A collection of some of post-war Britain’s most significant architectural work is to leave the country after the surviving members of Archigram were given the go-ahead to sell their archive to a Hong Kong museum for £1.8 million
Culture secretary Jeremy Wright has said he will allow the sale of the legendary architecture group’s archive to M +, a modern art and design museum in Hong Kong’s emerging West Kowloon cultural district.
The deal marks the culmination of a decade long search by the 1960s avant-garde group to find a suitable buyer.
The archive’s export was approved by Wright despite a recommendation to block the overseas sale made by the reviewing committee on the export of works of art and objects of cultural interest, administered by the Arts Council.
After hearing evidence from various parties, including an unnamed expert from one of the UK’s national museums who made the initial objection to the export, the committee recommended the government impose a temporary halt while a buyer was sought who would keep it in the UK.
It said the collection should stay in Britain due to its ‘outstanding significance in relation to architectural history’.
However, only cultural items over 50 years old can be blocked from export and Archigram’s archive comprises both items from that period and newer ones.
Wright concluded that an export licence should be granted ‘on the basis that the issue of overriding importance was that the archive should remain intact’.
Archigram member Peter Cook told the AJ he was relieved by the minister’s decision after what he called a ‘long, strange process’ following the sale in March last year. He said Archigram would look forward to celebrating it.
‘We’ll have a drink in Hong Kong I should think,’ he said. ‘We had made the sale and been paid and then unexpectedly a stop was put on [the export]. The people from M+ came to London and attended a committee hearing and have been pretty good about it. It was referred to the secretary of state and then went completely silent.’
The reviewing committee on the export of works of art and objects of cultural interest advises the Department for Digital, Cultural, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the export of cultural property and assesses items against the three ‘Waverley Criteria’.
It concluded that the Archigram archive met the third of these, which asks ‘is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?’ and also noted the work’s influence on the built work of architects such as Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.
‘The Archigram archives are a unique resource for the study of the Archigram group, one of the most innovative and influential collectives in 20th-century architecture,’ it concluded.
The archive was valued at £2.7 million in 2016 and had attracted interest from around the world including the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
But Archigram’s surviving members Cook, David Greene, Michael Webb and Dennis Crompton were willing to take a lower price from a leading international institution that would ensure the archive was properly conserved and made available to the public.
‘We didn’t haggle that much,’ Cook said. ‘We’re not very good at negotiating, but I got enough to pay off my mortgage. When we were hawking it around, there were some places that would have put it into a basement only for scholars to see. I hope that M+ will allow people to see it.’
M+, which is designed by Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with Farrells, is expected to open in 2020.
Cook admitted he felt conflicted about the archive leaving Britain but said the country had no suitable architecture museum.
I think the lack of UK interest is a sign of a certain blinkeredness
‘I do have mixed feelings even though I’m not that nationalist,’ he said. ‘I do think [the lack of UK interest] is a sign of a certain blinkeredness.’
Crompton, the group’s archivist, said the work had been mostly stored in his house ‘under various beds and in cupboards’.
He added: ‘We had a big exhibition in Vienna in 1994 and work was framed for that, so it then became bulky. For the best part of 20 years, I’ve managed to keep it moving around the world so someone else had the problem of where to keep it.
‘Now it will be all together in a place which is young and enthusiastic and is the Far Eastern version of the Pompidou Centre or MOMA.’
Following its years of international touring, the archive was held by the University of Westminster as part of a scheme to digitise 10,000 Archigram images around a decade ago. Since then it has been stored at a facility in Southend on Sea.
According to M+, Archigram’s radical and forward-thinking work had a significant impact in Asia and influenced a wide range of Hong Kong architects and artists such as Tao Ho, James Law (a former student of Cook’s), and Kacey Wong.
The museum acquired the archive under the direction of its former lead curator of design and architecture, Aric Chen, and is now understood to be bidding to acquire other architects’ archives such as that of Arata Isozaki.
Chen said: ‘Archigram’s influence is broadly well known, but the group’s interactions and resonance with Asia, from the Metabolists of 1960s Japan through to contemporary Chinese architects, are less explored. We are confident that having the archive at M+ will prompt new frameworks for seeing Hong Kong.’
Director of M+, Suhanya Raffel, called its acquisition a ‘milestone’ in its efforts to built a permanent collection of work of significant global cultural value.
She added: ‘We are proud of the acquisition of the Archigram archive, which was emphatically approved by the M+ acquisition committee and the M+ board, based on our curatorial team’s rigorous research and argument’s regarding Archigram’s historical significance for Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Asia generally.’
The museum’s chief curator Doryun Chong said its core focus was on Hong Kong and the rest of Asia but predicted the Archigram archive would ’greatly enhance M+’s position as a leading voice in the discussion on contemporary architecture, and more broadly, global visual culture’.
Archigram Members, David Greene, Peter Cook, Michael Webb and Dennis Crompton on the set of the Archigram Exhibition in Mito, Japan, 2005
Source: © Archigram 2005
What’s in the Archigram archive?
The archive comprises 3,000-4,000 drawings, between 11,000 and 14,000 photographs, 17 models, 430 video and audio tapes and around 60 boxes of documents, correspondence, financial information and various objects. These items document around 200 projects ranging from sketches for the 1962 Nottingham Shopping Centre (Cook and Greene) to material covering the group’s Living City exhibition of 1963 to drawings for Cook’s Plug in City (1963-64) and Ron Herron’s Walking Cities project (1964).
It also includes later works such as plans for the world’s-fair pavilions in Malaysia, Montreal and Osaka and the 1968 Instant City. According to the expert advice given to the reviewing committee on the export of works of art and objects of cultural interest, the archive represents a ‘window onto the avant-garde of British architectural culture in the 1960s and early 1970s’.