Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (University of Chicago Press) and the forthcoming Tidewrack (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
It’s easy to see the controversial group’s influence in left field architecture from High-Tech to Blobism 50 years later, but it’s easier still to see it in emerging technologies and the way we interact with them.
A giant city crawls across the land like an insect. Airships drop cultural attractions onto unsuspecting villages. A hovercraft expands into an inflatable settlement. These visions, sparked by sci-fi novels and comic books, belonged to the collective Archigram, which existed from 1961 to 1974.
Even in a semi-mythic 1960s London in thrall to glamour, psychedelia, and “the white heat of [technological] revolution” espoused by the Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Archigram was controversial. Derided for their futuristic frivolity as much as they were admired at the time, half a century later, Archigram prophesied the future in ways they may not have even fully foreseen.
Archigram can be seen as part of several trends that influence metropolitan life to this day. One was the Pop Art movement, where color, dynamism, fashion, and disposability were presented in graphics as understated as a passing billboard. Pop Art was bold and blatant. Yet there was always a hint of ambiguity whether the artists were celebrating consumer culture or satirizing it, allowing them to appear as outsiders even while ensconced on the inside. Archigram followed in the wake of British art pioneers like Eduardo Paolozzi, who were fascinated by mass production while still trying to meaningfully merge the personal with the technological.
They emerged in an age of provocative and performative avant-garde architecture groups like Superstudio and Ant Farm. They shared several traits with their contemporaries such as a vaguely countercultural sensibility, an interest in nomadism, and debts to visionary predecessors like Buckminster Fuller and Bruno Taut. One crucial difference with other groups of the time was that Archigram didn’t rail against modernity so much as they wished to accelerate it. They acted against what they saw as a tediously conservative environment, not because of radical political sentiments, but because of the inability of art and architecture to keep pace with the products, lifestyles, and machinery that were already part of daily life. The age of Dan Dare, Revolver, and Carnaby Street required more than many of their dogmatic traditionalist and Brutalist contemporaries were offering. “We are seeking the living city,” they claimed, not palaces or concrete hulks.
There’s a temptation to suppose that Archigram was speaking metaphorically or satirically. Ron Herron’s Walking City (1964) could be a thought-provoking inquiry about the increasing mobility of our lives as “traveler-workers” as one rendering suggests, or how cities rely on outside resources and the surrounding environment.
Sometimes, however, a Walking City is just a Walking City. Reading their publication Archigram 5 (the “Metropolis Issue”), the sincerity is striking. A sense of fun and dystopian provocation certainly permeates the visuals but the texts are full of erudite references to predecessors like Antonio Sant'Elia and Tony Garnier, contemporaries like the Japanese Metabolists, and boundary-pushing architecture like the movable rocket support structures at Cape Kennedy. In the issue, they ask questions such as, “Are cities still necessary?” and examine the flaws in metropolises that have outlived their original functions. Their desire to provoke was ultimately successful.
If their spray housing and anti-gravity pads failed to arouse indignation, then their statements would. “Architecture is probably a hoax…” Warren Chalk once wrote to fellow Archigram member David Greene, “an attempt to rationalize the irrational.” Their playful incitements functioned, as Peter Cook described it, as “a search for ways out from the stagnation of the architectural scene.” Unfortunately, the extravagance of their propositions and the resistance they met obscured the fact that the questions they were asking were valuable and are still largely unanswered.
Archigram’s perceived tendency towards anti-architecture brought many of the same criticisms of indulgence that anti-artists like Fluxus faced at the time. On hearing the group had won a commission, an unnamed architect was quoted in the Architect’s Journal September 1970 issue, “So it’s goodbye to all that plug-in crap, now Archigram have to design a real building like all the rest of us.”
Much of the derision came not just from their outlandish concoctions or declarations, but from a view that they’d dodged the risks and responsibilities that came with building actual buildings. Though progressive, Archigram avoided directly committing to the social initiatives of the time, with Peter Cook celebrating the This is Tomorrow exhibition for exorcising “themselves of the morality of ‘people’s architecture,’” The proliferation of female pin-ups as scalies in their renderings did little for their credibility. At the same time, Cook denied their work lacked a social conscience. “We are not politically overdeveloped as a group,” he said, “but there is a kind of emancipatory drive behind most of our schemes.”
Searching through their archives, it’s apparent that Archigram did indeed locate the city of the future, implicitly rather than explicitly. This began, it seems, with Cook’s Come and Go Project in 1963, which imagined a city as an integrated network of services and communications. This led to Cook’s hugely-ambitious Plug-In City (1964). This contained many well-worn science-fiction ideas; some of which have been adopted universally (escalators) or survive as retrofuturistic relics (monorails).
While the design appears like a vast Meccano set of cranes and scaffolding, it was built on a sound consideration of urban obsolescence. Changes over time render different aspects of cities (bathrooms, workplaces, shops) redundant at different rates. The Plug-In City could adapt by removing and replacing components. The structures would be computer-controlled; an idea adapted by Dennis Crompton in his Computer City Project (1964), which was a “speculative proposal for a computer system detecting and facilitating patterns of activity amongst a ‘city’ area of 100,000 people.” Their collective aim was to see “what happens if the whole urban environment can be programmed and structured for change.” What they anticipated was today’s Smart City in the early 1960s.
While a high-tech city like Songdo in South Korea has a much more recognizable skyline than the perpetual building site of the Plug-In City, there are distinct parallels with energy, transport, and waste being synchronized “ubiquitously” via pipes, cables, sensors,less and circuit boards. Songdo seems to fulfill Cook’s ambition of “using the electronic summoning potential, [to make] the whole thing responsive on the day to day scale.” There is little sense in either, however, that the Smart City might be the hackable city. For all its anarchic appeal, those who operate the infrastructure of the Plug-In City would be the new masters, whether officially or illegally.
The ability of a city to change, in space and time, was at the center of Archigram’s work. They were influenced by many forms of temporary architecture from big-top tents to the space program. They called their work “anti-heroic” because they rejected the egotism of architecture that aimed for eternity. They had learned this from their compatriot Cedric Price, who was both an architect and a member of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors, as well as the much earlier Futurists but rejected the destructive philistinism associated with the Italian group. For all their assertions that previous generations should not impose redundancy upon those of the future, Archigram was not averse to preservation, declaring in Archigram 3, “We shall not bulldoze Westminster Abbey.”
Change was simply an inevitability that too many ignored. It was also unfairly denigrated, “Fashion is a dirty word, so is temporary, so is flashy,” Archigram contended in Living Arts Magazine, “Yet it is the creation of those things that are necessarily fashionable, temporary or flashy that has more to do with the vitality of cities than ‘monument buildings.’” Archigram’s much-overlooked egalitarianism dealt with people as they actually were and not as they ought to be. They would uncover what the population wanted and would give it to them, however glitzy and garish. This chimed with their contemporaries Venturi and Scott Brown’s studies of oft-dismissed architecture seen in Las Vegas. While not strictly postmodern (even at their most surreal, there was always an emphasis on utility and underlying systems), Archigram clearly took Venturi’s “less is a bore” belief to a maximalist conclusion.
The move from citizen to consumer would be a costly one. Warren Chalk’s definition of “housing as a consumer product” and Archigram #3’s desire to move “towards throwaway architecture” required abundance. It was also predicated on a culture of expendability that not only potentially diminished the idea of home but would produce boundless waste. “The prepackaged frozen lunch is more important than Palladio,” Cook declared in Perspecta, a statement that might be true but was more an indictment of an age than a celebration. The environmental awakening taking place globally during the group’s existence would mean that sustainability and resilience would be focus of the future, not expendability. If the Walking City was a symbol of the future, it might be the city as a parasite draining the earth dry.
It would be unfair, however, to claim the group were ignorant of environmental issues. A certain degree of recycling is implied throughout. They pursued a synthesis of urban and rural that would be sympathetic to both, and to the inhabitants. What this looked like varied, with Peter Cook’s Hedgerow Villages and Crater Cities attempting to smuggle metropolitan areas into the unspoiled countryside through concealment. Furthermore, as potentially damaging as their reliance on plastics was, they recognized that consumption was pushing society towards the brink; humanity “is on the precipice of really realizing [its] potential or passing out of existence completely.”
With its focus on transformation and utility, Archigram can be seen as pioneers of modular architecture. Again, they stuck closely to people’s desires and behaviors. Commonplace structures of housing were simply too rigid to enrich modern life. People’s needs in terms of space changed dramatically with the birth of a child, the urge to be alone or to study, or the desire to simply throw a party. In response, Archigram’s Living 1990 designs for the Weekend Telegraph predicted furniture that could inflate and deflate when needed, with robotically operated screens for privacy. Walls moved. Floors became hard or soft depending on the required function. Houses would become expressions of the owner’s wishes rather than obstacles. “In the past, the indulgence of the mind and intellect (as applied to artifacts) was the privilege of the rich...” ran the editorial of Archigram #8, “it is now reasonable to treat buildings as consumer products and the real justification of consumer products is that they are the direct expression of the freedom to choose.”
This democratic imperative was a step towards the liberating technology that might allow everyone to one day be an architect or at least an interior designer. However, it should be remembered that “the privilege of the rich” that Archigram sought to spread had resulted in at least as many follies as architectural glories.
For all their fixation on cities, it’s arguable that Archigram’s work was actually more suited to the wilderness. Their wearable architecture from the suitaloon to the cushicle, their living-pods and air-habs seem designed for areas with extreme conditions: fire shelters, Antarctic bases, Alpine huts, and emergency sanctuaries after natural disasters. In less dramatic situations, the uses still focused on seasonal refuges. There was an acknowledgement of this when Peter Cook suggested his Blow-out Village “can be used everywhere to rehouse people hit by disaster, for workmen in remote areas, and as fun resorts sited permanently or seasonally at the seaside and near festivals.” The plan for their Plug-In City to span the English Channel on a network of stilts, craneways and hovercraft stations reveals a fascination with unconventional architecture like Maunsell Forts, oil rigs, and Kenzo Tange's 1960 plan for Tokyo Bay. But the results seem more inclined to resemble the industrial platform city of Neft Daşları on the Caspian Sea rather than Venice, Queen of the Adriatic. When we encounter a city that is moved in real-life, it tends to be a collapsing mining settlement like the Swedish Arctic town of Kiruna.
Within the cityscapes of today, we might see descendants of Archigram’s designs in so-called parasitic architecture on rooftops, shipping-container structures, prefab skyscrapers, or temporary refuges for the homeless, but a certain utopianism seems lost with such stopgaps. The most radical feature in their “Free Time Node Trailer Cage” (1967) is not the multi-story parking garage-esque structure or the modified camper vans, but rather the proposal of a 2-to-3 day workweek. The mutual fascination between Archigram and the Metabolists encouraged both in pod schemes, which are now often regarded as an intriguing dead-end. Though the likes of the remarkable Nakagin Capsule Tower failed to inspire generations of buildings, the idea has not gone away from the “social network with a physical address” of PodShare in Los Angeles to the distinctly dystopian “coffin homes” of Hong Kong. Comparing these to Archigram reveals a sense of individual dignity contained in the group’s housing plans that is easily missed and all too-often absent today.
Archigram was genuinely ahead of its time was in the virtual realm and its interactions with the physical world. Their Oslo Soft Scene Monitor (1968) looks strikingly like an arcade machine cabinet while Ron Herron’s MANZAK (1969) seems to anticipate both smartphones and Amazon:
Tired of supermarket shopping? […] MANZAK is our latest idea for a radio-controlled, battery-powered electric automation. It has on board logic, optical range finder, TV camera, and magic eye bump detectors. All the sensory equipment information retrieval, and for performing tasks. Direct your business operations, do the shopping, hunt or fish, or just enjoy electronic instamatic voyeurism, from the comfort of your own home.
At times, it appears as if they wanted to build a physical internet. In their Plug-In University Node, we find a “center from which information is piped.” Even their absurdist Instant City (1968-70), a blimp that would bring metropolitan culture to supposedly deprived rural communities, has some semblance of the need to disseminate culture remotely. Inspired by Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace,” they took this further towards what would become the internet with their rokplugs and logplugs:
Plugs will increase the services to these communities and they will be workplaces, schools, universities, libraries, theatres, unencumbered by buildings, they build themselves conveniently when they are wished for. The whole of London or New York will be available in the world’s leafy hollows, deserts, and flowered meadows.
The merging of virtual space and cityscapes that we see increasingly arriving with Augmented Reality can be discerned in Archigram slogans and ideas like “50 percent personalized environment.” One of the services that would emerge from the Instant City airship was Ron Herron’s Holographic Scene Setter, which would allow “the holographic projection of environments.” This joined Herron’s Enviro-Pill which proposed inducing imaginary architecture in the mind and was followed by Cook’s Room of 1000 Delights the following year. The thinking was not just to create spaces to escape to but to use them to improve reality. “We shall really get somewhere when it has all cooled off a little, and hard[ware] and soft[ware] become relative to each other rather than in opposition,” the editorial of Archigram #8 anticipated before warning, “Systems are not a panacea. They have a necessary place in the evolution of intelligence.” But Archigram suggest it is human evolution and intelligence that are the crucial factors.
One of the lasting criticisms leveled at Archigram is itself prophetic; they raised the immediate eye-catching image above everything else and helped usher in the visual age that followed. Even their supporter Reyner Banham admitted they were “short on theory, long on draftsmanship and craftsmanship. They’re in the image business.”
It’s unjust to blame the group for the memes, unbuildable phantom projects, and publicity-seeking architectural brands of today. The practice has long been there in architecture and often has an important role, clearing conceptual space for what technology might eventually enable. It raises public engagement and encourages collaborations and development. “Draw the object and you can discuss it; you can then change and develop it. Make it better,” as Peter Cook writes in Perspecta, volume 11. Cook went on to assure that, though Archigram’s dedication to change was central, there was always a concern for the inhabitants at its heart:
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 [...] 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 saving grace of Archigram is not that they fueled a thousand hare-brained pavilions or impossible renderings, but that—when looking at how cities might evolve—they thought firstly of the wants of the citizens and did so without a snobbish disdain for entertainment, gadgetry, comfort, escapism, or style.
It’s easy to see their influence in left field architecture from High-tech to Blobism but it’s easier still, and more rewarding, to see it in emerging technologies and the way we interact with them. The human aspect was never forgotten. You’re reading this, after all, on a medium—handheld or otherwise—Archigram anticipated the need and desire for. No one said prophets have to be entirely accurate or virtuous; just as no one said architecture needs to be boring.