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Archigram exhibition conjures up the spirit of its age


There are several reason why the exhibition of work by Archigram (Architectural telegram), at the Corner House Gallery in Manchester, is an important event; giving order to the reasons is less easy. Clearly the most significant is the fact that this is the first major exhibition for an English audience since the group disbanded in 1975. The walls of the Cornerhouse have never been so full with work - apparently the curators had to stop the group bringing any more of the fascinating, well-preserved, original material. Even so, the finishing touches were still being added minutes before the private view started last Thursday evening.

You cannot help but be amazed and excited by the prolific body of work produced by a group of individuals committed to the pursuit of a philosophy, while holding down 'day jobs' designing significant buildings, such as the South Bank complex.

My initial reaction on entering the gallery was fear of being overwhelmed by the quantity and complexity of the exhibits. My departing reflection was that the six individuals - Warren Chalk (d 1987), Ron Herron (d 1994), Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene and Michael Webb - were above all brilliant communicators. The middle gallery houses a multi-media event, most of which is original material from a 'roadshow' first shown in the 1960s. It comprises synchronised slide projectors, film and video, all happening at once in a darkened space. (I was told that the synchronisation is via a computer which took a week to sort out. In the 1960s, Crompton devised and constructed a machine similar to a Swiss music box which operated all the projector switches.)

In addition to a complex collection of images, succinct written statements are flashed across the screens: Archigram didn't ask questions, it speculated on possibilities, it asked 'what if?'; English empiricism, no looking back, only what's happening this week, these are adverts for ideas; Archigram was never much interested in signification. They went straight from intentions to objects and let the meanings sort themselves out.

It is easy, retrospectively, to consider and understand the propositions of visionary thinkers; not so easy to do it first time round. The top gallery is where one is truly engulfed by the full impact of the work - and yet it is all so clear, even sensible. There is an original model of David Greene's 1966 Living Pod (a personal favourite), along with the seductive cross-sectional drawings of it, which could have been lifted from a medical textbook. Ron Herron's Walking City looms large in all its different manifestations. One questions why it has taken 25 years to bring this material, carefully nurtured by the Archigram Archives, into the public realm in the uk (the show has been in Vienna and Paris): the Cornerhouse, which joined forces with Thread Waxing Space in New York to produce the show (it goes there next) should be congratulated not just for bringing the show to Manchester, arousing much media interest in the process, but for staging an exhibition which would grace any architecture gallery. In any event, the opening attracted the predictable local cognoscenti, a reasonable number of ageing flower-power children and many who could have been their offspring (all things 1960s being de rigueur) and Lpton (who made the show happen), Mary Banham and Pat Herron.

Another quote from the show can be taken to sum up the memorable phenomenon that was Archigram: 'Rage at the machine', a memorable emotion of those days. Archigram shared the impulse but was anything but angry. Its protest was literally constructive, posed via a benign alternative, combining a hand-drawn, harmless, cartoon (a deeply affirmative medium for Archigram) megalomania (those cities walking on water), and an arcadian reverie.

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