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Archigram’s radical designs are part of our architectural heritage

Paul Finch
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A newly published compendium of the avant-garde group is a pertinent reminder of the importance of trailblazing radical design, writes Paul Finch

Archigram plug in city

Archigram plug in city

As the usual drearies crank out arguments in favour of Band-Aid architectural styles masking real issues, one can only adapt one of Cedric Price’s rhetorical questions: ‘If Classicism is the answer, what was the question?’

Everything becomes heritage, of course, in the same way that everything was new once. As a timely reminder, along comes the Archigram Big Book, published by David Jenkins’ Circa Press and edited by Dennis Crompton. This is a long-awaited comprehensive compendium, republishing all the ‘architectural telegrams’ from which the group took its name, listing all the projects and detailing the most significant.

It includes a perceptive essay from 1975 by Martin Pawley, reflecting on the importance of Archigram as it celebrated its 10th anniversary with a several-hours-long ‘opera’ performance of music, images and drawings in a packed AA. One of Pawley’s observations concerned the 1970 Osaka Expo: ‘When first confronted with the Japanese version of what Archigram had been drawing for so long, one could only gasp at its enormous scale and technical completeness.’ Kenzō Tange’s theme pavilion in fact featured an Archigram exhibit within it, rather lost amid the drama of elements such as Arata Isozaki’s robot performance tower. 

This radical attitude is the breath of fresh air we need to blow away the current stale atmosphere of Ministry of Housing-approved architectural styles

There was a natural affinity between the work of the Metabolists and Archigram, along with other like-minded architectural protagonists such as Coop Himmelb(l)au and Future Systems. The radical attitude of that generation of architectural disrupters is the breath of fresh air we need to blow away the current stale atmosphere of Ministry of Housing-approved architectural styles – a policy completely at odds with what the Department for International Trade tells the rest of the world about the creativity and achievement of Britain’s architectural practices. The vast majority of these work in a style that is about the contemporary, in terms of programme, structural and environmental design, materials and construction.

That Osaka Expo was referenced by Asif Khan in a lecture I had the pleasure of attending at the International Culture Forum in St Petersburg last week. He began with the famous sketches by Joseph Paxton of Crystal Palace – the origin of the steel and glass office building and an example of radical thinking that exceeded time and budget expectations. Khan made a good point about expos, beginning with the 1851 Great Exhibition, being the occasion for advanced design thinking because most clients are not interested in propositional design.

His own brilliant explorations of materials and elision of construction and intelligent IT systems are reminders of how dreamers like Archigram are simply ahead of the game. They envisage possibilities that are certain to be dismissed as impractical by dullards, but which inspire other designers to push possibilities. Khan cited what the great Russian engineer Vladimir Shukhov had done a century ago with his exploration of tensioned gridshells and other innovative structures.

Pawley’s 1975 essay concluded with a comment on brilliant young architects ‘who are selling their drawings of the brave new world to the galleries and museums of the craven old in order to make a living’. And, he might have added, creating instant heritage often based on designs that were never achieved.

Thank goodness that, in Archigram’s case, the promise offered did eventually result in the Imagination building, the cultural centre in Graz, and Peter Cook’s delightful Drawing Room at the University of the Arts in Bournemouth (his second building there is on the way). His concluding essay suggests the world of Archigram is still ‘jaunty and provocative’ and so it is. Messrs Chalk, Cook, Crompton, Greene, Herron and Webb vitaminised the world of heritage; a reminder of the power of creativity in the forgotten world of Zippertone.

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