Sim Van der Ryn is a renowned California architect who has promoted sustainable design and once kept a goat at his home in the Oakland hills. History is made up of such details. But before we get to the goat: Sim designed buildings for colleges, governments, students, millionaires and migrant farm workers. At the University of California, Berkeley, he was the faculty liaison who helped create People’s Park. He developed Class K building permits, which account for a substantial percentage of the housing from Mendocino County north; he founded the Farallones Institute and planned the Marin Solar Village. Beautiful in their conception, these projects were thwarted by opponents in the state and federal government who didn’t want these alternative models of human survival.
Sim expressed many of the hopes of his generation—and suffered its disappointments. Still, in some way, the events of this story, as is so often the case, lead back to one man and his goat.
Charles: You bought Dean Rusk’s mother’s house. [Note: Dean Rusk was Secretary of State under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.]
Sim: Yeah, in the Berkeley hills. The neighbor was a pharmacist; I forget his name.
Charles: Not Ed Meese? [Then-Assistant Prosecutor in Alameda County and future Attorney General of United States.]
Sim: No, it was his friend [and] how I met Ed Meese.
Charles: And your goat ate the upholstery of his Buick?
Sim: Yeah, she got in there. And they called the police. I forget; I think it was the O.P.D. Ya know, knock on the door, “Where’s the goat?!”
Charles: In my mind, the goat is in the kitchen knocking pans over, and you call over your shoulder, “Honey, I’ll be right there! No, officer. There’s no goat here. [Neeee!] Nay! No goat, no. Officer?”
Sim: It was in the backyard.
Charles: Okay, but that guy, the one whose upholstery was eaten, he was friends with Ed Meese?
Sim: Well, I got a call at 2 a.m. from some of my students. One hundred kids had occupied Sproul Hall. They said, “They’re dragging us down the stairs.” So I turned up there, at 3 a.m. or something, and Ed Meese was there. We knew each other from my neighbor, had met at parties. He said, “What the fuck are you doing here?” I said, ‘My students called me and said they are being dragged down the stairs by cops.’ He looked at me and said, “You have two minutes to get the fuck out of here, or you are gonna get it, too.”
Charles: That is really important to me. We feel that history is random or maybe fixed, immutable, but definitely not about human beings making choices—doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Or let us start here: architects are so frustrated by the constraints of the built environment. Their designs will change the world, but there is nowhere for them to be built. What we get is another Renzo Piano, another Libeskind. What you did that was different was to change the law with Class K building permits [which allowed rural dwellings to be built outside the water, septic and materials rules of county planning]. That political dimension is so different from architects as hermits, scholars, cowards in their own worlds.
Sim: Yeah, the Ayn Rand model. A lone genius, waking up in the middle of the night in a panic “Ahh! That’s it!” I never believed in that. I wanted students to collaborate, on-site, figure it out that day.
Charles: Talk about Class K. You got that through the legislature when you were State Architect under Governor Jerry Brown.
Sim: Well, it was a permit issued by the state, above the counties. At that time, you had to have a concrete driveway and a septic tank, etc. Class K permits allowed these alternative buildings to be permitted and built, mostly by hippies. They came to Sacramento and I could issue them from my office.
Charles: Didn’t your secretary come to you about the hippies?
Sim: Your memory is better than mine!
Charles: And say, “Sim, your friends are here. Tell them they have to wear shoes in the Capitol.” So you went out and bought a lot of flip-flops and handed them out to the barefoot people seeking permits.
Sim: Ha! I don’t remember that exactly.
Charles: You told me that! I’m sticking to it! How did the Farallones Institute
Sim: There was the Donnelly family and Harlow Dougherty, some heir to something, who gave us money. We got the place and started building, above Freestone. I had sent Sonoma County plans, and didn’t get any anything back. So I sent them a letter saying, “Hey, you didn’t respond to my letter. So we are starting now.” That got their attention. They red-tagged everything. There was one red-tag violation, “There are no changing rooms for your waitresses.” What?
Charles: And the nonprofit issue?
Sim: Yeah, Pat Hallinan was our attorney. They disputed our tax-exempt status. Pat put a guy on the stand, whom nobody knew, and asked him, “How long, sir, have you been a church in the State of California?” “Since 1963…” We won that.
Charles: Then Marin Solar Village, you spent two years on that. I want to make clear, especially to my generation, that these things didn’t succeed or fail on their merits. You had political enemies. Can we go back to People’s Park?
Sim: I came to Berkeley in 1961. I was 26.
Charles: One of the youngest members of the architecture faculty in history, I would think?
Sim: Yeah, and I was involved in the Free Speech Movement in 1964. Then in ’65 to ’66 I was appointed to an advisory committee on student housing. That’s when the People’s Park property came up. The University had leveled the old structures and said, you know, we want to build an extension to the medical school on that site. I looked at the regents’ minutes; there were no plans to build anything there.
Charles: At some point the site was occupied by what? Hippies?
Sim: Well, a friend of mine at a coffee house on Telegraph said, “Let’s make a park.” Anyway, after that got going, four or five of us were called to Sacramento. Reagan was the governor by then. He said to me, “The university has plans for that site.” I said, ‘There are no plans.’ Reagan said, “Well, those kids are anarchists and communists.” I said, “What are you talking about?’ He said, “And you’re one of them!” And I said (I was pretty cocky), ‘Fuck you!’
“I’ll get you fired!”
‘Fuck you, try it; I’ve got tenure!’
Charles: Did you ever find out if Reagan tried to get you fired?
Sim: No, I never heard anything.
Charles: You are the only person I have ever met who told Ronald Reagan, “Fuck you!”
Charles: Marin Solar Village was an attempt to bring all your ideas together into a vision of the future. It makes the plans for the Coast Guard property seem pretty poor in comparison. Billionaires living next to their dishwashers. Revolution!
Sim: Well, I was getting ready to leave Sacramento and I got a call from Barbara Boxer saying, “Hey, I’ve got great news. We can get Hamilton Field for $1!” She was enthusiastic about the project. The head of the [General Services Administration] was the father of a student of mine, and he was offering it to the county for $1. We had plans for housing, workshops, wetland reclamation over old runways. Of course, one supervisor couldn’t believe we would destroy “perfectly good concrete!” for wetlands. It was all I believed in: local employment, water, energy, waste, growing food—all on-site.
Charles: What happened?
Sim: I worked on it for two years. We had a referendum— “Should we have a Marin Solar Village?”—which narrowly lost. Then a vote at the board, which went down by one vote. When Reagan became president, finally the project was killed. The land at Hamilton Field was gonna be for the highest bidder. And it sat empty for 15 years… I recently re-read my journals. I’ve kept journals for 50 years, and when I was my most successful, I was my most depressed.
Charles: Depressed for a reason. It wasn’t an accident! But that was a personal relationship. In 1981, when Reagan took power, with Ed Meese as his deputy, they came back to California to settle your hash. The Farallones ended at the same time. Farallones had contracts to train Peace Corps workers in “appropriate” technology, and the government pulled all those contacts. I mean they didn’t do themselves any favors: posters of Che Guevara, walking around naked, smoking pot.
Sim: I told them to take those down. We’re gonna have an auditor. And they said, “Aw, bullshit.” I knew an audit was coming.
Charles: But this gets back to the goat. Your goat ate the upholstery of Ed Meese’s buddy’s Buick in the 60s, and now these guys are in power. They destroyed everything you wanted to do.
Sim: Marin Solar Village was the worst disappointment of my life. Are you saying that I was a success in the ‘70s and a failure in the ‘80s?
Charles: No. I want to say that your failure was a political act. My generation doesn’t know that politics are where things change. They are both ignorant and cynical about it. They just want to be marketers, technocrats.
Sim: I’m a technodinosaur!
Charles: Ha! “The world is as it must be.” So [the millennials] adapt themselves to it. They aren’t prepared to risk themselves to make a different world, just reproduce the past.
Sim: Well you stir shit up!
Charles: Nobody cares. My generation is trapped in sales. If you love something, make it into a product and sell it. We skipped the activist Jerry Rubin right to the yippie capitalist.
Sim: I went to est with Jerry Rubin. We both walked out together. He went back, I guess.
Charles: Tell me about your work with migrant workers and housing.
Sim: There was this fellow Paul O’Rourke who had been fired by Imperial County because he wanted to build facilities and housing for migrant workers [and refused to follow a county directive to withhold medical treatment from striking migrants]. At that time, there were cases of children, babies, left in cars while their parents picked crops, who were cooked to death in 120-degree heat. O’Rourke wanted to create living conditions, housing and daycare centers for migrants. And they fired him. I went with some other guys to see some of the places migrants lived, and we were silent on the way home. We couldn’t talk. What we had seen.
There was a wave of money from LBJ (the Great Society) and we started to build structures for them. I remember ranchers who were aggressive. “Why are you doin’ this?!” You know, for “them.”
Bobby Kennedy, who was my hero at the time, came out to some of these camps, the ones we built, and some of the old camps as they were, with me in ’68. He cried. He asked me if I would come with him to L.A. the next day. I said I had too much work to do.
Charles: They say he didn’t have enough delegates to defeat Humphrey at the convention. Anyway, suffering: our fellow alumnus, Arthur Miller, thought that suffering was our awakening to wisdom. That the greatest truths we know are born of pain. That Marilyn’s problem was that she was protected, at the end, by these L.A. psychologists, from suffering, and encouraged to be happy and loved all the time. And that hastened her demise.
Charles: What about the new SFMOMA? I hear Boris Karloff is doing the ribbon cutting.
Sim: Yeah! Doesn’t look good….