Culture Breakers: Alternatives & Other Numbers
Culture Breakers: Alternatives & Other Numbers, Ken Isaacs, New York: MSS Educational Publishing Company, 1970, 190 pages
“This is the context of our time and the field of all action,” begins Ken Isaac’s perfectly square book Culture Breakers: Alternatives & Other Numbers. Isaacs an architect and former design educator, is a self-described survivalist “concerned with the survival of all people.” This small book, based on a decade or so of research in the late 1950s and the 1960s, describes designs for living lightly on a small planet. In Culture Breakers, he presciently draws attention to shrinking polar ice caps and makes connections between the ways our living spaces affect how we survive in the world. Isaacs, concerned with ecology, considers how design can be more integrated into systems that function together.
Isaacs main focus in the book is what he calls “breaking culture.” He presents plans for breaking down “old culture” so that people can be free to experience new ways of thinking. His designs for living and configurations of images are meant to free individuals from traditional ways of learning, thinking, and experiencing the world. The book includes sketches of several of his “space framing” designs, like the “Microhouse” and the “Knowledge Box.” The basis for all of his designs is the “Matrix” network, which is a modular system of squares that can be built from off-the-shelf materials, like steel piping, wood, or bamboo. Matrix designs can be quickly framed up to make indoor and outdoor ‘living structures’ to provide both shelter and a different way of organizing small spaces.
At the time that he was conducting research and writing, Isaacs would have been part of a small network of young professionals loosely termed ‘urban nomads’. ‘Urban nomads’ were concerned with design ingenuity and making the most of post-industrial materials to better facilitate a mobile contemporary lifestyle. Other books in this library that fit the genre include Nomadic Furniture 1 & 2. Isaacs was a radical among this group, not wholly concerned with lifestyle design, although this was certainly part of his research, Isaacs ultimately hoped to change the way people learned and thought. This is most apparent in the later half of Culture Breakers when he discusses his plans for the Knowledge Box, a cube with an external projection system that submersed participants in a room full of images. Isaacs built the Knowledge Box with students after several different iterations of the idea. An earlier version of the submersion system was the “Pholage” – a neologism combining photography, montage, and collage. Isaacs collaged photographs, unedited, into a small space with the intention of changing the way a viewer makes connections in her mind about society and the human condition amidst a jumble of information. Isaacs’s muse in this book is certainly information and mobility.
In his quest to break culture, Isaacs moves from the static Pholage to the moving image. Focusing on how space shapes our thinking he includes designs for mobile structures that can shift consciousness, like the Torus 1, a long modular tube that when installed will allow for slide and film projections on four walls, finally settling on the streamlined cube of the Knowledge Box design with projections surrounding participants.
Isaacs did much of his research in design schools like The Illinois Institute of Technology, Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design. He was an educator so his concern for shifting the way people think was primarily directed at students. The Knowledge Box design, that concludes the book, is an extension of the “Space University,” an immersive educational system where students could be surrounded with ideas.
Isaacs plans and ideas appeared in popular magazines of the day like Life, Look, House Beautiful and Popular Science Monthly, where he was a design consultant. Culture Breakers focuses on the way spaces shape our consciousness and can encourage or hinder the way we learn and relate. Isaacs takes on daily living spaces and ultra-specialized learning environments in his vision to make a new world. This book is a gem: come for the beautiful design sketches and stay for the utopian ideals.
Culture Breakers Alternatives & Other Numbers (high resolution)