Essay by Warren Chalk. First published in Arena (Architectural Association Journal)..

This is probably a good opportunity to clear up some of the misconceptions that have arisen from time to time as to the nature of our work, exactly what we are trying to say and what we are attempting to achieve. These misconceptions have arisen no doubt due to a certain inability to communicate with people outside the group. At the same time as I pointed out once in a piece in the Living City write up: “We have no strong desire to communicate with everybody only with those people whose thoughts and feelings are in some measure related to our own.”


One of the most flagrant misconceptions levelled at us, is the notion that we are not ultimately concerned with people. This probably arises directly from the type of imagery we use, that possibly a section through say something like City Interchange, appears to predict some automated wasteland inhabited only by computers and robots. How much this is justified is difficult to assess, but if our work is studied closely there will be found traces of a very real concern for people and the way in which they might be liberated from the present restrictions imposed on them by the existing chaotic situation, both in the home, at work and in the total built environment.


I have in mind something I wrote in Archigram 2 which I believe points out my own personal attitude and which I am certain carries through into the attitudes of the other members of the group. I said then: “Our first concern is for the people, the users of our buildings, building is a serious business, we are creating a situation for people, an ever present environment, to live, sleep, work play and move in, and our concern for them should be real. Slogans are not enough, we need humility, a deep sense of responsibility, a capacity for studying and understanding human needs, association and behaviour and above all an ability to interpret our findings into building.”


Again I think the whole of the Living City Exhibition was directed towards a concern for the individual, the group, and for total community. Those of you who are conversant with this exhibition may recall the artificial environment we threw up, and the “Gloops”, the various sections it was split up in, demonstrate the concern we have with people as the fundamental reason for acting at all. The sections were concerned with “Man”, “Man’s Survival”, “Crowd”, “Communication”, “Movement”, “Place”, and “Situation”. Selecting one of these, I wrote, regarding “Situation” Gloop: “Situation is concerned with environmental changes and activity within the city context, giving characteristics to defined areas. Important in this is the precept of situation as an ideas generator in creating a truly living city. Cities should generate, reflect and activate life, their structure organised to precipitate life and movement. Situation, the happenings within spaces in the city, the transient throw-away world of people, the passing presence of cars etc., are as important, possibly more important than the built environment, the built demarcation of space. Situation can be caused by a single individual, by groups or a crowd, their particular purpose, occupation, movement and direction”.


This is in fact a follow on from our thinking related to the South Bank Scheme where the original basic concept was to produce an anonymous pile, subservient to a series of pedestrian walkways, a sort of Mappin Terrace for people instead of goats.


So once again the pedestrian, the gregarious nature of people and their movement was uppermost in mind, and the built demarcation of space used to channel and direct pedestrian patterns of movement.


In an attempt to get closer to the general public, to study their attitudes and behaviour, we have extended ourselves beyond the narrow boundaries of conventional architectural thought, causing the misconceptions about what we are trying to do. Take the space comic imagery that appeared in Archigram 4, we extended the conventional barriers to find people without any formal architectural training producing concepts showing a marked intuitive grasp of current attitudes related to city images and the rest. In the world of science fiction we dig out prophetic information regarding geodesic nets, pneumatic tubes and plastic domes and bubbles.


If we turn to the back pages of the popular press we find ads for do-it-yourself living room extensions, or instant garage kits. Lets face it, we can no longer turn away from the hard fact that everyone in the community has latent creative instincts and that our role will eventually be to direct these into some tangible and acceptable form. The present gulf between people, between the community and the designer, may well be eventually bridged by the do-it-yourself interchangeable kit of parts.


In a technological society more people will play an active part in determining their own individual environment. There will be more and more contributors involved in self determining a way of life. We can not expect to take this fundamental right out of their hands and go on treating them as cultural and creative morons. We must tackle it from the other end in a positive way. The inherent qualities of mass production for a consumer orientated society are those of repetition and standardisation, but parts can be changeable or interchangeable dependent on individual needs and preferences and, given a world market, economically feasible.


In the States one can select a car, consisting of a whole series of interchangeable options, as Reyner Banham has pointed out in his article on “Clip-on Architecture”, Chevrolet produce a choice of seventeen bodies and five different engines.


The current success of pop-music is to an extent due to the importance of audience participation, the “Frug” and the “Jerk” are self expressive and free-forming. The pop groups themselves closer in dress and habits, including musical dexterity, to the audience. Despite pop-music becoming a vast industry its success depends on its ability to keep up with the pace of its consumer taste.


This brings us to the research done as part of the Plug-in City programme on capsule housing. The fundamental idea, here, is again related by a freely developing system towards personal choice and selection by the consumer. An attitude more closely related to product design than to architecture, the dwelling is treated as an industrial designer’s object, each capsule custom selected and built with components, appliances, finishes, sizes, colours etc., selected from a catalogue of parts, in the same way one selects a car or a refrigerator.


Of course the idea of mass produced expendable component dwellings is not new we are all familiar with Corb’s [Le Corbusier] efforts in collaboration with [Jean] Prové, and with Prové’s own bits and pieces, with [Buckminster] Fuller’s Dymaxion house, the Phelps Dodge Dymaxion bathroom and the Dymaxion deployment unit, Alison and Peter Smithson’s House of the Future, at the Ideal Home Exhibition of 1955, Lionel Schein’s prefabricated Hotel units and the Monsanto Plastic House in Disneyland. There has also been work done by the Metabolist Group in Japan and of course our own Arthur Quarmby. If you look at the latest issue of Archigram you will also find work carried out on prefabricated houses at the close of World War II in my article on the Forties.


My Plug-in Capsule Home is an attempt to sustain the idea, in the hope that some brave soul might eventually be persuaded to finance research and development.


The techniques of mass production and automation are a reality yet we see the research that goes into, and the products that come out of, today’s building industry in the field of industrialised building, measuring to the same standard and apeing the same appearance as traditionally constructed and designed building and are dismayed.


The Plug-in Capsule attempts to set new standards and find an appropriate image for an assembly line produced product.


The design criteria are in correct order to consumer requirements.


Firstly, a better consumer product, offering something better than and different from, traditional housing, more closely related to the design of cars and refrigerators than placing itself in direct competition with tradition.


Secondly, units should be capable of quantity production, and capable of absorbing and adapting to the dictates of production and the nature of the material used, in this case plastics. Although eventually this hit and miss element in our designing will disappear, replaced by a problem solving method directly related to the plastics industry.


Another important aspect is that of handle-ability both of component parts and of the total product, for assembling components together in the factory, for transporting the total product to the site and for hoisting and placing it into position in the cradle structure.


A further consideration was for planned obsolescence in terms of total life, materials selected and cost, and here I interpret cost as meaning value for money. Planned obsolescence relates to life expectancy and a hierarchy of expendability of the various components of the dwelling, clip on wall units, removable floor trays, domestic appliances and bathroom and kitchen capsules. This means also expendability related to growth and change in the family unit, change in relation to increased technical know-how and its effect on appliances and materials and more important size (witness the growing miniaturisation of everything, pocket transistors, portable T.V. sets, Mini cars etc.). Finally obsolescence taking into account change in affluence, living standards and with it an increased expendability rate in terms of fashion.


Finally I would like to assure everyone that we are not monsters. We are not trying to make houses look like cars, cities like oil refineries, and even if we seem to be, this is certainly not the intention.


Although this analogous imagery is very strong at this moment in time, it will, we contend, eventually be digested into a creative system, so that eventually a positive approach will emerge naturally.


The pop imagery, the hardware of other disciplines so vital to us, must contain vital information that is of use to us in determining the way we employ our creative talents. We are conscious that any analogy between say the motor car industry and the building industry is suspect, and a dangerous one, yet it has become necessary to extend ourselves into such disciplines in order to discover an appropriate language pertinent to the present day situation.


To quote myself again, and for the last time, in writing in the Living City document, I said: “In this the second half of the twentieth century, the old idols are crumbling, the old precepts strangely irrelevant, the old dogmas no longer valid. We are in pursuit of an idea, a new vernacular, something to stand alongside the space capsules, computers, and throw away packages of an atomic/electronic age.”


Warren Chalk

November 1965