PEOPLE/ANIMALS. FRIENDS

 

Simon Sadler

 

I had a dream that a website opened and with it THE ARCHIVE. “Write 200 words or so”—a nonchalant way for the people at EXP to introduce me to a well-nigh life choice: whether to enter these suddenly-opened back corridors of Archigram, with their never-before-seen drawings, slide collections, magazine insets, or whether to let younger and fitter academics burst through one digital cabinet after another unobstructed, Kittler and Žižek at their sides.

 

With trepidation I press the hyperlink to Archigram’s new museum without walls. When he finally saw all his beloved Poussins side by side at the Louvre, it’s said, Anthony Blunt decided that the conclusions he’d reached by viewing the paintings separately were erroneous. So I spend time flicking through the pages of the Archigram Archival Project asking myself whether I stand by the findings I’d earlier drawn in the absence of this virtual catalogue raisonné.

 

Hitting the site for the first time, the files organise themselves chronologically, a veritable flashback moving from early sixties monochrome to late sixties colour, from form to informe, from Corb to Carnaby Street. Aside from the visual and intellectual pleasure of it all, it’s a reassuring anti-climax: what appears is approximately what I would have expected to see in the days when the Archigram Archive was still mysteriously hidden “under beds and behind walls.” Here, still, is the rhetorical disappearance of architecture, whereupon one half of the Archigram group disappears into a meditation upon that disappearance, David Greene affecting suicide by photocopier, only for the other half to design its way out of the impasse, Ron Herron converting the kitchen and swimming pool at Rod Stewart’s Berkshire home. Both sides of Archigram affect contemporary architecture so deeply, I continue to think, that it is impossible to isolate their legacies as they seep into today’s architectural landscape of flows and folds and interfaces and ecologies.

 

The full import of this live legacy is somewhat belied by the site’s dutiful reproduction of some clichés about the Archigram group, etched four decades earlier in the Archigram anthology—“David Greene: The poet of the group.” “Ron Herron: Draws like a dream ... apparently effortlessly.” In coming years these will be surely demoted by scholarly and critical apparatus. That can wait, though, because researchers are going to be kept busy by the new wealth of detail. Imagine when more archives take the gallant leap made by Archigram and EXP: archives will no longer be the gatekeepered preserve of Ph.D. students with good references, but will cross into the light of the virtual public sphere. How odd it seems, as slides spill out from this website at the touch of my cursor seven thousand miles away, that a decade and a half ago we were fumbling around in a darkness barely illuminated by the internet. Yet it was merciful, I find myself wondering, that this much information wasn’t available as I started working on Archigram. Should future historians be kind enough to spare a thought for the efforts made by their predecessors to scratch together any evidence at all, then those same predecessors might sympathise with new researchers faced by the magnitude of evidence tipping out from fully opened and searchable archives. Academic scoops will be made less and less by finding things, more and more by saying something significant about those things.

 

Archigram’s work looks comfortable on the web (I completed my site visit on a phone—I’m sure Archigram would approve). Archigram was accused by its critics of willing the destruction of architecture, but we see now that it was trying to save architecture—to be its St. Christopher, carrying the art form safely across the rushing streams of communications separating the Industrial and Postindustrial eras. Still, my admiration for Archigram tends to be slightly begrudging and embarrassed, for the same reasons perhaps that I am slightly begrudging and embarrassed about the survival of my own profession, that of the academic able to produce insight into a modularised and mediated world but little meaningful response to it.

 

It’s always easier to leave Archigram stranded by such criticism than it is to account for the group’s vitalism. One thing that the website conveys, as it lays out its gridded electronic fields, is an appetite for life dismissed since the sixties as naivety. To capture in our own time some better sense of Archigram’s stance one has to turn to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr with their strange upbeat take on this planet of anxiety, horror, fundamentalism, risk. They evince that desire to grab and exchange the world in some reckless existential search, to produce a happier archive of lived experience and of the contemplation of being.

 

The singularly moving sight within Archigram’s archive is, accordingly, its slide collection. Things. Things seen. Places. Signs and Structures—hmm, not a lot of architecture, to be honest, and precious little of what there is is of canonical standing. Folder titles like “People/Animals. Friends.” A picture of Michael Webb, awkwardly impersonating an ordinary man standing in front of his Honda Civic. Drastically aging ‘pinks’ (to use slide library parlance) of San Francisco. David Greene’s collection of ‘Random Nature’. Pedagogical mysteries, such as the uses Warren Chalk found for a picture of a woman looking at her teeth in a mirror.

 

When I published my book about Archigram, I knew there was quite possibly an undiscovered something in the archive that could turn everything upside down—secret correspondence with the Smithsons, say, or copies of books by Marcuse with carefully considered marginalia. An initial sweep through the new website turns up no smoking guns—in fact there are relatively few textual documents, and some of those that are posted are at a resolution too low to be legible, while doubtless some items will remain undisclosed even at this moment of Archigram’s unprecedented largesse. So the impression left by the traces in its archive of Archigram’s less public life is of a sense of fun, of wry lectures and memorable field trips.

 

Conversing during a car trip last week with a sociologist who studies political crisis and a political journalist investigating social injustice, the insights were troubling enough for me to ask whether one must finally accept that there is no hope. “For God’s sake man, stick your head out the car window, breath, take it in, that’s all still there,” the driver retorted, as though to contradict the very world of which he was just speaking. I conclude this review of the Archigram Archive contemplating David Greene’s bewitching, high-contrast, color-saturated slides of “Random Nature,” and then step out into the garden. 


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