Archigram ruled the architectural avant-garde in the late 1960s – 50 years on, its playful vision of a technocratic future is freely available online. Steve Parnell reports
Almost half a century on from their initial protest sheet, interest in Archigram – architecture’s answer to The Beatles – has, incredibly, never been stronger. The amazing thing is that until recently, it was the Archigram group themselves – Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Mike Webb, Ron Herron and Warren Chalk – who were most fascinated with their creations. No books, not even those written by Archigram, contained the full back catalogue. This was frustrating because since this 1960s pop group split up, very little independent critical assessment – with the exception of Simon Sadler’s superb ‘unofficial biography’ in 2005 – has occurred. They have therefore been able to successfully embed themselves deeply into architectural history and even won the RIBA Gold Medal in the process, having built no more than a playground in Milton Keynes and Rod Stewart’s swimming pool.
If the world of cuisine were as obsessed with awards as architecture is, this would be akin to a celebrity chef winning the Golden Toque (or whatever it is they secretly covet) by simply writing recipes involving nonexistent food (probably aphrodisiac), drawing beautiful people eating them, and publishing myriad cookbooks without ever switching on an oven. Once the fly in the establishment’s ointment, Archigram now represent the epitome of architectural establishmentarianism. One could argue about the influence of Archigram on the metabolists, on the high-tech movement and on building in general. Many people have. But it’s architectural culture rather than practice where the ‘six wise giants’ are important.
Until the 1960s, architectural culture was a by-product of practice. However, partly in response to a growing disillusionment with modernism, this hierarchy has been reversing ever since so that now, architectural practice is a by-product of its culture. And it is Archigram that most emphatically represents this inversion, as the first architects to make a career almost entirely out of architectural culture (lecturing, teaching, exhibiting, publishing) rather than building.
So the Archigram Archival Project – an online catalogue of the group’s work – is incredibly important. Until the launch of this site, there was simply nowhere you could view the magazines in which the majority of its work was first published, that generated the phenomenon as an entirety. They are now available for free viewing in glorious, low resolution technicolour. The site is superb, both in content and form. It won’t make the corners of your browser round, but there are videos of Kester Rattenbury interviewing Crompton about each of the 10 magazines, a bibliography that will take a lifetime to read and almost 10,000 original items – mostly drawings of course, but also photographs of slide shows and exhibitions – scanned in, cross-referenced and searchable. As well as many of the items being transcribed, there are supplementary texts to locate Archigram in history, in case you missed it the first time.
And at last – every page of every magazine is there too. My only criticism is the resolution of the images. This is a direct consequence of the difference between culture and practice: whereas the products of architectural culture (documents) are easy to copy, and therefore copyrightable, those of practice (buildings) are not. In the UK, until the recent hyper-paranoid anti-terror laws at least, it was permissible to freely photograph any building from the public highway. The surviving Archigram four and the heirs of Chalk and Herron don’t want anyone raiding the cash cow by freely printing the contents.
Now we can all access the incredible quantity of Archigram material and feed off the abounding optimism
It’s been a long time coming, but definitely worth the wait. At least now we can all access the incredible quantity of material, feed off the abounding energy and optimism and assess for ourselves whether Archigram deserve their unique place in architectural history. As the FAQ states, ‘Q: Where’s all the criticism? A: Over to you!’
Archigram’s rise to fame
Archigram’s productions include exhibitions, shows and even an opera, as well as the magazines. Their first, following in the wake of the Independent Group’s 1950s exhibitions, was Living City at the ICA in 1963. ‘The problem facing our cities is not just that of their regeneration, but of their right to an existence.’ wrote Cook in the introduction.
However, one critic questioned the need for an exhibition promoting the vibrancy of the city, in the middle of swinging London. Nevertheless, the catalogue was published as the second of Theo Crosby’s Living Arts magazine and the logo won a COID award.
Archigram 4, the ‘Zoom’ issue of 1964, was the key year in Archigram’s fortunes. This most brilliant of issues took more than inspiration from sci-fi comic books and Roy Lichtenstein imagery in order to present architecture as a consumable, popular item rather than the stuffy high culture that modernism had become.
Reyner Banham, who lived opposite Peter Cook, took six copies with him to the US, where, the story goes, Philip Johnson and Peter Blake saw it and the ‘zoom wave’ really took off, giving Archigram international notoriety.
Beyond the magazines, Archigram produced an immense amount of ideas and drawings depicting an optimistic, fantasy, fun future where you and your partner are eternally beautiful. Many of these previously unpublished images form a large portion of the archive and are well worth investigation.
For example, there’s the ‘tuned suburb’ (which today might be called ‘pimp my suburb’), the Enviro-Pill – a pill that induces a virtual reality environment in the mind, and many competition entries from when the group attempted the move from culture to practice.
It would have been interesting to see their ideas turned into material reality, although that would have spoilt the Archigram mythology.