Common Ground: Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City I and Collaborative Design Practice
Skip to main content

Common Ground: Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City I and Collaborative Design Practice

Documentation of the construction of Food City I (1971) in what is now Gallery 8 at the Walker, June 13, 1971. Walker Art Center Archives.

In 1971, the Viennese architecture collective Haus-Rucker-Co visited the Walker Art Center, creating an edible scale model of Minneapolis. Entitled Food City I, the piece was presented to, and devoured by, members of the public in the Armory Gardens, the future site of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Taking Food City I as a point of departure, art historian Ross Elfline explores the role that sociality plays in the unorthodox medium of architectural performance, and in Haus-Rucker-Co’s identity and labor as a cooperative firm—revealing how hierarchies of power are dispersed in the process.

Ross Elfline, “Common Ground: Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City I and Collaborative Design Practice,” in Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s1980s, Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper eds., Vol. III of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020).

A ragtag group of men and women huddle over a large platform supporting what appears to be a scale model of an urban area. What seems at first to be a slapdash cardboard construction of buildings in miniature is, in fact, a cityscape made of mounds of sandwiches, cakes, sundry candies, and confections. The assembled participants (are they architects? Or short order cooks? Pastry chefs? It’s too early to know.) heft the platform up and, with care and deliberation, proceed to transport it down a service elevator, through a brightly lit lobby, and finally outside, where it is set down.This paragraph narrates the scene that unfolded around Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City I, performed at and around the Walker Art Center in 1971. This narration is based on information gleaned from the film that captured the event, which is held by the Walker Art Center Archives, as well as from documentary photos from both the Walker’s archives and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts/American Craft Museum Archive, held by the American Craft Council in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After some final touches have been added, the edible model is displayed for an eager crowd. To contemporary viewers, this scene might remind us of familiar Food Network challenges or of the now-famous Great British Bake-Off, as the participants here repeat the spectacular ritual of carrying a carefully-built pastry erection from their benches to the judging stand. In these shows, precarious towers of tempered chocolate and delicate sugar work balance tentatively, every slight bobble sending shivers up our spines. The scene we are witnessing here, though, strikes us as utterly comical—even a little pathetic. While the cauliflower trees and lemonade ponds make us smile with their twee charm, the sandwich skyscrapers and buttercream stucco façades make only the barest of attempts to depict their referents. Pulling back to observe the entirety of the model cityscape, we might wonder why so much care has been taken to transport such a risible structure. 

To focus on the delicate and painstaking craft of the model, a central component of Haus-Rucker-Co’s event Food City I (1971), is to miss the point of the documented performance, however. As charming as the model itself is, our attention is better served by focusing instead on what came after its big reveal. Once displayed outside, the crowd of onlookers begins digging into the provisions that make up the model, gleefully gobbling up bits of cake and slices of cucumber while sipping lemonade—so many urban Gullivers devouring their Lilliput. It is not the edible model city, then, but the action that it catalyzes that deserves our attention. Here, food brings a group of citizens together into something of a provisional community: the crowd chats together in groups and pairs, cups and plates perched unsteadily as they try to make conversation. Just as importantly, though, in performing this act, the audience members also extinguished the object that served as the original focal point of the event. By the end of the performance, the model city has been devoured, an edible landscape consumed by a hungry throng. 

Correspondence & Press Release

This interactive performance event is the work of the Austrian architecture and art collective Haus-Rucker-Co, and it was staged outside the Walker Art Center in the Armory Gardens (now called the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden) on June 13, 1971. Food City I was one of a series of performance events that Haus-Rucker-Co created for various cities in Western Europe and the US. In all of these events, various architectural models were crafted and then eaten up by members of the public. On the occasion of the moon landing in 1969, for instance, the group wheeled a cake that resembled the surface of the moon into the streets of Vienna. In 1970, as part of their month-long exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York, Haus-Rucker-Co hosted a number of gastronomic events, including weekly dinners open to the public and a one-night performance in which a scale model of the Museum was offered up as dessert. One year after the performance at the Walker, Haus-Rucker-Co fabricated another edible landscape at the invitation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This time, they created an edible version of Central Park to celebrate the 150th birthday of the park’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted.

What these performances had in common—aside from the ritual consumption of a miniature version of a building or landscape—was the playful assembly that gathered around them. For the duration of the performance, strict conceptual barriers that normally separate maker from viewer or an institution from its public were held in abeyance. Museum spaces became gathering spots for locals, the architects mingled with the crowd, and a relaxed conviviality among equals replaced the kind of aesthetic absorption normally associated with the optical paradigm of the museum. Viewing the documentary images of Food City I, the leveling character of the performance is striking, yet tender. While one is hesitant to make broad claims about the Minneapolis work’s ability to knit together a diverse cosmopolitan demos (the documentary footage of the event reveals a largely white and young crowd), it is still worth noting that these events had some capacity for bringing together individuals whose social orbits may have not otherwise intersected at all. 

Haus-Rucker-Co, Food City I, 1971, presented in the Armory Gardens (now the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden), June 13, 1971. Walker Art Center Archives.

By alluding to conviviality and the sort of social effects brought about by food-related events, I am treading into what is, admittedly, well-worn territory in contemporary art history and theory. The literature on social practice art, or so-called “relational aesthetics,” is rife with examples of meals cooked and impromptu bars erected with the goal of bringing together a loose and temporary affiliation of individuals to form a provisional sort of “community.”The primary text here remains Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 1998). Since then, the bibliography on social practice art has expanded considerably. Those of particular note include Nato Thompson, ed., Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art, 1991–2011 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012); Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012); and Grant Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011). In drawing a relationship between Haus-Rucker-Co’s food-based performances and the social practice artists of more recent generations, my goal is not (or not wholly) to offer up Haus-Rucker-Co as an architectural antecedent to practices that would follow. Rather, my aim is to examine the role of sociality in the unorthodox medium of the architectural performance and in Haus-Rucker-Co’s trajectory as a collaborative architectural group. In short, the attempt to question hierarchies of power by insisting on a broadly shared idea of agency that is dispersed through communication (or social) networks and other more analogue means was a persistent theme throughout the work of these Viennese radicals. When considering the collaborative performance as a medium, though, it is important to bear in mind that Haus-Rucker-Co’s decision to form a cooperative design practice was itself consistent with their broader aim of shared or constituent power. Telling the story of their food performances, therefore, means turning a figure-eight that circles back-and-forth between examinations of their work and of their identity as a creative firm. Doing so allows us to see how a critical approach to architectural labor and progressive aesthetics mutually informed and sustained each other within the years that Haus-Rucker-Co operated as a collective unit.For more on critical approaches to architectural labor in the postwar era, see Peggy Deamer, ed., The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, the Creative Class, and the Politics of Design (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2018). These are also issues that I have addressed elsewhere, including: “Towards a Taxonomy of Conceptual Architecture,” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 75, no. 2 (June 2016): 201–23; and “Superstudio and the ‘Refusal of Work,’” in Design and Culture, vol. 8, no. 1 (March 2016): 55–77. Within this narrative, Food City I serves as a crucial nexus from which we can consider the group’s modeling of radical democracy, and look at the broader implications for artists and newly activated viewers sharing a table.

Documentation of the construction of Food City I (1971) in what is now Gallery 8 at the Walker, and its presentation in the Armory Gardens (now the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden), June 13, 1971. Walker Art Center Archives.

On Design, Networks, and Social Space

Front to back: Günter Zamp Kelp, Laurids Ortner, and Klaus Pinter of Haus-Rucker-Co wearing Flyhead, Viewatomizer, and Drizzler from the Environment Transformers series, Vienna, 1968. Photo: Gerald Zugmann. Courtesy Archive Zamp Kelp.

Haus-Rucker-Co was founded in 1967 by a group of three recent graduates of the architecture program at the Technical University of Vienna: Laurids Ortner, Günter Zamp Kelp, and Klaus Pinter. Manfred Ortner, who trained in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, would join the group in 1971 and Carroll Michels in 1972.For further details regarding the history of Haus-Rucker-Co’s founding, see Katja Blomberg, ed., Haus-Rucker-Co: Architektur–Utopie Reloaded (Berlin: Haus am Waldsee, 2015); and Andrea Bina, ed., Haus-Rucker-Co LIVE Again (Linz: Lentos Kunstmuseum, 2007). While the original members of the collective had trained as architects, they initially rejected tectonic form in favor of a range of alternative media. Within their first few years, Haus-Rucker-Co had developed a range of objects, inflatable environments, and technological prosthetics that functioned to provide their users with new, altered perspectives on their surroundings. Various helmets and visors distorted one’s sight, images and sounds filled enclosed spaces to create a distinct mood or atmosphere, and blow-up rooms defined a space apart from the outside world. Various members of Haus-Rucker-Co have admitted that their objects attempted to offer the effects of a drug trip without the drugs.“Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary experimented with psychedelic drugs while being the leading lights of the counterculture. We wanted to expand consciousness not by drugs but rather by new, unexpected spaces, objects and utilities.” See the interview with Günter Zamp Kelp in Haus-Rucker-Co: Achitektur–Utopie Reloaded, 98. While the psychedelic effect was one aim, cooperation and communality were equally important elements to the work. Their objects were not meant to be operated singly: each necessitated the involvement of a group or pair. To activate both Mind Expander (1967) and Mind Expander 2 (1968), for example, a couple sits—one astride the other—underneath a broad helmet equipped with speakers and tinted windows. Another group of works, the Environment Transformer series (1968), includes the wearable objects Flyhead, Drizzler, and Viewatomizer. While only one person can wear each of the headpieces at a time, the objects were initially intended to be networked to other objects (and their wearers) so that participants might communicate with one another their impressions of the changed landscape.Günter Zamp Kelp detailed the group’s goals for the Environment Transformer series at a public lecture at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture on November 26, 2015. His lecture coincided with the opening of the Walker Art Center’s exhibition Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. In brief, all of Haus-Rucker-Co’s objects contained within them both the sense that the user was a co-creator of the aesthetic experience—and thus lived with the object and not for it—and provided an incentive to communicate with others towards either intimate or social ends. In creating spaces that were experienced in common, individual consciousness was to be cast aside in favor of relationality and intersubjectivity.

Haus-Rucker-Co’s objects, therefore, served as catalysts for communicative action. As such, the group was tapping into one of the significant debates in 1960s aesthetic theory: the extent to which the object—whether it was Donald Judd’s “specific object” or Michael Fried’s “literalist” work—questioned its autonomous status as a self-enclosed unit and attempted instead to instigate a sympathetic relationship between viewer and object.See Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8 (1965), 94; and Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 116–47. Due to the time-bound nature of the symbiotic situation occasioned by the appearance of the object in real time and space, Fried termed this encounter “theatrical.” Haus-Rucker-Co’s objects certainly embraced this idea of theatricality, involving the viewer’s whole body and perceptive consciousness in completing their aesthetic effect.

After the production of their wearable works in 1968, Haus-Rucker-Co would double down on the theatrical by moving from the production of objects to the creation of staged events. But in doing so, they also shifted the emphasis of the aesthetic encounter. Rather than establishing a closed loop between the object and the viewer, Haus-Rucker-Co endeavored to link together individual users themselves. As Ludwig Engel mentions briefly in his retrospective account of Haus-Rucker-Co’s interest in cybernetic networks, this shift from a symbiotic relationship between object and user to a complex relationship among users in an information network mirrors ideas seen in the writings of the influential German sociologist and systems theorist Niklas Luhmann whose works from the mid-1960s had a profound impact on the German-speaking world.The bibliography of works by and about Luhmann is extensive. While much of his work remains untranslated into English, a useful introduction to his theories of social networks can be found in Social Systems, trans. by John Bednarz, Jr., with Dirk Baecker (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995). Ludwig Engel makes passing reference to the link between Luhmann’s theories and Haus-Rucker-Co’s works in his essay “Successful Interventions in Failed Objects: Fragments of Utopia for Haus-Rucker-Co, 1967–1977,” in Haus-Rucker-Co: Architektur–Utopie Reloaded, 24–28. It should also be mentioned that the interface between architecture and systems has received attention from several scholars, though the essential text here remains Mark Wigley’s “Network Fever,” in Grey Room 4 (Summer 2001): 82–122. In brief, Luhmann’s writings tell us that while a system emerges from a given environment, it also reduces the amount of sensory data taken from that environment so that the users of the system can make sense of or create meaning from diverse and potentially overwhelming stimuli. Meaning is thus formed through a careful process of filtering, which happens discursively through the actions of the system’s networked users. Applying Luhmann’s ideas to radical architecture and design leads to a series of important questions. If one role for the architectural profession has traditionally been creating buildings that serve as centers for community cohesion, what would happen if we were to remove built form as performative or relational catalyst for interaction or community-formation? Could the architect create a networked system, as Luhmann understood it, in which viewers come together in an unmediated fashion to commune with one another? And if so, what sort of (literal or phenomenal) space might be created in the void left behind by the now-absent object? With these questions in mind, we can begin to move toward a closer consideration of Haus-Rucker-Co’s forays into performance and event-based art.

Haus-Rucker-Co, Laurids-Zamp-Pinter, Giant Billiard, presented as part of Haus-Rucker-Co LIVE! at the Museum of the 20th Century, Vienna, February 7–March 15, 1970. Courtesy Archive Zamp Kelp.

While the series of food performances began in 1969, it is a pair of exhibitions from 1970 that offer the best examples of Haus-Rucker-Co’s integration of live performance work with architecture and design. Titled Haus-Rucker-Co LIVE!, these exhibitions were presented at the Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna early in 1970 and at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York later that same year. During the run of both exhibitions, the trio of architects exhibited their interactive design works in the museums’ spaces while also living in the galleries with their objects and other (more traditional) home furnishings. In one sense, the exhibitions staged a mundane tableau of domesticity, but the presence of the artists provided an unexpected shock for the audience.This move toward the banal space of the domestic everyday has a parallel in dance during this same era. See other essays in this volume related to the Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union as useful examples of this tendency. Living alongside their objects, the artists encouraged viewers to consider the objects as coextensive with the architects’ lives—and their own as well. Their presence in the galleries aided in Haus-Rucker-Co’s move away from autonomous absorption and toward engaged viewership. By entering this shared space, visitors to Haus-Rucker-Co LIVE! existed on an even playing field with the creators of the show. Viewers were invited into the architects’ temporary “home,” and guests were meant to be treated as equals inside the newly domesticated space of the white cube. 

Documentation of a dinner hosted by Haus-Rucker-Co within the living space they created as part of Haus-Rucker-Co LIVE! at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, May 15–June 5, 1970. As part of the exhibition, the artists lived in the museum among their work, making it the first live-in at a museum. Courtesy the American Craft Council & Archives.

Food—its display and ritualized communal consumption—also played a role in the New York iteration of Haus-Rucker-Co LIVE!. On Thursday nights throughout the month-long run, the three architects opened up the museum and living space for guests to join them for dinner. Folks were treated to a meal of traditional Austrian fare, complete with goulash and roasted potatoes. Documentary photographs from the exhibition show viewers gleefully tucking into the hearty meals, and once again we are hard-pressed to tell who among the crowd are visitors and who are hosts. The spirit of camaraderie that Haus-Rucker-Co hoped to foster within the broader exhibition space was enacted through these weekly suppers. Strict rules dictating proper museum decorum were temporarily suspended during these events. And as is often the case in the relational artworks of our current era, a simple meal served as the catalytic event that brought individuals together in a moment of provisional community.

Judith Bell, “Edible architecture—eat up urban blight,” The Minneapolis Star, June 9, 1971. Walker Art Center Archives.

These situations enacted within the Museum of the 20th Century and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts might strike us as a little too charming or relaxed, however. In one sense, this sort of performance seems very much of its moment—a time during the late 1960s when love-ins and other Hippie-era utopian interventions into public space attempted to plaster over ethnic and class-based discord with only a thin gloss of free love. In the years since, scholars have been keen to point out the myriad ways in which free access to the public sphere has always been radically circumscribed by race, class, gender, and ability.Again, the literature on the public sphere and its discontents is too vast to summarize in any meaningful way. However, important essays on the critique of Jürgen Habermas’s initial theorization of the public sphere include: Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56–80; Catherine R. Squires, “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres,” Communication Theory 12, no. 4 (2002): 446–468; David Harvey, “The Political Economy of Public Space,” in The Politics of Public Space, Setha Low and Neil Smith, eds. (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 17–34; and Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 547–66. And, as other scholars have noted, the act of bringing people together around food or an interactive sculptural object does not automatically guarantee that such a gesture is necessarily more “open” or “democratic.”This argument is made most persuasively by Claire Bishop in “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Autumn 2004): 51–79. One might also consider in this context Alison Knowles’s Make a Salad (1962), a work that has been restaged many times since its inception (including once at the Walker Art Center in 2014). While on the one hand it appears as an open, accepting, and “democratic” work, Knowles is also adamant about what ingredients may or may not be used in the making of a salad. The use of the imperative verb form, too, strikes one as more of an unwavering command than an open invitation to collaborate. Looking, then, at Haus-Rucker-Co’s public events centered around edible architectural models or miniature landscapes, we might find other currents at work. After all, for as freewheeling, sybaritic, and evidently just plain fun as these events appear, an act of destruction is central to their purpose. In an era teeming with examples of artists and others collaborating in a productive attempt to make something—anything—with their peers, Haus-Rucker-Co instead emphasizes the destructive act of consumption, ravaging the finished product as an act of revenge. The aim of so much relational art is the creation of a temporary “microtopia,” a world-in-miniature in which social relations that exist outside the space of the work are cast aside as we imagine how to “inhabit the world in a better way.”Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 11–12. The hopeful optimism of this type of world-making would seem to be opposed to the ritual act of destruction seen in Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City I. And so, to better understand the critical potential of these interactive performance works, we need to examine this nihilistic act of destruction and the conflictual or “agonistic” forms of encounter that it engenders.See Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London: Verso, 2013).

View of the Armory Gardens, the future site of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, ca. 1979. Walker Art Center Archives.

In a statement outlining their motivations for the Walker Art Center performance, the group explained: “The city is killing itself with urban problems … Food City [1] is more flexible than the rest. Participants will have the opportunity to destroy obsolescence by gobbling the city up.”As quoted in Judith Bell, “Edible architecture—eat up urban blight,” The Minneapolis Star, June 9, 1971, 6C. Haus-Rucker-Co claimed that the American city, with its residential towers and cookie-cutter houses, had become outmoded, ill-suited for a contemporary age of hyper-connectivity and the emergent youth culture.As articulated here, these concepts emerge largely from Günter Zamp Kelp’s public lecture at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture on November 26, 2015. Neighbors had become alienated from one another in urban metropolises, consigned to single-family homes and emerging from them only to enter the even more confining private space of the automobile. Civic identity had eroded, and once bustling urban centers where people had gathered and where chance encounters were inevitable had all but disappeared. Postwar city planning had forsaken any sense of a collective “we” in favor of atomized units of consuming individuals. Blantantly racist housing schemes devised following WWII further divided American cities along racial and ethnic lines, destroying any sense of shared space across these divides. In the Twin Cities, one need look only as far as the I-94 freeway that eviscerated the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, displacing the once-thriving African American community. The construction of this freeway, which winds through Minneapolis and St. Paul, also tore into and abbreviated the Armory Gardens where Food City I was staged. And so it is this outdated architecture and urban infrastructure, which had served only to alienate citizens from one another and to channel their behavior in coldly efficient, consumerist fashion, that was “killing” the city, according to Haus-Rucker-Co. In building their architectural effigy that was destined to be ritually and communally destroyed, Haus-Rucker-Co pointed to the obsolescence of the city’s architecture and built form.It is worth noting that the architecture of the Walker Art Center was itself in flux at this time. The now-famous tower designed by Edward Larabee Barnes had opened to the public on May 15, just one short month before Haus-Rucker-Co’s performative gesture outside.

View of Nicollet Mall and the Minneapolis Skyway system as seen from Dayton's 12th Floor, ca. 1970. Photo: Mike Evangelist.

As many urban historians and theorists have noted, the postwar era was witness to a dramatic shift in city life, as urban centers moved from a communal sense of closely-knit neighborhoods and local texture toward an increasingly homogenized idea of culture epitomized by mass consumerism and hyperproduction. The Situationist Guy Debord would memorably term this newly alienated form of life “the society of the spectacle.”Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994). Other essential books that deal with capital’s evisceration of civic life include Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: UC Press, 1984); Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, trans. John Moore (New York: Verso, 2002–05); and several titles by David Harvey, but especially Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution (New York: Verso, 2012). Minneapolis was by no means immune to such upheavals. The fate of the city’s famed Nicollet Mall, which exists in close proximity to the Walker Art Center and Armory Park, provides one prominent case in point. As the commercial hub of downtown Minneapolis, Nicollet Mall had historically been a prominent site for the performance of “publicness.” Department stores—including the locally-owned Dayton’s flagship store—served as crucial draws for Minneapolis’s ascendant middle class in the postwar years. These stores lived cheek-by-jowl with smaller-scale, individually owned and managed retail outfits. In 1956, however, the first indoor shopping mall, Southdale, was built in a nearby Minneapolis suburb. Designed by Victor Gruen, Southdale’s air-conditioned comfort soon drew customers south to Edina, leaving Nicollet Mall depleted and depopulated. Nicollet Mall was further altered in 1962 when the city’s famed Skyway system opened. The Skyway is a network of elevated walkways suspended two stories above ground level that shuttles pedestrians from one downtown building to another in glazed tubes. This much-lauded infrastructural element is convenient during Minneapolis’s bitter winters, but it also allows people to spend all day downtown without ever setting foot on the city’s streets. The broad boulevard of Nicollet Mall was thus left deserted as office workers, shoppers, and other residents were fed through the relatively confined spaces of the Skyway’s pedestrian network. Importantly, the Skyways in Minneapolis are privately owned and managed partnerships between the developers involved in the conjoined buildings. We cannot, therefore, consider the Skyways to be public space.For more on the Minneapolis Skyway system and its history, see Sam H. Kaufman, Skyway Cities (Minneapolis: CSPI, 1985). Hours of operation were initially (and still are) strictly enforced, and private security firms were hired to patrol the areas. The cumulative effect of these changes to Minneapolis’s urban design in the decades preceding Haus-Rucker-Co’s visit, then, was to entice those who had escaped to the suburbs back into the city only to suspend them above the city streets and sequester them in privatized spaces that were highly circumscribed by capital’s consumerist directives. 

By the early 1970s, Minneapolis was going the way of so many large metropolitan areas in the developed world. On the one hand, efficiency and mass-production had led to an architecture of relative sameness: whether suburban housing or the urban skyscraper, the range of building typologies had been simplified and streamlined to the point of featureless monotony. On the other hand, public spaces had become evacuated due either to a general flight to the suburbs or to civic planning decisions that lent greater priority to circulation and infrastructure than to gathering and community. The public spaces that did persist became suffused with advertising or were branded as part of a broader civic public relations campaign that posited the urban dweller as affluent and white. Nicollet Mall was subject to a similar top-down design scheme in 1967 when the area underwent a major renovation by the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.For more on Halprin’s civic design schemes, see Alison Bick Hirsch, City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). While Halprin’s design could be praised for the sensitive way in which it attempted to create space for urban interaction, the redesigned Mall became perhaps better known for its picturesque, postcard-ready S-curve. As Mike Evangelist and Andy Sturtevant point out in their book Downtown: Minneapolis in the 1970s, the revitalization of Nicollet Mall transformed it into a privileged space of white consumer culture. Furthermore, the spiffed-up consumer space stood in opposition to its grittier side streets and the licentiousness of nearby Hennepin Avenue.Mike Evangelist and Andy Sturtevant, Downtown: Minneapolis in the 1970s (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 2015). And so, by the early 1970s, urban renewal had either worked to “clean up” the city’s historic riverside (and in the process decimate both local populations and historic buildings), or render downtown a photo-ready vista. Vast parts of the city were deemed unworthy of the city administration’s attention and intervention. 

Scene in front of Donaldson’s department store, near Nicollet Mall, in downtown Minneapolis, 1973. Photo: Mike Evangelist.

With Food City I, Minneapolitans had the opportunity, then, to take their revenge on the city itself. Those apartment towers where so many lonely urbanites seclude themselves? Nothing but pumpernickel. The nearly identical houses of the suburbs? Just ticky-tacky houses clad in frosting that melted away on the tongue. Even Minneapolis’s famous chain of lakes—areas that provide both space for the city’s residents to gather and lakefront views from its most exclusive addresses—became lemonade that washed down so much urban detritus. 

But what was left behind after this sacrificial event? To the architects, the enduring feature of the performance was the network of relationships that was established following the festive gorging. As the city’s residents looked up from their empty plates, their eyes met those of their fellow revelers. It is worth noting, in passing, that it was Haus-Rucker-Co’s Viennese colleague Hans Hollein who had declared just a few years before that “Alles ist Architektur,” or that “everything is architecture.”Hans Hollein, “Alles ist Architektur,” in Bau 1/2 (1968): 2–27. It should be noted that one of Haus-Rucker-Co’s inflatable units was illustrated in Hollein’s treatise. Here, a performative action, with food at the center, became a new vehicle through which to convene a public. The void created by tectonic architecture’s absence is filled by the user’s own sense of community and togetherness. In reference to their earlier ritual consumption of a “moon cake” in Vienna to mark the moment when astronauts first stepped on the moon in 1969, Haus-Rucker-Co’s Klaus Pinter said, “It is so boring just to watch, people need to be involved, to participate, to enjoy and everyone likes to eat.”Quoted in Bell, “Edible architecture,” 6C. It is important, therefore, that the performance took place in Armory Park, and not in the Walker’s galleries themselves. As much as the group had attempted to upset the conventions by which a viewer behaves within the museum through Haus-Rucker-Co-LIVE!, visitors to the space, nevertheless, had to be those predisposed to contemporary art and craft or otherwise in-the-know. By exiting the Walker and engaging with public parkland (indeed, the performance was staged in collaboration and consultation with the Minneapolis Parks Department), Haus-Rucker-Co attempted to reach a broader audience, one that perhaps better represented Minneapolis and its socioeconomic make-up. 

It could be argued, then, that what Haus-Rucker-Co had attempted with Food City I was to use the interactive performance event to create an urban commons within the context of the fully industrialized and commoditized city.The literature on the commons is large and growing. Essential texts on the intersection of architecture and the commons include Lewis Hyde, Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010); An Architektur, “On the Commons: A Public Conversation with Massimo de Angelis and Stavros Stavrides,” e-flux 17 (2010): 1–17; Stavros Stavrides, Common Space: The City as Commons (London: Zed Books, 2016); and Massimo de Angelis, Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism (London: Zed Books, 2017). The design object, in this case an urban model, is extinguished, but existing together in the public square are the city’s residents—now no longer shopping in Edina or sequestered in their homes, but actively engaging with their fellow residents, now, importantly, as citizens. Here one is reminded of Jacques Rancière’s important theorization of democracy as that form of rule in which those who have no claim to rule are called upon to do so. Here they are not landowners or nobility or even shoppers armed with consumer power; they are, in Rancière’s words “the part that has no part.”See Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. Steven Corcoran (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), 27–61, 76–83, 90–104. Importantly, though, they might then also be engaged in a broader discussion of the city itself, what its fate should be, and what might take the place of those sweet confections that previously stood in for the city’s high rises, apartment blocks, and uniform houses. Ideally, this means that the citizen is faced with difference: their fellow city-dweller as the Other, perhaps one who inhabits a different subject position than their own.For more on relational works and their potential to foreground difference as a democratic necessity, see Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” In the wake of the demise of one reified, concrete city, a city of possibility and indecision might well rise in its place, leading to the confrontation of different positions and priorities. The hashing out of those priorities becomes the very basis of the commons, or the clearing of a space in which one’s claim to inhabit space must be negotiated carefully with those whose claim is equal to one’s own. 

The Architectural Collective as Commons

While Haus-Rucker-Co was deeply invested in the project of interactivity and its potential to convert the late capitalist city into a new urban commons where a sense of the collective good can be debated and imagined, it is important to bear in mind that the group, too, functioned as just that: a group, a communal entity. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, architectural labor was being re-cast in ways that were meant to be more open, democratic, and non-alienating.See my “The Dematerialization of Architecture: Toward a Taxonomy of Conceptual Practice,” in The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 75, no. 2 (June 2016): 201–23. One part of this project involved the activation of viewers and users to become intimately involved in the design process itself, thus questioning the role of the “master” planner as more passionate amateurs were brought into the act. It is worth considering more carefully, however, what was at stake in Haus-Rucker-Co’s decision to form a collective entity in the first place. Indeed, their individual identities became subsumed under the mock-corporate title of the organization. (Haus-Rucker-Co could be translated to mean “house moving company,” though it also alludes to the range of foothills called Hausruck in Upper Austria, the state from which the group’s members all hailed.)See the interview with Klaus Pinter, Haus-Rucker-Co: Architektur–Utopie Reloaded, 104. This was, at once, de rigeur for a number of radical architects in the late 1960s, including Archigram in the UK; Superstudio, Archizoom, UFO, and others in Florence, Italy; Ant Farm in the United States; and Coop Himmelb(l)au in Haus-Rucker-Co’s home city of Vienna. What all these groups shared was a witty pop sensibility that involved branding themselves through the use of an anonymous corporate name, but in so doing they also foregrounded their collective aims. 

Examples of Haus-Rucker-Co logos printed on the company letterhead. Walker Art Center Archives.

While Haus-Rucker-Co and other cooperative architectural groups formed during this time sought to foreground collectivity in new ways, it should be stated that architectural labor is almost always a collaborative endeavor, and always has been. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which one individual would be an expert in architectural drawing, structural engineering, lighting, mechanical detailing, acoustics, and ornamentation, not to mention landscape design, urban traffic, and other elements. In short, architectural design has always been driven by fragmentation and specialization. Some in the field, most prominently the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, see this as a benefit. As the scale of both the building and the architecture firm grows, Koolhaas argues, the designer’s expertise in any single area wanes, and this necessitates collaboration and networked creativity.Rem Koolhaas, “Bigness, or the Problem of Large,” in S,M,L,XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995), 495–516. It is also important to note that Koolhaas was profoundly inspired by the collective avant-garde groups of the 1960s and early 1970s when he was a student at the Architectural Association in London. While collaboration has always been endemic to architectural work, Koolhaas sees this as the very basis of architectural design going forward, particularly in an era of increased reliance on systems of dispersed authority and agency. 

Despite the inherently collective nature of architectural practice, the auteur model of architectural design remains firmly in place. While most architecture firms are just that—corporate entities in which multiple employees work toward a common goal and share both responsibility and risk—the creative endeavors of the majority of the workers are subsumed under the identity of the firm itself, which is usually named for its principles or founders. In short, authorship remains centered around individual “stars,” and these are the figures that remain the focus of both scholarly inquiry and market interest.An important recent contribution to discussions surrounding the architectural profession and labor is Peggy Deamer’s edited volume The Architect as Worker: Immaterial Labor, The Creative Class, and the Politics of Design (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). It is this situation to which Haus-Rucker-Co responded when they chose to adopt, ironically, such a corporate moniker. On the one hand, they were denying the market its “starchitect”: the lone author to whom redounds the accolades and scholarly attention. This is the world of splashy design journals and shelter magazines that trade so often on the celebrity status of the lead designer in charge of any given commission. Indeed, the 1960s were a time when the previously challenging and austere Modern Movement in architecture became the globally successful International Style, and this was due in part to its ascendance in both niche architecture journals and mass-market publications alike. On the other hand, their authorship is subsumed under a brand identity, and as such it cannot be argued that they have abjured the consumerist mentality of their age. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Haus-Rucker-Co had abstained from or evaded consumer culture when viewing their slick inflatable works with the company logo emblazoned across the sides. 

Haus-Rucker-Co, Laurids-Zamp-Pinter, Balloon for 2, Vienna, 1967. Photo: Gerd Winkler. Courtesy Archive Zamp Kelp.

To place their consumerist gesture in an appropriate historical context it bears mentioning that Haus-Rucker-Co maintained an abiding interest in Pop Art, the contemporaneous movement that likewise brooked a difficult path between embracing and critiquing consumer society. Andy Warhol’s celebrated Dance Diagram series of paintings from 1962 provides a useful example here. A suite of works on canvas, the paintings mimic the appearance of mass-produced and -distributed cards designed to teach introductory students the steps to various ballroom dances. When the paintings were first shown at the Stable Gallery in New York, they were installed horizontally on low platforms near the floor encouraging viewers to perform the steps in the gallery and create small extemporaneous performances that interrupted the rote scripts of gallery viewership. Whatever sense of spontaneity that this small performance might have engendered, however, would be quickly thwarted as one realized that the steps are all written out ahead of time. A viewer’s supposedly spontaneous actions, then, become merely mechanical repetitions of pre-ordained movements. Warhol’s paintings serve as useful models for the way much of Pop looked at consumer culture, its images, and their potential effects. While the paintings seem to provide a provisional sense of liberty, this feeling is simultaneously tempered by the limited range of possibilities that consumer choice affords. The ironies and antinomies of popular culture are further mined in Haus-Rucker-Co’s adoption of a brand identity. By aping corporate culture, Haus-Rucker-Co critically challenged stable notions of authorship and emphasized the collective nature of architectural labor. At the same time, their corporate identity also highlights the ways in which capitalism forces collectives to compete for market share.On neoliberalism’s governing rationality and how it renders each of us individual (and collective) “human capitals,” see Wendy Brown’s essential Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015).

Claes Oldenburg, Alphabet/Good Humor, 3-Foot Prototype, 1975, fiberglass, paint, bronze, wood, 36 x 16 x 7 in. Collection Walker Art Center, 1980.28. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Julius E. Davis, 1980. ©Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

Pop Art was not the only iteration of “pop” to influence Haus-Rucker-Co. For the trio of architects, rock and pop music was another primary reference and influence. As Ortner recalls: “Haus-Rucker-Co attempted to translate the actions of contemporary pop groups into the realm of art and architecture. It was important to get really close to a wide audience. The art market and the architects with their theorizing did not interest us at all. We wanted to hit people directly by our own means—as the musicians did with their music.”Interview with Laurids Ortner in Haus-Rucker-Co: Architektur–Utopie Reloaded, 108. See also Manfred Ortner’s similar retrospective account of Haus-Rucker-Co’s influences in his own interview from the same volume: “In the beginning it was a highly idiosyncratic artistic reading of Actionism, informed by Pop Art, the music scene and the onset of the space age,” 111. Pinter also recounted how rock music was essential to the functioning of Yellow Heart (1968), an inflatable construction outfitted with speakers that surrounded the users with pulsating music. “Of course music was essential to these spaces: Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, among others.”Interview with Klaus Pinter, Haus-Rucker-Co: Architektur–Utopie Reloaded, 105. Most often these musical references are cited to provide a general sort of context for the work—the informality of the swinging 1960s and the churning music that served to complement psychedelic acid trips defined the immediate social environment to which their works were intended to respond.It is also worth noting that the comparison to a rock band is also loaded with masculinist overtones, an idea that is only reinforced by the highly gendered aspect of many of Haus-Rucker-Co’s design works, for instance Mind Expander I, the photos of which always feature a lithe woman straddling a man’s lap, a contortion required by the molded fiberglass form.

And yet there is something telling about this persistent allusion to rock bands. Not only was the music itself a source of inspiration, but, as Kelp attested during a lecture at the University of Minnesota given in 2015, Haus-Rucker-Co’s founding was meant to mimic the formation of a rock band itself.Günter Zamp Kelp, public lecture at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture on November 26, 2015. This coincided with the opening of the Walker Art Center’s exhibition Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. They didn’t just admire the Rolling Stones, they wanted to be the Rolling Stones. In many ways, this works in concert with the corporate nature of their identity: as is true in a rock band, in Haus-Rucker-Co any individual sensibility would be subordinated to the group personality. Each member gives up a bit of his own personality when entering the group situation; this subordination delineates the work of each individual member (which might be seen or heard in a solo act or side project) from that of the band. 

Looking to ensemble music as a broader metaphor for creative labor, there is of course something else gained through this subordination of the individual voice or ego. Ideally, within a musical group, each individual voice or instrument accompanies others, harmonically and complementarily, in an arrangement or chord. One’s actions, one’s voice, and one’s part is matched by those of others. Pitch must be adjusted according to the relative harmonics of the ensemble players. Often, on their own, these individual parts make little melodic sense, but together, they combine to make a complete, cohesive unit. Importantly, one’s identity within the ensemble is not invisible; indeed, without any given part, the final work would sound off, skeletal, or incomplete. The result of one’s musical labor is immediately, sonically present in the performance. As a result, the individual is not alienated from the final product in the same way that, say, assembly line workers are said to be. And importantly, the final product is palpably the result of one’s body: the vibrations of the vocal chords (or an instrument’s strings, plucked or strummed by the hand) produce a sonic product that complements those of the rest of the ensemble in tight harmonic balance. 

The collaborative labor of Haus-Rucker-Co and so many other radical architecture groups mirrored the work of a music ensemble or rock group in these ways. While an outside viewer may not be immediately aware of the individual work of any one member of the group, the labor of each individual is integral to the final product. But while the group identity was crucial to the everyday functioning of Haus-Rucker-Co as a united ensemble, it is still the case that many of the products they produced bore the stamp of the commodity fetish. Sheathed in Plexiglas covers and taut plastic skins, their objects worked to erase the hand(s) of their makers. Within the tightly knit trio, though (which expanded to become a quartet and then a quintet), the results were presented as the collective effort of the ensemble, all of whom were valued equally, even as differences in ability or specialization no doubt persisted. 

With Food City I and other of the gustatory performance works that Haus-Rucker-Co initiated, their own collective identity expanded further to include audience members as active co-creators of the aesthetic object. Authorship, then, was additionally dispersed across an ever more diverse community of actors. It is, therefore, important to ask: How does this move from individual to collective labor inform the projects created through collaboration? One possible framework to consider is that of the commons: a shared space (literal or conceptual) where participants come together as equals. But does the mere presence of others (or the Other) assume the constitution of a we? There is a useful and important distinction between the public sphere and the commons. While the former assumes a general freedom to occupy public space that is ostensibly available to all, the latter makes no such assumption. Indeed, access to the commons can be highly proscribed and controlled, as use of common space can be curtailed by what Lewis Hyde has called a “stint.”See Lewis Hyde, Common As Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). More to the point, though, the concept of the commons assumes that those using the space agree to adhere to certain rules or to use the space solely for certain assigned functions (for instance, the grazing of sheep, as in the medieval English commons). The commons assumes the idea of common cause; it is this set of ethics that unites the notion of the community or the we. 

Audience members looking over Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City I (video still), June 13, 1971. Walker Art Center Archives.

A useful way of thinking through the movement from individual to group identity can be found in the literature on social philosophy, particularly among a group of writers indebted to phenomenology who see a collective conception of the we as emerging from an initial recognition of first- and second-person perspectives.Here, I am especially indebted to the insights of Anna Moltchanova, who presented her work on “we-awareness” during a faculty seminar on the subject of radical democracy and the commons in the age of neo-liberalism that I led at the Humanities Center at Carleton College during the 2017–18 academic year. On the issue of we-awareness, see especially Ingar Brinck, Vasudevi Reddy, Dan Zahavi, “The Primacy of the ‘We’?”, in Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture, eds. Durch, Fuchs, and Tewes, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016), 131–47. In brief, one might imagine a group of individuals working simultaneously on some parallel action for their own purposes or gain—for instance, a group of individuals dining out at a restaurant. While this group of diners is assembled in the same place, and at the same time while performing nearly identical tasks, it cannot be said that they constitute a collective we. What would unite those diners would be the establishment of a common cause toward which the eaters strive. This sort of common goal or purpose can be seen in Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City I performance, in which a group of individuals form a collective we tasked with consuming the confectionary city. This shared purpose is an essential aspect of Haus-Rucker-Co’s collective identity. While the architectural profession is always already collaborative, disciplinary conventions continue to privilege individuality in lieu of foregrounding the intersubjective and communal nature of architectural labor. 

In recent years the notion of architecture’s ability to retain a (self-) critical stance has come under intense pressure with practitioners and theorists alike calling for architects to assume a so-called “post-critical” attitude toward building, one which would eschew solipsistic navel-gazing about the state of the field and its authority in favor of tectonic form and just getting projects built.This stance has often falsely been ascribed to Sarah Whiting and Robert Somol in their essay “Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism,” in Perspecta 33 (2002): 72–77. It would be a mistake to assume that the authors were advocating a blind return to form; however, they do argue forcefully against what they perceive as an outmoded form of modernist antagonism. Such a position is, in many ways, a reaction to many radical architecture projects of the 1960s and 1970s, such as those by Haus-Rucker-Co, which saw architects refuse building entirely due to its contaminated position vis-à-vis capital.For more on this position, see my text, “Superstudio and the ‘Refusal to Work,’” Design and Culture 8, no. 1 (April 2016): 55–77. When taken to its logical conclusion, though, such post-criticality ditches the notion of common cause entirely, thus leaving us with an indifferent architecture that cedes all agency to market exigencies. The economic downturn of 2007–2009, propelled by a housing bubble fueled by real estate speculation, provides ample proof of the catastrophic consequences of what may happen when society takes as its goal the very act of building. Therefore, it is crucial at this historical moment to look for alternate models of what it means to practice architecture and how to activate a broad-based demos in the creation of a communal architecture. Haus-Rucker-Co circa 1970 provides one such model. What the collective managed was an ethical position that both avoided the paralysis of refusing to act while also retaining a critical attitude toward modernity and its alienating effects. For them, acting collaboratively both to create and, importantly, to destroy results in not only a sense of intersubjective understanding but also in the ability to create spaces (both literal and phenomenal) that counter late capitalism’s insatiable appetite for swallowing up what was, and what could still be, held in common. 

As such, I remain hopeful about the possibility of an architecture by and for the we. What this means, though, is intentional and purposeful intervention into public space and discourse in a way that honors the discontinuous and conflictual character of the way the we—any we—is constituted. Participants in the Armory Gardens in Minneapolis on that June day in 1971 may have witnessed a modeling of such common cause with Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City I. For just as the members of the Viennese collective left behind their individual identities in the pursuit of collective action with perfect strangers, so too might Minneapolitans have come together to create from scratch a new city, one based on the ethics of living-in-common. More than just a party with cake, and drinks with friends, though, Food City I required from the outset the eradication of Minneapolis itself in an act of aggressive destruction. It is easy, and all too simple, to claim that this was merely a vengeful act against an outmoded style of civic planning. More important still is the architectural medium posited to take its place: action itself, created by and for residents. No Roman forum, nor lecture hall, nor grandiloquent parliament building needed to be erected to convene this urban demos: just the performative catalyst of sweetly melting frosting.

Ross Elfline is an Associate Professor of Art History at Carleton College, where he offers courses on contemporary art and architectural history and theory. His research centers on European and American radical architecture practices in the 1960s and 1970s. He has published widely on the Italian collective Superstudio and was a consultant for the Walker Art Center’s exhibition Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (2015). He is currently at work on a book project devoted to the intersection of architecture and performance circa 1970.