Still some reasons to be cheerful
Thirty seven years after the appearance of the first issue of 'Archigram', two of the group's surviving members - Denis Crompton and Peter Cook (aided by honorary Archigram-man Cedric Price) - came north last week to discuss its work. Given the line-up this was bound to be an enjoyable event, not least for its glimpses of Price's scrapbook of the Archigram years ('Oh look, there's Christine Keeler again!') and the revelation that he used to dance w ith 'Peaches Page - The Star with no Bra'.
The great paradox of Archigram's work is that it still looks modern, still seems fresh in its celebration of the science-fiction imagery appropriated by High-Tech. The future is still out there. As such it sits uneasily at the end of a Modernist tradition to which it gave an irreverent two-fingered salute. In so far as its spirit has continued in an avant-garde sense, it is by still defining itself against 'them'. To the audience, 'them' equalled any architect with a knighthood. But in the 1960s, as Price recalled, 'it was the decade of Sir Basil Spence, he did everything'.
This strong sense of opposition to the dominant and dull, a desire to be counter-cultural at all costs, is clearly still strongly felt. Cook told us that 'this will really upset them' was the frequent thought on completion of most Archigram projects - but was it any more than knocking on the door and then running away? The group's members may have gone their separate ways since 1974, but after all these years a desire to knock very loudly on the door is still there and at the heart of their programme.
Of course, the existence of anything as premeditated as a programme would seem to go against the restless, experimental, art-school inspired, brainstorming nature of the group's working practices. Success - as for any avant-garde - was to occupy new ground, fire, and then move on. Yet when speaker Simon Sadler summed up its programme as one of 'universal technological renovation', Cook declared that he had 'got it more right than anyone else so far'. Praise indeed for this Open University doctoral student - thank God he wasn't from Oxbridge.
But a problem with the current Archigram exhibition beset the symposium too: the bald application of date-labels to projects, or reminiscences, does little to help a contemporary audience understand, in anything other than formal terms, just why it was being done. During the symposium phrases like 'You've got to remember . . .' were used in a hurried way to try and contextualise the group's work.
Sadly, we do need to be told (if we can't remember) about Profumo, Suez, Kennedy, pollution, poor housing, ill-health and the condition of Britain in the 1950s and 60s to understand why Archigram did what it did, and why it was so important that it did it. This does not mean merely placing it within the architectural, or even cultural, debates of the day. One suspects, however, that this would be seen merely as playing into the hands of a dominant exhibition practice which places the 'background' at the start, and which then consigns Archigram to be what they are not yet ready to be - history.
But history can speak for architecture, and unless the group is put in a proper historical context - defined within its time and not just against a coterie which grew fat on welfare state architecture - its message and importance may well be lost.
It is wor th remember ing the IDEA conference in Folkestone in 1966 when a loose coalition of European student radicals denounced Archigram's love affair with mass commuPlug-in City, Maximum Pressure Area, Peter Cook, 1964 nications, American goods, and technology as creating 'shop windows for capitalist consumption', and saw Ron Herron's 'Walking City' as 'war machines'. As Sadler commented: 'It may be difficult to give Archigram a clean bill of health ideologically.'
Nonetheless we may still look to the group and its work for reasons to be cheerful. It was encouraging that a straw poll taken at the start of the symposium revea led that most of the audience were students. A later refinement of this established that they were not all students of architecture - to the delight of the panel, who welcomed kindred design areas. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that these might just have been students of history.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian