volumes that determine the parti, one emblematically enclosed, the other one open to the sky, as if in tribute to Le Corbusier’s forms that listen and forms that emit, and above all with the athletism of the open auditorium held up into the sky like an abstract ‘open hand,’ the building, together with some earlier works by Paffard Keatinge-Clay in Los Angeles and San Francisco, arguably constitutes the most immediate echo to the Le Corbusier of Chandigarh to be found west of the Rocky Mountains.

Nor can some more specifically Californian innuendos be overseen: at a time when the architectural establishment canonized Bay Style Regionalism as the architectural response to flower power, this signal building must have appeared like a bulwark against the swelling tide of postmodernism. As a result, and despite some unfortunate changes it underwent in a number of subsequent remodelings, the building continues to be understood by many (and not only by its architect) as an architectural pathos formula for the exaggerated hopes and exacerbating frustrations of San Francisco’s student revolt that served as a context for its realization. At the same time, it illustrates how much these hopes and frustrations were also those of a certain tradition within modern architecture.

  • Moderne
  • Le Corbusier
  • Architektur
  • Kalifornien
  • Architekturgeschichte
  • USA
  • 1960er Jahre

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Stanislaus von Moos

ist Kunsthistoriker und Architekturtheoretiker. Zwischen 1983 und 2005 hatte er den Lehrstuhl für moderne und zeitgenössische Kunst an der Universität Zürich inne. Ferner lehrte er u.a. in Bern, New York, Mendrisio und Yale.

Nanni Baltzer (Hg.), Jacqueline Burckhardt (Hg.), ...: Art History on the Move

Das Thema »On the Move« ist in vielschichtiger Weise mit Kurt W. Forster verbunden, dem dieser Band gewidmet ist. Es charakterisiert die Geistes- und Lebenshaltung dieses Architektur- und Kunsthistorikers, der über epochale, mediale und disziplinäre Grenzen hinweg forscht: Mit Leichtigkeit bewegt er sich zwischen Pontormo und John Armleder, Giulio Romano und Frank Gehry, K. F. Schinkel und Mies van der Rohe, Aby Warburg und W. G. Sebald, W. H. Fox Talbot und Andreas Gursky. Er interessiert sich für den Zusammenhang von Musik und Architektur wie für den Schaffensprozess von Architekten. »On the Move« beschreibt ferner die biographische Situation Forsters, der an der Stanford University, dem MIT, der ETH Zürich oder der Bauhaus Universität Weimar unterrichtete und aktuell an der Yale School of Architecture tätig ist. Als Lehrer hat er Generationen von Studierenden für die uneingeschränkte curiositas begeistert, als Direktor des Schweizer Instituts in Rom, des Getty Research Center in Los Angeles oder des Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal den Austausch unter Forschenden gefördert. Zudem kuratierte er prägende Ausstellungen wie die Architekturbiennale 2004 in Venedig.

Die unterschiedlichen Beiträge des Bandes sind ein Spiegel von Forsters jahrzehntelanger Tätigkeit: Architekturthemen erstrecken sich von den Anfängen des Markusdoms in Venedig über Charles De Waillys Pariser Panthéon-Projekt, das Thomas Jefferson Memorial, den Barcelona-Pavillon Mies van der Rohes oder die Architekturfotografie im faschistischen Italien bis zu Achsen und ihren Brüchen in Paris und Berlin. Analysen im Bereich der Bildkünste behandeln Momente kollektiven Erinnerns in Fra Angelicos Fresken ebenso wie Pipilotti Rists elektronische Urhütte oder Laurie Andersons »Dal Vivo«. Literarische Auseinandersetzungen umfassen etwa Nietzsches Venedig-Gedichte, verschollene Briefe von Nabokov oder die Hauptstädte Walter Benjamins. Zudem enthält der Band zahlreiche persönliche Erinnerungen sowie architektonisch-künstlerische Interventionen.