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The sixties revisited - the best of times, the first of times

The other day I was invited to give a talk at the aa about the Sixties, a period of which I can claim some personal experience having actually been alive at the time. To my surprise, tales of this bygone age not only proved to be of considerable interest to an audience of students, virtually none of whom can have been born when the events described took place, but the whole process of discussing the decade turned out to be much more complicated than I had expected.

One of the first problems was to decide when the Sixties were. It is useless to just say 1960 to 1970 because every significant measure of the Sixties places the decade off-centre. One theory places it between the Cuban missile crisis of 1963 and the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Another between the release of the Beatles' Love me Do and the Rolling Stones Concert in the Park. Another from Yuri Gagarin to Buzz Aldrin. Another from Flats and Houses '58 to the collapse at Ronan Point, and so on. The Sixties was a decade not only of beginnings, but of ends. It was not only the last pre-decimal and pre-metric decade, but also the first real computer decade, when carefree programmers with no sense of history laid down thousands of double-digit date references, and thus began the incubation of the millennium bug.

The Sixties was also an era of globalisation in a sense rather different from the globalisation we speak of today. In the Sixties it was revolutionary. Students in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Britain, Scandinavia, the us and China were all touched by the events of May 1968, which took place in Paris. In the same way, students from the us and the ussr were united in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Everything in that era was either intensely political or studiously anti-political - opposing the war, dropping out, building domes in the desert, smoking dope, all of it was political. Yet in retrospect, all the events of the decade that truly were historic - the moon landings, supersonic passenger flight, the ideas of the Archigram Group - were opposed because they had no political content. Everybody, but particularly young people, believed in political solutions.

Consider the recipients of the Royal Gold Medal for architecture in the Sixties. They were Pier Luigi Nervi, Lewis Mumford, Sven Markelius, Lord Holford, Maxwell Fry, Kenzo Tange, Ove Arup, Nikolaus Pevsner, Richard Buckminster Fuller and Jack Coia.

What an extraordinary list! Only three architects out of ten recipients. Compare that with the Gold Medal list for the 1990s - eight practising architects and one city. In those days the Medal went to engineers, historians, planners and inventors. The world of architecture, even at its most institutional level, was much more freethinking then. According to its citation the Royal Gold Medal, then and now, was and is awarded to distinguished architects or groups of architects or to distinguished persons who have 'promoted either directly or indirectly the advancement of architecture.' At that time the most famous project of the 1968 winner, that student favourite Richard Buckminster Fuller, was a giant geodesic dome intended to cover 60 blocks of lower Manhattan. This was 'the advancement of architecture' according to the voting members of the riba in the Sixties. I doubt that half a dozen of its 26,000 members would say that now.

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