Beware of nostalgia for yesterday's heroes
There have recently been two architectural exhibitions about British architects at the Design Museum - Alison and Peter Smithson, and Archigram - and I hear Cedric Price is up next year. With these exhibitions, the curator lines up a parade of heroes.
Each is accompanied by a seminar where contemporaries and apparent acolytes reminisce about the 1960s and '70s. The trouble is that the contemporaries often barely remember things - it is all viewed through a fantasy haze of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.
Worst are the acolytes, who weren't around, didn't know their heroes and, if they had, I would imagine that in most cases both parties would have been disappointed.
In these exhibitions, nostalgia for genius past is particularly difficult, as it corrupts the insights they continue to offer. Peter Smithson and Cedric Price were very much alive until last year and the Archigram survivors are still busy. They are also treated as proponents of different ideological streams, when in fact they shared plenty of conversations. This nostalgia is offensive. All three, while happy to make use of the past, speculated on present and future opportunities.
The Smithsons are appropriated by a new generation of architects and critics who dwell on some of their less interesting housing projects and obsess about the integrity of the avant-garde. The Smithsons produced two landmarks in post-war British architecture:
Hunstanton and the Economist building, and were perceptive critics, but this important focus of their contribution is in danger of being lost. We are now regaled with pointless tales of letters from their client's cats to their cats, and of some disappointing houses (yes, Sugden included). They are being reinvented posthumously and the word ordinary can no longer be used without hubris. The Smithsons were not modest, they were outlandish and consciously considered their role as enfants terribles. They enjoyed shocking and provoking on a personal and professional level and were great fun. They should be saved from the fate of obsequious adulation that befell Alvar Aalto in the hands of the Cambridge puritans. Like Aalto, the Smithsons took risks: changing direction while producing some outstanding, and some not very good, buildings. They enjoyed life. The new overplayed brand of ordinariness and integrity is an inappropriately worthy millstone with which to burden their reputation.
Price and Archigram are somewhat different, in that their reputations are more clearly defined and less susceptible to such appropriation, while the personal friendships they shared ensure they are always closely linked. Archigram, through its very structure, is prone to different interpretations and it was ever thus. It was always a loose collaboration, manifesting ideas in print, and an office for only a brief period of time. All its members carried on teaching long after the collaboration had ended. This and their individual projects (think Ron Herron at Imagination and more recently Peter Cook/Colin Fournier at Graz) ensure that they have forged separate, if linked, identities. Price, through his drawings, writings and the way he lived his life, ensured that his attitudes could only get appropriated to the extent that he allowed. His projects and writing maintains a Priceian view of the world - a love of paradox, scorn of dogma and delight in the human condition - in numerous minds and projects; all by others and acknowledged 'with apologies to CP'.
The discussion of heroes past can be fascinating but nostalgia is dangerous.
Avoid the myths that only obscure lessons to be learned, borrowed or stolen. Take from these exhibitions what you want and beware the packaging.