AAP Interview with Michael Webb by William Menking at the ICA

William Menking
Michael, when did you enter, or become a part of, Archigram? Do you remember the year, or the circumstances? We asked Peter [Cook] if it was a real group, or just a group of friends working on a project together. Can you think back?

Michael Webb
I think I was an 'Archigrammer' right from the age of five! I realized then my thoughts and my attitude towards architecture. I drew a lot when I was young, and I think you could class those drawings as early-Archigram. I physically met Peter, I remember, at a party – in Aberdale Gardens? – and he was a shocking dark-haired young man, just having met and married Hazel Farrell, the painter. I think it was a question of kindred spirits. Peter had seen my drawings of the Furniture Factory published, and the Sin Palace. He was always interested in meeting people who were doing rather strange things. I think what interested him the most was that he likes strange things more than things which specifically related to Archigram or its ideas. For instance, in the first Archigram – if I remember rightly – there was a project by an AA student who was very interested in the medieval world, to the point of obsession and he published cowsheds: Andrew Anderson, I think his name was. He did rather strange Gothic-type buildings. And because he was an odd man out at the AA [Architectural Association], Peter was interested in him. Peter still has the same attitude, and I think that is amazing.

William Menking
He has just started 'CRAB'. Do you know what that is? It’s his new firm.

Michael Webb
Immediately my mind tries to re-assemble the acronym to something ruder. I can imagine other architects teaming up with others which would make certain other words when flushed out, but I suppose we shouldn't get vulgar here …

William Menking
What about your own contributions to Archigram? What do you feel your contribution was from the very beginning? Peter has already described what he thought he did within the group. But what do you think your role was? Beyond being different and odd, or course!

Michael Webb
That’s a good question because it takes a lot of thought to answer. I have to think back about the thoughts I had before I met the others. And I have to think about the impact that Cedric Price had on my thinking.

William Menking
Had you known Cedric Price before?

Michael Webb
No, no – he didn't come on the scene ‘til most of us had met up.

William Menking
So after this first meeting with Peter, you heard about him after that?

Michael Webb
Exactly: I think I'd heard about him, and David [Greene] had mentioned him as this strange young guy who was impossible to be with. I remember listening to a seminar he was conducting with students at the AA about his Potteries Think-Belt project, and that’s how I got to know Cedric. I think maybe the thoughts and ideas and concepts associated with Archigram were somehow in the air, and inside my poor diseased brain, and somehow it took meeting with the others to bring them out. But whether that’s really the case, I don’t know. Did I just jump onto the bandwagon with the ideas the others were producing? It’s hard to say – from all those years ago – who did what. So it’s hard to define one’s own contribution.

William Menking
What about your influences beyond Cedric, early on. Who were they?

Michael Webb
Oh, I think there were many – and perhaps when there is an influence does it become a rip-off becomes a question too. The first two projects that I did, which would be the Furniture Factory [and Sin Palace], evidently the influence was Frederic Kiesler and his ‘endless house’.

William Menking
Is that something you see today, now, when you look at it, or did you realize it earlier?

Michael Webb
No, I think it was apparent, even then. But there was a group of us doing that sort of architecture. The Furniture Factory was a student project, done in the 4th Year. There was another chap called John Davison who produced a very similar building to mine, only with the skeleton removed which was holding it up.

William Menking
What if Peter had selected him to become a member of Archigram instead?

Michael Webb
I've often asked myself that question! John Davison, I don't know what happened to him. He was quite brilliant. He was devout, a religious man. I suspect somehow he must have given up architecture.

William Menking
What would you have done if you weren't selected for Archigram?

Michael Webb
Good question!

William Menking
Forget good question … we need some answers here!!

Michael Webb
Indeed! I once talked to David about that. Peter is the brains behind Archigram; if there was no Peter, there would have been no Archigram. I often wonder what if. Would I have gone into an office, and become an office drudge, and really hated it?

William Menking
But what if it was the period, the 1960s? Well, you never have worked in an office.

Michael Webb
Oh yes, I have! I worked for six years in an office in England.

William Menking
So you could have stayed in an office, but you didn't. You decided to pursue the solitary career and academia.

Michael Webb
Yes, well, I enjoyed teaching. But I think the main reason for teaching was that it was supporting the habit. I could earn some money teaching and then go home and work on my little drawings. Which is what I have done since the age of five onwards – and I see my adult life as a continuation of childhood.

William Menking
Those six years in an office, were they like a holding pattern … just an in-between stage?

Michael Webb
Yes, they weren't very happy actually.

William Menking
I can't imagine you in an office!

Michael Webb
Well, that’s what usually the bosses would say just before they were about to fire me. They would say: ‘We can't really imagine you working here - we think your talents would be better off elsewhere’.

William Menking
At home, in your own office?

Michael Webb
Yes exactly!

William Menking
Do you think that going off to America – obviously you have family there, so those constraints were present – but do you think it was like a desire to pull away from the Archigram group? You are still a member of the group, even now, and you still communicate with them. But you are the one who is the furthest away. Was that on purpose?

Michael Webb
Yes! I remember reading a phrase uttered by Mies Van de Rohe, or another ‘master’ of the early Modern Movement, which said: 'Nothing grows while in the shadow of a big tree'. And I thought of Peter and Ron [Herron] and everyone else as big trees back then, and somehow I felt I would be squashed if I stayed here. Gosh, this is certainly personal stuff …

William Menking
Yes, I'm psychoanalysing you here! But you also wanted to work individually, surely. That’s your style – to go off and just work on your own, by yourself. So it makes sense to have some distance to do that.

Michael Webb
Yes, but there is something I feel too. I was very shy at the time, and still am. I felt somehow that Peter and Ron were cutting me out. I think David did feel that too. Have you interviewed David yet?

William Menking
No.

Michael Webb
I remember, for example, that Ron and Peter were working in an office overlooking Paddington Station. I was visiting them at one point, and I remember somehow feeling that I was being eased out. Rather than confront them about it, I ran away. I thought: ‘I can do this stuff that I love doing; I don't really have to be there’. So I felt that I would grow better in America.

William Menking
There was also the optimism of America back then, which I know we have talked about (although you say that you don't share the same feelings today, particularly about the politics). You felt like there were kindred spirits there in the USA: that they were interested in the future, or whatever. I can't imagine you moving to France or Italy!

Michael Webb
That’s right. I think we looked to America, and what we saw was based on what we had read and the architectural works which were becoming familiar. I was looking at [Louis] Kahn and his Philadelphia Plan, where you have circular towers and the street is wrapped up within the towers – hence the Sin Palace, I have to admit. We were seeing what was happening in America – of course [Buckminster] Fuller and [Konrad] Wachsmann – and we were thinking about mobile homes and drive-in movie theatres and how exciting the potential for all this was, without realizing that for most Americans (which we did once we got to America) that they thought that this stuff was the butt-end of civilization: you only lived in a mobile home if you couldn't afford a big pad or a Federal-style house. So a mobile home was just seen as a starter house over there, and they assumed they would graduate up to owning a ‘real’ house. They didn't see that it was an interesting way to live or an interesting response for people who needed to be moving around all of the time. And so there was something of disappointment once we got there, but our belief of course was never very real anyway. A closer examination of America from afar would have revealed that most Americans actually weren't like that. So our idea was based on a myth of American mobility.

And then to live through the age of Post-Modernism, which took place wholeheartedly over there, was quite tough. I am going to say tomorrow, in my little twenty-minute talk, about an idea which I conceived some time ago, contemporaneously with John Hedjuk. It was for a Ferris wheel whose axis would be centered on the plane of the ground – so that half of your orbit would be down through the underworld, and then up again. Looking back on one’s life, one can see this same wheel of fashion; half the time you are in the underworld, and then you come into the sunlight. Post-Modernism was certainly an underground period for architecture. And thanks to you in part, Bill, by bringing Archigram back to America through the exhibition, the wheel has rotated again.

William Menking
So we are back in the sunlight now?

Michael Webb
Yes, but maybe we are about to plunge back into the underworld … who knows!

William Menking
What is it about the project that you – or John Hejduk – created during that period?

Michael Webb
Well, just in a metaphorical sense it is interesting: the sense of being under the ground, and then above.

William Menking
What do you think about the books which are now coming out about Archigram? Simon Sadler has written a book, and there are a couple of PhD students in Princeton doing them. What do you think about them? Have they got it all wrong? Indeed, have you read them?

Michael Webb
I've started Simon Sadler's book, but I am afraid to say it is too close to home. It is very difficult to read that stuff. I feel the same with my own writings, especially when they have been printed and it is too late to change them. So I never make a point of reading them: it’s too painful!

William Menking
It is a very common experience! Do you feel that same way about your drawings?

Michael Webb
Yes, well, if they are beautifully reproduced, then I would feel fine about it.

William Menking
But don't you always feel like you need to change them?

Michael Webb
Absolutely - I like to tinker with them!

William Menking
For instance, those 1969 drawings that you still go back to once in a while …

Michael Webb
Yes, I think it’s a sort of personal vanity. But I can't bear those early drawings representing what I can do, because for me they seem so crude and clumsy that I have to go back and redo them, to rewrite them. Just last week I was putting on another wash of oil paint on one of them.

William Menking
Which one?

Michael Webb
It was the Cushicle drawing. Or is that just my brain drying up? It is said that everyone has one good idea – and the richness of that idea either enables someone to keep going with it all their lives, and still find strength and richness in it, or else it dies pretty quickly.

William Menking
Well, what about adding this new wash. Did it change it somehow?

Michael Webb
It changed not the idea, but the execution. Again, I am vain; I am a virtuoso. I want people to look at one of my old paintings and say: ‘God that is beautiful. How on earth did you do it?’ I don't mind admitting that. And when I depart and shuffle off, then you will all say: ‘My, he was only 18: how did he do it?' And I just love doing it when I put on that thin wash of colour, and the richness of the painting visibly grows when I do it.

William Menking
This is one of the things that Peter said. He wishes that people would just look at the Archigram things; just look at the drawings, and write about that. He mentioned a 35-degree angle of escalators with a 6ft overhang, which is the way an actual real escalator is drawn. He used the example of French [experimental architectural] drawings where everything looked totally unbuildable. He was making the point that Dennis [Crompton] has always made: if you can draw it, then you should be able to build it. Peter felt that all of the Archigram stuff was buildable, which is not often what you hear about Archigram. Do you feel the same way about your drawings?

Michael Webb
Oh yes, my projects took a great deal of technological study. This is the thing: when you draw a very complex project, there is the stage of the original drawing and then you do the working out in detail. But then the working out in detail makes you rethink the basic nature of the project. So then you have to do another presentation-type drawing, and I suppose you could say it then reveals the new subtleties of the project at the stage it is now at. And this process goes on …

William Menking
Well, normally architecture drawings are supposed to be a phase of getting something built. You execute this working drawing so someone can fabricate it on a site. But in your case, you want them to look at it and think it is a brilliant drawing.

Michael Webb
Yes, in terms of execution. What I would say is, OK, with this drawing I will now produce the drawings necessary to fabricate it. And the doing of those drawings makes one see the project in a different light: the detail provokes one to be thinking about the overall. The new detail you are developing alters the whole bay, and so changes everything.

William Menking
And this is why you are changing your drawings all the time?

Michael Webb
I guess so.

William Menking
You might be looking at a detail you might not have seen. What provokes you to re-draw the Cushicle project in particular?

Michael Webb
I thought it had never been drawn adequately, in the absence of a good model. Because the one in the Archigram show – and it’s my own fault – is not a good model. It’s very difficult to make a model for Cushicle because it is difficult to find something which represents an inflatable material at a small scale. So any beauty the project might have has to come out in the drawings.

William Menking
You can replicate a balloon in a drawing, but not a model?

Michael Webb
Yes, exactly. In fact, you can make a super balloon in a drawing, better than it is in actual reality. But I want to say something else about Archigram. I think there were two strains of thought running through the group. One was represented by Peter, Ron and Dennis, and it more happily thought about actual buildings: hence Ron built the Imagination Building and Peter built the Graz Museum. The other half of the group’s work was represented by Warren [Chalk], David and myself, and was geared towards the destruction or the elimination of architecture. Therefore, it is difficult for us to build if there is a doubt for us whether we need the building there anyway. I give you the example of the modern museum, which those enjoying the summit for them up there – Zaha [Hadid], 'Danny Boy' [Libeskind], etc. – all doing these exotic museums, refreshingly free of tedious issues like program, etc. But we couldn't do that. Based on what we have said in the past, it would be very difficult, if we were asked to do a museum, to make it look like how we would want it to look like. I would find it very difficult to accept the commission, although I might do it … But based on my beliefs, my writings and my sayings it would be very difficult to do so – unless I really undertook a study of, say, the impact of what Walter Benjamin wrote about in his article 'Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. If you have read that article, how can you do a conventional museum?

And is what appears on the web-page now as important, if not more important, than the building which the artwork is housed in? I am very interested in all that. I am interested in the fact you can get a very high-resolution image of the Mona Lisa on the web, but if you go to look at it you only see it through bullet-proof glass looking over people's shoulders. So it’s about being in the ‘aura’ of the painting; the difference is you are actually there. But with such thoughts, if you were given the commission for a museum, with no program, then you would do your own version of Zaha or Danny. You couldn't do crazy tilted shapes like that without bringing your own something which is unique to you. But in the end it would be just another building. I think that the big phrase of the other half of the Archigram group – Warren, David and myself – is that: 'It’s just a building'. And therefore there is something suspect about it.

William Menking
I have never heard you say before, about the three of you, that your work was about destruction of buildings. Is that something you have felt for a long time?

Michael Webb
Oh yes, David too, because he once did what he called a moratorium on all new architecture. The strange thing is he was going for tenure at the time at Westminster University. I thought wonderful, if they find out about that article, it’s like saying: ‘I'm going to be a doctor but I don't believe in treating people!’ If he doesn't believe in architecture, then why is the guy teaching it?

William Menking
You also sort of believe in architecture, but you’re trying to destroy it.

Michael Webb
Well, yes, but David is actually asking whether we need any of the stuff. The piece that I am doing tomorrow – why I am mentioning it twice, it’s because it is in my head at the moment – is about Buckminster Fuller, who proposed, or rather was appalled by, the fact that office buildings were full during the day and they empty again at night, and yet they were being heated and cooled throughout the night. So why not let other people move in at night and the office workers move back in the morning? One can see the problems there, and some of them are quite humorous, I think. But then that’s the issue of design: how you make the conversion between one type of space and another, but it doesn't involve a new building. That would eliminate lots of apartment buildings.

William Menking
Well, that is everyone's dream now, right? It’s called 'live/work' …

Michael Webb
Especially for Americans, maybe, since they work harder than anyone else.

William Menking
Yes, we eat lunch at our computers!

Michael Webb
That’s right! So in a way the computer station becomes a restaurant. But the impact of that is immense, because you would use the current buildings you have more efficiently. In a way that was Cedric's view, too. Our debt to Cedric is quite large. The Potteries Think-Belt used old railways as a means of getting around with your little one-unit building.

William Menking
Today, in some ways his project seems so quaint because our cities are so gentrified. Do you think Cedric was trying to destroy architecture too?

Michael Webb
Good question. I wonder about Cedric, and myself and Warren: suppose there was an assumption about oneself, reluctantly and unwillingly, that one wasn't really intended to be designer. So would you then develop a philosophy of architecture where you didn't need to design?

I was talking to Mark Wigley, who put on an exhibition at Columbia [University] of Cedric's work which was mounted in quite a deadpan fashion – which is actually the way Cedric would have done it.

William Menking
Deadpan: in what kind of way?

Michael Webb
Nothing spectacular: just good, honest, simple, no nonsense. Rather nice bits of magnet holding the drawings in the corners, I remember. Quite simple and quickly done: nothing baroque, you could say about it

William Menking
Which is also different to the way MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] would show his work, making all his little objects look like works of art.

Michael Webb
Yes, I guess, which would have been very much against Cedric's wishes. Didn't he just have an exhibition in Grand Central [Station] where all the drawings were done on paper napkins from coffee shops?

William Menking
And he wanted to knock down one of his buildings when they wanted to landmark it. He said: ‘Don't save it!’

Michael Webb
Yes, the Camden Town [sic Kentish Town] building.

William Menking
He said: 'Don't save it - it’s not meant to last!'

Michael Webb
Isn't that wonderful? Can you imagine an architect going along and saying, actually, please tear down my building!

William Menking
What about the influence you have as a teacher, an artist, a renderer, on your students? Do you see any of your influence in other people's work? What about in Diller & Scofidio’s work? You used to teach with them. So what about their Slow House project?

Michael Webb
It’s possible, because we used to talk together about perspective projection. One question I had about the Slow House was about the curved nature of it; when you went up to the front door, you saw the building behind sweeping round where it was, as indeed it was a square pyramid lying on its side bent round in half, a quarter circle. If it was a straight pyramid, that would mean that when your lines of sight were the extension of the junction line between the roof and the walls, coming back to your eyes, then you would just see the front door and nothing behind. I thought of that one evening when I was watching Candid Camera on television. One of the tricks there was that there was a street with an empty lot on it, and there was a new postman. They took the empty lot and constructed a front door on its own with a letterbox in the middle. What would the postman make of it, I thought? The Slow House might be like that, and if there is a connection there then it is very subtle and not at all obvious. I think the Slow House project is terrific, although I can also see what is wrong with it. In terms of a house as a walk-through sculpture, it is unbeatable. A house usually implies something that you come to a halt in. But there you keep going right through it and out the big window at the end to complete the process. I think the drawings are sensational.

William Menking
You said that Rem [Koolhaas] and Zaha were worried about the kind of things you weren't worried about, just so they could build? So if they were worried about changing things all the time, like you do, then would they never build a building?

Michael Webb
They don't have a background of really questioning, in a very basic way, the whole business of being an architect. David and I have doubts about the needs the client has when he comes to us – and if he does come to us, is it for the right reason? But architects like Rem and Zaha are happy to deal with what the client wants, and also the clients that they have know exactly what they are going to get. They have denied that difficult early stage, and it is very nice if you can get to that position. I also think that what David and I can offer is something that can't be executed at a level that can be produced by the traditional architect. The Drive-In House requires the highway complex, architects, car designers, etc …

William Menking
Could you build your own house?

Michael Webb
I hope to! But the house I'd really love to build is the Drive-In House. Even last night at Dennis's flat I was doing a drawing for it. It is so complex, though, because the architectural design has to be done with the same degree of finish as the car.

William Menking
How would you do that? In a factory?

Michael Webb
Well, you could do it, but you would have to have the car industry working along with you, because the resources you require are so great.

William Menking
Could you perhaps take one car, tear it apart, and fabricate it from that?

Michael Webb
Wasn’t there that guy who died recently who did that? He took apart sports cars and then put them back together again. He would have been someone wonderful to work with, because he knew all the technology of how to put something together, and for the Drive-In House you would need someone with his sensibility.

William Menking
Let’s go back to talking about your contribution to Archigram.

Michael Webb
I think, through the drawings I did, that hopefully they had an effect on the others in the group. I did the Rent-A-Wall drawing quite early on. I think the original is quite a crude drawing, with its use of big lettering, but I think that influenced some of the others. The Cushicle too, I guess, because Ron did the Electronic Tomato a bit later on: that one had connections with the Cushicle project.

William Menking
But in addition to the drawings, your ideas must have been important. Did you feel like you were doing these things and it was coming from Michael Webb, or it was part of Archigram? Were you doing these things to fit into the Archigram spirit?

Michael Webb
Oh no, it was entirely me! But at the same time it was part of a conversation with Peter or whoever else would see it. It all became like a drawn conversation. He would then do a drawing back, and I would see it as a non-verbal response.

William Menking
You talked about this other group within Archigram: you, Warren and David. Did you all have conversations too?

Michael Webb
Yes, but mostly with David. I feel closest to him in terms of my architectural sensibility.

William Menking
What is it about him?

Michael Webb
He is very approachable!

William Menking
Did you ever see the piece he did called ‘Talking to Mike’?

Michael Webb
Yes, but I have not really thought about it or studied it, though. David was very open to me and honest about himself, which I later came to realize was a method of reducing expectations. If you say how awful your work is, then other people will say: ‘Oh no, it's not so bad!’ There is a guy who taught in Vienna, part of Haus-Rucker. I once went out with him to visit his house. All the way out there in his high-speed Mercedes he was telling me what a shitty house he has got. We would drive past a little old hut: is it like that, I would ask? Oh no, mine is far more ruinous, he would reply. Then it turns out to be a big medieval castle that you have to drive through a huge arch to get to it. David is a bit like that with his delightful self-deprecation, which makes him very easy to talk to. If I tried to talk about my innermost thoughts, architecturally, to Peter, he would just make some joke. But David and Warren would always think about what one has just said.

William Menking
When he became a professor at Westminster, he actually gave his talk when he was leaving, or retiring, rather than when he first joined. It was at the end of his formal professorship!

Michael Webb
If you make your speech on the way out, then you can afford to be more bitchy. And also I can't help thinking: ‘What will Peter say when he hears this!’ Peter's views matter, of course.

William Menking
Peter always says: ‘Michael is a genius.’ He understands that you need to work on your own. You used the group as a touchstone, and David is like that too. Peter thinks you are all very different, and that’s why Archigram worked.

Michael Webb
That was Peter's genius, perhaps, in choosing us to be members of Archigram. I remember at the beginning when the group could have had a totally different consistency. It might easily have been Timothy Tinker or other people. Peter organized tea parties or gatherings where many people turned up to them.

I find it interesting – and this is not putting Peter down or anything – but I can talk to David in a way I can't talk to Peter. Peter would always make a joke or start playing his [imaginary] French horn because he thinks I was getting pompous or something. I am a great admirer of his because to do the Graz Museum, to get any building off the ground, and especially one like that, is incredible. I can't claim to have done it myself.

William Menking
When the ship comes in you are going to design this house for yourself!

Michael Webb
Well, there is a guy near me who wants to do a house as a commercial enterprise, to sell it on. He wants it to be very modern. But then his view of something modern is very different to mine. But it’s what I always felt about Archigram too. I have a feeling that the drawings are so beautiful and sensual. When I look at them now, or in the reproductions, the architecture in those drawings has fairly solid principles. You can see a bit of Wachsmann, a bit of Fuller, but it is all so dressed up in wonderful 1960s colours that one is enchanted. Take the Montreal Tower, for instance: you can see a bucket-full of those. I must confess I don't think that the Montreal project is entirely understood geometrically, and wouldn't work.

William Menking
What other Archigram projects were you really taken by?

Michael Webb
One that Ron did for a house design as a computer game, such as you might get in an arcade. The drawing you can shift parts around in, just as you would in the computer game. I think it was a competition that he did for the ‘House of the Year’ in that Japanese magazine.

William Menking
It sounds like a project that came out of Sim City, a real computer game …

Michael Webb
Well, that was something added into the Sin Palace, actually! Because what happened was that Priscilla Chapman was going to publish, in the Sunday Times colour magazine in 1964, my Sin Palace project. Just when everything was ready, she saw Cedric Price's Fun Palace and I think she was tempted to dump it for that. So when she rang me up, I began selling it more by saying: 'Look, I've got bits that move around!' It was mine which ended up published, though. I changed it at the last minute!

But anyway, I thought that was a lovely drawing of Ron's. I love the idea of operating a drawing with controls and things. What other Archigram projects are of interest? Most of Ron's drawings I think are amazing. I don't find the content of them so wonderful, but the execution of them is great. Sometimes he seems to be placing layers of the drawing beneath the top surface, and so the top surface is fragmented and you look behind to the underneath surface. Look at the Monte Carlo scheme: the idea behind that is better than the execution. There is something about those professionally made models which just doesn't convey the idea. Those are the memorable projects, and some of David's work too.

William Menking
Over the past years you have had a rather strange relationship with Archigram. You seem to get sick of talking about it. You’re doing your own work, and so you'd rather talk about that than stuff done 40 years ago. Are you still sick of it?

Michael Webb
I think this interview can be a bit of a mea culpa, I feel, since it is a fact that I did very little drawing in those later Archigram years. You can see that in the Sadler book. There was a lot of me in the beginning, and it gets progressively less.

William Menking
Well, you left to go to the States...

Michael Webb
But I've been making up for that hiatus in recent years by making the contribution that I didn't then. I’m making it now, with anger at myself for not having taken off sooner, because I still have a lot to say. I work constantly now. I resent the amount of teaching I have to do, just to survive. Although I do love teaching, I resent being away from the drawing board. And that’s another thing: students have forgotten how to draw!