Essay by Warren Chalk. First published in Forum, October 1966

Two apparently unconnected news items hit the headlines in Great Britain this summer: the first concerned a strong-arm bid to take over Radio City, a ‘pirate station’ broadcasting non-stop pop music from a wartime anti-aircraft fort, outside territorial waters in the Thames Estuary; the second item concerned some oil rigs out in the North Sea, which had made natural gas strikes large enough ot change the face of Britain. Although of no apparent connection, together these news items contributed a fresh flush of enthusiasm to a small band of young British architectural hopefuls concerned with predicting patterns of the future.


The ack-ack forts in the Thames Estuary are relics of World War II; they bristled with anti-aircraft guns and radar equipment, as early-warning stations against hostile aircraft or invasion fleets. One of the stations, the ‘Shivering Sands Fort’ off Whitstable, Kent, is now occupied by pirate Radio City, a commercial station that pipes round-the-clock pop music and commercials to an estimated 25 million regular listeners. This June saw an attempted commando-style raid, the fort invaded and its transmitters silenced for several days. Then followed news that the pirate pop-radio chief had been shot, and that a full-scale inquiry had been launched by Scotland Yard. Questions in Parliament led to a new Government anti-pirate bill being published which may silence the transmitters for good.


The natural gas finds in the North Sea, which could help substantially to make the British economy more stable, might at the same time produce a visual disaster area similar to the US coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. The oil rigs used in these gas strikes, however, such as the ICI’s and Burma Oil’s ‘Ocean Prince’ or the monster ‘Sea Quest’, British Petroleum’s semisubmersible drilling barge, have a close hybrid structural and visual affinity with the Thames forts and with certain architectural projects for cities of the future.


Symbolism and reality are in a sense interconnected, the bridge between them serves to support a new visionary understanding of what architecture might become. A view from this bridge provides a glimpse of a physical world of architecture subservient to the media it supports, and refocuses the work and doctrines of the Modern Movement in terms of the transient nature of life in this century.


As in the instance of the Thames forts, where one medium gave place to another, where apparatus of war at one moment in time was later thrown out and replaced by pop-music transmitters – so, in the fabric of future cities, the ‘architecture’ can be conceived as an adaptable megasystem cradling a continually changing range of media. And suddenly the medium is seen to be more important. Architecture will no longer be concerned with individual buildings or groups of buildings, but with forming a permissive environment that is capable of any configuration according to circumstances.


Just as important is the realisation that with the culture explosion brought about by mass production, advertising, throwaway packaging, etc., as well as the widening of horizons due to space and underwater explorations, architects and designers themselves will change. They will eventually have to reorient themselves, ease out from under the traditional role, and accept the new phenomena in order to survive.


Unforeseen by the founders of modern architecture, ignored or feared by the large mainstream of contemporary architectural thought, but recognised by those outside that mainstream – these space-age commodities will be instantly absorbed and understood, taken for granted even, by younger generations. The world of architecture will eventually move away from the idea of buildings as something fixed, monumental, great and edifying, into a situation where buildings take their rightful place among the hardware of the world. Then architects as presently known will cease to exist, and a very different kind of animal will emerge, embracing science, art and technology in a complex overview. Established disciplinary boundaries will be removed and we will come closer to the all-at-once world of Marshall McLuhan.


The far-out research is happening now and must be studied and understood if we are, eventually, to produce an architecture that recognises the technological implications of our time. Young architects in Britain, who have no first-hand experience of space or underwater programmes, look to whatever hardware is available to them for indications of a future. If the Thames forts and oil rigs are seen, not as isolated facts, but as a confirmation of our attitudes, then our analogies become less suspect. These sea structures have a deep significance to us, as pointers to the shifting nature of architecture and environment: at a purely visual level, this marine hardware parallels the Archigram Group’s work on projects such as ‘Plug-in City’, ‘Walking City’ and ‘Underwater City’. The same tube connectors, the use of the diagonal, the linking of nodal points, an understanding of the language of mobility, making sense of technological know-how without destroying the characteristics of sea and sky, land and space – all these are evident here. The unselfconscious process of marine engineering and its attendant economy of conception are similar in spirit to the plug-in concept.


When you trace the implications further afield, a companion an also be drawn with the work of the Metabolists of Japan, Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Plan, Kiyonori Kikutake’s Marine Civilisation and the spatial constructions of Arata Isozaki. A number of the Metabolist projects are concerned with ocean cities as extension of land or as floating offshore islands. Possibly, Tange’s Tokyo Bay proposal is the most familiar: it is one of the finest essays in offshore marine settlements.


This said, Tange’s project none the less fails to exploit the full potential of a marine settlement, and is still very much a land-based organisation with movement systems. Oceanographers have long realised the untapped sources of wealth to be found in the sea and under the sea bed. Underwater resources appear fantastic, a storehouse for harvesting petroleum, natural gas, minerals and sulphate; even gold and diamonds are to be found, and commercial fish-farming is a theoretical possibility.


These activities will give rise, eventually, to on-surface and undersea marine settlements as unexceptional communities. The notion of manned undersea communities arises directly from research carried out by Professor John Scott Haldane in 1906, and the continuing experiments by such men as Auguste Piccard, Sir Robert H. Davis, Edwin A. Link (the inventor of the Link Trainer for simulated flight conditions), George F. Bond and Commander Jacquess-Yves Cousteau.


These men and others have been responsible for the development of numerous underwater inventions and hardware including the aqualung, the SPID (submerged portable inflatable dwelling), various deep-submergence rsearch craft, underwater houses and laboratories.


Buckminster Fuller’s observation that the space capsule is the first completely designed human environment may finally apply also to undersea conditioned environments. Environmental control in a sea settlement could be designed to the ultimate, with televisual communications links and ‘artificial gill’ air supply. Recent developments in undersea and surface craft, such as the Westinghouse Deepstar deep-submergence craft and the SRNI Hovercraft (or imilar Ground Effect Machine) , could form transportation links with land.


A recent issue of Esquire magazine showed an aquarium for people, designed as an underwater house by Corning Glass Works: a glass bubble capable of travelling six miles down into the sea attached to a surface saucer-home with solar batteries embedded in its roof to provide electricitry. This suggests that besides the great commercial implications of marine cities there also may be an equal leisure potential – a potential that may make the line, ‘We all live in a yellow submarine’, more prophetic than teven the Beatles imagined.


In the current preoccupational climate of mass-produced capsule dwellings, one of the principal constraints has been the bulk restriction discipline implosed by existing road, rail and shipping transportation regulations governing the size of objects in transit from factory to site. This inevitably swung opinion in favour of on-site assembly kit ideals as opposed to a complete factory-assembled product. However recent developments in Russia and the United States with helicopter transporters could well lead to increased development in the other direction. The Buckminster Fuller helilift, so long with us, may soon be due for revision.