ARCHIGRAM ARCHIVAL PROJECT

 

Leon van Schaik


As I recall, I first consciously encountered Archigram when I arrived in the combined fifth year studio at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in autumn 1970. This was run by Peter Cook, and Bernard Tschumi and Colin Fournier were tutors. That is not to discount subliminal awareness: my fourth year project set on the southern side of Oxford Street in London (1969-70) bore an uncanny resemblance to Peter Cook’s City Mound: speculation for an underground city (1964), combined with the mechanics of Peter Cook and David Greene’s Nottingham Shopping Centre (1962). This was a resemblance that did not trouble Peter Cook, who generously embraced the project as being (I suppose) in a worthy lineage. After that I was ‘embedded’ – as we say now – in an Archigram world, beamed from the lecture theatre through Goonhilly Downs to Bill Busfield in Perth Western Australia (1971), Cheer Up! It's Archigram at the ICA (1972-3), Artnet (1974-1980). How poignant now looks Peter Cook’s inscribed circles layout drawing for this! How quaint Quant-like the various completed fit-outs for airlines done by Ron Herron and Warren Chalk!

 

There are things we all ‘knew’: that many in the group came through the LCC; that some took the Smithsons as mentors, that they all worked on Taylor Woodrow projects… Nothing much about the Smithsons surfaces in this record, though there are startling similarities to Robin Hood Lane in the courtyard views of some housing projects done under the aegis of Taylor Woodrow.

What the website does is to present the LCC period as a substantial under-the-water element of the iceberg that is Archigram. It is startling to see how many core group ideas – plug in components for example – first manifest as built concrete forms. These then seem challenged by the light touch of Webb and Greene’s student projects – although they first appear as collaborators on a Taylor Woodrow project.

 

The Taylor Woodrow period weaves more organically through the experimentation, but it is extraordinary now to see how much that experimentation was focused on almost realisable ‘real’ projects. Despite the ways in which Archigram is often (these days) lumped with 1960s avant-garde movements with very tenuous interests in the real-politik of the construction industry, the website reveals that this is not a ‘paper’ architecture avant-garde, but a set of researches intent on being built. Fascinating to compare Peter Cook’s current designs for a university in Vienna with his competition entry for the Lincoln Civic Centre (1961) – almost the same parti… Perhaps we do all begin with an idea and pursue it remorselessly throughout our careers. There are some schemes – Leverton Place (1971) that Archigram are lucky were not built: this would have cemented in place as a pathetic fallacy all the moving parts that the designs were striving to effect.

 

A possible exception to the determination to be real lies in the fragile projects of Greene – many of which project a longing for locations lyrical and untrammelled by the weight of construction, and the Temple Island project of Webb. This last romantic confection seemingly taken up in some later projects by Peter Cook – Urban Mark (1972) and Lump and Secret Garden (1973) – projects that almost suggest that the idea of actually building has been abandoned – prematurely as we all now know. The group certainly did not draw any such distinction. In Archigram Magazine No.1 (1961) the Piccadilly Circus proposal of that year is compared to David Greene’s final student project – his 1958 Mosque

 

It is extraordinary – thanks to the website – to see the bulky forms of Ron Herron’s Walking City (1964) emerge out of a ‘real’ Taylor Woodrow project (City of London Office Block) of the same year. This most fantastical of projects – one can imagine – was mostly drawn as part of the designing of a building that could well have been built: a sort of doodle of ‘what ifs’ done after hours and at the same time? The probing tentacles in Walking City emerge from City Interchange (1963), another project with Taylor Woodrow. The telescoping effect of these probe-like forms seemingly a serendipitous outcome of using axonometric projections and perspective to convey tubular links.

 

‘Plug In’ has a long lineage. It is evident in stacking of components in the Metal Housing Project by Peter Cook (1961) “car-body type units on pre-cast guts’ well before it emerges in Plug In City (1964). Moshe Safde’s Habitat was completed in 1967… proof of Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance theory in which ideas always emerge all over the world at about the same time, or the result of industrial espionage…

 

The website slowly immerses you layer by layer into past political milieus. The deepest layers are imbued with the post WW2 socialist ambition to make a world fit for everyone. This is the architecture of reconstruction, of massive catch up after years of destruction and stasis. The fragile projects: Sin Centre Leicester Square (1961) Bournemouth Leisure Centre (1961), Bournemouth Nets (1966), and especially Instant City (1968) are all (in the context of the class culture of England) highly political assertions that the good things of life should be made accessible to everyone, not kept as the preserves of those who have inherited access, or won it through wealth. ‘Pop’ populism emerged in the art of Richard Hamilton at the same time, and in the same social milieu.

 

The website also allows you to track the roles of the members. Rather like those histories of the contemporary music groups in which the Base Guitarist seems always to change at a critical moment, here you can watch people fading in and out (and in Archigram’s case again as often as not) of the spotlight of the groups’ interests… This is a story of collaboration and of a generosity of spirit that this record of its extraordinary productions suggest peaked in the early 1970s.

 

For me this is the consistent message brought home by having all of the projects here in one place: et in arcadia ego – for everyone. And not whimsically, but practically and effectively. These projects – often expressly about ‘industrialised building’ (Hospital 1965) all envisage the technology needed for their realisation, but they surf ahead of its ability to deliver.

 

I have spent more time than I can afford on this seductive website, it greatly enhances my appreciation of the enormous contribution of the group – well beyond the books. I have been dwelling on images familiar, images half remembered, images never properly absorbed before. This is a marvellous resource, though I do wish I could tag images as I move through, so that different arguments can be constructed at different times…


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