October 1, 2006
The Revolution That Never Quite Was
The Vermont enclave Prickly Mountain was built as an antiestablishment utopia—and that’s what it still is.
I’ve always loved the kind of novels that offer an alternative view of the present, where the plot is predicated on one key event in history playing out differently. For instance, there’s Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration, set in England nearly five centuries after the Protestant Reformation didn’t take place. The Catholic Church is unchallenged in its authority, and castrati still sing in the choir. Similarly when Czech Cubism, the surreal cousin to Modernism, emerged after the disintegration of the Iron Curtain, I tried to imagine what the world would be like today if, instead of the rectilinear approach associated with the Bauhaus, an architecture based on triangles and crystalline forms became the norm. Imagine Park Avenue lined with buildings that look like…well, like Norman Foster’s new Hearst headquarters.
This is the appeal of Prickly Mountain. A 425-acre enclave not far from the Sugarbush ski resort, it’s a repository of an architectural revolution that never quite took off, a storybook version of the world as it might have been. Or as Progressive Architecture put it in May 1966: “Are you ready? Two lumbering mountaineers just out of Yale Architecture have a project going called Prickly Mountain…and they’re putting down the Establishment by acting as entrepreneur, land speculator, and contractor and craftsman as well as architects, and doing the whole blooming thing themselves. It’s architectural blastoff.”
David Sellers, one of the two mountaineers (the other was his classmate Bill Rienecke), had finished his Yale thesis project early and came to Vermont looking to buy land. “And we just never left,” he says. Sellers, now 68, is driving me along the dirt roads of the community he began building 40 years ago. White-haired and a little soft around the middle, he’s still infinitely energetic and, as one reporter said long ago, “comes on with words like a Mack Truck.” His stories, like his architecture, never travel directly from point A to point B. His history of Prickly Mountain begins with a short detour in which he investigated “using ice structures as molds for concrete.”
Eventually Sellers and Rienecke bought some land. They each made a $1,000 down payment on a property that they assumed would attract well-heeled skiers. Then they got some friends together and—tossing aside all they’d learned at the feet of Yale professors such as Paul Rudolph about the dignity of the profession—began building structures as the land, materials, and mood dictated. What emerged were new forms: wedges sticking this way and that, cantilevered bridges to nowhere that took maximum advantage of spectacular views, and oddly positioned windows, skylights, and decks. There was even a free-form apartment complex named Dimetrodon, after the ridge-backed dinosaur that inspired the shape of the underlying space frame. It all would have been another isolated example of hippie eccentricity except Life magazine arrived and gave Prickly Mountain a spread in its March 24, 1967, issue: “From the midst of snow-steeped spruces on the mountainside, a new shape jumps—that’s just the word—against a Vermont sky,” the text trumpeted. “The varicolored wood-and-glass construction is a weekend ski house built by a way-out Orpheus.”
But instead of attracting skiers willing to pay top dollar for the latest thing in chalets, the article drew disaffected architects from all over the country. Sellers and Rienecke, never the most astute businessmen, began selling off $4,000 parcels to fellow architects, who built more low-budget, high-concept houses. “It was very inspirational to me because I went to architecture school at Prince-ton, which was not a place where those kinds of things were being explored,” says Steve Badanes, also in his sixties, who still summers in Vermont, cooking and dining in what looks like an old circus trailer, sleeping in a tent on a platform, and spending quality time in a spectacularly rococo outhouse with a broken-mirror mosaic by his wife, artist Linda Beaumont. “During the first year I went up to Prickly Mountain and saw these guys basically using architecture as a way to have a good life. They were having a fabulous time. I said, ‘This is good. I could do this.’ That vision gave me the willingness to hang in there and finish school.” Badanes, of course, went on in the 1970s to form the famously unpredictable nomadic design-build firm Jersey Devil with schoolmates John Ringel and Jim Adam-son. Today he teaches his particular freewheeling hands-on approach to architecture at the University of Washington. (He is still, by the way, not licensed as an architect.)
Sellers pulls his black SUV up to a structure he calls the Pyramid House. “This is one of the first buildings that had no drawings whatsoever,” he says as we gaze at a cluster of triangular volumes clad in traditional clapboard mounted diagonally and delicately poised on a series of pedestals. At the same time Sellers was designing it, Rienecke was creating the Bridge House. “For that one we had a sculptor on-site, and we just started making things,” Sellers says. “We would put up a window frame and make a room to match.”
I’m impressed that these houses, improvised into existence, still stand and that Prickly Mountain still functions as a community. A few homes—like the Bridge House, made famous by Life—burned down. Some were bought by new owners and renovated beyond recognition or demolished. Most of the houses are much as they were when they were built; many are still occupied by the original owners and continue to look like, as the magazine once put it, “not a home but a happening.”
Sellers has an architectural office in nearby Warren. His best-known client is the physician/clown Patch Adams, for whom he’s designed an appropriately whimsical, hugely ambitious, and partially completed Gesundheit Institute. He also maintains a wood shop in a massive meandering building he calls the Temple and is working on a poured-concrete house with the help of students from Yestermorrow, a school started by another Prickly Mountain denizen, John Connell, dedicated to teaching design-build to anyone who signs up.
Between the initial migration to Prickly Mountain in the 1960s and those attracted later by Yester-morrow, Sellers claims, “there are more architects per capita in Warren Village than anyplace in America.” He counts off ten firms and estimates that each employs five additional architects. (With a 2000 census population of 1,681, that would be one architect for every 28 residents.) Indeed what sets Prickly Mountain apart from other pockets of hippie-era homes is that it represents an act of rebellion by a cadre of well-trained young architects. It’s as if the blob wizards who emerged from their computers at Columbia in the late 1990s had run off together and built a town.
Now, 40 years later, it may finally be time to figure out what Prickly Mountain means. Vermont architectural designer Danny Sagan received a Graham Foundation grant for “An Oral History of the Design-Build Movement in Vermont and New England from 1960 to the Present.” He’s been interviewing everyone who ever had anything to do with Prickly Mountain in preparation for an exhibition that is tentatively scheduled for fall 2008. “The idea of the show is to start paying attention to what’s called the counterculture and how it has influenced our life in Vermont.”
I think the influence of Prickly Mountain actually goes beyond Vermont. It has a place in the continuum of architectural history somewhere be-tween Andrew Geller’s quirky geometric 1950s beach houses and the early works for which Frank Gehry earned his reputation. And it still has an influence today: the design-build movement has been enjoying a renaissance in part because pioneers like Badanes continue to teach. But to me the true appeal of this outpost of “architecture as a way to have a good life” is that it tells a story as inventive as any work of fiction of an alternative—and perhaps more benign—version of the present.