Archigram's sweet revenge comes hurtling out of the sky
Seven hundred expectant people filled the Munich hall, waiting to hear three British architects talk about their work. The seats were so comfortable they could send anyone off to sleep, surely one of the great dangers for any architect on the lecture circuit. But in this case there was no risk of the first speaker sending anyone to sleep, as it was that great English enthusiast and architect Peter Cook.
Peter frequently nods off in other people's talks, although he always knows everything that was said and can be relied upon to raise an intelligent question at the end. He chose to talk of his new(ish) project in Graz, a museum of art. The building is an amorphous lump of blue. It is as if a huge splodge of azure acrylic paint had frozen as it flew through the air towards earth. Its descent is arrested, some 5m above the ground, by what were 22 columns, now reduced to four.
This fantastic, hovering blob will be Archigram's revenge for its many earlier disappointments, for competition-winning schemes that were never realised. Cook won the commission with Colin Fournier, and to me it is Archigram at its best - Colin was an important member of the Archigram team for the project in Monaco, sadly cancelled. I also see shades of Mike Webb and David Greene creeping heavily into the aesthetic. At last we will have a building worthy of their true spirit, albeit 35 years too late.
Of course part of Archigram's potency was its ability to initiate by going beyond what was possible, and some might argue that its ideas and messages were not intended to be built. But I believe the fact that this will be built, after so long, gives credibility to Archigram's mid '60s predictions. The amorphous quality of the form, internally and externally, manages to escape the language of a building type, which was one of the major points of Archigram in the twentieth century.
It is interesting to contrast Cook's presentation with that of Michael Wilford, who showed a series of projects. His work is also a continuation of a style or theme, which was well established during the Stirling years. The work is bold, safe and formal. Whenever I see Wilford I am reminded of my mental picture of what an architect should have looked like in the 1950s. I always imagine desert boots clamped to the end of his legs. This might later have been replaced by Hush Puppies - a style Cedric Price still sports, with pride.
This aversion to foot fashion is not as frivolous as it might seem. The image of feet and their coverings is possibly as cyclical as architecture itself, and in Wilford's work I see the end of a series of architectural concerns which could return in 30 or 40 years, or possibly never. The architecture suffers from trying to be over-polite. An inherent humanism is displayed within the work, which looks for expression within historic reference.
These references are then collaged together to form an architecture that never quite escapes a '50s approach to detailing. The work sometimes verges on the quaint and to me this is the most important quality. At present, however, it sits between a '50s Modernism, tempered by a Po-Mo veil, trying to return to some unknown destination.
The two architects returned to the past in very different ways. One was recapturing what he initiated and the other returned to a period (the '80s) which is best forgotten. It is strange that the latter was rewarded with a CBE and the former has no honours.
The third British architect in the hall was me. Much as I may like to - or should - offer any criticism of myself, I won't, as obviously everything I had to show and tell was perfect!
WA, from the BA Lounge, Munich Airport