words Steve Parnell
image Cedric Price Fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal
The usefulness of architects on the eccentric fringe, likeCedric Price, is that they stretch one’s mind,” wrote Architects’ Journal gossip columnist Astragal in 1965, referring to Price’s Pop-Up Parliament. This was a typically provocative proposal to build a “supermarket of democracy”, as the existing Houses of Parliament had been “packaged inconveniently”. Pop-ups are back in fashion today, but Price’s intention was to critique the established po-faced institutions with his chosen weapon, architecture. The exhibition of his films and personal notebooks, Cedric Price: Wish We Were Here, which was held at the Architectural Association in March, was a welcome reminder of his deft skills with this weapon.
While Pop-up Parliament was a bold, tongue-in-cheek suggestion (much like the proposal to convert Buckingham Palace into a youth hostel on the grounds of underuse), it was the Fun Palace (1961-1966) that would make him famous. This was a project that Price, with theatre director Joan Littlewood, dreamed up as the ultimate flexible non-architecture, composed of space frames, inflatables and plug-in containers, and promoting the enjoyment of the working class above the monumentality of the building. People would be able to wander in at will and find some pleasurable distraction, possibly of the educational variety.
Democratisation of education was a constant theme for Price, who studied at Cambridge University and the Architectural Association. His other influential project of this time was the Potteries Thinkbelt (PTb), a competitor to the Open University. While other architects busied themselves with “the enclosure business” and actually built the new universities of the 1960s, Price preferred to rethink what education could be. Located in the depressed Potteries of north Staffordshire, where Price was born in 1934, the PTb was to be an advanced educational institution that used trains as classrooms and laboratories. Associated living units (“sprawl”, “crate”, “battery” and “capsule” housing) would be expendable and movable with the trains, and students would be integrated into their local communities. Price was a committed socialist whose views might find some unlikely adherents in the current debate on school design: “The priorities in education are staff, equipment and buildings – in that order,” he wrote in an article on the PTb in New Society magazine.
All projects described above were about the construction of the idea rather than the building and Price built very little from when he set up his practice Cedric Price Architects in 1960 until his death in 2003. His best known building is the tensegrity aviary at London Zoo of 1961 but it was his thinking that had the greatest influence and his role as an anti-establishment irritant that gained him the most attention. Who else could successfully lobby RIBA to allow architects to suggest to their client that the best solution to their problem is to do nothing? Price’s architecture deliberately holds no symbolic meaning and almost matches Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art in its anti-aesthetic intent. When his Inter-Action Centre (1977) was threatened with listing, Price successfully argued for its demolition as it had outlasted its planned usefulness.
Price’s is an architecture of critique, the power of which lies in its ability to bully the mind into thinking sideways. His words are mischievously quotable: “No one should be interested in building bridges – they should be interested in how to get to the other side”; “The best technical advice may be that rather than build a house your client should leave his wife”; “Technology is the answer but what is the question?” As such, his work is made for publication: it’s the thinking man’s archi-porn.