words Sam Jacob
Archigram’s sense of laissez-faire offered an alternative to serious modernism. but the group’s incoherence has allowed critics to ignore its truly revolutionary ideas. Perhaps it’s time for a reappraisal?
Archigram is supposed to be about a kind of 1960s grooviness: loon pants, lava lamps, men with moustaches and birds in miniskirts. In a blur of Cow Gum, scissors, and airbrush, Archigram whipped up an architectural storm against the grey backdrop of 1950s English architecture – a loose idealism made out of machines and gadgets.
Pete, Dave, Mike, Ron, Warren and Dennis were: Utopian! Visionary! Radical! in ways that looked and felt brand new. At the time, architectural culture was saddled with the dead weight of real, serious, old-fashioned Modernism – not that lightweight neo-liberal neo-modernism currently spreading across Britain in the name of regeneration. Archigram seemed to offer a fun way out of this miserable dead end – a multicoloured emergency exit from the grey semi-socialist realism that choked the architecture departments of local authorities. But perhaps the exit wasn’t into somewhere else: maybe it was the beautiful death of modernism, a dreamy, out-of-body experience as the soul left its carcass.
Archigram pushed modernist rhetoric to absurd conclusions: houses as machines, function superseding form … electric tomatoes, botteries, slumpbuildings, hedgerow cities for the electric aborigines. They turned manifestos into nonsense and drawings into visions. They accelerated and exaggerated modernist logic until it shortcircuited and frazzled into static.
In the shadow of the Independent Group, Archigram took the ideas of the Man-Machine, Pop, collage and modern life as an assemblage of consumer products, then turned up the turboboost until these ideas filled widescreen panoramas. While the Smithsons had wrestled with modernist morality, Archigram’s younger, laissez-faire attitude meant anything was possible … and anything could be architectural.
There is an alternative trajectory from the Independent Group. It leads, via Denise Scott Brown, to “Learning from Las Vegas”. This married social science with Pop Art in an attempt to understand the present rather than invent the future. The attitude of academic learning from everyday life was cooler, sharper, and a lot less fun. But it opened up architectural thinking in a different way to Archigram.
Nowadays, everybody likes Archigram. That’s got to make you suspicious. My hunch is that the passing of time has allowed architects to mould Archigram’s legacy into something safe and supportive rather than confrontational and critical. It was easy to hijack because Archigram had split up, dispersed, disappeared into the quicksand of teaching. It’s also because Archigram never had a single coherent viewpoint.
The Archigram installation at the Design Museum is part exhibition and part scrapbook. It is divided by billboard-sized blow-ups, and anchored around recreations: their studio at Endel Street, like a Madam Tussauds display minus the waxworks; panels of the Living City ICA exhibition; a RokPlug displayed like a plough at the Science Museum. All this stuff is supposed to immerse you in the era, like an episode of the Rock and Roll Years. But the least interesting thing about Archigram is the swinging sixties shtick. The themes, ideas, politics – the interesting bits – become secondary. Maybe that’s because chronology is all that Archigram can now agree on.
You can characterise Archigram as having two different approaches. The jolly, Meccano honkytonk of Peter Cook, Ron Herron and Dennis Crompton, and the darker, distinctly less comfortable view of the future of David Greene, Mike Webb and Warren Chalk.
The jolly side did fantastic drawings of fantastical things – beautiful and meaningless like fantasy art. It combined traditional Victorian engineering and Heath Robinson mechanics with a naive trust in megastructures. This is the one that scraped into the history of 20th-century architecture. Architects look at this frightening vision, smile and think “how crazy, how fun!”.
The other faction took a more complex view of the future, one that wasn’t bigger, better, brighter or stronger. With declarations of a “moratorium on building”, they imagined doing away with architecture. They made projects that were simply about thinking or looking, which dealt with more difficult ideas: consumerism, the impact of invisible electronic technology, ideas that were harder to draw and harder to pin down.
Archigram’s contradictory dreams saw a world that was either full of technology-as-architecture, with cities as gigantic gadgets, or of technology that superseded architecture, so we could sell our houses and live in fields once more – a kind of pastoral futurism.
Of course, architects found it much easier to assimilate engineering-as-architecture rather than ideas. Especially English architects, who are appalled by the idea of ideas in architecture. So Archigram’s legacy is seen as High Tech, which is all engineering and zero idea. But this misses the point. Engineering and technology are the most boring part. Archigram is important because it showed that architecture could be about culture, and could explore the perversity and darkness at the heart of modern life.
Archigram suggested architecture that could be quickly assembled – but of course it could also quickly be dismantled. This was their really original idea: unbuilding is as important as building. The greatest tribute to Archigram would be to unbolt the Lloyds building, deflate the Eden centre, and pack up the Millennium Dome. If architecture is a product, we should act like any decent consumer and chuck it away when we get bored.
Design Museum, London, until July 4