PRINT October 1998


Fashion folks like Tom Ford and Muccia Prada aren’t the only design predators these days mining the ’60s and ’70s. Look inside virtually any current design publication—Elle Decor, Wallpaper*, even House Beautiful—and you’re sure to encounter spreads showcasing shag carpeting, Lucite chairs, and lava lamps. High architecture culture has jumped on the bandwagon as well; recent exhibitions in New York like “Achille Castiglione: Design!” at MoMA, “Utopie’s Inflatables: The Inflatable Moment” at the Architectural League, and “Shiro Kuramata” at the Grey Gallery all take a retrospective glance at the recent past. However, in the case of another show, “Archigram: Experimental Architecture, 1961–74,” looking back is looking forward. Mounted at the Thread Waxing Space in New York last spring and currently traveling in the US, these startling drawings and models not only recapture a vital moment in ’60s English architecture but compel us to think about the future of the discipline—forcing us, in fact, to consider whether it has become a thing of the past.

Archigram was christened in 1961, when a group of dissident British neophyte architects—Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Mike Webb—joined forces to produce an alternative architectural broadsheet as a venue for their drawings and collages. In keeping with their enthusiasm for the immediacy of information-age electronics, they called the new publication Archigram, liking the title’s association with “telegram” and “aerogramme.” When critics like Reyner Banham began referring to the work of the Archigram Group, the name stuck and this architectural collaboration was born.

Archigram’s agenda was to inaugurate a “new generation of architecture” that at once developed and critiqued Modernist precepts. Like the group’s Modernist forebears, the members of Archigram were careful readers of culture, their work shaped by the question of how architecture could keep pace with and respond to social change. But Archigram differed from mainstream Modernists on one fundamental count that had far-reaching implications for their practice: they wholeheartedly embraced what many of their countercultural contemporaries shunned—postwar consumer culture.

Archigram’s vision of technology in particular was framed through mass culture; they updated the Modernist’s love of mechanics with a James Bond–like fascination for (some might say fetishization of) electronic gadgetry. Projects like Living 1990 incorporate inflatable beds, hoverchairs, and robots, all run by a Master Control panel—sophisticated boy-toys that put Hugh Hefner’s bachelor pads to shame. Archigram was even more enthusiastic over vehicles than their Modernist predecessors, treating these mass-market products not merely as models for architecture but literally as architecture. If Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was as efficient as the car parked in the front drive, Mike Webb’s Drive-in Housing goes one step farther, literally merging car and building into a single hybrid structure.

Popular culture registers in other ways as well. Warren Chalk’s 1963 prize-winning competition entry for Montreal Tower shares affinities with the architecture of NASA control stations; even its manner of graphic presentation (Ben-day dots with slogans reading “Zoom . . . into a pop-up world”) is indebted to comic books filtered through the eyes of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and James Rosenquist. Later drawings by Ron Herron from 1969–70 shamelessly employ photomontage, air brush, and psychedelic pattern/graphic techniques borrowed from Milton Glaser–designed album covers.

Archigram’s most radical innovations, however, were inspired by their ambition to create an architecture that did not so much capture the look of consumer capitalism as obey its logic. “The prepackaged frozen lunch is more important than Palladio,” quipped Peter Cook in 1967. The most memorable projects take as a point of departure merchandising concepts like expandability, planned obsolescence, and consumer choice—principles that rocked the very foundations of a profession grounded in notions of permanence and good taste. These spirited proposals obsessively investigate the question posed by Cook: “What happens if the whole urban environment can be programmed and structured for change?” Rather than increased profits, Archigram’s vision of a throwaway architecture was fueled by the promise of personal freedom. Acknowledging the precarious state of modern subjectivity was a source not of consternation but of celebration. The group’s ideal client—sadly, they never realized a single building—was a modern nomad, always on the move.

Archigram’s earlier and perhaps most renowned projects, created in the first years of the ’60s, facilitate this itinerant lifestyle through vast visionary proposals for alternative cities. Reversing the normal hierarchy, Archigram was more interested in infrastructure than rooms, and they were one of the first to reveal the service elements—structure, utilities, and mechanical systems—that architects normally conceal. Projects like Plug-in City envision vast sprawling mega-structures, giant skeletal frames that accept prefab removable dwelling units (modeled after NASA space capsules) hoisted into position by giant rooftop cranes. In one of the great drawings of modern architecture, Walking City New York, 1964, Ron Herron pushes the idea of mobility to the hilt: forty-story anthropomorphic buildings equipped with telescoping legs literally move across the landscape.

Of course, these visionary proposals were riddled with contradictions: the infrastructure becomes obsolete just as rapidly as the capsule units it supports; the megastructures were every bit as monumental and totalizing as the static buildings they were meant to replace. Archigram’s optimistic embrace of consumer capitalism and consumer choice was naive at best—seemingly unaffected by the ideological critiques launched by their contemporaries that outlined capitalism’s amazing capacity to shape rather than merely respond to desire.

Nevertheless, Archigram’s earlier visionary images were and continue to be enormously influential. Infiltrating the architectural unconscious, they generated numerous built spin-offs, from the megastructures of the Japanese Metabolists produced in the ’60s to the High-Tech structures still being erected today by such established architects as Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, and Richard Rogers. Evidently, all that goes around comes around. Just take a look at Rem Koolhaas’ urban propositions in S,M,L,XL, or Piano’s Kansai Airport, a mile-long shed built on a man-made island off Osaka. Archigram’s notion of thinking big about infrastructure is back.

Like them or not as buildable propositions, the renderings produced during the first half of Archigram’s short-lived career are unquestionably bold and sexy. Yet for all the originality of the early images, the group’s later, less celebrated proposals focusing on software rather than hardware are perhaps more prescient as far as contemporary architectural concerns go. Although created long before the invention of today’s sophisticated computer-modeling programs, these hand-drawn images of the late ’60s and early ’70s anticipate one of the central issues facing contemporary architectural practice: the enormous impact of digital technologies and global information systems on the body, space, and human interaction.

Take Mike Webb’s extraordinary series of drawings for the Cushicle, an inflatable body suit containing food, water supply, radio, and miniature projection television (a concept that would resurface in David Greene’s Inflatable Suit-Home of 1968). Collapsing the distinctions between body, clothing, media, and shelter, these projects enable the modern nomad to satisfy his or her every whim unencumbered by the material restrictions of traditional architecture. In the Instant City projects of 1969–70, Archigram shifted their concerns from buildings to “events,” wedding their ongoing interest in electronically aided responsive environments to a newfound enthusiasm for rock festivals. Here the architect-cum-promoter discards bricks and mortar in favor of an assembly of both low- and high-tech components—helium balloons and holographic projection screens, airships and audio-visual systems—that can be temporarily erected for staged events. Intended to render obsolete the categories of capital and province, these roving metropoles (hybrids between a rock concert and a teach-in) graft themselves onto local communities, planting progressive ideas before packing up and moving on. In an attempt to approximate the fleeting, fast-moving quality of electronically generated imagery, Archigram’s later projects become increasingly dematerialized, relying less on traditional tectonics to realize their dream of a spontaneous and constantly changing architecture.

Perhaps reflecting the late-’60s counterculture’s growing disillusionment with technoculture, understood largely as a destructive force in the age of the Vietnam War and the ecology movement, Archigram’s final projects culminate in the complete evisceration of architecture. In David Greene’s Bottery of 1969, a working class “Joe,” fishing pole in hand, enjoys an afternoon in the country by plugging his portable TV into the nearest “Logplug.” In this “cybernetic forest,” an updated version of the traditional English garden, all vestiges of traditional building have been replaced by invisible networks of information.

In tracing the evolution of Archigram’s attitude to media and technology, a trajectory that led from grandiose megastructures to modest interventions, we come face-to-face with the same thorny question the group precociously grappled with more than twenty-five years ago: What impact will the advent of new technologies—specifically, media and digital information systems—have on architecture? Not surprisingly, some responses to this question today share an uncanny affinity with those first visualized in Archigram’s own projects. Many practicing architects perpetuate Archigram’s early optimism about the promise of new technology, especially in its capacity to revolutionize building design. The work of Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman are only two examples that show how computers allow for the description and fabrication of complex new forms never before possible. Electronically generated images are for some contemporary architects what the I-beam was for Mies; Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel wrap their facades in skins composed of digital displays reminiscent of Archigram collages.

By contrast, others maintain that while the consequences of new technologies on culture are enormous, their actual impact on the future design of the built environment will be insignificant—more a matter of rewiring existing structures than inventing new ones. According to this skeptical view, the products of the electronic revolution are fundamentally different from those mechanical artifacts that inspired the first Modernists to fashion a new architectural vocabulary; immaterial bits of information generated by invisible signals do not constitute promising raw material for the invention of new architectural forms. Still others, taking this argument to its logical extreme, reach a conclusion similar to the one illustrated by Archigram’s last project. These naysayers predict computers will ultimately put the profession of architecture as we know it out of business, facilitating new forms of social interaction that no longer require traditional architectural support. (An anecdote recounted by David Greene in the prologue to the exhibition catalogue wittily sums up this point of view: if a person on the street using a mobile phone tells you he or she is going to the office, “on no account say, ‘But you are already in your office.’ ”) Following in Archigram’s footsteps, architects must radically rethink their roles and identities, shifting their sights from actual to virtual space.

Will the information revolution revitalize or kill the architectural profession? It’s hard to imagine that an exhibition as upbeat as this one can ultimately provoke such a timely and unsettling issue, but that is precisely its genius. At first glance, it might seem paradoxical that Archigram’s visionary images, for all their anticipation of the impact of digital technology on architecture, were so lovingly handcrafted (one highlight of the show, Mike Webb’s exquisite pencil drawing of an escalator, brings to mind Leonardo’s architectural sketchbooks). But perhaps this discrepancy between content and technique is in keeping with the spirit of Archigram, yet another example of built-in obsolescence.