Three members of the ‘60s collective talk to author Darran Anderson about postmodernism, metabolism, their values, and watching the world catch up to them.
Fifty years later, Archigram’s designs still dazzle and perplex.
The ideas and designs of the avant-garde architecture collective embody the kaleidoscopic verve and style of 1960s London, with occasional diversions to Japan, the West Coast of the U.S., and even the wilderness. Gazing through the lavish and authoritative collection Archigram: The Book (Circa Press), there’s a sense of examining what the future used to be. Yet Archigram reveal themselves to be remarkably prescient, with echoes of their work all around us, from the buildings on city skylines to the medium through which these very words are being read.
Speaking to the trio of surviving members Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, and David Greene in London (a fourth, Michael Webb, lives in the U.S.), there’s an immediate sense of how the personalities and dynamics might have worked within the group. Particularly evident is a sense of contrast and balance between the ebullient Cook and the stoical Greene, and a wider sense of the fantastical being balanced with the critical. It’s a quality partly acknowledged by the pair. The third member, Dennis Crompton, is a meticulous archivist and methodical thinker who collected, kept, processed, and edited the vast number of projects in the book. The sheer amount of work involved is apparent when he compares the detailed reproduction of Archigram’s Instant City with the original—a large, day-glo-like painting on the wall. No detail is missed and, over the course of the entire treasure trove of the book, the result is overwhelming.
Casting the members of Archigram into roles seems redundant, however. While each naturally had their own ideas, skills, and inclinations, it was the interactive nature of the group that brought them into the world. It’s possible to attribute certain projects to individuals (Warren Chalk’s Underwater City and Ron Herron’s iconoclastic Walking City, for example) but this gives little indication of how overlapping the concepts and their formations were.
In a recent Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) talk, the group self-deprecatingly downplayed their place in the Swinging London set, “We had to queue for The Beatles like everyone else,” said Cook. “I knew George Best,” Crompton interjected. But the idea that Archigram was a period piece with psychedelic collages, populated by gadget-wearing fashion models cut out of style magazines and Sunday supplements misses what was beneath the surface. Many of the ideas of what once might have looked like an LSD-tinted Happening really did end up happening in the decades that followed. Their ideas of connectivity, plugging in, and remotely accessing information and culture anticipated the internet; their architectural designs influenced the likes of Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Future Systems, and entire movements like High-Tech and Postmodernism. Indeed, descendants of their designs are still emerging via smart cities, modular architecture, as well as ephemeral augmented and virtual reality environments.
At the time—and still among some in architecture and architecture criticism circles—Archigram were bêtes noires. Derision and dismissal came from dour traditionalists and progressive elements alike. Some took their provocations at face value as Pythonesque pranksters. Others carried a righteous suspicion of pluralism in architecture, especially for designs that went beyond the utilitarian. Archigram’s ideas were depicted as frivolous and indulgent and the fact that their plans went unbuilt were signs of delinquent cop-outs instead of conceptual trailblazing. Crompton, for one, brushes off the unbuilt issue, claiming most of the designs could have been built and were designed to cif there had been the kind of audacity Victorian engineers were allowed to display in an earlier Britain.
Yet the very factors for which Archigram were criticized—viral imagery, a merging of architecture and technology, the inclusion of fashion, entertainment, escapism, and other elements of people’s lives deemed unworthy of serious attention—seem to have endeared them to younger generations of designers. They’ve offered a colorful, radically optimistic alternative to the false dichotomy of Brutalism versus Georgian Revivalism.
Easily missed, with the eye-catching sci-fi visuals and absence of sackcloth-and-ashes ideological piety, is the political dimension to Archigram’s work. They were left-leaning by admission and there’s a consistent thread of humanism through almost all their projects. Existing not long after postwar rationing, austerity, and ruin, Archigram were swept up by the heady promise of giving people what they wanted. At the heart of this was not a money-making scheme but a sense of expanding realms in which to be free, whether psychological or geographical. The group recalled the now deceased Chalk’s view that the metropolis was a cacophony of events, experienced differently by each person. The aim was how they could best facilitate that. It’s a pluralism that still seems an intoxicating—if elusive—prospect, and the selling of consumer goods has provided fairly insubstantial versions for those who can afford it. Perhaps the most questionable aspect of Archigram’s work and legacy is the lack of a postscript that critically examines how the fledgling smart cities and capsule accommodation they proposed might have played out in real life.
While Archigram’s projects chime with other futuristic British creations (Skylon, Paolozzi’s art, Dan Dare, Cedric Price’s Fun Palace), there is a surprising breadth to the group that reached beyond the island’s shores. Alerted via architecture magazines, they connected reciprocally with like-minded groups such as the Japanese Metabolists and the Viennese avant garde such as Coop Himmelb(l)au and Haus-Rucker-Co. Aside from common interests in everything cellular and modular, what seems to unite these maverick groups was a sense of being outside the prevailing strands of architecture. Archigram’s intention was not the demolition of the past but a reimagining of its neglected aspects. They were not anti-Modernism so much as they recognized there were other Modernisms that had been overlooked or airbrushed out of existence.
Archigram: The Book definitively documents ephemeral projects and a group that seems to have continually embraced change. Their designs were fluid and adaptative. They acknowledged obsolescence and the view that architecture that was too static would result in static lives for its occupants. Below, my conversation with them:
Darran Anderson: I’m interested in how the group dynamics of Archigram fed into the work. There’s a sense of the fantastical being anchored somewhat by the critical. I get the impression that’s still there in your relationships with one another.
Peter Cook: Yes, David [Greene] worries more, and I mean that respectfully. I just fucking get on with it.
David Greene: Without Peter’s influence, I may have disappeared in a lake of doubt […] Peter wouldn’t mind me saying so, but his sense of pleasure and joy needed to be balanced against a sense of despair and, particularly, doubt. I see doubt as an important part of the project. Peter might disagree with me.
Cook: We were six very different people but we had respect for the bees in each other’s bonnet.
Anderson: Where did the graphic quality come from? I see traces of Pop Art in there, Paolozzi...
Cook: Three of the six of us came from art school or rather art and architectural school backgrounds. There’s an essential difference there. In the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, the art schools were where it was all happening. Pop music, Pop Art, graphic design, our wing of architecture; all were born in the art schools. Many people said the AA [the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London] resembled an art school. I think that’s important. That’s where the cheerful, optimistic, “anything is possible” attitude came from. That was where the UK’s cultural territory was at that time.
Anderson: What was it like outside that world?
Cook: It must’ve been rather dreary out there. A lot of the architecture being built certainly was dreary. Rather like it is now.
Anderson: There is a sense, looking back, that you stood out not only from traditionalists but the monochrome of Brutalism at the time, in terms of color but also the incorporation of fashion, entertainment, escapism, etc. Elements of life that were seen as frivolous…
Cook: I’m not sure where the color came from. Art schools, I suspect. Monochrome was associated with caution. Over-seriousness. To be self-critical, the seaside-frolicking side [of Archigram] can be seen as dangerously picturesque. The British have a tendency to be slightly embarrassing when not being completely straight. “Cheerful” was our watchword, though. The implication was, “This will upset them.” We never said who “they” were but we knew damn well.
Greene: I loved Brutalism but we were a shift from the Brutalist project to something less fixed, stern, puritanical if you like, though I am rather puritanical, as opposed to Peter.
Anderson: Archigram’s influence on High-Tech and other styles is often cited but one of the most prescient aspects has been how immersed in technology we’ve become. In the book, there are many examples (MANZAK, the Plug-In City, the Come and Go Project) of proto-Smart Cities, Augmented Reality, virtual environments and so on. Has reality caught up?
Greene: Well, we never anticipated the cordless revolution. We always thought there had to be an umbilical cord.
Cook: We didn’t predict how nonchalant technology would be. How it would appear formless and incorporated. We always had wires.
Anderson: Did you sense a vacuum waiting to be filled?
Cook: I think we were intrigued by odd little things that you picked up hints about.
Anderson: In the case of your Computer City, Dennis, it could be argued, for good and ill, that we’ve arrived there.
Crompton: In a sense, we are sitting in the network that I drew. The whole world is. It just isn’t being applied sufficiently to urban projects. It’s very sensitive. It knows well enough where I am, via signals, at any time, to around three meters or whatever it may be. Eventually, all building components will know who they are and where they are. They’ll report back to the urban system about their current condition, as you get with certain sensitive structures. Or those little household robots that we use to say, “We want to see the latest action movie,” I’d like one where you could say, “I’d like this room to be circular,” and the room would reconfigure itself.
Anderson: At the same time, Archigram have seemed unreceptive to claims that what you were doing was utopian.
Cook: If you look at the designs, sometimes the drawings are quite straightforward… diagrams, elevations, just architecture, really. But the proposition starts to be a bit naughty. A point I keep making to anyone who cares to listen is that we were aware of a lineage of historical avant-garde groups, particularly in Germany around Bruno Taut. He was fascinating. Taut was a committed guy, undertaking extremely considered socialist housing, but he also speculated on all manner of things. A lot of avant-garde projects were coming out of France at the time of Archigram and they were not very interested in how you would actually get onto a platform, or how steep the stairwells were, or whether there were any loos. I think we couldn’t help but put handrails in because they were meant to be buildings. It wasn’t consciously utopian at all. It was based on fairly middlebrow, socialist North European conditions. And we did some buildings for that, that strayed off the norm.
Anderson: It was small ‘p’ political then, in the sense of focusing on what people wanted?
Greene: There was almost a naïve acceptance of the values of consumerism, which at the time seemed great; this was going to be the world. The downside of that has, of course, been revealed.
Cook: It was consumer focused. We enjoyed the idea of availability, exchangeability, and expendability. It should be out there for grabs and to be enjoyed. I’m fascinated by how people misuse buildings.
My interest has always been in the vocabulary of architecture. There is a British puritan streak where you’re not supposed to care about aesthetics but I overtly enjoy what things look like. And there are a lot more things that it can look like than it what looks like. We’re working in much too narrow a territory and the key seems to be to expand the vocabulary of what is possible and what is exchangeable. The buildings I’ve built are quite consistent but consistent, I suppose, in being shocking. They’re bright blue, or have stripes, or whatever. Surely, there are legitimate colors for buildings beyond just grey or biscuit brick.
Anderson: Broadening the vocabulary of architecture means absorbing elements then from overlooked parts of the built environment and engineering...
Cook: A hovercraft gets incorporated as a constituent piece of the apparatus. An airship. A jetpack. A lunar module. I feel then as now the vocabulary of architecture is far too limited. We’re still messing around with bits of stone, slabs, solid walls.
Crompton: What we suffered for, at that time, was that it was all seen as a particular style. Critics ignored, for example, one set of drawings by Peter with domestic components where they could be Tudorbethan or Oriental, whatever you want. It wasn’t about the style. The Space Program reinforced our ideas, as did the work of someone like Christiaan Barnard who was developing heart transplants at the time. He had to work out not just one element but whole systems. By the end of the ‘60s, if not on a city-level, I believe we’d worked out how to build responsive buildings. We were experimenting in order to bridge what was not possible and what might become possible.
Anderson: The desire to expand the vocabulary of architecture led beyond the shores of Britain…
Cook: We somehow got our hands on copies of Japan Architect, as well as L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui and d. That led to us contacting and working with Isozaki who literally introduced us to others in Japan at the time of Metabolism. Vienna too, with Coop Himmelb(l)au and Hollein. The West Coast. There was an Archigram network, I suppose. We were always interested in other people coming along and doing things.
Anderson: Thinking about depth as well as breadth, where did Archigram place itself in terms of architectural history?
Greene: I thought the exciting revolutionary aspects of Modernism had completely evaporated. All the promise that you had with Russian Constructivism or Suprematism had been lost. A generation of architects like Basil Spence diluted Modernism. Some of the first architects who tried to rescue that were the Smithsons. They tried to inject a real presence into the modern project, didn’t they? But they must have hated us.
Anderson: So it wasn’t being anti-Modernist so much as being part of another Modernism?
Cook: I find myself very attracted to the German Expressionist position. I think that was purged out. The white streamlined Bauhaus architecture took over and that other work was pushed aside. I think Gropius and Mies were clever operators. Did you ever notice Walter Gropius always had someone very talented next to him? I’m interested in the other Gropius, the other Mies. Not the skyscrapers but the Glass Chain, the Barcelona Pavilion.
To go even further beyond, one thing that’s occurred to me very recently is that a lot of Archigram was strangely Victorian, perhaps more so than Modernist. My generation were brought up to be Modernist and what I build is late-Modernism in a certain way but, actually, one’s instincts might’ve been more understood in Victorian times where they gleaned stuff from all over. They reproduced foliage in iron and they decorated and shaped and placed funny turrets on corners and enjoyed going around the corner. And I don’t just mean the British. I find myself very attracted by Art Nouveau and enjoy going to cities where that’s prevalent, not just the extremes of Gaudi but the more northern, tough, old buildings.
Anderson: Is the attraction the way architecture, engineering, and technology seem to overlap in Victorian structures?
Cook: Partly, but they also enjoyed simply doing a doorway. It would sort of grin at you and stick out. They enjoyed it rather than being mimsy. Interiors were enjoyed. They made interior elevations that were elevations. Something to look at and savor.
Anderson: How did the comic book element come about?
Cook: Warren did a lot of work on Archigram 4. He and I would go out to the markets every lunchtime looking for American comics and dig through piles of stuff to find material that had architectural qualities. And some of these buildings would look like the German Expressionists who wrote in the Glass Chain; crystal palaces and that sort of thing. Warren told me the Daily Planet building in Superman was based on a real building the artist worked beside [the precise building is a matter of some debate]. I was always fascinated by that; art imitating life imitating art.
Anderson: Change seems to be key to Archigram’s work. The idea that static architecture would lead to static lives. The idea that buildings have different lifespans. It’s not an idea most architects are comfortable with and yet we see it everywhere. Archigram, by contrast, were interested in the modular.
Cook: You can watch a city metamorphose before your eyes now. I’ve been interested in the tyranny of the window for instance. How I wish there could be more buildings that go from transparent to translucent to solid always imperceptibly, which is perfectly possible, technically, but people are not presented with it. The Japanese were onto it for a long time, with notions of a clear window and then an opaque. I’m interested in those tectonics. What more could we do with doors and corners and surfaces? The skin of a building isn’t really where it begins and ends. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be window or not window but something else.
Anderson: Are you interested in nanoarchitecture then?
Cook: I don’t have the technological know-how but friends of mine are working on that—biomorphic architecture, buildings that are growing, I’m very interested in what these young people are doing, carrying on the flame. Imagine if the Art Nouveau designers had computers, what they would have done. They didn’t do badly without one.
Anderson: With 3D printing, could we see a resurrection of architectural ornament after the Modernists supposedly killed it off?
Cook: Oh yes but also impregnating architecture that will start doing things beyond human control, eating, burping, and god knows what.
Anderson: Do you think Archigram went against Christopher Wren’s assertion that “Architecture aims for eternity”?
Greene: I wonder if the purpose of architecture could actually be to be a point of stasis in an ever-changing world. A fixed point. Yes, we know everything changes. Television sets last five years, a phone is out of date in two years, but perhaps architecture is a stable point against that.
Why either/or though? Why not both/and? Part of architecture should be permanence and stasis and the resistance to change that the cathedral has, and the rest might allow rapid and easy change. That was implicit in Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. I don’t think people realized that. If I was Bill Gates, I’d build a Fun Palace and see how it freely evolved, how people put it to use. We’re interested in the possibilities of architecture and its limitations, but not many people try it, so why not give it a shot?