CHAPTER 4: THE RIGHT STUFF

[This chapter traces the role of a number of younger British architects in the 1950s and 60s who fell in love with the USA, and above all with America’s image as the fount of modern space-and-arms-race technology ...]

 

Extract from:

Fraser, Murray (with Kerr, Joe). Architecture and the 'Special Relationship': The American Influence on Post-War British Architecture. London/New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 284-299.

© Murray Fraser / Routledge.


Archigram

 

Also in the growing circle of British admirers of America was a team of young Turks who banded together to form a group called Archigram, publishing the architectural comic of the same name. Archigram’s projects played knowingly on images of advanced technology, especially the popularized versions found in science fiction, as part of an attempt to shock the safe suburban values of Middle England. And they deployed American popular culture as the weapon capable of inflicting the biggest hits. Now, cities were portrayed as if they might literally walk around, housing units were plugged into enormous towers, people were to live in suspended space capsules; anything was possible and desirable, so long as it didn’t look boring or conventional. It was an escapist and avowedly apolitical stance, one which followed Reyner Banham in rejecting the pragmatic social concerns expressed by the architects of the Welfare State. What was vital to Archigram were not dull issues like housing densities or space standards or financial subsidies, but rather a desire to reveal modern cities as they really were: high-energy spatial networks which allowed unplanned social interaction, and which were always messy, quixotic and deeply sensual. They looked above all to the leisured post-industrial society that Cedric Price and other observers now anticipated. If this meant abandoning conventional building – as suggested by the Fun Palace project – then that’s what needed to happen.

 

Archigram existed from 1961 until the mid-1970s, although always in the loosest possible fashion.80 It remained, by its own admission, an elastic concept embracing the varied outputs of its six core members: Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron and Mike ‘Spider’ Webb. ‘Archigram was not so much a group as a collection of exposed nerves / firecrackers … jumping and occasionally colliding to form even larger bangs,’ is how David Greene describes it.81 In this sense, the creation and design of Archigram itself was the actual project they were engaged upon, each in their own way. Archigram's output was erratic as a consequence, consisting of a hotchpotch of hypothetical designs, exhibitions, multimedia shows, happenings, competition entries and – above all – the nine issues of their eponymous architectural magazine, which increasingly adopted the format of American comic books. The first issue, not that ambitious in its graphics, came out in May 1961. Disagreements of course developed within the Archigram camp, as happens in any group, although there persists a bond between the surviving members that has stood the test of time despite their evident differences. There was throughout a freewheeling use of collage and a constant reworking of ideas, plus a line of younger collaborators who helped out in the manner of apprentices in the studio of masters. Soon it became hard to recognize where Archigram stopped and where it began.

 

Archigram continues to be hugely influential in the UK and abroad, being the subject of numerous exhibitions. Since the group was given the accolade of the RIBA Gold Medal in 2002, they have been ‘rediscovered’ even more; a major book was published by Simon Sadler, in effect Archigram’s unofficial biographer.82 In its earlier days, Archigram can be best characterized as the fruit of a dalliance between the fantastical paper architecture of early modernism (notably Futurism and Constructivism) and 1950s American popular culture. This visual language was refracted through the lens of science fiction, comic books, and ultra-sassy artists like Roy Lichtenstein. The milieu for this giddy act of cultural fusion was – initially at least – the pulsating 1960s scene of what was later called ‘Swinging London’. Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton and Ron Herron were a touch older than the others in Archigram, and were already working as architects in the London County Council on the South Bank arts complex and other schemes. In their spare time they designed a series of well-regarded competition entries which seemed inevitably to win second prize, but which brought them a certain reputation. It was the younger trio of Greene, Cook and Webb who sought them out in 1961, and in doing so, set the group in motion.83

 

Cedric Price acted as a sympathetic and suitably detached mentor for Archigram from the second issue of the magazine onwards. As David Greene has said of their relationship with Price, ‘we had a common source of material, which began with Buckminster Fuller, I suppose. Fuller was the first, really.’84 The members of Archigram worked in various commercial practices in London to feed themselves, but then Theo Crosby, an ambitious architect, designer, critic and journalist – and a member of London’s avant-garde art scene – took a hand in helping Archigram to obtain funds, even supplying them with day jobs. Hence by the end of 1962, all six of them were drafted in, notionally, to work for the team in Taylor Woodrow Construction led by Crosby for the redevelopment of Euston Station. However, Archigram weren’t really part of the design team for the railway terminal, and didn’t last there for long. While others around toiled on the station design, the group spent their time immersing themselves in architectural and technology magazines, and drawing up their own projects. Their hearts lay in organizing the ‘Living City’ exhibition, held in the summer of 1963 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). It appears it was Crosby who persuaded the ICA to give Archigram their first major break. This event was also the first time the members of Archigram had actually worked together as a more-or-less coherent entity. ‘Until about 1963 or ’64 the six central members of Archigram hadn’t really thought of themselves as a group,’ remembers a friend.85 Their show at the ICA was a bold attempt to capture the vitality and complexity of urban life within a single museum room, being prompted partly at least by warnings about the growing homogeneity and sterility of American cities by the urban theorist Jane Jacobs and the social scientist William Whyte, mentioned previously.86 The exhibition mounted by Archigram, with its hedonistic, libidinous and masculine vision of the urban flaneur was typified by an exhibit called the ‘Living City Survival Kit’; this was devised by Warren Chalk as an ironic self-portrait made up of his personal artefacts. In the ‘Survival Kit’ there was a knowing mix of hip jazz records by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, sunglasses, cigarettes, deodorant, whiskey, toothpaste, a Norman Mailer novel, sundry items of branded American convenience food, including Birds Eye frozen peas and Coca Cola bottles, a copy of Playboy, and even a replica hand-gun. Influencing the tone of the ‘Living City’ exhibition were the US-fuelled writings of Reyner Banham. Sadler has also pointed out a link to proto-Pop artists such as Richard Hamilton, who (as will seen in a later chapter) had encountered Banham and the Smithsons through the Independent Group, and as such promoted Americanized issues in the London arts scene from the mid-1950s. Indeed it was Richard Hamilton who composed a mise-en-scene front cover for the ICA’s magazine, Living Arts, which in mid-1963 published an issue divided between reviews of his latest paintings and the ‘Living City’ exhibition:

 

Photographed by Robert Freeman at a Taylor Woodrow building site (presumably accessed by Theo Crosby), Hamilton’s cover featured an American footballer and Playboy Playmate-style model (the former perched and the latter draped upon a Ford 1963 Thunderbird), a Frigidaire stuffed to capacity, a luxurious white telephone, a Wondergram mini record player and mini typewriter, a chromium-plate toaster, a long-hose vacuum cleaner … and particularly impressive, a Mercury space pod.87

 

The space pod was in fact a prop from Shepperton Film Studios. Yet beyond this episode, the connections between Archigram and the 1960s British Pop Art scene – or even to more established artists such as Hamilton – should not be overdrawn, as Barry Curtis notes.88 Personal contacts were, if anything, far more important to Archigram than any theoretical or artistic allegiances.

 

Crucial for Archigram in this respect was the growth in 1960s London of the counter-cultural architectural press, of which the most influential outlet was Architectural Design. Although not as extreme as hippy magazines in music or other cultural fields, this journal took over from the Architectural Review as the venue for innovative ideas. ‘If the 1960s went pop, Architectural Review did not,’ notes an historian; while Architectural Design most certainly did.89 The latter journal was leaner, hungrier and more fashionable amongst disenchanted British architects. Architectural Design was sustained by the admirable efforts of Monica Pigeon, its principal editor. In this period she worked with a number of part-time technical editors, up till 1962 in the shape of Theo Crosby – Archigram’s guardian angel – and following that, two more academically inclined architects, Robin Middleton and Kenneth Frampton. Later on, a younger co-editor, an erstwhile student radical called Peter Murray, joined the paper.90 Murray was an appropriate candidate, since he and another colleague had previously published Clip-Kit, a fanzine which consisted of a plastic clip binder into which readers could insert pages to build up the magazine. Clip-Kit came out in London for just under year in 1966, and its contents fetishized American arms-and-space technology and just about every type of mobile or inflatable or temporary architecture going, as well of course as raving about Cedric Price and Archigram. The arrival of Peter Murray at Architectural Design thus consolidated the sense of a fascination with the USA, and indeed by the late-1960s the creative group orbiting around the journal included Reyner Banham, Cedric Price and Martin Pawley, as well as Warren Chalk and Peter Cook from Archigram. It was precisely the ability to readily disseminate provocative visual images, made possible by novel printing techniques like offset lithography, which Archigram thrived on. Banham, for instance, lived down the road from Peter Cook in Aberdare Gardens, near to Swiss Cottage – the best London architectural revolutions are hatched in stolid Victorian houses – and to demonstrate his support for the group, at times Banham would take freshly printed copies of Archigram magazine to distribute to students on his US lecture tours.91

 

Archigram as such was not an invention of Reyner Banham, but in many respects it might as well have been. In their work could be seen Banham’s enthusiasms and bugbears. There was the same passion for space-age technology, Americana, and non-architectural solutions. Conversely, there was in their projects a Banham-like disapproval of the superficial formalism and dull technocratic detailing of British modernism at the time, which they felt misunderstood the aims of modernity. ‘A new generation of architecture must arise with forms and spaces which seem to reject the precept of “Modern” yet in fact retains these precepts.  We have chosen to bypass the decaying Bauhaus image which is an insult to Functionalism,’ declared David Greene, brave for someone so young, in the first issue of Archigram.92 In expressing this dissatisfaction with the status quo, Archigram can be mapped alongside other avant-garde groups of the era in Europe, including Hans Hollein and Archizoom, Superstudio, Haus Rucker and the Situationists – or perhaps to Yona Friedman’s work in Paris, or even the Metabolists in Japan. But once again, it would be wrong to over-stress the notion of avant-garde commonality. Although they were aware of these parallel architectural groups, and generously welcomed their contributions, the eyes of Archigram were only ever really fixed in one direction, and that was across the Atlantic. Americanized values came more and more to permeate their ideas, and indeed their personal lives.93

 

Initially, Archigram could only pursue their interest in the United States at second-hand. In design approach, they were – as mentioned – supporters of the ‘total technologists’ in America; indeed, they were almost obsessed by experimental work being done there. If Bucky Fuller was a slightly terrifying oracle, then John Johansen was the sort of person they could get on with. Mike Webb says Johansen inspired him deeply while at college, for here was an architect doing something out of the norm with new technology:

 

Upsetting the nuts-and-bolts certainties of the London Polytechnic School of Architecture were feelthy pictures hot from the USA: Johansen’s spray plastic house - something to be concealed from the faculty at all costs. It took just one-year for student projects to begin manifesting tubes and stomach-like shapes. This was the movement known as Bowellism. For the boys in Archigram ... he [Johansen] was our genuine American hero: each successive project a radical departure not only from conventional practice, but even from his own previous oeuvre. What a risk taker! What a gambler!94

 

John Johansen heard of his reputation amongst these young avant-garde architects in Britain, adding: ‘I think it was because of what I was doing, either in projects or the buildings built, and specifically the sprayed-concrete houses.’ Johansen also remembers his first visit to London led to the start of a beautiful friendship with the members of Archigram, after meeting up in the Architectural Association’s bar:

 

I loved them. I sought them out in London in the early-1960s, these lads! They did not know what they had going. I was an established architect, and I sought them out and I said: “You are all my fans!” And they fell apart, which was very dear. 


They had no money. I picked up the cost of a cab over to the AA, and they bought me a drink. We have been very close ever since. I suppose what got me was the openness of mind, the extraordinary freedom that they had found. Never would they build a building, and they would say: “Never need we have to!” … I was absolutely taken with their sense of joy and openness of investigation, which I also think is in me. So that’s a bond right away. I don’t suppose that they learned much from me, but I would certainly say that I learned from them.95

 

It was not only the experiments of Fuller and Johansen which appealed to Archigram, but the whole landscape of American consumerism as a whole. If anything, Archigram’s dream was of an architecture that could fuse in spatial terms the urban vibrancy and technological innovation so evident already in cities like New York. Hence the group’s spiritual predecessors were to be found as much in the mechanized pleasure parks of Coney Island and Disneyland. The sheer joy of daily life in the USA became a recurring theme for Archigram members, who were capable of appreciating its contradictions and inconsistencies. Warren Chalk later recalled:

 

David Greene, [Mike] Spider Webb and I clamoured ecstatically over the rocket support structures at Cape Kennedy. I visited the NASA control centre at Houston and later witnessed the second Surveyor (manless) moon landing on the monitors at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Los Angeles, collecting small fragments of the moon surface. But there was an omen. The technician assigned to me, sitting in front of a bank of 39 close-circuit TV monitors of the lunar operation, was in fact watching the Johnnie Carson Show on the fortieth.96

 

As this quote also reveals, by the mid-1960s a new intensity had developed in their love affair with America, for now they had finally got the chance to visit the USA – and better still, to live there. The first to go over was David Greene, who started teaching at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s architectural school in Blacksburg, Virginia in January 1965. Thus when the sixth edition of Archigram came out that autumn, he was listed as the ‘US Editor’. It was not the most illustrious American school Greene might have chosen, but he did so because they offered him a full salary for just twelve hours teaching per week, giving him a substantial amount of time to pursue his Archigram projects.97 At a stroke, a key member of Archigram was pulled away from London by American cash. And soon afterwards – indeed at the start of the next academic session in September 1965 – Mike Webb joined Greene in Virginia, meaning a third of the group was living in the USA. To put things in perspective, this was barely two years after their breakthrough show at the ICA, and now both Greene and Webb had relocated to America (Webb went on to work in the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and other East Coast architectural schools). The group was feted in the USA, with Banham contributing an article to an American journal in 1965 in which he eulogized Archigram for producing ‘the first effective images of the architecture of technology since Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes first captured the world fifteen years ago’.98 Within a couple more years, five out of the six members of Archigram were teaching in architectural schools either on the East Coast or in California. Warren Chalk was the first member to get a tutoring post at UCLA, in mid-1967; he was followed a year later by Ron Herron, then by Peter Cook. What it means is that if one takes the creative burst of Archigram as the years from mid-1963 until mid-1969 – when their best projects were designed – and then calculates which members were teaching in the USA at a given point, for almost half of this collective period (15 out of 36 person-years), the group was largely based in America. It points to Archigram being a transatlantic hybrid, modifying somewhat the usual perception of the group as a ‘Swinging London’ phenomenon.

 

All the other members returned to Britain, whereas Mike Webb elected to remain in the USA, teaching and drawing. Dennis Crompton was a frequent visitor to America, but only taught there in short bursts. Along with his Archigram colleagues, Crompton attended an Aspen Design Conference organized by Reyner Banham in the late-1960s, where he began a long-term friendship with John Margolies, an American with an unquenchable desire to record the dying roadside ephemera of the USA, including gas stations, motels, hotels and cinema. The cultural climate of the States with its seemingly unbounded edges and its motion-based existence suited Archigram to a tee; as David Greene observed, it was always the open ‘freeways’ of America they loved best.99 Archigram was thrilled by the consumerist fantasy of everyday America, and the delirious, swirling lifestyle that came with it. Peter Cook said Los Angeles was Archigram’s second home, after London, and Ron Herron openly adored the anything-goes culture of LA as much as Banham ever did.100 Herron indeed lived for a couple of years in Los Angeles, working for a spell as a designer for William Perreira Associates. While over in the USA, Archigram immersed themselves in the cavalcade of gadgets, toys, mobile homes, TV soaps, Woodstock (they called that hippy festival ‘a three-day city’), and such like. Another list of must-have objects itemized by Warren Chalk in 1969 showed how much Archigram’s concept of urban community was by now thoroughly Americanized, not British:

 

Communities are not really organisms like the anthill or the beehive, but rather organisations or ad hoc mechanisms for collective living made up from an infinite number of interacting artefacts. Urban artefacts are classifiable: television, microfilm, credit card, telephone, car-wash, drive-in movie, drive-in bank, car, aeroplane, neon sign, stop light, are but a few of the urban toys we can play with … In a transient society, the mobile searchlight pinpointing an automobile sale or a movie premiere is more important than a building; a credit card system more meaningful than a high-rise bank. Urbanism, if it is to mean anything, is a fluid matrix of things that do their own thing. In William Burroughs words, ‘we must keep our bags packed and ready to move all the time’.101

 

Such sentiments reflected the type of life that all (but one) of Archigram were then enjoying in the USA. It is summed up in a story that Simon Herron tells of when his father, Ron Herron, moved the family to California in the late-1960s, after getting his teaching job at UCLA.102 Ron Herron wanted an American driving license because he intended to be there for a while. So he turned up at the local driving test centre casually one morning to book a test. Why not take it now, asked the examiner? Herron did so, but failed. So why not try again, asked the examiner? Fine, said Herron, but when would be the earliest date you could fit me in? Why, this afternoon, replied the examiner. Ron Herron came back after lunch for a second attempt and passed. By the evening, the Herron family were driving around Los Angeles as the proud occupants of a Ford Mustang. And the choice of car was important. The Mustang was only launched in 1964, but already a classic after being immortalized in Bullitt (1968) in a frenetic Steve McQueen car-chase through San Francisco’s sloping streets. Ron Herron used this sojourn in the USA to take his family to see all the sights and experiences he could, as recorded in the photographs that still exist of their travels. The Archigram members based in Los Angeles also met up with Reyner Banham whenever the latter was over in the late-1960s as a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California, doing his researching into the city. They socialized together at spots like Santa Monica beach or the Gamble House by Greene & Greene, where Banham was lucky enough to stay when in town.103

 

It was of course one thing being in thrall to American consumer technology, but far harder to think what to do with it in a British context. In terms of Archigram’s projects, the typical proposal in their early years tended to involve a dynamic megastructure, usually based around capsule construction and plug-in elements. Traditional structures and life-spans in architecture were replaced by deliberate expendability and transient service systems, along the lines of Cedric Price. Archigram’s schemes at this point epitomized, if anything, the excitement and imagination of the best student drawings in British architectural schools. It was memorable paper architecture conveyed through stunning graphics. These schemes weren’t conceived as projects which somehow unfortunately wouldn’t be realized. Instead, as David Greene wrote, their work:

 

… represented a conceptual shift, in common with other creative enterprises, away from an interest in the commodity (in this case, say, the building or the city) towards an interest in the protocols, structures and processes of mid-twentieth-century culture ... [Archigram projects should be seen] as advertisements, part normative architectural rendering, part provocation, and then reconsider the fact that a building is a sort of a residue, a ghostly reminder of all the ongoing processes – economic, technical and social – that make up the environment in which it was produced. 


Behind all the work lies a persistent optimism in technology, pure faith in the future, and scorn poured upon the reiterations of modernist dogma – or, rather, the refusal of post-war practice to invest the modernist project with new emerging realities. This is a new terrain in which information becomes almost a substance, a new material with the power to reshape social arrangements, in which the city becomes a continuous building site in a very literal sense, in which things and people vibrate and oscillate around the globe in an ecstatic consumption of energy, in which the modernist search for the authentic is an anachronism, in which restlessness is the current cultural condition. This is the landscape inhabited by Archigram … It provides a new agenda where nomadism is the dominant social force; where time, exchange and metamorphosis replace stasis; where consumption, lifestyle and transience become the programme; and where the public realm is an electronic surface enclosing the globe.104 

 

A vivid contemporary description of the group came from Peter Blake, who as noted grew up in Britain but became a top American architectural journalist. Blake said ‘whether they like it or not, the Archigram gang is a gang of wild-eyed poets’.105 None of the Archigram members, however, quite saw things in exactly the same way, and hence the projects designed by Peter Cook and Ron Herron tended to be more architectural and classically pictorial in their representation, compared to say the anticipatory ‘electrical anthropology’ of David Greene. Even the most talented artist in the group, Mike Webb, has talked ambivalently about ‘the visual eye candy typical of Archigram’s work’.106 The work of Archigram thus oscillated in dialectical tension between drawings and written poetics, echoing the internal division between those members who admired America more for the power of its popular iconography, and those who focussed more on its highly mobile, unseen social networks. It has been suggested that this interest of Archigram in deeper, invisible structures had to be influenced by the structuralist thought of 1960s French Marxism, or by offshoots like the Situationist International. But the members of Archigram refute knowledge of, or links to, intellectualized European approaches to the subject. Instead they talk more of the innovative, ‘hands-on’ miracles of technology streaming out of the USA, placing them much closer to Marshall McLuhan or Melvin Webber than to Henri Lefebvre or Guy Debord. And yet, as Barry Curtis suggests, whatever their distance from theoretical approaches in continental Europe, Archigram still deserve to be classified as urban philosophers by any other name.107

 

Even acknowledging this intellectual contribution, and the significance of Archigram’s passion for America, the more one looks back at well-known projects like Plug-In City (1964), Walking City (1964), or the incarnations of Instant City (1968), it is obvious the harder Archigram tried to work out their ideas through specific design proposals, the more restricted these visions became. Typical of this dilemma was a 1967 scheme for a multi-level trailer-home park. It was an idea with a clear affinity to the ‘Capsule’ mobile dwellings in Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt, but in the Archigram version – as Colin Davies observes – the result lost all the vitality and social freedom of American precedents.108 Ultimately, if Archigram’s work is evaluated in conventional architectural terms, it has to be seen as a glorious dead-end. It was this self-realization that triggered a later phase of theoretical projects by David Greene and Mike Webb which aimed to be as conceptually and physically lean as possible. ‘Although the Archigram oeuvre is too complex and contradictory to reduce to a single narrative,’ writes Barry Curtis, ‘there is a distinct move from architecture as physically massive and integrative to a scenario in which structure gives way to transportable tools, environment and states of mind.’109 Hence there emerged a set of proposals by Greene and Webb, after their move to America, which included Cushicle (1966), Living Pod (1966), Rokplug/Logplug (1968), and Suitaloon (1968). Each sought to combine the latest ephemeral communication devices with a degree of primitivism more akin to aboriginal tribes in the jungle. But given the USA was the obvious source of advanced technology, then the rapprochements of Archigram still had to occur through a process of Anglo-American hybridization. Indeed, an unspoken desire was to link Britain and the USA together, seemingly in a totalizing manner, as a kind of universal condition for the planet. For Greene and Webb, it enabled them to achieve what previous generations of British designers had failed to do because of the hitherto fixation with architectural aesthetics and pompous, ground-swallowing monuments. In stark contrast, David Greene’s designs for Rokplug/Logplug envisaged glass-reinforced-plastic facsimiles of natural rocks and logs, inside of which were hidden electrical outlets and water supplies. It meant one could hook up to the latest technology even out in the wilds of nature. ‘The whole of London or New York will be available in the world’s leafy hollows, deserts and flowered meadows,’ proclaimed Greene.110 Again, it was a close parallel to – indeed a direct application of – the systems theory of Melvin Webber. For in 1968, the same year as Greene’s projects, Webber wrote of a dispersed form of ‘post-city’ he felt would be made possible by trans-spatial technology:

 

For the first time in history, it might be possible to locate on a mountain top and to maintain intimate, real-time and realistic contact with business or other associates. All persons tapped into the global communications net would have ties approximating those used today in a given metropolitan region.111

 

Hence it was David Greene who introduced a subtler, more poetic sensibility based on an Anglo-American love of technology and a fascination with the social implications of transatlantic interchange. It was notable that in the Rokplug/Logplug designs, the two cities chosen to have their facilities distributed across the world were London and New York, not any others. By the late-1960s Greene’s texts were in the form of prose poems often accompanied by surreal short films or slide shows. Combined, they acted as mediations between nature, technology and a humanistic concern about the state of the world. In a poem/project published in 1969 under the title of ‘The World’s Last Hardware Event’, Greene unveiled the concept of the Bottery – ‘a robot-serviced landscape’ – which he portrayed as a manifestation of a Local Available World Unseen Network (L.A.W.U.N). The Bottery project had an army of small gopher robots blending invisibly into rural landscapes, providing people with the comforts they required. The apparent benefit was that trendy young couples – cut out of Sunday colour supplements – could move out of cities and live in grassy idylls in rural areas in Britain or America. It represented, in Greene’s phrase, a ‘cybernetic forest’; in other words, a harmonious rebalancing of mankind through a technological wilderness in which flora, fauna, gadgets and computers co-existed peacefully. A cybernetic vision of the seamless interaction of people, machines and nature lay at its core. But of course this could only be possible if British people learned to embrace the freedom of the American mobile home or caravan, as well as the American passion for depending on hand-held gadgets – which Reyner Banham dubbed the ‘The Great Gizmo’ – to live comfortably in any environmental conditions.112

 

David Greene argued this switch to ephemeral technology was inevitable, given the forces of consumer capitalism, and thus architecture was compelled henceforth to renounce all formal statements whatsoever. Attacking the early stages of modernism as being obsessed with assembly-line production, heavyweight structures and impossible collectivised programmes, he wrote:

 

That’s all dead, the action’s moved on in to the delicately tuned transistor, teeny-bopper ears to the highway, K.S.C. [Kennedy Space Center], the paper packed fizz champagne of the age, Coca Cola, and the magic minds of white-shirted identity-carded men with checkout clip-boards plugged into plasticised cybercircuits.113

 

Architecture needed instead to glide in and assimilate itself into modern lifestyles – even subversively – to turn each of us into electronic nomads. In Greene’s later work, the dream of dissolving away architectural form, and thus every last trace of compressive force, reached its apogee. In his eyes, the task of Archigram was to create poetic understanding, not technology or buildings as such. This is why his proposals began to hybridize to such an extent, becoming meditations on ways of living with the new informational age from the USA – as characterized by miniaturized servicing, mobile communication devices and increased data flows. It was further recognition that Archigram were plugged into Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, even if they never referred to him too explicitly, yet flirting with the spatial interfaces between humans and machines. In this sense, the work of David Greene was the nearest thing in the architectural world to the experimental films of Jean Luc Godard or the plays of Peter Brook – and like such figures, Greene was overly dependent on the exaggerated theatricality found in 1960s avant-garde art. It seems a bit stagy to us now, but was undoubtedly provocative for its time. If David Greene was the most original thinker in Archigram, the most exquisite drawings came from his closest collaborator in the group, Mike Webb – a reticent figure who talks little about his ideas, and to this day continues to redraw his projects, even those nearly five decades old. In schemes from his college days, such as the Furniture Manufacturers’ Association Headquarters for High Wycombe, or later in the Sin Centre off Leicester Square, or through to Cushicle, Suitaloon and similar de-substantiated proposals, there is a quirky lyricism which is utterly compelling. Webb’s drawings have the complexity of a good novel. The boldest demonstration came in an idiosyncratic project called ‘Temple Island’, which Webb created in the mid-1970s at the point when Archigram was folding. It formed an exhibition and book for the Architectural Association in London, albeit conceived and drawn in the USA.114 The subject was a dream-like, quasi-autobiographical voyage up the River Thames in a submarine, with the ostensible aim of mapping a temple on a small island. But if anything, it was the work of an exile trying to recover a memory of the place left behind, just as James Joyce had done in prose in Ulysses for Dublin. Temple Island won lasting fame among academics and students for its efforts to stretch the limits of architectural representation, and for its meditations on the difficulty of interpreting the spatial landscapes we inhabit.

 

With this emphasis on an increasingly poetic description of unseen communications technology, Archigram’s reaction to 1960s political and social concerns couldn’t help but seem naïve; perhaps deliberately so. Kenneth Frampton wrote of this tendency, haughtily:

 

Archigram was more interested in the seductive appeal of space-age imagery and, after Fuller, in the Armageddon overtones of survival than in the processes of production or the relevance of such sophisticated technique to the tasks of the moment … With comparable nonchalance, Archigram saw no reason to concern themselves with the social or ecological consequences of their various megastructural proposals.115

 

Accusations like these annoy some fans, who have instead have tried to portray Archigram as subversive figures pursuing a disguised political agenda. But as a counter-explanation, it doesn’t wash. So much of Archigram’s energy was spurred by contempt for the self-righteous, po-faced socialism of Welfare State modernist architects, who believed simply by declaring their work to be socially transformative, it was so. The members of Archigram saw such posturing as bunk. If there was any consistent social or political viewpoint in Archigram’s work, it was to produce architecture that delivered actual consumer choice in the way car companies were doing, for example. ‘Archigram envisaged emancipation through the architectural equivalent of fridges and cars and kits that made everyone an architect,’ notes Sadler.116 But even this desire to deliver consumer choice in architecture played second fiddle to a near-pathological desire never to be boring; why, that would be too terrible for words. As sympathisers like Banham pointed out, it was always wrong to take Archigram too literally – as some still do – or without recognition of the simmering humour, often masking savage thoughts, which bubbled under the surface.

 

The underlying tone of Archigram was one of an educated, apolitical and anarchic satire on the mores and foibles of British life; a refutation of the moralizing British architectural scene of the time. Writers from Robin Middleton to Michael Sorkin likened Archigram to 1960s British pop groups such as the Beatles, a kind of architectural tribe. Perhaps a closer parallel would be to the lineage of British comedy ensembles from the 1950s Goon Show to the 1960s Beyond the Fringe to above all Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran on BBC television from 1969 until the mid-1970s. Martin Pawley, who observed Archigram from close quarters in the 1960s as a rebel student at the Architectural Association, and then as an architectural critic, pinpointed them then as ‘verging occasionally on the Monty Pythonesque’.117 Archigram and the ensemble casts of satirical shows on British radio and television shared a reliance on cartoon graphics, surrealist imagery, and an overriding desire to mock and shock the values of bourgeois, suburban England – in which background most of its members grew up. Intriguingly, the Monty Python team included an American animator, Terry Gilliam, who brought a detailed knowledge of US graphic magazines and super-hero comics into the cartoon segments for those programs. It is essential to bear this in mind when looking at Archigram, for essentially their attitude to Anglo-American hybridization was to be reverential about the USA and deeply satirical about Britain.

 

Graphic images and biting humour are ideal for each other, and this applied to Archigram as much as Monty Python or other television comedies. Lebbeus Woods described Archigram’s approach as ‘serious playfulness’, demonstrating that it has always been US observers who instinctively understood Archigram the best.118 But playful opportunities of this sort are hard to keep going. Instead, the impetus behind Archigram slowly fizzled out, leading to odd episodes like the small adventure playground they built in Milton Keynes (1972), or a swimming pool and kitchen wing for rock singer Rod Stewart (1974), then recreating himself as a transatlantic sex icon, or the even more atypical Monte Carlo entertainment complex, a competition-winning scheme of the early-1970s, which they proposed to bury under a mound beside the Mediterranean. A ‘proper’ practice called Archigram Architects was set up by some members on the strength of this competition victory, but others like David Greene regarded it as the death-knell. And just at the moment when they appeared to have achieved architectural success, Archigram collapsed in 1975 along with funding for the Monte Carlo project. The subsequent move by some members into the world of built architecture proved problematic, with perhaps the exceptions being the stunning headquarters for the Imagination design group by Ron Herron (1988-89) or Peter Cook’s involvement in a big blobby gallery in Graz, Austria (2002-04). The deaths of Warren Chalk and Ron Herron have diminished their number, but the ex-members of Archigram continue to make themselves felt as intellectual presences, having drifted out and now back into fashion – operating primarily through British and American architectural education, but also appreciated globally. 

 

In terms of inheritors, there were none, although a host of groups took their spirit from Archigram. Particularly relevant here was an American group called Ant Farm, set up by Doug Michels, Chip Lord and some colleagues in San Francisco in the drug-fuelled, hippy-fantastic ‘Summer of Love’ in 1968. Michels was a graduate of Yale University, where he had produced a sub-Archigram design for his final project.119 Ant Farm was named after the children’s nature kit that trapped ants behind glass so humans could watch them build their colony; it was meant as a word-play on being an underground, counter-cultural group within American architecture. They took on the mantle of a rock band like the Grateful Dead, touring the country in a converted camper van. Fortuitous developments – an architectural student revolt against the academic establishment – brought them to teach at the University of Texas in Houston in 1969, placing them at the epicentre of NASA’s moon-landing hysteria that year. Ant Farm admitted their early projects were indebted to Archigram, and projects like Electronic Oasis (Time Capsule), House of the Century, and inflatable structures like Dream Cloud were eagerly published by Architectural Design, which lapped up stuff of this sort. On their return to San Francisco in 1973, Ant Farm became involved in making iconic sculptures and video films and events. The best known was Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo in Texas, built in 1974 and dubbed ‘America’s Stonehenge’ by its patron. Ten finned Cadillacs were buried in a line and at a slight angle in the earth. It became a genuine roadside attraction, graffiti-strewn and painted in a variety of colours, and even eulogized in a song by Bruce Springsteen. But as such, Cadillac Ranch was part of the formalization of the aesthetic of everyday culture and technology, something that Archigram wished to avoid. Faced with such contradictions, Ant Farm fell out of the public eye, dissolving themselves in 1978. The group is now finding recognition again in the USA – somewhat ironically, as a result of the death of their leading light, Doug Michels, in an Australian hiking accident in 2003.

 

Although a similar fluctuation in reputation has affected Archigram, it was easier for its members within the British context to maintain the original spirit. Indeed, of greater importance than any actual Archigram projects was the group’s role in signifying, and being intuitively part of, a shift in western architectural thinking in the post-war era from issues of building structure to those of environmental servicing. In parallel with the rising proportion of office construction costs now being spent on services, and the replacement of compressive structural forces by tensile forces, Archigram’s activities furthered the British acceptance of a technologically driven architecture which was thoroughly Americanized. Indeed, the adoption of US-style thermal comfort in hermetically sealed offices, theatres and shopping malls in the twentieth century led to unpredicted design consequences. ‘Air conditioning has launched the endless building. If architecture separates buildings, air conditioning unites them,’ writes Rem Koolhaas. ‘Air conditioning has dictated mutant regimes of organization and coexistence that leave architecture behind.’120 In other words, with this move to highly serviced buildings, the typical contemporary building, rather than being conceptualized as an unitary mass of solid material hollowed out to create usable internal spaces, instead becomes part of a wider phenomena of multiple air pockets. Some of these pockets are occupied by humans, others by circulation devices or mechanical services needed for buildings to operate.

 

Many architects were troubled by this cultural change. Louis Kahn for instance sought a place for the servicing elements of his buildings as something distinct from the structural form, through his famous binary distinction between occupied ‘served’ spaces and the ‘servant’ spaces which back them up. As will be seen, Kahn did so precisely because he hated the new demands being placed on architects by the advent of highly serviced buildings in America. A contrasting mindset was captured in another seminal book by Reyner Banham, this time in the late-1960s and called The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment – funded through a fellowship from the Graham Foundation of Chicago – as well as in an iconic 1965 drawing of a seemingly naked Banham (in fact his collaborator of the time acted as a body double) inside a fully-serviced bubble in the desert.121 As Banham observed, some architects were at last realizing if they didn’t come up with conceptual models to handle the plethora of services now found in buildings in economically developed nations, then what they considered as architecture would be swamped irrevocably. Advanced technology was hence not merely a technical issue, but a cultural and philosophical one. It set up a dichotomy in Banham’s later writings as to whether he was in fact becoming nostalgic for solid, heavyweight architecture which skilfully enclosed space, in the old Pevsnerian sense – or whether he favoured the insubstantial, technologized visions of Fuller, Price and Archigram. Just how could he reconcile his interests in Italian Futurism and Buffalo factories with his passion for the ephemeral atmospheres of California deserts? Banham’s last essay, ‘A Black Box’, seemed strangely to cut against much of his polemic over the previous decades, retreating to a more traditional view of architecture.

 

Archigram’s attitude to the shift in capitalist production towards dematerialized form was unremittingly positive. Frank Duffy may well have pointed out to architects in the 1970s that environmental servicing now cost half of any new office building, but one could easily imagine David Greene asking why it shouldn’t be increased to 100 per cent of the budget. The later projects of Greene and Webb welcomed the end of any physical notion of building at all, replacing this with pure servicing – and temporary and mobile servicing at that. The robot-serviced landscapes of David Greene seemed impossibly futuristic in the late-1960s, but anyone who sits today in, say, the garden of a Los Angeles villa, with its army of automatic plant-sprinklers, water-chlorinators and self-propelled submersible pool cleaning robots, listening to one of 5000 tunes on their pocket mp3 player, while screening a text message from their office workplace on a mobile phone, and at the same time using wireless broadband on a laptop to surf for holidays on Australian websites, gets the drift of where Greene’s ideas were headed. Greene still works on these theoretical issues today – currently imagining how university education might work in an age of the email and text message – believing his gut instincts from four decades ago remain valid. The last thing figures like Fuller, Price or Greene would ever have wanted was for their ideas to become a fixed architectural approach, or worse than that, an aesthetic style. But not all of those engaged on technologically innovative design in the 1960s held such views. Instead, the dilemma of how to accept highly-serviced building types from the USA led to an alternative agenda for the coming generation of British High Tech architects. In turn they exaggerated and even made a fetish of servicing components in their projects, as a quasi-Baroque mode of expression which sprang out of the contributions of Banham, Price and Archigram. How this situation came about is the subject of the next chapter.

 

 

 

 

NOTES:

 

80.            P.  Cook et al. Archigram. (London: Studio Vista, 1972); D. Crompton & H. Lachmayer (eds.). A Guide to Archigram 1961-1974. (London: Academy Editions, 1994); ‘Archigram Group, London: A Chronological Survey’, Architectural Design. November 1965, pp. 559-572.

81.            D. Greene. ‘First, A Prologue Concerning Archigram’, in D. Crompton (ed.). Concerning Archigram. (London: Archigram Archives/Cornerhouse Gallery, 1998). p. 4.

82.            S. Sadler. Archigram: Architecture without Architecture. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005) – See also S. Sadler. ‘The Brutal Birth of Archigram’, in E. Harwood & A. Powers (eds.). The Sixties: Life, Style, Architecture. (London: The Twentieth Century Society, 2002), pp. 120-128; S. Sadler. ‘Archigram’, Twentieth Century Society conference on ‘Pop Goes the Sixties’.

83.            P.  Cook. 'Archigram Entr’Acte 1: The Beginning', in D. Crompton (ed.). Concerning Archigram. pp. 14-17. 

84.            David Greene, 15 April 2000, as quoted in J.S. Mathews. ‘An Architecture for the New Britain’. p. 48.

85.            S. Lyall. ‘Bubble Writing on the Wall’. Building Design. 8 July 1994. p. 2.

86.            J. Jacobs. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (New York/London: Random/Cape, 1961/1994); W.H. Whyte. Exploding Metropolis. (Berkeley/London, University of California Press, 1958) – For a concise description of the ‘Living City’ exhibition, see S. Sadler. Archigram. pp. 69-71.

87.            S. Sadler. Archigram, p. 75 – See also, T. Crosby & J. Bodley (eds.). Living Arts, no. 2. (London: Institute of Contemporary Art/Tillotsons, 1963) [front cover].

88.            B. Curtis. ‘Archigram: A Necessary Irritant’, in D. Crompton (ed.). Concerning Archigram. pp. 25-79.

89.            E. Erten. ‘Not so Pop: the Architectural Review in the 1960s’, Twentieth Century Society conference on Pop Goes the Sixties’ – See also M. Christine Boyer. ‘Architectural Design and the writings of Alison and Peter Smithson (1953-75)’, in M. Risselda & D. van den Heuvel (eds.). Team 10, 1953-81: In Search of a Utopia of the Present. (Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, 2005). pp. 198-199; M. Christine Boyer. ‘An Encounter With History: The Postwar Debate Between The English Journals of Architectural Review and Architectural Design’, http://www.team10online.org/research/papers/delft2/boyer.pdf, Team 10 Online website, [accessed date 29 January 2006]; N. Whiteley. Reyner Banham. pp. 182-185.

90.            P. Murray. ‘Marshall McLuhan and the Offset Lithography Revolution’, Twentieth Century Society conference on ‘Pop Goes the Sixties’; P. Murray in Place. pp. 275-276.

91.            J.M. McKean. ‘The Last of England, Part 1’, pp. 8-9; N. Whiteley. Reyner Banham, pp. 167-178.

92.            A Guide to Archigram 1961-74. (London: AD Academy Editions, 1994). p. 37.

93.            S. Sadler. ‘Archigram’, Twentieth Century Society conference on ‘Pop Goes the Sixties’.

94.            Quote from Mike Webb in J. Johansen. John M. Johansen: A Life in the Continuum of Modern Architecture. (Milan: L’Arca Edizioni, 1995). p. 33.

95.            Interview by M. Fraser with John Johansen.

96.            A Guide to Archigram 1961-74. p. 126. 

97.            Interview by M. Fraser with David Greene, London, 2nd September 2002.

98.            R. Banham. ‘A Clip-On Architecture’, Design Quarterly, no. 63, 1965. p. 30.

99.            Comments by David Greene at ‘Supercrit 5: Rem Koolhaas on Delirious New York Revisited’, Department of Architecture, University of Westminster, 5 May 2006.

100.            Acceptance speech by Peter Cook at RIBA Gold Medal Awards Ceremony, Portland Place, London, 20 November 2002: R. Banham. The Visions of Ron Herron (AD Monographs No.38). (London: Academy Editions, 1994). p. 126.

101.            W. Chalk. ‘Things That Do Their Own Thing’, in Architectural Design. July 1969, reprinted in A Guide to Archigram 1961-74. p. 288 – See also, D. Greene. ‘We Offer Ten Pre-selected Sets’. p. 228; W. Chalk. ‘Up the Down Ramp’, Architectural Design. September 1968, reprinted pp. 258-266; P.  Cook. ‘Archigram Entr’Acte 4 – Los Angeles’, in D. Crompton (ed.). Concerning Archigram. pp. 122-123.     

102.            Interview by M. Fraser with Simon Herron, London, 15th August 2002 – See also, S. Herron. ‘I Love America’, conference paper for 'The Special Relationship: American and British Architecture since 1945'; K. Powell. ‘Herron, Ronald James (1930-1994)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, article 55020.

103.            R. Banham. The Visions of Ron Herron. p. 4.

104.            D. Greene. ‘First, a prologue concerning Archigram’. pp. 1-3.

105.            P.  Blake. ‘A comment from Peter Blake’, in P. Cook (ed.). Archigram. (London: Studio Vista, 1972). p. 7.

106.            M. Webb. ‘Homage to Cedric Price’, Architects’ Newspaper, 18 January 2006. p. 24.

107.            Comment made by Barry Curtis to M. Fraser, 9 February 2006.

108.            C. Davies. The Prefabricated Home. pp. 85.

109.            B. Curtis. ‘Archigram: A Necessary Irritant’, p. 66 – See also, R. Banham. Megastructures. pp. 89-103.

110.            D. Greene. 'Children’s Primer', Architectural Design. July 1969, reprinted in A Guide to Archigram 1961-74. p. 297.

111.            M. Webber. ‘The Post-City Age’, Daedalus, no. 97, 1968, pp. 1091-1100, as quoted in W. Mitchell. City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn. (Cambridge, Mass/London: MIT Press, 1995). p. 97.

112.            R. Banham. ‘The Great Gizmo’ (1965), as reprinted in M. Banham et al (eds.). A Critic Writes. pp. 109-118.

113.            D. Greene. ‘Popular Pak’, Archigram no. 8. 1968.

114.            M. Sorkin. ‘Canticles for Mike’, in Exquisite Corpse: Writings on Buildings. (London/ New York: Verso, 1991). pp. 203-210; M. Webb. Temple Island. (London: AA Publications, 1974)

115.            K. Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History, London: Thames & Hudson, 1980, p. 281. 

116.            S. Sadler. Archigram. p. 196.

117.            M. Pawley, ‘We Shall Not Bulldoze Westminster Abbey: Archigram and the Retreat from Technology’, Oppositions. no. 7, Winter 1975, reprinted in K.M. Hays, Oppositions Reader. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998). p. 431.

118.            L. Woods, ‘John Johansen’s Present Tense’, in J. Johansen. John M. Johansen. p. 159.

119.            The account here is taken from the Chip Lord lecture on ‘Ant Farm’, Department of Architecture, University of Westminster, 9 November 2004 – See also C.M. Lewallen & S. Seid. Ant Farm 1968-1978. (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2004); S. Sadler, Archigram, pp. 150-151.

120.            R. Koolhaas, ‘Junkspace’, in C.J. Chung et al (eds.), Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping: Project on the City, Vol. 2. (Koln: Taschen, 2001), p. 408 – See also, S.T. Leong & S.J. Weiss, ‘Air Conditioning’, pp. 92-127.

121.            R. Banham, ‘A Home is not a House’, Architectural Design. January 1969, pp. 45-48; R. Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment – See also R. Banham, ‘Louis Kahn: The Battery-Hatch Aesthetic’, Architectural Review. March 1962, p. 206; J.M. McKean, ‘The Last of England, Part 1’, pp. 8-9; N. Whiteley, Reyner Banham, pp. 188-220.

 

Fraser, Murray (with Kerr, Joe). Architecture and the ‘Special Relationship’: The American Influence on Post-War British Architecture. (London/New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 284-299.

© Murray Fraser/Routledge


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