(So Long) Pink Flloyd Rite
by Tal E. Essyn
At the edge of the Purewater University campus, hiding rather than looming, there hunches a rather rare form. Used now as a storage unit for the Division of Education, Technology, and Information Delivery, and full of the outmoded, the 8-bit and 4k, the building possesses, notwithstanding its current use, perhaps the greatest architectural pedigree of any structure on campus.
This building was designed by the (in)famous Flloyd Rite, an architect prone to rages and affairs, adulation and division, cult-like devotion and utter insolvency.
The low, angular lines of the building appear to be sublimating right out of Purewater's prairie landscape like a fogbank, made ever more invisible by its trippy mix of pink marble and beige sandstone, materials characteristic of Rite's work.
His reputation as an uncompromising artist, as an innovator of design almost ignorant of and certainly insolent of good engineering principles, fade into the background when one is faced with the reality of the execution. One does not inhabit a Flloyd Rite; one haunts it and is haunted by it.
Working mainly in a 20th century milieu, Flloyd Rite abandoned the lessons of his youth—art deco and nouveau—for a considerably more individualistic style. Rite's contention was that his influences were entirely naturalistic: the stratigraphy of sediments, the rush of wind and blown leaves, the speculative forms of the dark side of the moon, the psychedelic colors of an acid trip.
By 1969, Flloyd Rite's reputation was established: he was an artist whose best work was the result of momentary lapses of reason, taking all leave of his senses for weeks at a time. His firm, Ummagumma Enterprises, while established, was considered if not the most famous, at least the most excessive of architectural firms, and certainly the most loud.
At Dawn's Gate, his east coast HQ, Rite was known to trip uncontrollably, and sometimes violently, famously yelling as he took an axe to a model office block: “I said it before! Some day I'm gonna chop you into little pieces!”
He proceeded to do just that.
His early designs were ethereal, otherworldly, interstellar. His famous Overdrive house from 1968 featured design cues that would now be considered space-age: modular spaces could be built upon one another in much the same way as the International Space Station now can; bullet-like surfaces meant to reduce storm damage are built around a brushed, aluminum monocoque chassis. Ummagumma Enterprises meant to market the home to meet the demand for an inexpensive dwelling for displaced hippies after dropping out of their colleges and universities, their drab jobs and square families. The firm spent a staggering (for the time) ten million dollars on the project, somehow not realizing that the hippies had also opted out of the idea of having money and, for the most part, homes. Needless to say, it was an astronomical flop. They sold seven, of which three are extant, and only one remains complete. It is displayed in the Flloyd Rite Museum in Meddle, Michigan.
Ummagumma Enterprises thus struggled through the first of its many bankruptcies. Every so often, a distraught Rite would be seen wandering about the offices, mumbling “The gold, it's in the . . .” and then trailing off, as if the answer to riches for the firm were right on the edge of knowing, but never quite achieved.
But interspersed with these crushing defeats were years of relative success, squandered, generally, by its head on everything from companies that made bikes to a wall-building concern, the former being dismantled for its masonry equipment and stock. At one point, the offices of Ummagumma Enterprises were packed full of granite and slate, grout and bags of cement.
For Rite, practicality was considered a character flaw.
The “classic” era of Flloyd Rite's career spans the mid-to-late 1970s, and is characterized by the Luna Nocturna building in Abbeyville, Montana. Still frequently toured, the Luna Nocturna features prismatic pyramids as skylights in its common areas, splitting sunlight in all directions throughout the building and focusing various wavelengths into the various different wings. Thus, those in the building can choose “whatever color they like,” as Rite mused receiving a different experience in every direction they turned.
Not just a subtly political statement, Luna Nocturna is also the most notable of Rite's major “concept” buildings, in which spaces blend into each other seemingly seamlessly and seemingly endlessly, and in which large themes are continued room-to-room.
Staggeringly influential, yet seldom imitated, Luna Nocturna simultaneously defined Rite's career and design cues and spelled his artistic end. His next phase was his controversial “waters” period, in which deep, reflective pools so dominated his designs as to make them almost unusable. These structures, while popular among some, have been criticized as being self-indulgent, though they are still often cited as favorites by brooding teenagers and are sometimes open to midnight tours.
Rite's working life up through the '80s and early '90s consisted of variations on the successful Luna Nocturna theme, but with decreasing levels of egalitarian promise and commentary on the madness of everyday life: recurring forms, elements of “mixed media” that seem to have been incorporated from found objects, and expansive spaces flowing easily into one another. By this time, technology had caught up with Rite, and his work was more doable as electronic aids came to the fore.
For the most part, architecture, like music, is practically an act of forgetting. Music is meant, in American society, to be obsessed over for a while or a long time, but for the very purpose of being backgrounded as soon as it is selected. It is decorative, at best, and at most ancillary to the main event: studying or work, driving or exercise. We appreciate architecture—most when we notice it least, when it fails to impede us from accessing bulk packages of Cheez-Its, when it gives us inoffensive demarcations of space in which to hang our massively flat TVs. Design meant to evoke evokes only in the blandest ways the most banal of associations: Tuscany as a splash of red tile, colonial New England with a vinyl shutter nailed to the side of the house, the Old West as reimagined through a Hollywood back lot.
Rite's famous fight with the founder of Universal Style, Moe Vander Riis, revolved around the question of design as slave to function, which Rite found both appalling and impossible. For Rite, design was Jungian: deeply involved with the exorcise of the spirits that inhabit our stories and souls. Building and dwelling were ritualistic behaviors to Rite, not matters of the grey stuff of our brains but of the pink stuff of our hearts, the atoms that are mothers to us all
Ultimately, the near-universal adoption of Riis's aesthetic in current years has less to do with any aesthetic philosophy than with the fact that it's cheap, and it allows those who design and build and approve it to simply not think about it anymore than is absolutely necessary. The general public might find it distant and cold, if it thought about such matters much at all, but they don't find it challenging in any functional or intellectual way.
If Riis would be now appalled at why his designs are successful, Rite would be astonished at how his own work is simultaneously revered and ignored, influential and unseen.
Back at Purewater, after having petitioned the folks at the Physical Plant for a key, I was finally able to tour the Pink Building (as we call it—officially it's known as Cymbaline). The snow has been piling on its flat roof for some hours, and with mid-March temperatures hovering in the mid-30s Fahrenheit, the inevitable roof leaks have begun to, again, produce blooms in grey and rust on the dropped ceiling, which was installed to improve acoustics when the place was used for actual classes.
Amid the punch cards and Apple IIcs, amid the decommissioned IBM towers and boxes full of corded mice, one can just make out the way the windows reflect off the polished granite of the interior courtyard. And, as the clouds break, they fill the room with light from the heart of the sun.