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Cedric Price: Think the Unthinkable

An exhibition in Glasgow dedicated to architect Cedric Price shows how the heritage of Modernism can be made to serve divergent present-day ends, writes Miles Glendinning

Cedric Price: Think the Unthinkable, The Lighthouse, Glasgow, until 3 September. An Architecture and Design Scotland exhibition

Over the past two decades, the parallel appropriation of the ‘original’ Modern Movement legacy both by heritage campaigners (Docomomo, Twentieth Century Society) and by contemporary neo-Modernism, has resulted in a complex and sometimes uncomfortable dialogue between the two.

During the 1990s and 2000s, the ascendancy of market-driven ‘iconic’ or ‘gestural’ modernism was supportively paralleled by a heritage focus on ‘heroic masters’ such as Niemeyer, Eero Saarinen or Neutra, all preoccupied chiefly with Modernism as image rather than as social utopianism.

But what will happen now that ‘starchitecture’ is on the way out, like ‘heroic modernism’ four decades previously? Should heritage efforts shift their focus to the iconoclastic ‘alternative’ modernisms and often wildly impractical utopian projects of the 1960s and (especially) 1970s? 

This exhibition at Glasgow’s Lighthouse, dedicated to the work of architect Cedric Price (1934-2003), gives a good opportunity to gauge the state of this balance between Modernisms past and present.

Trained at the Architectural Association in the 1950s by MoMo Functionalist guru Arthur Korn, Price followed in the well-worn, mildly rebellious footsteps of older innovators such as Lasdun, the Smithsons and Team 10, who cast off the collectivist orthodoxies of welfare-state modernism for a more individualistic approach. But whereas these older designers, after cutting their teeth on unrealised visionary projects, then caught the tail-end of the postwar building boom, Price was too late for any of that. Instead, his fecund imagination was expressed largely on paper. 

Drawing on the airy technological utopianism of Buckminster Fuller, as well as the Smithsons’ admiration for American-style consumerism, he embarked in the early 1960s on a range of highly publicised projects, such as the ‘Fun Palace’ (1960-1) and the ‘Potteries Thinkbelt’ (1964). Typically of ‘late’ Modernism, these combined demands for flexible, ‘indeterminate’ structures with an insistence on driving idealism and exhaustive socio-scientific research. For Price, the architect was not a designer of fixed building projects but an agent of freedom and change, working to ‘enable people to think the unthinkable’. The Fun Palace project, for example, echoed the Brutalist megastructural frame/infill principle with ever-shifting modular elements housed within shipyard-like gantries and platforms. ‘Choice’ became a leitmotif, here expressed in anarchic rhetoric: ‘Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it…Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.’

The concept was actually realised in 1971 on a much-reduced scale, in the Interaction Centre, Kentish Town, London (dismantled 2003). The Potteries Thinkbelt proposed a new university on the same lines, spread over an entire conurbation in explicit opposition to the monumentality of built examples like Spence’s Sussex, ‘run by gentlemen for the few’. 

What are the implications for our own uncertain architectural age? At first glance, Price’s advocacy of a more modest and humane approach to architecture seems prescient of today’s revulsion against showy ‘signature architecture’. But things are more complicated than that, for his rhetoric of wasteful consumerist futurism also arguably helped legitimise the worst excesses of those same icon-mongers, subverting social utopianism into advertisement-like visual and verbal slogans. His extravagant fantasies of ‘open-ended’ design directly fuelled not only the 1970s-80s ‘High-Tech’ movement of Foster and Rogers, but also the flamboyant rhetorical gobbledegook of the likes of Rem Koolhaas or Enric Miralles. More generally, his worship of ‘choice’ looks, in retrospect, like a harbinger of neo- capitalist ‘branding’ of architecture.

It is not clear whether Price himself, in his last years, was troubled by the ease with which his ideas had been co-opted and appropriated by global market-Modernism. But this ambiguous legacy is something future critical or historical studies will have to address. Following a strongly celebratory 2005 Design Museum retrospective of his work, the new Lighthouse exhibition, curated by Modernist historian Barnabas Calder, designed by NORD, and supported by the Scottish Government’s architecture programme, treads a more cautious path – despite an ominous Koolhaas slogan at its entrance, hailing the necessity for ‘strong and compelling forms’ to drive architectural idealism.

The exhibition, contained within a single large space, has a double focus on the Potteries Thinkbelt and the Fun Palace. Each features an arresting centrepiece (in the case of the Fun Palace, a megastructure-like cutaway drawing, and in that of the Thinkbelt, a large, beautifully-made metal model by Scott Associates, incorporating a miniature model railway) and a pinboard dotted with Price slogans and metaphoric conceptual tags (for example, ‘crate’, ‘battery’, ‘sprawl’ and ‘capsule’ housing). Reflecting Price’s preoccupation with emancipatory environmental education, this physical display was complemented by two interactive outreach exercises held in 2010: firstly, a schools project centred in Aberdeen in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland, in which schoolchildren applied Price’s principles to the building of a ‘labyrinth’ and ‘sets’, later used in a National Theatre production; and, secondly, a joint art and architecture student project based in Strathclyde University and Glasgow School of Art, whose formula of studio-based ‘intervention’ projects stemming from supposedly first-principle ‘observations’ and ‘findings’ exemplified both the strengths and limitations of today’s architectural education ethos of ‘individual creativity’. 

Overall, then, the exhibition shows how the heritage of Modernism can be made to serve radically divergent present-day ends. But perhaps the preoccupation with ‘late’ Modernist figures such as Price will prove to be only a short-lived, transitional affair, and the next really full-blooded ‘revival’, on the part both of heritage activists and contemporary practitioners, will instead be that of today’s bogeyman – Postmodernism?

Miles Glendinning is a writer and the author of ‘Architecture’s Evil Empire?’

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