The early 1970s witnessed the first widespread stirrings of unease about the ecological consequences of consumer capitalism and unchecked population growth. Growing out of the countercultural explosion of the 1960s, this ecological movement spawned some of the most radical experiments yet tried in generating alternatives to industrial production and mass consumption. One of these was what can arguably lay claim to be the world’s first eco-house, built in 1972 by student Graham Caine and his friends Bruce Haggart and Peter Crump from the architectural collective Street Farm.
Formed in 1971 in the febrile atmosphere of London’s Architectural Association – still the world’s only fully independent architecture school – Street Farm speculated about a new urban ecology that would see capitalist societies replaced with anarchist collectives. In two editions of the homespun magazine Street Farmer, they articulated a startling vision of tractors literally ploughing streets, concrete high-rises overtaken by crops seeded from the sky, and bourgeois semi-detached houses ‘transmogrified’ into outsized cabbages. Mixing absurdist humour with genuine outrage at the sterile uniformity imposed by architectural modernism, Street Farm also critiqued the better-known output of Archigram – another radical architectural collective spawned from the Architectural Association. Although both groups shared a passion for liberation and a focus on the home as a site of radical transformation, Street Farm were highly critical of what they saw as Archigram’s unequivocal celebration of technology and their failure to take capitalist economics to task for producing social alienation and environmental deterioration. Instead, as befitting their anarchist politics, Street Farm understood that human liberation could only be realised through social and political transformation, and not simply by technology alone.
Caine’s eco-house – Street Farmhouse – was the centrepiece of his final year project as a 26-yr old student at the Architectural Association and, under the enlightened chairmanship of Alvin Boyarsky, was given generous funding so it could be realised. With the help of friends and his Street Farm colleagues, Caine built the house in four months from September 1972, having been given temporary occupation of a piece of land on the campus of Thames Polytechnic in Eltham. Divided into two principal structures – a timber-framed living unit resembling a chalet joined to a large polyhedral greenhouse made from transparent acrylic panels – Street Farmhouse became the home of Caine and his young family for two years until it was demolished in 1975, after continued planning permission was refused. Widely illustrated in the national and architectural press, and even the subject of a BBC documentary Clearings in the Concrete Jungle in 1973, Street Farmhouse preceded better-known prototype eco-houses, such as Brenda and Robert Vale’s Autonomous House of 1975 and the Integral Urban House built at Berkeley University in the late 1970s. The motto of the structure as ‘a house that grows’ was featured on a banner hung from the main living space. This was directly borrowed from anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin’s 1972 book Post-Scarcity Anarchism, with its central argument that technology could liberate people to live self-sufficiently. It also came from Caine’s previous projects, particularly a proposal for a house that would literally be grown using giant bamboo, published in Garden News in May 1972.
Despite Street Farmhouse’s bricolage aesthetics – most of the building materials were salvaged locally – it became the site of a highly sophisticated experiment by Caine and his family in autonomous living – an off-grid house at its most radical. In addition to rudimentary structures for generating power – solar collectors and heat sinks – Caine also experimented ceaselessly with ways of turning waste material, including his own faeces, into energy. A series of tanks and digesters transformed human and vegetable waste into methane gas for cooking and compost for plant cultivation, while an invisible cellophane wall membrane purified rain water and condensation. In his own drawing of the house, Caine portrayed himself as a machine for generating electricity, his body connected to all parts of the house – a vital component of its sustenance. Here, inhabitant and house are melded quite literally. During his two years of occupation, Caine hardly ever left the structure lest the body-centred systems he set up should malfunction. Indeed, as critic Robin Middleton reported, when Caine was forced to leave for a few weeks due to a family emergency, his student replacement contracted flu, the antibiotics prescribed to him eventually poisoning the life-support systems of the house itself.
This derailing of the ecological systems of Street Farmhouse flags up the central problem of autonomous living spaces. Even though Caine intended the eco-house to be a model for a new kind of society that embraced self-determination as a fundamental tenet in all aspects of life, it nevertheless failed because of its vulnerability to disorder. The ways in which humans occupy houses is fundamentally unpredictable and thus any regenerative system put in place is at risk of failing. In coming to the conclusion that the only way to be radical is to separate oneself entirely from the corrupt society around you, Caine fell into the trap of seeing self-sufficiency as a strategy for emancipation rather than the reverse. Borrowing his ideas from contemporaneous experiments by NASA to develop space colonies, Caine’s ‘closed-system’ was precisely that – a dead-end of autonomy that could not help but fail because it didn’t allow anything from the outside to enter in. In the end, such connection – compromising and sullying as it undoubtedly is – is in fact vital for a house to grow because, to continue to be healthy, we always need feeding from the outside as much as from within.