Meet the female artist who programmed a computer to make a house in the 1960s

From the Guggenheim Museum to the Seagram Building, Manhattan had long had a reputation as an island of avant-garde architecture when Alison Knowles first built the House of Dust in Chelsea. Erected in 1967 and standing for less than a year, its structure is almost unknown today, but it was more radical than anything ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Technically, the house was not designed by Knowles. Instead, it was generated by a computer, using the Fortran programming language to describe a hypothetical architecture by randomly selecting attributes from a list Knowles provided to his collaborator, computer music pioneer James Tenney. The software generated hundreds of permutations, output as a poem. Knowles selected the following quatrain: “A plastic house / In a metropolis / Using natural light / Inhabited by people from all walks of life.”

Founder of Fluxus and one of the few Fluxus artists still alive today, Knowles has only recently begun to draw attention to her work on a level that collaborators such as George Brecht have enjoyed for decades. This month, recognition peaks with an extensive retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). There are many revelations, including silkscreen paintings executed before Andy Warhol began using the technique. But his most significant work remains the House of Dust.

Knowles’ 60s architecture was innovative for the technology it used, but what was most revolutionary was the way it dealt with the built environment in a performative way. Prior to creating her home, she engaged in the Fluxus practice of creating Event Scores, simple instructions for instantiating a work of art. Instructions were usually simple enough for anyone to follow, a tactic by which the creative act was demystified. For example, Knowles composed a score that simply read “make a salad”. The score has been performed countless times since 1962, when she first staged the work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.

In a way, the House of Dust was an event score that Knowles composed for a computer performing random operations. From another perspective, it was a set of event scores composed by the computer and performed by Knowles through the act of construction. But Knowles didn’t see the house she built as static. On the contrary, the house was an event score in its own right, to be interpreted by the people who lived there.

The full realization of the event had to wait until Knowles left New York for Southern California where she took a teaching position at the California Institute of the Arts. There she decided to perform another of the architectural permutations, building her house “On Open Ground / Lit by Natural Light / Inhabited by Friends and Foes”. The house became a space where she gave classes and meditation sessions, and where artists and composers responded to the structure with events of their own composition. More broadly, the House of Dust served as an open score inviting variations on the art of living.

The idea that architecture shapes the behavior of inhabitants had antecedents in the modernist houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, the design of which was partly guided by how he envisioned the future activities of his clients. And the German Bauhaus advocated behavioral research on a more formal level, notably in buildings designed by Hannes Meyer, who led the Bauhaus before Mies van der Rohe.

But Knowles came up with something more dynamic. From the point of view of professional architectural practice, the closest equivalent was a methodology developed by Lawrence and Anna Halprin in San Francisco during the same period that Knowles was teaching in Valencia. Anna was a choreographer whose work included composing scores of Fluxus events. Lawrence was the architect of innovative developments such as Sea Ranch. Together, in the late 1960s, they developed an approach for communities to mark their own urban infrastructure by performing a series of loosely orchestrated actions in open spaces. The result was intended to guide planners and builders.

The collaborative work of the Halprins eventually had more of a hold on artists than on architects, notably through the publication of a book titled RSVP cycles. The influence on dance, for example, was profound.

Perhaps because it was never formalized as a methodology, or translated into a meta-score for intermedial practice, Knowles’ remarkable approach to art and life has had less noticeable impact. As his House of Dust is excavated for habitation by a new generation and his working methods are elucidated by art historians, his overall mode of interactivity begs to be applied in surprising and new ways.

It’s pretty easy to get started. Just make a salad.

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