Most of your books until now have been about clean modernism, like mid-century Hamptons houses and airports. What got you interested in these wackier places?
In 2001 I wrote a cover story for The New York Times’ House & Home section about Paolo Soleri, the architect who’s organized volunteers for over 40 years to build themselves these amazing partly ruined-looking communities, Cosanti and Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert. When I visited, I felt like I’d been shot back by time machine to the ’70s, into a forgotten epic of utopian idealism. I’m 55, so I’m old enough to have been a protester in my time—I was in anti-draft demonstrations, I went to school in Paris in the ’70s and had crazy radical friends, during protests in the streets we got good at chucking teargas canisters back at the police. But I was never a leader or a shaper of the communities that were built. By the time I got to college, people kind of wanted to distance themselves from the Birkenstock-wearing hippies. I’ve been writing about visual culture for 25 years now, and there’s never been a fair overview of this topic.
Did you find survivors, architects and artists, to interview?
I had amazing conversations and visits with people like Tony Martin, an artist who’s done incredible liquid-globular light projections, and David Sellers, who still lives at an experimental community he started on Prickly Mountain in Vermont, and Aleksandra Kasuba, who’s in her 80s and still sculpting mesh into amorphous houses in the New Mexico desert. The hard part was getting good photographs of the more ephemeral environments for the book; a lot of these guys would tell me, ‘We were tripping, it was up for three weeks, no one ever photographed it.’ Or I’d hear that the community had burned down, or the inflatables had blown away, or that the documentation had sat in an attic and then been thrown out. Institutions should really start seriously collecting what’s left of the documentation of psychedelic art, before the creators all die off. Was anyone you talked to skeptical that this book was worth writing?
I had colleagues, other journalists, who said, ‘Why do you want to dredge up that hippie crap?’ And obviously there were naïve, silly aspects, and dangerous extremes, to the ‘60s. But I so admired the unbridled creativity of those young people, the healthy, unedited wildness of their going off into the wilderness to build a new society, to reinvent the universe. A lot of their ideas failed, of course, but a lot have made it into the mainstream, whether it’s our obsessions with natural food and fibers or the LEED standards for sustainable, green architecture. I was also motivated to write this book in reaction to the culture of control that this country has suffered under since 9/11, this is my way of expressing how pissed off I am.