Archigram: necessary irritants
When they get round to totting up Britain's contribution to the international visual arts over the last two millennia there will be threeand-a-half items on the list: the English Garden, the Arts and Crafts movement, the British half of pop art and. . . Archigram.
Until this unexpected RIBA tribute, this was a proposition you only heard outside this country. It was the Kunsthalle people in Vienna in 1994, not any of the arts panjandrums in London who staged - and paid for - the vast Archigram show which, after a brief showing in Manchester, has toured the world. Its most recent staging closed last Friday in Rotterdam.But, say the tall poppy clippers, come on, where are they now? Never built anything, not much at least, and they're retirement-age local boys: you can still actually speak to half of them if you lurk long enough up and down the Euston Road.At the Bartlett are the vague and charismatic Professor Peter Cook, and the group's brilliant fixer, Dennis Crompton, recently edged out by Mohsen Mostafavi from his natural home at the Architectural Association.David Greene has been a professor at Westminster University architecture school for some years and Mike Webb has been teaching on the east coast of the US since the mid 1960s. Warren Chalk and the gentle genius, Ron Herron, are dead.
In the early 60s Herron and Chalk had just designed the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall complex with the young Crompton when Theo Crosby poached them from the GLC for a huge development project. In turn they suggested bringing in Cook and Greene and Webb, who had just published some of their work in an early issue of Archigram . Crosby's project eventually folded but the group flowered for the whole of the sixties and the first few years of the seventies, publishing their ideas not only in Archigram but in Monica Pidgeon'sArchitectural Design . The name of the magazine stuck as a collective name for the six.
At the time, a bunch of young architects helped with drawings and lurked around the living room of whoever had a project going. Cedric Price acted as a kind of hands-off guru figure and Reyner Banham, who lived with his family across the road from the Cooks in Swiss Cottage, distributed copies of Archigram during his lecture tours around the world and provided approving but independent commentary.
In Peter Cook's 1972 instant history of the group Banham wrote, 'Theoretic propositions? You must be joking. . . Archigram is short on theory, long on draughtsmanship and craftsmanship.They're in the image business and they have been blessed with the power to create some of the most compelling images of our times.'Herron's Walking City (actually first titled Cities Moving and based on a kind of hovercraft motive power) has turned into the defining image of the arts of 60s Britain.
Their extraordinary influence on students and young architects was, one suspects, partly because of the packaging of the stunningly drawn, brilliantly left-field ideas.Probably more important was that they were never particularly prescriptive.Where the propositions of contemporaries such as Yona Friedman and Super Studio and even Habraken ultimately relied on people handing over to architects most of their rights of self-determination, Archigram offered some nice ideas which people could, if they liked them, incorporate into their own lives.