Archigram: Architecture Without Architecture By Simon Sadler.
MIT Press, 2005.242pp. £22.95
At last we have an objective, scholarly book about Archigram. Until now anyone interested in the history of those architectural visionaries of the 1960s has had to rely on a couple of scrapbook-like publications edited by Archigram members themselves, or on exhibitions such as the excellent one at the Design Museum last year (AJ 08.04.04).
Simon Sadler does a conscientious job, telling the story thematically, rather than chronologically, in four long, copiously illustrated and footnoted chapters. This involves a certain amount of repetition and in the end the reader is left in something of a fog about what exactly happened when and who was responsible. But this may not be Sadler's fault.
Fogginess is simply inherent in the subject.
Where exactly does the spirit of Archigram reside and how much importance should we assign to it? Despite the fact that he has chosen to write its history, even Sadler seems unsure how to answer this question. Looked at one way, Archigram was just a series of little samizdat publications, crudely produced in minimal print runs and distributed via an ad hoc student network.
It was also an architectural practice of a kind but, apart from an adventure playground in Milton Keynes and a swimming pool for Rod Stewart, it built nothing. Why should anyone bother to write its history?
Looked at another way, it was the most vital force in mid-20th-century British architecture and, in retrospect, the projects it published were impressively prophetic. The images that usually represent Archigram - Peter Cook's Plug-in City (pictured) and Ron Herron's Walking City - are period pieces, firmly stuck in the era of the megastructure, but later, subtler projects such as Mike Webb's Rent-a-Wall and David Greene's Logplug seem to foreshadow the threat to architecture of globalisation, virtual space and constant surveillance. What in the 1960s was merely a mischievous conjecture has now become uncomfortably real.
Sadler's subtitle - Architecture Without Architecture (echoing Bernard Rudofsky's Architecture Without Architects) - highlights Archigram's essentially iconoclastic nature. It started off as a rebellion against the managerial stuffiness of 1950s Modernism and ended up denying the value of architecture altogether. Was it truly influential? Did it effect any positive change? Certainly it did. The Centre Pompidou would probably not have happened without Archigram, and without the Centre Pompidou, British High-Tech would not have flourished in the 1980s.
The High-Tech connection reveals an important feature of almost all Archigram projects:
they were buildable. They were not fantasies, at least not in the technical sense. Look closely at the glass roof peering out from the crayoned foliage of a typical late Archigram drawing and you will see that the glazing bars are drawn precisely two feet apart, the optimum spacing for the patent glazing technology of the time.