Fluxus has been described as “the most radical and experimental art movement of the sixties”, and at the same time as “a wild-goose chase into the zone of everything ephemeral”. Such wildly different evaluations testify Fluxus as an art movement’s resistance to pigeonholing and its diverseness; it radically challenged the idea of avant-garde art — as object, concept, or commodity — by attempting to provoke a radical cultural, social or political change by their work.
The Fluxus phenomenon aroused in the late 1950s and early 1960s, like many of the chronologically postmodern artistic movements following the modernist cultural renaissance of the early twentieth century. It was a unique moment in time, a period of relative artistic freedom and economic growth in the United States, Europe, and Japan — just a decade and a half after one of the most destructive wars in the history of humanity. The early 1960s saw the first humans in outer space, the inauguration and assassination of the youngest president in American history, the establishment of a U.S. military presence in Vietnam, the assembly of the Berlin Wall, the rapid spread of television, technology’s shift from electrical to electronic engineering, and thermonuclear weapons; it was a strange and dangerous time.
Inspired by Futurism, Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp, Conceptualism and John Cage’s idea of an art for every man, an international community of conceptual artists, musicians, designers and architects who embraced Fluxus bounded together by their intermedia sensibility and experimental enlightenment. They fundamentally rejected the status quo’s parameters of and for art as distinct from life, promoted non-academic art, breaking the definitions of an artwork against the museum culture, and redefined the role of the artist by substituting art for everyday tasks, experiences, actions, and sensations.
Strongly and proudly “anti-art”, the group consisted of names such as Joseph Beuys, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, George Brecht, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Henry Flynt — all following the guidance of George Maciunas, who coined this fluid movement around the concepts of collectivism, anti-ego and anti-individualism, and set it in a state of flux. A Lithuanian-born artist, art historian, graphic designer, composer and publisher Maciunas knitted it all together; the collaboration involved creating the ideas that he turned into the Fluxus editions. He gathered the earliest concerts, wrote the manifestos, oversaw the publications through his editing, design, production, and advertising. (see fig. 3-5) According to his fellow colleague Ken Friedman — in essence, this was an industrial manufacturing program, which together with cooperative art projects were examples of the pivotal concerns of Fluxus. (see fig. 6)
Nevertheless, most importantly above all, he was a visionary architect and urban planner with the ambitions of constructing a solution to social and environmental needs of humanity through architectural innovation.
It is important here to understand the nature of the art system that Fluxus and Maciunas rejected, which later on is manifested within his architecture practice as well. It can be argued that by the late 1950s art had often come to be seen as the production of objects which were somehow not the same as other human-made objects. For example, art objects were considered different insofar as they combined special qualities that only artists can confer — craftsmanship and personal expression — thus the primary value of an artwork was seen as a resident in its form or its material values, whereas practical function was almost never considered part of the defining characteristic of what makes artworks art.
George Maciunas was credited with the invention of a structural framework and received patents for the prefabricated construction in 1959/1961; its basic ideas are rooted in a system of standardisation, modularisation, mass-production, urban efficiency and social welfare. The correlation of the fellow notions, an anti-art theory and Functionalism per se, unavoidably evokes the key theme which will be examined within this essay — political and economical dimensions of Maciunas’s ideas, concepts and practice in architecture. Questioning the ideology, social hierarchies and economic rationale, patterns of production methods, marketing and distribution behind the anti-aesthetics and a need for “raw” Functionalism in construction, will eventually call into question the concept of authorship, which is central to architecture’s view of itself as an art form.
“While architecture has been struggling to find the true artistic expression of industrial production, construction has been quietly industrialising itself behind architecture’s back.”
With the prefabricated system at the centre of twentieth-century architecture, what is Maciunas standing point within the thought reported by Colin Davies in Prefabricated Home?
POLITICAL BACKGROUND: INTRO
Given the lack of detailed research of the Fluxus group’s ideas interfacing politics and economics, much has been made of George Maciunas’s alleged identification with the anti-artistic projects of the early Soviet avant-garde. Prominent in most of those debates is a paragraph from his much-quoted letter to artist Tomas Schmitt, dating to early 1964, where Maciunas refers to LEF and Mayakovsky as the ideological forerunners of Fluxus:
“Fluxus objectives are social (not aesthetic). They are connected to the group of the LEF group of 1929 sic in Soviet Union (ideologically) and concern itself with: Gradual elimination of fine arts. … This is motivated by desire to stop the waste of material and human resources (such like yourself) and divert it to socially constructive ends. Such as applied arts would be (industrial design, journalism, architecture, engineering, graphic-topographic arts, etc.).”
As an art-critic and Fluxus historian Cuauhtémoc Medina notes, it would be hard to explain his attack by the abstractedness of modern art and his wish to redirect artistic efforts to the development of the productive forces of the industrial era as a rendition of the 1920s Russian Productivism. Yet this full embodiment of his Functionalism following LEF was contradictory, even irrational: on one hand, Maciunas’s knowledge of the Soviet avant-garde was not only superficial (as with most Western artists until the early 1960s) but also clearly reduced to a very peculiar interpretation of the debates of the 1920s. The fact that he was transmitting these concepts of art and architecture to his natal Lithuania — requesting them to the later-to-be president of the Lithuanian Republic Vytautas Landsbergis — reveals that he was not even aware that LEF was censored in the USSR at the time.
In 1962, George Maciunas published an essay titled “The Grand Frauds of Architecture” (see fig. 7) where he intended to critically demolish some of the masterworks of American postwar architecture, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments
in Chicago (1949-1951) (see fig. 8), Eero Saarinen’s MIT Auditorium (1952-1955) (see fig. 9), Gordon Bushaft’s Lever House (1952) (see fig. 10), and Frank Llloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (1957) (see fig. 11), where he accused the architects of the modern canon of having cheated their clients and betrayed their own principles. Putting the case that in the Chicago Lake Shore Drive Apartment project, for instance, travestied the glass curtain wall, rendering it mere decoration, when he incorporated a structural wall behind the gridded glass shell. According to Maciunas, the cheapest and the most aesthetically-pleasing way would have been to employ fire-proof concrete for the structure. Instead, Mies had chosen “exposed “efficient-looking” steel columns”, which were worse in both of the mentioned factors. As for the Guggenheim Museum, Lloyd Wright ought to have devised a more intelligent enclosure to ensure that the paintings of the museum’s collections were properly illuminated. Instead, propelled by his obsession with arranging the museum around a spiral ramp, he had perimeter windows installed all around the building, which made light fall exactly at eye level of the spectators, interfering with their appreciation of the artworks and necessitating an unforeseen additional lighting system. The list of critique goes on; yet, in each of these cases, Maciunas denounced “preconceived” stylistic goals that hampered the fulfilment of the building’s aims, increasing the costs of its construction and everyday process. Hence, this document is one of the best vantage points to understand the economic rationale behind George Maciunas’s anti-art.
Maciunas’ need to condemn these modern architects who, according to him, had merely become “stage designers” carries an interesting implication; in one way, could one argue that he was right in sensing that buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum signalled the crisis of the functionalist paradigm of modern architecture under the pressures of
contemporary capitalism? Or could it be seen as an eccentric reading of the emergence of consumerist society?
Offered as a direct response, George Maciunas’s methodological plan of Prefabricated Building System was the most literal expression he made of his stubborn Productivism and lifelong devotion to Functionalism and was, in fact, not only a positive alternative to the “failed” buildings of modernists, but a critique of an existing system — a late 1950s prefabricated housing model made in the Soviet Union. This proposal of what a philosopher Henry Flynt has described as “the socialist planning of use-values” found its foremost expression in George Maciunas’s design of a mass-produced prefabricated system conceived as a contribution to the single sector that even the Soviet authorities acknowledged as the weakest spot in the purportedly unstoppable socialist productive machine: the provision of housing. In the early 1960s, the Soviet state tried to remedy the situation by erecting thousands of prefabricated apartment blocks, which despite their miserly reduced size and private comforts were already a radical improvement for the families.
Maciunas designed his own Prefabricated Building System to tackle the problem of mass housing, which comprised nine components and a flexible sliding panel system. This structure is combined of the integrated enclosure system, structural system and servicing system of a smart structure, as well as of the integrated electric works, mechanical works and modern technology of the building materials. Also, as the official document of the planning states, theFluxus Prefabricated Building System distinguishes from all other prefab systems as a prefabricated smart system “embedded with logistic networks,
recycling flows, and the efficient use of resources by providing a network of intercommunicating passages built into the hollow structural components, which is an advanced version of traditional column-beam system and emulates the living system of the human body.”
Nevertheless, the case of the modern plastics production — where Maciunas thought his revolutionary foresight lies, by taking advantages of their high strength-to-weight ratio, great design flexibility, insulating properties — is challenged by the current understanding of sustainability within design. With regard to Colin Davies critique in Prefabricated Home, about a contrast between the aesthetic concerns against economic ones of industrialised building manufacturing ultimately evokes a need of a partnership between these two, that could potentially produce an exciting new type of humane and eco-conscious architecture. In this case, Maciunas is taking functionalism to a dead-end precisely by putting it too literally.
In The Comparative Analysis of Prefabricated Building Systems (see fig. 14) immediately he demonstrates that research provides equally important evidence of the architecture-based ethos that underwrote his approach to all the projects he undertook; a tent, the Levitt housing, Buckminster Fuller’s Wichita House and Geodesic Dome, together with the Soviet housing model (see fig. 15). Maciunas concluded that while the Soviets had previously designed the most efficient system, his own system was even more so. The price per square foot of his system may have been a bit higher that the Soviets’, but ultimately his “gave the most performance for the least cost”. Basing his claim of maximum efficiency on objectives of workability, economy, adaptability, and durability, he implied that if his program were put in production it would surpass the Soviet achievement of producing three million new dwelling units in 1960 alone.
Furthermore, his design of the Fluxhouse — as an example of the system — was appreciated in a debate to efficiency of materials, conveyance, and labor to develop a cost and time effective mass-produced housing system. Resistant to natural disasters such as fire, floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes, the Fluxhouse design could be be customised to suit residential, institutional, industrial, or agricultural functions, is easy to expand, contract and reshape. So although his system was more expensive than the Soviet original prefab housing model, it was a remarkable attempt to create something close to a general architectonic equivalent. While modernist functionalism posited the pursuit of architectonic solutions to specific social needs, Maciunas’s housing project was presented as the latest in “adaptability” to climate, function, and the “special needs and habits” of its dwellers. While the Soviet flats all had the same square window openings in the front, in Maciunas’s flats one would have been able to open windows by choosing between transparent or opaque versions of the non-structural exterior walls, or to control climate by choosing between different exterior covers. Mounted on precast concrete piles, provided with sliding doors of Japanese inspiration.
Maciunas indeed organised space with a Corbusier spareness, rationality, and efficiency; he wrote fondly of Le Corbusier’s perception that “space is a movement within itself, it is never at a standstill, just as sea is never without a wave.” Devotion to natural forces and harmonies would always command Maciunas’ faithfulness as much as any form of elitism attracted his scorn, and the socially favourable solidarity of architects’ and engineers’ methodology recurs in his writings as a preference in terms of capital. His disregard for cultural, social, or natural particularities, his distrust for aesthetic values and subjective idiosyncrasies, were neatly summarised in this architectural utopia based on the hope of developing a universal object of pure use-value.
However, a part of both the challenge of, and to Fluxus, was a questioning of the modes of cultural production and importantly, distribution: the aim of Fluxus throughout the mid-sixties was not only to publish the interesting things being done, but to create new systems for their distribution. Maciunas’s stubborn Productivism is explained once we read Khrushchev’s economic projections; according to the ex-premier, by 1980 the Soviet Union was to increase its industrial output by 500 percent, its labor productivity was to exceed that of the United States by roughly 100 percent. Equally importantly, he believed that he could improve the Soviet model, which was absurdly heavy, and lacking in structural flexibility; the only field where Khrushchev’s program was ready to admit that the Soviet economy had structural problems.
Thus, the earlier evidence suggests complementary questions: how might his system have worked in New York or London in the 1960s and 1970s, and eventually even tap in the contemporary desperation of housing need? How would his vision of the city emerge? Specifically, for his vision to have a big impact, like George Maciunas would have liked, a state-backing model of production and distribution would have been the one.
Maciunas’s prefab could grow practically indefinitely, although limited to single-story houses, which would probably make it difficult or even unsuitable for the high-density, overpopulated urban centres, where the need for mass housing is the greatest.
In fact, when his prefab panels are opened to specific questions of place, his system was most appropriate for accommodating middle-class citizens, including the so-called “organisation men moving in droves to the suburbs of American cities”
at precisely that time — a dwelling designed to produce a subject as efficient at home as he was in the corporate office. Maciunas himself had lived in the new housing development of Levittown, Long Island, when his family first arrived in the US, and therefore knew firsthand this model of standardised, mass-produced suburban living. In lacking theory or a larger intellectual ordering system for design, the Fluxhouse and Fluxcity represent the formative stages for design theory as a traditional, pedagogical way of building.
Yet, in a footnote to his Prefabricated Building System, Maciunas stated:
“George Maciunas’ prefab building system described on these pages is being considered for pilot production of U.S.S.R.”
Whether this is true is unclear, but it strongly suggests that Maciunas had in mind a state-based model of production and distribution. This is curious given that roughly four or five years earlier, in 1960, Maciunas wrote up another formal design proposal for what he called the Structural Mechanical Panel — likely the same component panel of his Prefabricated Building System — with a different model. On the first page of this document he announces his corporate credentials:
“Mr. Maciunas is an architect. He graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1953 and worked for Skidmore Owings and Merrill for 5 years. He then worked for the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation on special research projects for approximately one year.”
Third version of his biography — the corporate, white-collar professional. The project proposal is signed by an organisation named the Universal Structure Corporation (USC), which was started (or at
least planned) by Maciunas and several other individuals for the express purpose of raising funds, producing his special panel, and distributing it. In this investment-seeking proposal, “incorporation” legitimated Maciunas’s design.
It was presumably the best way of being taken seriously toward the realisation of the project. The prefab building system and the structural mechanical panel represented a state model and a corporate model of use — not an avant-garde model. In other words, as identified by Fluxus researcher Mari Dumett, we have examples of Maciunas working consciously within bureaucratic system — be it Communist or Capitalist — and appropriating the systems’ tools of organisation to push through his alternative, yet, so he claimed, utterly efficient designs.
In the late 1960s, George Maciunas had been planning to buy the Ginger Island, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean, to start a Fluxus artist colony and build a unique city, which would have had finally crossed the line between creative concept and construction of the material world.
Taking Maciunas’ master plan of Ginger Island — strangely reminiscent of Manhattan — as a conceptual testing ground, the emergence of Fluxcity stems from the faithful reading and systematic analysis of the original design of Fluxhouse; with the duplication or deduction of modular units, this design could be altered not only to compose a single family home, but a mid-rise building, or even a whole district community. A spatial syntax is thereupon extracted, which allows for reconfiguration and expansion of a single module to form clusters, communities and urban development.
The model and renderings of a Fluxhouse suggest a hybrid of the Johnson Glass House (see fig.), and the contemporary prefab design of the latest Naked Housing Project by OMMX in London. Sharing the concept of flexibility and adaptability, Naked House expands upon the common rear extension and loft conversion as an existing framework.
Nonetheless, the Flux building manual, not much more intricate than the self-assembly instructions for some of Ikea’s bigger scale furniture, obligate to no heavy machinery or special construction expertise. The process contains three main phases: firstly, foundation of piling; secondly, installation of main structural components, like flooring, fixes structural panels, structural wall cabinets, roof slabs, servicing cabinets; and lastly, installation of non-structural components, such as movable interior panels and movable cabinet doors.
According to Maciunas, through standardisation, modularisation, and massive manufacture of prefab system, wastage of energy, materials, time and costs can be reduced.
However, Ginger Island never became real. Speculatively, it could have become a boutique community of Ginger Islanders, as happened in Maciunas’ Soho, being effected by the usual model of gentrification – creative inhabitants being followed by commerce.
Among Maciunas’ singular achievements in the 1960s, he earned the appellation “the Father of Soho” as an urban planner, by creating the Fluxhouse Cooperatives which radically transformed New York’s Soho neighbourhood from a post-industrial dystopia into a thriving area for contemporary art. He set forth the economic problems facing artists and proposed a solution of purchasing under-utilised loft buildings by a not-for-profit corporation and renovating them to provide living-work spaces for artists. He saw communal resources for the artists and expected that in return the artists would provide services to the greater community.
Like other Fluxus works, Maciunas managed his duties without personal profit; yet, succeeded only with an active support of a middle-class arts constituency. In 1967, with a grant from the J. M.
Kaplan Foundation and the Federal Housing Administration, he bought two attached, six-story loft buildings in Soho. Using unemployed artisanal labor, he installed bathrooms, kitchens, plumbing lines, and electrical wiring. Within a couple of years, Maciunas sold the buildings to six artists who had been renting lofts there.
By the early 1970’s the number of artists’ coops in SoHo was multiplying rapidly. Many building sponsors were evading regulations by filing as agricultural coops or by forming partnerships and business corporations; the property values enhanced by the artists’ presence and rose so high, that they effectively barred entry to the loft market by people who tried to live off artwork or performance. As Zukin Sharon observes and identifies in her influential study Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982), Maciunas was constantly running from creditors and trying to make ends meet balancing acquisitions of Soho buildings, and initiating renovations and sales to artists, because he wanted the area to stand for self-reliant artists, not Mob-indebted or State-controlled renters.
Even though the breakthrough came in the form of local initiative and institutionalised philanthropy, low-cost loft co-ops solved all the practical problems of artists’ housing. It is very much because of George Maciunas’s work that there is an artist community established in Soho. Generally, in realising a vision of architecture based on collective ownership, the Fluxhouse Cooperatives may arguably be Maciunas’s most influential and widely practiced Fluxus project.