in Lisa Tilder and Beth Blostein, eds. Design Ecologies: Sustainable Potentials in Architecture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).
Having exploited the planet to feed our ravenous consumerist desires, we now face impending ecological collapse. Rising temperatures, melting ice fields, soaring food prices, massive storms, and drowning polar bears appear in the headlines daily, demanding immediate action as our everyday lives are threatened. Advocates of green design urge architects to appeal to the ecological consciousness of the consumer by mitigating the environmental effects of the construction and inhabitation of the built domain.
This is not the first time architects have been faced with these issues. In the 1960s and ’70s, increasing pollution, dwindling resources, and environmental degradation appeared to imperil the Earth. Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972) argued humanity’s lack of concern for the environment had produced a dangerous imbalance in the ecosystem. Artists such as Robert Smithson and Joseph Beuys drew attention to our alienated relationship to the environment, questioning the distinction between the artificial and the natural and the Judeo-Christian advocacy of man’s role as the steward of his environment. Theorists and architecture critics also reacted with concern, in texts such as Peter Blake’s God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (1964) and Nathaniel Owings’s The American Aesthetic (1969).
But modern design—and even architecture itself—had become thoroughly associated with Fordist enterprise and its faith in technology and production, a position that an increasingly environmentally conscious public blamed for the destruction of the environment. Compounding this loss of faith, a protracted recession made new building difficult. In response, architects of the early 1970s turned away from new construction and instead sought to recontextualize existing buildings, challenging modernism’s advocacy of the tabula rasa and condemning its reliance on the ground-up replacement of existing structures. Understanding the rapid spread of this first green movement helps us better come to terms with our present situation.
The roots of the economic contraction of the early 1970s lay in the transition from a production-based Fordist economy to a consumption-based Post-Fordist economy. Thus, it should be no surprise that, instead of the office, factory, or single-family house (seen as a place for the production of children and the nuclear family), architects increasingly focused on sites of consumption.
At this point the first wave of baby boomers had finished college and began entering the work force in large numbers. Childless and unmarried, young people (an increasing percentage of whom were gay) were eager to find appropriate venues for socializing, befitting their informal nature. In response, designers developed a new, early form of green architecture, the “fern bar.”
The first fern bar was Henry Africa’s, founded in 1970, in San Francisco. Virtually all at once, Henry Africa’s defined the fern bar now familiar to us: exposed brick walls (referring to the popular loft renovations of the time, signifying authenticity while evoking an obsolete world of manufacture now turned charmingly idle), chalk boards with the day’s menu (suggesting fresh-from-the-farm ingredients but also symbols of informality and flexibility recalling the innocent days of childhood), and Victoriana such as lamps and old signs (a reference to the popular Victorian, thrift-store chic of the day), and a wealth of potted plants.
The introduction of plants at fern bars was crucial. Already, at the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, potted trees in the dining rooms tempered the severity of the Miesian idiom. Menus changed every season, in keeping with the restaurant’s name, and so did the trees, allowing restaurateur Joe Baum to create an impression of freshness and to recall the eternal rhythms of nature. Aiding this, the bronze curtains of textile designer Marie Richards waved gently above the restaurant’s forced air ducts, giving a faster rhythm to the space, at once enlivening and softening. The potted plants spread throughout fern bars like Henry Africa’s, frequently placed in hanging baskets (often wicker or woven), were even more effective; they were informal elements that livened the space and soon became symbols in themselves.
Into the 1970s, bars were masculine places, either clubby lounges (the Four Seasons falls in this category) or neighborhood pubs, aggressively masculine institutions in which women did not feel welcome. In contrast, a fern in a window came to suggest that the bar welcomed single women seeking men, married men, and homosexuals (during the 1970s, more straight, single, and married men began experimenting with bisexuality and homosexuality).
Plants allowed fern bars to play a subtle game with the street. On the one hand, unlike older bars that tried to shut off the street to simulate the night, fern bars generally had large windows that let in daylight and allowed individuals to see in, to ensure the scene was acceptable for them. In many ways, the fern bar Served as an extension of the street, containing its hustle, sexuality, and drug culture. On the other hand, by obscuring patrons from view, plants protected the identities of individuals. Ferns announced the bar as an informal place of sexual encounter for a new public (the Me generation) that openly sought self-gratification.
Generally serving food, fern bars gave women who wanted to get drunk or meet men the alibi that they were just going out for dinner. The early 1970s was a crucial social moment, as women began to feel more comfortable going out in groups, or on their own. With easy access to the birth control pill and, after 1973, abortion as well, women were able to enjoy sex that appeared, at least initially, to be without consequences. The image of female sexuality as plantlike was common at the time. The flowerlike appearance of the vulva, peering through the wild tangle of pubic hair (frequently called a bush), coupled with the idea of the woman as fertile (even if paradoxically, birth control measures counteracted this fertility) gave rise to this idea of plantlike female erogenous zones. This connection was often direct and literal, as in the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe popular at the time, or the artwork of Judy Chicago. In 1973, feminist author Nancy Friday published a collection of women’s sexual fantasies, My Secret Garden, derived from taped and written interviews. If intended to affirm women’s sexuality, My Secret Garden also explored its darker side, including masochism, bestiality, prostitution, and interracial rape (the narrator in My Secret Garden describes rape as the only “safe” form of interracial sex for white women). The secret garden was a place in which women could submit to their darkest desires.
This dark side of the fern bar was apparent in its historical referent, the Victorian boudoir. Tiffany lamps were commonly employed in fern bars as was Victorian or art nouveau script, itself florid and sexually suggestive. Houseplants—and ferns in particular—had been popular in Victorian interiors as symbols of propriety and morality, even if such places were—at least in their 1970s recuperation—filled with forbidden desire. By the late 1960s, the Victorian era, long characterized as repressive, was being recovered as a period in which, underneath surface repression, a wild sexuality flourished. Women of the 1970s celebrated their sexual independence by pointing not to the repressed and dependent Victorian housewife, but rather to the sexually fulfilled and independent prostitute (such as the character of Constance Miller, in film director Robert Altman’s 1971 Victorian-themed Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller).
But the casual sexual encounters of the fern bar could be dangerous. The most famous such incident occurred at W. M. Tweeds, an Upper West Side Manhattan fern bar named after Boss (William Marcy) Tweed, a notoriously corrupt figure in New York City’s nineteenth-century “Tammany Hall” political machine. Here, a schoolteacher named Roseann Quinn met men she took home for casual sex that, according to her neighbors, steadily escalated in violence. On New Year’s Eve, 1972, Quinn met John Wayne Wilson, who would murder her that evening (according to Wilson, she begged to be murdered) and her story would become the inspiration for the 1975 novel and 1977 movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar. After the murder, W. M. Tweeds would be renamed the All State Café and serve as an inspiration for the television series Cheers (a show encapsulated in the catchphrase of its theme song—“Where everybody knows your name.”—suggesting a place of protection and safety, where casual sexual encounters were limited to a circle of friends).
As the first generation of baby boomers married, reproduced, and moved to the suburbs, the fern bar stopped being a place of sexual encounter. Not having experienced the OPEC energy crisis and Vietnam firsthand, tired of environmental and political consciousness, a new generation turned instead to the disco for its glamorous, fashion-oriented scene and more openly sexual connotations. The fern bar would be desexualized, absorbed by chains like Bennigan’s and Chili’s, to which boomers could go for high-calorie family dinners and powerful drinks with friends from work, before driving home for an evening in front of the television.
In its classic form, the fern bar provides an alibi. It promises safety; a place in which women and men can coexist without threat. But it is really not safe, nor is it supposed to be. The fern acts as a mediator of the impersonality of modern life; an element that allows us to achieve the impersonality we really want but pretend otherwise. As something between the living and an object, the fern makes it possible for us to feel comfortable becoming (sexual) objects in the eyes of others.
As an early moment of ecological architecture, the fern bar makes the moral duplicity of GREEN design apparent. Shut off from the light, their leaves covered in dust, grease, and eventually disease, the plants in a fern bar swiftly died. But in giving themselves up, the ferns allowed their patrons to do what they really wanted, to seek self-gratification. The green movement today allows us this too. Living in green homes, working in LEED-certified offices, and eating organic food allows us to pretend we are saving the world, when, in reality, we are only ratcheting up consumption in an unprecedented drunken frenzy. Green design makes the world our fern bar. While we saddle up and enjoy the fantasy, the tab stays open.