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THE ELUSIVE MR PRICE

AGENDA

Experienced arts editors tell their reviewers to concentrate on the book or exhibition at hand and not compare it with the book or show the reviewer feels could or should have been written or mounted instead. But the temptation to do so over the little Cedric Price show at the Design Museum is strong.

The exhibition has been curated by Sophie McKinlay and Howard Shubert and co-organised with Phyllis Lambert's Canadian Centre for Architecture, to which Price sold his architectural papers and drawings a year or so before he died in 2003. So, not entirely surprisingly, what we have is not the fantastically colourful celebration of his old mates, Archigram, which was displayed recently at the same museum, but an exercise in museology.

The drawings are all displayed neatly on walls and on a series of plywood tables in the little back gallery on the second floor. It has a black box in the middle with two of the black leather seats Price designed for the 1962 Robert Fraser Gallery. A 1979 video lecture by Monica Pidgeon featuring Cedric speaking in unexpectedly la-di-da tones is projected. Bereft of the habitual cigar/whisky rasp and devoid of sardonic asides, these neatly modulated tones were presumably intended to gull nice middle-class audiences into accommodating his extraordinary propositions.

Come to think of it, rather a lot of what he had to say would still be outrageous now. Imagine how solemn, grey university dons today might react to the idea of running their regular lectures in moving railway carriages through a 100 square mile Staffordshire campus, like the Potteries Thinkbelt.

Price cultivated an air of preternatural secretiveness and mystery. He would send people photocopies of pages from books and articles vaguely illustrating a topic on which they had touched in conversation the day before - but without ever explaining or following up. He could be monumentally dismissive and charming - though people could never be entirely sure which. He would hint at projects but refuse to reveal more than a clue about them.

It is mentioned only briefly in the show that there was a 1976 Generator project for a client in Florida - which even people close to Price really don't understand yet, and which Price eventually suggested the client should abandon.

He would sit in the White Room, the fourth floor of his office overlooking the Building Centre, and, later, his friend Ron Herron's new Imagination building, watching who came and went - as you would discover inadvertently days later. When Price was up there and not to be disturbed, the White Room became 'East Grinstead'. Secretaries could truthfully explain to callers that Mr Price was in 'East Grinstead' and unavailable to talk to them.

In a dry but very moving memoir in the Guardian recently, Will Alsop, who worked for him for four years, mused:

'Towards the end of his life, Price was more relaxed. The notion of doing nothing, of observing - which so many people have forgotten - is something that I think he understood? [We] have no idea what Cedric was doing in 'East Grinstead'. Maybe he was just looking out the window, doing nothing.' The difficulty with the Design Museum show is that its flat, understated presentation may possibly be exactly the way Cedric would have wanted it. It's just the sort of covenant he would have put on the sale of his drawings. But he didn't build a lot, so the oeuvre may be complete, but it is not at all extensive; maybe 10 projects in 40 years. You worry most that the casual visitor will come away with the impression that Price did indeed do more or less nothing. Of all that lot - Archigram, Reyner Banham, David Allford and Frank Newby - Price surely needs the greatest explication. So, although it's nice to see the familiar drawings again, you sense that, in death, Price eludes description, as he had in life.

Cedric Price - Doubt, Delight and Change is at the Design Museum, London, from 25 June to 9 October

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