By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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Michels and Lord planned free-form events such as trips to the beach to play with giant parachutes, a downtown scavenger hunt and a sleepover in the Astrodome with parachutes suspended by helium balloons. They got arrested for "disturbing the peace" while doing an Abbie Hoffman-inspired guerrilla performance called Plastic Businessman, which consisted of entering the snack bar of the corporate architecture firm where Lord worked and trying, unsuccessfully, to give away money. When Michels and Lord heard that Buckminster Fuller, one of their heroes, was to speak at the university, they pulled another stunt: They kidnapped him from the airport in a limousine, pretending to be his ride, and took him to a Rice University exhibit, which included a rare prototype of his Dymaxion car.
Though Ant Farm was a countercultural entity, its aesthetic influences were pure Americana. Michels and Lord both admired the "Dream Cars," futuristic prototypes that General Motors exhibited around the country when they were growing up. As for theoretical underpinnings, Ant Farm looked to Fuller's populist notions of cheap, mass-produced housing and environmental awareness. At the same time, Marshall McLuhan's writings on the rise of mass-media culture provided a blueprint for Ant Farm's many experiments on how to manipulate the media, a skill that enabled Michels, later, to win serious publicity for even his silliest schemes.
Surprisingly, it was the established modernists such as professors Howard Barnstone and Burdette Keeland who supported Ant Farm's presence at UH. Keeland, in particular, defended Michels against charges that his activities had nothing to do with architecture. "It teaches the student to actually go out there and see who their clients are going to be," says Keeland. "Plus, it was fun." UH's own countercultural contingent, a macho collective called South Coast, responded enthusiastically to Ant Farm's antics, although perhaps not for purely intellectual reasons. ("Not everyone can say they screwed in deep center field in the Astrodome," boasts former South Coast member Pepper Mouser.)
In 1969 Michels went to India, where he hung out with sadhus, itinerant spiritualists who renounce all worldly possessions, sometimes even their clothes. Upon his return, he joined the continental crisscrossings of Ant Farm and South Coast, and his gaunt serenity earned him the nickname Highway Swami. While on a visit to Antioch College to work on a temporary "inflatable campus," Michels and South Coast leader Tom Morey landed a commission to design the first permanent edifice to which Ant Farm could lay claim, a gloss-yellow, warehouse-style fine arts building on the school's Ohio campus.
Well-mannered and presentable when the need arose, Michels often fronted for Ant Farm, interfacing with clients and showering attention, mostly in the form of mail art, on people he saw as like-minded, a habit he maintains to this day. One person who heard from him regularly was Marilyn Oshman Lubetkin, a young Meyerland housewife who volunteered at the Contemporary Arts Museum and who, when she met the Ant Farmers, had just begun what would become a sizable contemporary art collection. Intrigued by the contrast between their scuzzy, hippie looks and their friendly, articulate manner, Oshman befriended the Ant Farmers during their stint at UH. When Michels learned that she and her husband wanted to build a fishing lodge on their private lake in Angleton, he assiduously courted her. He sent her sketch after sketch of ideas for Mo-Jo Lake. Oshman loved the drawings.
"They were frustrated because nobody would really pay attention to them," Oshman says. "I began to think, what would happen if I really took this seriously?"
Soon, Ant Farm was back in Houston, working on the design for what would become the House of the Century (so named after a sardonic remark by Oshman's then-husband, Alvin Lubetkin). Oshman weathered a fair amount of criticism, much of it from "serious" architects, for her decision to hire Ant Farm. "They were seen as radicals," Oshman says. "People couldn't believe I would even talk to them, much less hire them."
Though the House of the Century had a futuristic look, its construction was almost Luddite. In the architect-as-artisan tradition, the house was completely handmade, molded from strong, watertight ferro-cement. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright designed the dishes and silverware for his houses, Ant Farm designed all the fixtures, even the sink, for the weekend house. With help from Houston architect Richard Jost, who had the practical building experience the Ant Farmers lacked, the sleek, organic and suggestively phallic house took shape right on the edge of the lake, looking as if it had crawled out of the water to rest. Inside, carved wood tables and countertops sprouted from the floor like swamp plants. The house was more like an art object than a building, sacrificing comfort for aesthetics. One of the jurors who awarded it a 1973 Progressive Architecture award called it "an act of total design." Even Playboy did a feature on the "Texas time machine."
The House of the Century led to a meeting with Stanley Marsh 3, the wealthy and mischievous Amarillo landowner who commissioned Ant Farm's most memorable icon, Cadillac Ranch. The monument of ten half-buried vintage Cadillacs, ranging from 1948 to 1963, memorializes the rise and fall of the tail fin as a metaphor for American optimism and prosperity. The tail fin peaked in 1959 at 42 inches off the ground, but disappeared for good in 1964, the year after Kennedy was shot.