Pim Conradi is a sage and a legend. He’s invented his own architectural movement, Orbitecture. Here he reflects on the ’60sProvo movement, Haight Ashbury and The Spanish Civil War. The conversation took place in Pim’s former studio at the recently closed Area 10 art space.
Can you start by explaining your concept of Orbitecture?
Whereas architecture, because it deals with flat plates and square angles, is two dimensional in its basic concept, Orbitecture is actually architecture in 3D. It is primarily concerned with curvilinear shapes, particularly where architecture goes back to geometry, to mathematics. Mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead emphasised that geometry is not concerned with shape, it’s purely abstract ornament. Mathematics is basically a tool with which to approach it. I started with geometry: I built myself a tepee in California and used a tripod and made a conical-shaped living space. I thought, ‘well, it’s just too impractical for a modern human being, so what we should have is a spherical shape.’ So I thought, ‘what I’ll do is put my mind in the centre of this tripod and start to project, mentally, a spherical shape.’
Do you consider yourself an artist?
I’m just a human being, to whom luminous-like objects are being thrown up out of the unconscious mind. Then I get stuck having to make them. But they are just models. I think it’s not important what you are. It’s important what you do.
What did you study?
I dropped out of school when I was 18 because they started to pester me with trigonometry. When I got through trigonometry I got so frightened I thought, ‘I can’t pretend anymore.’ Up until then I could pretend that I was sleeping or something… Then I begged my father, I said, “You graduated when you were 18 with honours. I’m 18 and have not made it through more than three years of high school. I don’t learn anything, it costs you a lot of money and they don’t let me sleep, they’re always waking me up to fire questions at me.” These arguments were enough to convince my father I could drop out of school.
What did you do when you dropped out?
First I went to The Hague. I just worked different jobs. It wasn’t until ’69 that I managed to escape and go to California. First I went to New York, then to California.
California in 1969 must have been the place to be.
Yeah, sometimes I thought if you had a shovel and wheelbarrow, you could just shovel gurus up off the street. Haight-Ashbury was the hub of where everything was happening. It was quite amazing because maybe ten years before, Meher Baba (You know, “Don’t worry, be happy”) really left a psychic stamp on the place that attracted all these crazy kids.
Who were the main gurus?
I don’t know anymore because I’m not very much into it. I had gone to San Francisco because I was living in The Hague and we were planning an underground paper. and we were part of the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS). We got all the underground papers from the US: San Francisco Oracle, Berkeley Barb, Chicago Seed, and I had a bit of an idea what was going on out there, particularly with the hippie culture. I was getting involved in the first squatters’ group; we were just a group of people instructed to squat these houses. Then after a while I realised that squatting old houses didn’t really make any difference to us in the sense of breaking out of the confines of the system, the civilised world. Then also with the idea of dialectic materialism, the idea that the human being is determined by its environment, I thought, ‘if we want to have another society, we need to have another individual, in order to have another individual we need to create a different environment.’ But where can you create another environment? And then I thought, ‘there are all these empty industrial spaces, and that is an undefined space, and in these spaces you can create your own physical environment and create another society.’ Completely naive, but I was just young, in my late twenties.
Nearly all the group that was the Provo movement in Amsterdam in the ’60s, we were a sort of young liberation political movement, and we actually got into rioting as an art form. Ludic activity, as in Homo Ludens [book by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga]. We were simply being assured by the older generation of anarchists who had fought in the Spanish Civil War who were hanging in this waterhole in The Hague. They were telling us that “it is the system that you have to fight.”I wanted to ask you about working in Peckham and if it has had any effect on you?
Well, first of all, I came to look for this place, Area 10, because someone told me that there were events going on here. I saw this globe shape right on the market there, and also the globe shapes right in the library itself. I thought that was quite striking. I thought there must be something in the soil here which attracts orbicular activities. I lived for quite a few years in Brixton, in the ’70s. Apart from the squatters, there was a population of very impoverished West Indians who had immigrated. They were just completely lost to the economic crisis of the time. It was like living in a ghetto. Whereas when I walk around now in Peckham, it’s mostly an immigrant population, but people are so much more upright and self-confident than the people from the West Indies in the ’70s used to be. I recently went back to Berkeley for a visit, and in Berkeley you rarely see a face that is not white, but in Peckham, I thought, ‘oh WOW!, its far out, it’s like a small African town here.’ It’s this typical thing of the fringe of the metropolis: you get an increasing potential for creative activities. And that’s what I found amazing. It works like a magnet for people who need to project their creative, imaginative selves. I can really see that that has increased. But not with the draconian, tyrannical health and safety rules, which, I can understand, are an inevitable result of all this interfering bureaucracy. It just acts as a stifling of the creative, imaginative energy. And that is obviously reflected in the situation here at Area 10. I feel like a jackrabbit with a pack of bureaucrats breathing down my neck. Whenever they say “BOO!” you go crazy and have to jump through the hole. That is a counter-creative force. On the other hand, that is how the universe works. There are always counter forces, so that is a dynamic that can be understood. But in the end it makes it impossible for me to operate. Which is why I’m now going to Chile; somewhere I can carry on with my work uninterrupted.
I wanted to ask you about Bauhaus, which has greatly influenced the architectural world we live in today.
Well, it’s only recently that I became aware that Bauhaus is really an academic exercise. I actually have great admiration for [Walter] Gropius. I saw a model of his total theatre and that was an onion-shaped structure, made out of plastic. I saw it during a lecture at the Architects’ Association as part of an exhibition of Rudolf Steiner as an architect. Rudolf Steiner was one of the movers and shakers behind it, but he’s never been mentioned. Rudolf Steiner actually has a statement that says, “Psychic energy does not go in straight lines.” It’s always in curved lines. That is why they built the original Goetheanum. [Exemplary of the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or all embracing art, the original Goetheanum was a domed building designed by Steiner for the Anthroposophical Society in the 1910s.]
It’s interesting that you’re based here at Area 10, and you’re a mature person completely surrounded by all these young artists. Why do you think you can fit in?
I’ve been thinking about it, and I think it has something to do with the following: whenever I was in Europe, I’d be a guest of the squatters’ movement because I would never be able to pay any rent. And these were always young people. See, what I have been doing is I just live like a savage. I love living as primitively as I possibly can. I also try to avoid paying rent, because otherwise I have to waste my time earning money. And I don’t have time for that because I have to create these structures that are projected in my mind. But the squatters’ movement is now finished, I think. The problem with connecting with groups of young people is there is no cohesion. The group dynamic usually lacks cohesion because they don’t have a shared purpose. That’s what I’ve learned through all these years. But I want to connect to a group of people, probably younger, that will all have the shared purpose of developing Orbitecture as a means to create urban infrastructure and to create your own shelter. That is what the movement in the ’60s, the Provo, envisioned. I call it liberation politics. You know, after you’ve got rid of god and daddy, we had illuminated these out of the pantheon, we were free; also sexual liberation. But then there was still the landlord —unless you were squatting. But with squatting you still had bureaucracy. We were squatting in a 16th century part of Amsterdam and you could see these houses we were trying to fix, that they were made by other peoples’ hands. And that is where it came to me, as a cocky young intellectual: people have always made their own shelter… It is not always served up by a conglomerate of banks and bureaucrats. The New Babylon Manifesto of Cobra also had the idea that you would have a megalopolis in which people would be living a modern nomadic lifestyle with their own shelters.