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Fun palaces and sin centres

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To mark this year’s AJ Writing Prize, we relook at an essay written for the AJ in 2007 by one of this year’s judges, celebrated architectural critic Joseph Rykwert, looking at the roots of High-Tech

You might say, for all Mr Macmillan’s homebuilding and Centre Point, that the ’60s were energised by ‘experimental’ (sometimes ‘radical’) architecture, and the ’70s was when the experimental results were applied.

At the beginning of that first decade, a number of groups appeared, claiming the aspiring architect’s attention. Archigram (it took its name from its anti-white-architecture ‘little magazine’) in Britain and Metabolism in Japan were the most famous. But while the Metabolists (Kisho Kurokawa, Kiyonori Kikutake) did produce a number of buildings from the outset, Archigram made itself known through a prolific outpouring of ‘supergraphic’, Yellow Submarine-style drawn projects – though its members were all employed by a large-scale building contractor. Other individual designers at that time were also thinking on an urban scale, whether proposing gigantic unified plant-like cities in space (or buried underground), such as those of the Italian-American Paolo Soleri, or planning visionary adaptations of existing settlements, such as Yona Friedman’s high-level second city over Paris and an inhabited bridge spanning the English Channel.

Behind and above all this agitation hovered the guru-like figure of Richard Buckminster Fuller, who believed unshakeably that his wholly rational solutions to building problems (such as a geodesic dome to cover all of Manhattan) would not only solve every one of them, but would go a long way towards resolving all the conflicts with which humanity was plagued.

At the beginning of the decade, in 1961, the International Union of Architects met in London. Their theme was ‘The Architecture of Technology’, and it was suggested that the positive mood had affected the whole profession. Then, mid-decade (1966, to be exact), Archigram summoned a general ‘Experimental Architecture’ conference or jamboree in Folkestone. The contributors, besides Archigram themselves, were some of those I have mentioned: Soleri and Friedman, as well as other foreign luminaries such as Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuis, who had given up painting to construct a vast model of a continuous building, New Babylon, that would straddle the whole world. The most notable local participant was Cedric Price, whose projects for a ‘Fun Palace’ (anticipated as the ‘Sin Centre’ by an Archigram, Mike Webb) was to be sited in east London’s Lea Valley.

There was a sense that technology would provide the sufficient motor for the future of architecture

Price and the organisers shared with most of the participants a sense that technology would provide the sufficient motor for the future of architecture. There was no need to appeal either to socio-political or even economic notions, and any sense of the physical context in which these buildings were to go up was also an irrelevance, or simply an accident of circumstance.

In so far as there was concern with ‘function’, ‘sin’ and ‘fun’ seemed to dominate. The operative word was ‘ludic’, and play was to be the most conspicuous occupation of the society to be housed in such non-buildings – neither production nor political activity could really be accommodated in these ‘experimental’ spaces, while the notion of ‘home’ was sublimated to the plug-in individual capsule. For all that, what struck me about these ‘radicals’ or ‘experimenters’, was their deep earnestness; there weren’t many laughs about all this play. Part of this earnestness was a reluctance to state the premises from which they were working and which they could therefore neither question nor even discuss.

Implied in many projects was the assumption that they would be relatively cheap and easy to assemble as well as to unplug. The Montreal World Exposition of 1967, to which the USA contributed a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome, was a high point of the time.

As it drew to a close, the experimental period achieved a kind of apotheosis when Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano won the competition for the Centre Beaubourg (now Pompidou) in 1971. This was the art gallery/public library turned if not quite into a ‘sin’, then certainly into a ‘fun’ palace – though the Archigram-like ‘supergraphics’ that tied it back to its London matrix were much more evident in the project than in the executed building.

The High-Tech style, heralded by Plateau Beaubourg, would grow out of these ’60s projects

At the end of the decade, the High-Tech style, heralded by Plateau Beaubourg, would grow out of these ’60s projects. Like the experiments, the High-Tech architects exalted a linear technology, but changed its implications. No one claimed that the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building by Foster was either cheap or easily dismountable.

What shook the apparently impregnable conviction in the linear, perhaps exponential, growth of technology were the two Middle Eastern conflicts of 1967 and 1973. They suggested that the flow of petrol might not be constant, that energy was not inexhaustible, that there might be fits and starts. Energy shortages might deflect technical development growth. And so ecology reared its head among the technologues.

That is perhaps the time when a need for ‘theory’ also began to assert itself. Not as a way of providing answers (let alone recipes), but as the asking of some of the nagging questions that were being neglected in the current optimism (or so it seemed to some of us); questions about the implications of technical progress in the human environment, about the way in which cities and buildings are occupied by real people, about our relationship to the past. The lean years of the ’70s allowed some space for such enquiries. n

  • Joseph Rykwert is Paul Philippe Cret professor of architecture emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and recipient of the 2014 RIBA Gold Medal


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