Did you see the Queens Golden Jubilee last summer? The thing which began with Brian May astride the palace roof playing God Save the Queen. A lightweight alloy of rooftop Beatles, good natured bolshevik, arch-royalist Scarlet Pimpernel and Woodstock Hendrix.
Next, the camera pans down to a mini rock festival that’s getting underway amongst the picturesque lawns of the Queens back garden. There’s Brian Wilson rippling his fingers over the keyboard in a spasms of harmony, Elton John beamed live from the state rooms, Ray Davis in a Union Jack jacket. All You Need Is Love as the new national anthem – Sir Pauls double thumbs up a new salute, Ozzie Osbourne and the Queen. 50 years of monarchic memory lane played out through soundtracks and tableauxs.
The massed gadgets of Elizabeth Regina – from crown, orb, sceptre and thrown to golden coach, shiny trumpets, black mirror polished Bentleys, to scaffold stands, lighting rigs, projectors, trucks with huge ketchup bottles pouring all over giant sized eggs and chips like lumber. TV gantries, amp stacks, wires, Concorde, Hells Angels and Horseguards: technology and pageantry in synchronous salute. Its monarchy as fun, a pop post-Diana peoples monarchy in a reign of pleasure – until the next royal scandal of course.
As the roar of saluting supersonic jet rattles the crystal chandeliers hanging in the Palace, its all suddenly popping up and plugging in and zooming out Archigram.
Perhaps that’s just as it should be, because the years other golden celebration is another solid gold hit of the sixties. Its a … Its a … Its …Archigrams RIBA medal celebration!. And tonight, its the reunion show, the come back gig: The surviving members live on stage. And the dead ones on tape, just like that time splicing Beatles reunion from beyond the grave which was number one at Christmas a few years ago.
To get us in the mood a triple screened super sixties scene setting soundtracked slideshow. A rock and roll years montage: “One pill makes you smaller” – Thunderbirds, Polo players, Blue Meanies,”And one pill makes you tall” – Donald Duck, Kings Road, Mini Mokes, “but the pills that mother gives you don’t do anything at all” Biba, Mary Quant, Martin Luther King frothed up with Expresso Bongo boho jazz, JFK, XL5, groovy chicks, pickin’ up good vibrations, Arsenal doing the double, “and its high ho silver lining everywhere you go, oh baby!”
The music fades out and the screens turn to red and green and Peter Cook steps up to the stage. He preaches Peters gospel – the one that which says that Archigram was a reaction to the grey, boring architecture of 1950s Britain. A kick against the status quo. It’s a popular and inspirational gospel. Its the one which says, as it does the RIBA medal citation and is mentioned three times in English tonight and once in French, that Archigram were the Beatles of architecture. If that’s right, then I guess that makes the Independent Group Lonnie Donnigan, the skiffle pioneer whose 1950s appropriation of Black American folk music kick started the English beat group craze.
Peters gospel though doesn’t answer the question I’ve always wanted to ask. The question of what kind of kick, how hard, and where exactly it was aimed. After all, it was a very particular kind of kick, different from the french left wing revolutionaries across the channel who very nearly brought down the apparatus of the state. Perhaps it might be answered by venturing further back in time.
With the exception of Ron Herron, Archigram were little boys in grey flannel shorts during the Second World War, the first truly gadgetized war. Only little boys, and maybe only English little boys could have loved the machines of war so sweetly. Technology, machines, and gadgets were good and innocent and liberating (in all senses of the word). Spitfires dog fighting in the sky above the Kentish landscape, tanks rolling across the Egyptian desert, D Day with the sea full of ships carrying machines and towing floating harbours across the channel. Men carrying packs, water bottles, tools and tents across the muddy fields of Northern France. Gadgets traversing the landscape to defend King and Country. Gizmos fighting for freedom and democracy.
All this was relayed back home by newsreels shown at the saturday morning cinema shows. And perhaps its these these scenes that are echoed in Archigrams helmet-as-architecture projects. The Suitaloon and the Cusicle, those wearable and inflatable pieces of architecture, might just be peaceful and civilian iterations of the Tommys and GIs of Archigrams fathers generation.
More gently on the Home Front, the landscape of towns was transformed through various government policies. Dig for Victory transformed parks into vegetable patches and farms. Anderson air raid shelters were built in suburban back gardens. Unnecessary railway journeys were discouraged by promoting ‘Holidays at Home’ where festivals were organised, sand poured into public squares to make urban beaches complete with donkey rides.
Urban programmes were altered from Edwardian civic to immediate pleasure or raw utility. in ways very different to traditional urban planning. Perhaps these ad hoc and temporary urban interventions are nascent versions of Archigrams urban Tune Ups – the cheerfully collaged reworkings of public space.
This odd combination of war and fun is whats being paraded infront of the Queen. Distanced by history, the heradry and pagentry of Englands military might becomes quaint. Prince Charles in braided and lapelled ceremonial Naval Uniform hardly looks like a trained killing machine. The Horse Guards with their shiny wimples and tassles and bright red uniforms, the ornate canons equally decorative but hardly threatening. Marching, parading, about-turning and saluting. Canons fired in St James Park as a ceremonial salute.
These are images of pre-industrial warfare, when war was a gentlemanly affair with breaks for tea time, before the devastation of world wars or targeting of civillians (relativley speaking). Its all very twee and nostalgic and, of course brightly photogenic. But of course it is symbolic of something else, something that doesnt make us feel quite so warm inside. Its a very English way of displaying the power of the military industrial complex. Hidden away are the real weapons, the nuclear war heads, the chemical weapons, the commandos and paratroopers, the SAS. Not the prosaic display of raw military might of 1980s May Day Moscow. But a subtler display which cloaks mega tonnes of destruction in the charming veil of history. The cloaking of weapons of mass destruction is in other situations not quite as cute.
Peter Cook explains how he drew ‘Instant City’ in the spring of 1967, and how a few week s later he saw the photoraphs of Woodstock, commenting that his version looked better. It is a cute coincidence of course, one that plays to the groovy sixties myth. But it avoids a contemporary precendent thats not quite so hip – the instant cities of Korea and Vietnam. Which looked even beter. But were much worse. Never had so much metal moved so far so quickly intent on inflicting as much distruction. Temporary cities were assembled by the sheer accumilaition of gadgets. High technology juxtaposed with jungle. In Vietnam we can see a viable alternative version of Archigram, one that validates the practicality of Archigrams project. And perhaps because of its fully formed fulfillment of plug in architeture, we should be applauding an anoymous team of Pentagon visionarys whose radical approach to urbanism was so completly fulfilled.
Of course war and modern architecture were already well aquainted. The Futurists “glorified the love of danger and violence” and proclaimed war the “hygiene of the world”. Reyner Banham, Archigrams great evangelist, places the Italian Futurists as the progenitors of Modernism in ‘Theory and Design in the First Machine Age’. Archigrams Futurism is different. More cynical, more knowing, more full of promise, more attractive – a Consumer Futurism.
In tonights presentations, made individually, there are two camps. While Ron Herron, Peter Cook and Dennis Crompton imagine giant mechanised buildings of fun, the dark side of Archigram, Webb, Greene and Chalk muse on the end of building. Both sides of what David Greene describes as a “dysfunctional male family” pursue a peculiar kind of English Futurism, that, like English Modernism is stranger and less obvious than its European counterpart.
This English tradition of modernism is different: non-violent, non-revolutionary. It is a tradition with its roots in the picturesque as championed by Ruskin, the arts and crafts of William Morris, Mackintosh, and Lutyens, and the town planning of Ebeneezer Howard. This kind of proto-modernism did not want to destroy the past, but rather reconcile the past with the industrial city.
This traditions closest political ally is Christian Socialism. This movement was a response to Social Darwinism, an ideology of social determinism based on a sociological interpretation of Darwins theory of evolution. Christian Socialism countered this purist ideology with non-ideology. Darwins science had challenged Creationist biblical truth. In place of absolute truth Christian Socialism revealed a socially progressive religious movement. A movement that was concerned with upholding values of Christian love and belief in the redemption of the soul in the heart of the industrial city. Christian Socialism exemplifies the strength of accepting contradictory world views. It offers an optimistic alternative to the dead end of ideology. Its strength is in its recognition of its own flaws. Archigrams lack of coherence is also a kind of strength. In its refusal to exclude and its willingness to include, perhaps archigram might be described as a Secular Christian Capitalist Socialism, whose gospel is a groovy kind of love.
While Futurism developed in close alliance with Fascism, English Modernism was far more liberal. It is perhaps no coincidence that the anthem of the British Labour movement (with its roots in Christian Socialism) is a William Blake poem called ‘Jerusalem’. For Blake, the New Jerusalem was a mystical/spiritual/religious vision. For the Labour movement the New Jerusalem was to be workers rights and welfare provision. The lyrics look to the future by invoking the past – and a very strange past involving the legend of a teenage Jesus living near a tin mine in the west of England owned by his uncle Joseph of Aramethea.
Many of the progressive movements of English culture around this time attempt this escape from the present to a better future by way of the past. Unlike the tabula rasa of Continental Modernism, where the future was constructed through destruction, English modernism was more forgiving, practical, cuter, nicer, and a whole lot less exciting. It was reconciliation between disparate tendencies. In Ruskin: man and landscape, William Morris: the medieval with the industrial revolution, Ebeneezer Howard: city and country. All of these movements were driven by a response to impact of the Industrial Revolution on cities and society. The same concerns are echoed in Warren Chalks dour warning “We must use technology to fight technology”. Whether it is the desire to return to nature through technology, escape cities through urbanism, or to fight technology with technology.
William Morris’ “News from Nowhere” is set in a sci-fi post-revolutionary future London – a London where the Houses of Parliament have become a manure store. Where children learn in a forest that has grown in Kensington Gardens. Morris’ future is not so dissimilar to David Greenes Bottery which proposes a park as university, learning on the grass or leaning against a tree. This is techo-primativism, a belief that only technology can return us to a bucolic state.
This, perhaps is the subtext of Greenes RokPlug project, the fake lump of rock that hides a high tech network node and power supply. Designed to be placed in rural locations to enable communication and activity, the RokPlug can’t help but evoke Stone Age megaliths – objects that were also communication devices of some description, though of a supernatural kind. These pre historic stones are the first human monuments, the very first architecture.
Julian Cope describes “The joyous and unconscious act of erecting a standing stone in response to the jubilation of learning to farm may have been the single specifically inharmonious act which has become know biblically as the Fall. For it was at this moment that humans first peeled themselves away from the Mother Earth just long enough to feel a true Separation”
By isolating the moment architecture is invented, RokPlug takes us all the way back to when it first went wrong. RokPulg rewinds history further back than the pre industrial landscape of ‘News From Nowhere’ to a pre agrarian scene. RokPlug lays that stone back flat on the ground, un-inventing architecture in a bid to regain paradise. This idea is made explicit in a later Greene project. Based on a machine called the ‘City Crusher’ which breaks up concrete back into aggregate. Greene worked out how long the City Crusher would take to break up the Empire State Building. A posative and optomistic way to flatten New Yorks skyline.
These are sentiments echoed in Warren Chalks description of cityscape as a ‘pornography of buildings’ and in Archigrams only truly revolutionary project: ‘to declare a moratorium on building’, a statement proclaiming architecture not as the solution, but the problem. Perhaps the thing we owe archigram is not a vision of how architecture might be built, but that it could come apart again. That unbolting is more important than building.
Mike Webb, apparently, gets very angry when David Greene says he once lived in a shed. Even though he describes it as a very nice shed with a veranda, and in Highgate too, a very nice part of town with a great view across the city to the Surrey hills. Tonight, Webb shows slides of Temple Island and Henly Regatta project, on tape and slides the extended advertainment project “Dreams Come True” – a fictitious company who promise to transform your mundane life into something as exciting as an advert. These projects are as graphically ambitious as Cook and Herron, but are not drawings of buildings or proposals. They are drawings about seeing. The viewpoint is not of an architect creating, but observing. One hundred and forty years before , on the other side of Hampstead Heath, William Blake used to sit in an arbour. Blakes art was driven by visions which intermingled fantasy with his everyday London life while Webbs art is about vision.
Ebeneezer Howards response to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on cities was to recompose existing situations – the garden city equation of city + county is perhaps a precursor to Archigrams techo-pastoralism. But it is also relevant through the pursuit of pleasure. A response to cities and architecture that prevent pleasure and promote doomed existence’s. The Garden City is the precursor to Archigram projects like Hedgerow City, where entire urban communities are hidden behind the hedgerows of county lanes. Its also perhaps reworked through Mike Webbs garden shed home – where the garden, not the house is the place to live in. Projects like Hedgerow City addressed the failings of the Garden Cities and the New Towns that followed – the feeling described by Guy Debord as “nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will”. In Archigram projects, something is always happening – though perhaps the commodified leisure lifestyle is not what Guy would have wanted.
Continental European radical urbanism was much more overtly politicised and articulate. Urbanism for Archigrams French contemporaries the Situationist International, became barricades on the streets and a country close to revolution. The biggest influence of the SI in England was not to destroy the state, but to make pop music.
That pop tradition had been present in the trajectory of British architecture at least since Ebeneezer Howards equation which attempted to resolve the technological present with leisure, pleasure and having a nice time. Pops big moment though was ushered in by the Independent Group in the late 50′s. This collection of artists, architects and theorists explored twin interests of technology and culture.
However the architecture produced out of the Independent Group – by the Smithsons, Colin St John Wilson, and to lesser extent Jim Sterling was oddly anti-pop: Brutalism was the opposite of fun. Though the Smithsons could claim “today we collect adverts”, their architecture was more concerned with a hard edged reworking of early modernism.
It fell to those a little younger to explore the idea of popular culture and architecture, and in particular two distinct groups.
Denise Scott Brown by virtue of her time at the AA in London and Archigram through Peter Cooks neighbour Reyner Banham were exposed to the Independent Group.
Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturis work explored the relationship between architecture and popular culture. “Learning from Las Vegas” is certainly in the tradition of the Independent Group. Indeed, Scott Brown suggested an article on Las Vegas to Reyner Banham (though he declined the offer). Its appraisal of signs and lights and high technology in the desert ha much in common with Archigram. Though its academic appraisal was a something that Archigram never explicitly engaged in.
At the end of the Archigram show, a slide flashes up saying “Why are you here and not watching it on TV at home”, which either recalls, echos or predates Robert Venturis comment that “Americans don’t need piazzas, they should be at home watching TV instead”. The acceptance of attitudes, styles, cultures outside of architectural cannon is shared between Venturi Scot Brown and Archigram- when Venturi says “Main Street is almost all right” it echoes the Archigrams acceptance of the non and un architectural. The vision that cities and buildings are ok without architects, indeed, that architects might be the thing that’s wrong with them.
By the time that Denise Scott Brown returned to England for the National Gallery Extension, British architectural culture had polarised into High Tech and Postmodernism.
Archigram had been assimilated into architectural culture as engineering, while their cultural content was ignored. Just because it looked like engineering didn’t mean that it wanted to be engineering. All those spaceframes, pipes and wires were using engineering against architecture – just as Le Corubusier used grain silos as a device to destroy Beaux Art architecture. And if engineering could be detourned to displace architecture, perhaps culture could fill its place as the things buildings could be about.
Of course, precisely the opposite happened. Architects used engineering not to liberate us from the mono cultural tyranny of architecture, but to bind us to it more tightly.
Engineering and technology became an escape route just at the point when architects faced culture. Architects fear in the face of the unknown and threatening as they felt the ground beneath them giving way was to grab hold of the things they knew. That’s why the structural aspects became so very important. It metaphorically provided a scaffold to prop up the impending collapse of architectural culture. Architects could dull the pain of RokPlug by drawing hypnotically repetitive lightweight modular structural systems in perspective. Just as youth culture turned to heroin after the acid induced free loving turned on tuned in counter culture, Architecture turned to Engineering. And became just as dependant.
Even now, younger generations have been seduced by the phantom promises of technology as a way of progressing architectural culture. As technology enables more, architecture becomes ever more architectural – and hence less interesting. Technology has become an evasive tactic. The more architects become obsessed with walls that change shape, software that generates blobs, the further architecture drifts from real, visceral culture. Engineering and technology are now used like cocaine. A thrill of immediacy expressed through overly excited, egocentric, yet entirely pointless expression, and fifteen minutes later an emptiness only satisfied by another line.
In the journey from representation as drawings, poems, magazines to its built form there is a denuding of ideology, a silencing of radical rhetoric. This neutered image of Archigram lives on through High Tech – the architectural house style of New Labour. Perhaps something of its Archigram origins resonate with Tony Blairs Christian Socilaist ethos. Of course New Labours most infamous building project is just that, the Archigram inspired big tent Millennium Dome. And maybe there is an echo of Archigrams legacy of tent-as-architecture in his description of third way politics as a “Big Tent”.
On the other hand, these state sponsered monuments only look like Archigram. Perhaps the most fitting tribute would be to unbolt the Lloyds building, pack up the Millennium Dome, unhook the Millenium Bridge, and fold away the Eden Centre. To throw away these building before they become pornographic. If Archigram taught us that architecture is just another product, we should do the most creative thing we can as consumers – throw it away and start again.
What good can come of Archigrams Gold Medal? Is it just institutionalising a once radical group. Is it a neutering of an avant guard? Or does it offer an opportunity to heal the rift in British architecture. A way to prevent the squandering of a rich, optimistic, problem solving, liberal and popular tradition. It is a moment to reconcile modern architecture with royalty and technology with culture.
The big questions that Archigram asked were (optimistically) “why not?” and (pessimistically) “why bother?”. David Greenes Bottery film ends with a question: “is this really possible?” to which his reply is “of course its possible, but is it really desirable?”.
originally published in Arch +