Street Farm – Eco-Anarchism, Architecture and Alternative Technology in London in the 1970s

The Street Farm collective was a London-based group of three (Graham Caine, Peter Crump and Bruce Haggart) active in the early 1970s and advocating a radical change in urban living, city planning and architecture.

Stephen H. Hunt has written a book about this group, published last month by Tangent Books. Last night he presented the book at Housmans bookshop, one of the best radical bookshops in London. He talked about how he first came across the work of the Street Farm group and how he eventually met members of the group and undertook the research that resulted in the book.

UntitledThe main output of Street Farm was an underground magazine called Street Farmer, which published only two issues, in 1971-2 (available here and here). However, the group also made use of a variety of other media to disseminate their ideas, always using text and images in a very innovative way.

This is a group that is difficult to pigeonhole. They have been called many things, such as revolutionary urbanists, eco-anarchists, experimental architects, and even rock’n’roll architects:

Revolutionary urbanists

Street Farm advocated the transmogrification of the city, that is, the transformation of urban space through social revolution. In the utopian cities envisioned by the group, the distinctions between urban and rural and between work and home had been blurred. This vision was influenced by William Morris’s idea that creative productive work is the most enjoyable.

Tower blocks were the symbol of what is wrong in the city, not because of their architecture but because of the fact that, unlike in the cities in the past or in the utopian future, residents in those towers did not have any control over the way they were housed. So, the tower blocks were always vilified in the surreal collages produced by the group. In these images, buildings were invaded by trees, pecked by gigantic crows, used by giant women for pleasuring themselves, changed into plants after being seeded, or disintegrated after being sprayed by deodorant. Photo below from here

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The group also started to draw people’s attention to the negative consequences of urban regeneration and gentrification, processes which were already visible in the 1970s. Some of the campaigns against demolitions were successful (such as the one to save London’s Covent Garden) while others were unsuccessful (for example, the campaigns to prevent demolition of the Beatles-famous Cavern Club in Liverpool or the demolition of houses to make way for the West Way, a motorway in London.

The streets in the cities envisioned by the collective would also smell better than the streets we know – due to a reduction of car traffic and pollution and to “rewilding” – measures to facilitate the reconnection of human beings with the natural world.

Eco-anarchists

Street Farm was also a political group, with ideas close to anarchism. Their vision of the city presupposed a redirection of the economic system in order to meet the needs of the communities and not those of state and capital. The ideas of the Situationist International also provided inspiration.

They also had a part in the movement for growing ecological awareness during in the 1970s, drawing on the work of Murray Bookchin and social ecology. They believed that unless we fix our relationship with the natural world, we cannot address problems of economic scarcity and social justice. Some catchphrases used were also close to the Deep Ecology thought. For example, “the land belongs to the communities of the biosphere, not  individuals of the human race” – a very “green” thing to say at the time.

Members of the group were also involved in street activism, such as campaigns anti-Vietnam war and for reclaiming public space from cars, and participated in the squatting movement in the early 1970s in the Camden and Kentish Town parts of London.

Experimental architects

Street Farm was not only about philosophy, the group wanted a “solutions-focused anarchism”. They aim was to encourage people to develop their knowledge about sustainable living. But the movement was not directed at hippies who leave the city and go to countryside but at people who stay in the city and transform it, by activities such as organic agriculture and the use of “liberated technology”.

This focus on direct action and grassroots mobilization was one of the aspects distinguishing Street Farm from older groups. The Archigrarn group had been working on experimental architecture in London since the 1960s, but by the 1970s they were no longer at the forefront of the agendas of the left and of environmental movements, so the Street Farm collective defined themselves against Archigram.

Street Farm was an early proponent of concepts such as community architecture and sustainable buildings. In 1972, Graham Caine built the Street Farmhouse in the South London suburb of Eltham, described in the media of the time as the “first ecological house” (although as Stephen mentioned in his talk, human beings have been building houses with biodegradable materials for millennia). The picture below (from the book) shows what seems to be only a cabin house with a green house attached. The innovations are that it was built from materials found in the streets and included solar panels and hydroponic gardens. The house was not very popular with the neighbours, who were quite pleased when it was demolished three years after it was built; so much that they even offered themselves to help to pull down the house.

CIMG6094Shortly after the group disbanded, Graham Caine went to Lisbon where he marched arm in arm with people celebrating the 1974 revolution in Portugal. He stayed there for a while working on a self-build housing project which included improvised solar heating systems. This story is very interesting and worth another blog post later on.

He continued to be involved in community living and sustainable housing over the years. Unfortunately, he also continued to meet with obstacles. Some projects failed like “a beautiful tree dying from a long and painful disease”, because of the self-interest of some community members and pressure from the real estate developers.

Rock’n’roll architects

The group also spread their ideas by travelling around showing slides of their collages to the sound of Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane. They visited every Architecture school in the UK. On one occasion, the vocalist of the Pink Fairies, a psychedelic rock band, sang an improvised “Street Farming Man” adaptation of a Stones song.

Their actions blurred the frontier between activism and performance art. For example, in their first intervention, they designed “scarecars”, masks used by participants on street blockades in London’s Oxford Street. On a visit to Italy, they distributed sunflower seeds for people to spread on pavements and make them green.

Street Farm also appeared on TV in a couple of occasions. At that time the BBC let radical grassroots groups produce their own films which they then broadcast. One of these films was by Street Farm. Their other TV appearance was in a more formal documentary about the group.

 

Despite these media appearances and the inclusion of the Street Farmhouse in some architecture books over the years, the work of the group is little known. This is because the printed material produced, including the Street Farmer magazine, had a very small circulation and is now very difficult to find. Stephen Hunt’s book is therefore a great resource for everyone interested in the group and in alternative environmentalism.

Besides telling the story of Street Farm, Stephen also talks about the context in which Street Farm appeared, in particular the work of other UK-based groups and underground publications, such as a group called PEST (Planet Earth Survival Team) and the ARse magazine (read either as Architects for a Really Socialist Environment or Architectural Radicals, Students and Educators – or as a joke on the Architecture Review journal). They also drew from other social movements around the world. For example, one of their images was of a clenched fist tree, an adaptation to political ecology of a symbol used by groups fighting for the rights of black people in the USA.

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The book also reflects about the influence of Street Farm in the work of other green anarchists and the relevance of that work for today’s environmental problems. Attendants in yesterday’s event mentioned that the directions the group pointed at proved to be correct. People nowadays understand more about the buildings where they live and about things such as solar power and food growing.

The book is available from the publisher or from The Hive. They both sell online so there is no need to support tax-dodging corporations named after Greek warriors. Stephen also published another book in 2011 about Green Romanticism and several papers dealing with anarchism and environmentalism.

Peter Crumb also gave a talk about Street Farm in Bristol three years ago. Watch here.

 

Bnnaq4MIUAAYFZe.jpg largePicture of yesterday’s event (by @Lucy_Latham88)

References

Hunt, S H. (2014) The Revolutionary Urbanism of Street Farm; Eco-Anarchism, Architecture and Alternative Technology in the 1970s. Tangent Books, Bristol.

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One Response to Street Farm – Eco-Anarchism, Architecture and Alternative Technology in London in the 1970s

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