Punk Preservationists envision reuse for Ant Farm building at Antioch College

Author

Liz Flyntz & Tim Noble

Affiliation

AFAAB

Tags

advocacy
Image details

In the early spring of 1970 members of radical architecture and media art group Ant Farm, alongside fellow travellers SouthCoast, coordinated a seminar on “inflatables” - plastic, air-inflated buildings - on the Columbia, Maryland campus of Antioch College. Ant Farm, at this date, consisted of recent Yale architecture alum Doug Michels and Tulane architecture alum Chip Lord. SouthCoast members Tom Morey and Pepper Mouser documented the proceedings on the new recording medium of ½ inch format videotape. 


Antioch Columbia was, at that point, a recent outpost of Antioch’s main campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Antioch College, founded by educational reformer Horace Mann in 1850, was most famous for being a hotbed of left political activism and the originator of the cooperative work-study education model. The traditional, leafy, Ohio campus consisted primarily of circa 1850s Greek and Gothic revival brick buildings.

The Antioch Columbia campus was initiated at the behest of visionary developer Jim Rouse, who designed Columbia, Maryland as a planned community intended to eradicate redlining, racism, and classism via careful civic engineering. Rouse felt that Antioch’s progressive stance and work/study model were a good match for his utopian planned city.

While at the 1970 inflatable seminar, Ant Farmer Doug Michels ran into Al Berney, Antioch’s VP of finance who was visiting the new Columbia campus. Berney was having some trouble with an architecture project on campus: the school had commissioned a new art building, and via a drawn-out process of design-by-committee, various members of the arts faculty had “exploded the scope” and forced the architect the college had hired, Richard Cook, to expand his design into a multi-building monstrosity which presented expenses far beyond Antioch’s budget.

Berney saw a cost-saving opportunity in the young designers (who had at this point never built a thing besides inflatables[1]) and explained his troubles to Michels, suggesting that they might create an inflatable art building on Antioch’s campus. Michels also saw an opportunity, and, in the words of Tom Morey, “gave him the once-over and sketched out a real solution on the back of a napkin. A brutally basic loft structure that could be ‘extruded out’ in design to match the funds available.”(P. Mouser, personal communication, June 29, 2021) [2]

Design process

Doug Michels and Tom Morey moved to Yellow Springs to complete the design. The building’s existing architect, Richard Cook, had worked on the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and, more to the point, had already designed several buildings on Antioch’s campus. Cook remained the architect of record, and would sign off on final drawings. Meanwhile, Michels and Morey took over his office, and for a time slept under the drafting tables. Eventually, Cook grew tired of this and kicked them out, which is when Michels built a treehouse to live in for the rest of the design period.

During this time other members of SouthCoast and Ant Farm remained in Columbia, at the behest of the college, working with the students on a concept for an inflatable campus, simultaneously developing models and presentation sketches for the art building.

According to Morey: “The building was conceived to look like an enormous pottery studio that could "lift up its skirts" to allow complete and open access to the lower level.”[3] The north facing sloped glass roof admits diffuse daylight  ideal for painting and drawing, while a row of commercial garage doors along the long north side of the building could be opened for air circulation and a feeling of permeability. On each short end of the building are pairs of large tracked doors that can slide back to open the entire corner of the building.

The first floor is divided into four sections, separated by partition walls: gallery, print studio, painting studio, and ceramic studio. The gallery features round sockets cast into the poured concrete floor, designed to receive the pegs at the bottom of mobile gallery walls, allowing for rapid reconfiguration of the space for different exhibition designs.

In compensation for their design work, Doug Michels and Tom Morey received a “new Ford van, white.” [4]. Ant Farm gave the van a custom paint job, and fitted it with video editing equipment and a transparent plexiglass dome to shoot from on the road, becoming the Ant Farm Media Van. The Ant Farmers then embarked on the Truckstop Network Tour, travelling around the US, shooting video, and living out of the van. As Doug Michel stated in an interview with Constance Lewallen in the catalog that accompanied Ant Farm: 1968-1978, the group’s 2004 retrospective at Berkeley Art Museum: “We finished the design and got out of town while the getting was good.”[5]

Construction

Ground had been broken, but construction was barely underway when Morey and Michels hit the road. Following their detailed construction drawings, builders completed the structure and the building was put into use in early 1972. 

Looming over the open plan ground floor, the south side of the building is made up of three additional stories of reinforced concrete slab and column grid construction.  These additional floors housed classrooms, faculty offices, a slide library, and media editing and production facilities on the enclosed second and third floors, and were topped with an open mezzanine for student studios.  With the expansive 10,000 square foot single-pane glass roof joining the operable garage and sliding barn doors as stand out features, the rest of the building’s envelope is wrapped in understated, vertically-corrugated metal paneling.  The original paint scheme was made up of a white base and primary colors including “traffic yellow” a signature hue of Ant Farm’s car culture-obsessed output at the time.

Abandonment

The building has been mothballed since 2008, when Antioch College was closed due to financial exigency on the part of Antioch University, which had grown from that first campus in Columbia, Maryland to include a nationwide network of campuses, including a law school. The administration of the university system deemed the college intractably financially insolvent, and the Board of Trustees voted to shut the college down in 2007. The college reopened in 2011, after alumni rallied to buy the college back from the University and reopen it as a non-successor institution.

The reopened college has had fewer students than in its heyday of the 1970s and '80s, when enrollment was at an all-time high of several thousand. Several buildings on campus have been demolished or are slated for demolition.

Due to its open volumes, good air circulation, and concrete and metal construction, the building is in reasonably good condition. The slanted wire-reinforced glass roof suffered some storm breakage, and carpets and drywall needs replacing, but the space is structurally sound.

Students enjoy accessing the building to shoot horror movies and moody photos. Old files, slides, stretched canvases, ceramic sculptures, and film and video equipment from the 70s scatter the halls and purpose-built studio spaces. 

Current Reuse Project

Since early 2020, at the height of the pandemic, a group of students, current faculty, and alumni have been meeting together and with guests including Ant Farmer Chip Lord and SouthCoast’s Pepper Mouser, to envision a plan for the creative reuse of the building, and to use the building itself as a locus for artistic experimentation ranging from an experimental documentary to a virtual reality experience. 

As part of the early reenvisioning of the building’s programming and use, in the context of Antioch College’s current student body size,  the group has been coordinating with guests including architects, preservationists, archivists, and artists around a possible artist-residency, advanced digital production facilities, and rentable spaces available to the larger community. These conversations also include concepts for modifications to make the building significantly more energy-efficient in contrast to its pre-oil crisis, uninsulated design, while preserving the character of the original structure.

AFAAB is currently in the process of nominating the building for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. As part of a residency with the Museu Sem Parades in Brazil, we created a browser-based virtual reality version of the building in Mozilla Hubs, using Doug Michels’ original architectural drawings as a template. Current Antioch students Lola Nelson-Betz and Michael Perea are shooting a feature-length documentary about the building titled Awake and Dreaming. 

 


We see this hybrid mode of working, and our emphasis on adaptive reuse, as a continuation of Ant Farm’s ethos of collaboration and creative experimentation.

Sources

  1. Interview with Ant Farm’s Curtis Schreier, Chip Lord, Doug Michels by Constance Lewallen in Ant Farm: 1968-1978.
  2. From a letter Tom Morey sent to Pepper Mouser, which Pepper later transcribed and emailed to us. June 29, 2021.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. P. 53 Interview with Doug Michels by Constance Lewallen in Ant Farm 1968-1978. 

Bibliography

Lewallen, C. & Seid, S. Ant Farm 1968-1978. University of California Press, 2004.


About the Authors

Liz Flyntz is an experience designer, artist, and curator in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tim Noble is a robotics sculptor and architect in training at SUNY Buffalo.