The rule-breaking rock stars of architecture keep their influence burning as brightly as ever
Archigram was the closest architecture ever got to being in a rock band. It was not a conventional practice, nor was it merely six individuals who happened to produce a magazine together. They were a group and their creativity came from the chemistry between them. In proper rock group fashion, each member had a readily discernible character. There was Peter Cook, the de-facto leader: gregarious, optimistic, suspicious of theory. Ron Herron: technically brilliant, a superb draughtsman, a bit blokeish. David Greene: pessimistic, shy and an eerily prescient thinker. Mike Webb: the one who went to America, inventor of ‘Bowellism’ and obsessed with cars and geometry. Dennis Crompton: the producer, the behind-the-scenes boffin, the non-performing Terry Gilliam one. And then there was Warren Chalk, the eldest, the most enigmatic and the first of the gang to die.
This luxurious new book from Circa Press reproduces the content of all nine issues of Archigram (nine a half if you count a final, not publicly-distributed one) in order.
There is a story in The Village That Died For England, Patrick Wright’s sprawling history of Tyneham (and much else) in Dorset in which Warren Chalk makes a brief cameo appearance. Tutoring at the AA in the early 1970s, Chalk brought a bunch of his students down to Dorset on a field trip. Wright describes him rocking up at a small rural pub, like Richard E Grant in Withnail and I, all sheepskin coat, long hair and moustache, ostentatiously ordering double whiskies.
A group that rejected conventional practice has become an unavoidable part of the establishment
Archigram’s continuing allure revolves around this kind of louche behaviour, of being outside the usual constraints of practice and of never playing by the rules. It didn’t do any bad building because it didn’t really do any buildings at all. Its entire built output consists – aside from a few exhibition installations – of a playground in Milton Keynes and Rod Stewart’s swimming pool. Nothing seemingly remains of either.
Its big breakthrough project – a casino complex in Monte Carlo won at competition – didn’t quite happen. If it had, the group would have undoubtedly changed into a more conventional practice, probably with Cook at the helm, and become different and more familiar altogether. But it didn’t, leading its members to continue their careers as – mostly – teachers and provocateurs. If you studied architecture in London from the 1960s through to almost the present day, it was impossible to escape their influence. I went to the Bartlett in the mid-1990s when Peter Cook was in charge and David Greene was my external examiner. They loomed large.
Which isn’t to say their work didn’t touch reality or get built in other ways. Greene’s interest in invisible communication networks and robotic landscapes prefigured smartphones and the digital nomads we have become. His phrase the Electronic Aborigine defined a kind of spatial freedom enabled by technology. It was in many ways more radical than the Walking Cities and Capsule Houses Archigram is more famous for.
There were always two sides to Archigram. On one hand was an obsession with vast, exuberant megastructures, visions that mixed sci-fi and futurism with a love of comic book graphics and pop art. On the other were the darker, more conceptual projects, satires of consumerism (Mike Webb’s Dreams Come True Ltd) or ironic fusions of the bucolic and the technological (Greene’s Experimental Bottery). It was Greene who invented the Log and Rock Plugs and the ‘electronic cottage’, witty metaphors for our current obsession with both digital connectivity and nostalgia.
Cook, Crompton and Herron’s projects explored the other more optimistic tendency, pop-tastic programmes such as Freetime Node (Herron) and Plug in City (Cook). Some of these projects have dated more than the others. Herron’s drawings in particular can suffer from a surfeit of women in mini-skirts and self-consciously groovy language. But he put in a late bid for greatness with Suburban Sets, a conflation of high-tech architecture and the sitcom, a parody of all those fantasies dreamt up on the patio or in the potting shed.
Archigram – The Book includes an introduction by Michael Sorkin and reproduces essays by Martin Pawley, Reyner Banham and Peter Cook. There are occasional updatings of older projects and comments from their authors on how they were produced.
But it is Archigram the fanzine that forms the content. This developed from a crude, stapled-together hand-out to a lo-fi magazine with free gifts and pop-up drawings. It was exuberant, energetic, silly and fun. There was little traditional editorial content and few conventional essays: the work (almost) did all the talking although it was covered with commentary in the form of speech bubbles, arrows and annotations. Words like ‘node’, ‘nomad’ and ‘indeterminacy’ popped up everywhere, along with the group’s specific spatial language of ‘event activity zones’ and ‘suspended service grids’.
Looked at today a drift from hardware to software is discernible, from gizmos and gadgets towards a more fluid and ephemeral kind of architecture, one that was often barely there. Cook’s later projects in particular became more and more obsessed with a very English pastoralism, one where architecture became submerged in foliage or dissolved into the landscape. As he once observed: ‘When it is raining in Oxford Street, the architecture is no more important than the rain.’
Archigram was always a battle between architecture and anti-architecture, between a love of the discipline and a desire to escape it altogether. This book is an effective symbol of that dichotomy. An obsession with the expendable, the lightweight and the impermanent has resulted in a book heavier than most of the buildings they designed. A group that rejected conventional practice has become an unavoidable part of the establishment. This is of course often the destination for rock groups: the re-mastered album of classic tracks and the anniversary tour.
But perhaps the rock group analogy has been overdone. When Archigram won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2002, American academic Mark Wigley observed that these were architecture’s last great heroes and its last great losers. The secret of the group’s success was their lack of (conventional) success. They represented the dream of every ambitious young architecture student to never sell out, to live in a perpetual state of the final ‘crit’, the all-nighter, frantic drawing up and triumphant presentation. They are architecture’s perennial students. In the best sense, they never left school.