Saturday, July 26, 2008


The Archigram group was established in 1961 by a few young British architects “united by common interests and antipathies.” Its founders were Peter Cook, Michael Webb, and David Greene, who were soon joined by Dennis Crompton, Ron Herron, and Warren Chalk. Archigram’s international impact—its architectural feat, so to speak—was significant. Other architects would give form to its notions. The Centre Pompidou, Paris, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, and Arata Isozaki’s buildings at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair are redolent of the fantastic schemes drawn, but never built, by Archigram. The Austrian architect Hans Hollein, too, admits his debt to them after 1964. It is in the realm of ideas about living in an advanced industrial civilization that they offered most.

All the founders had been students at the Architecture Association school in London, where they had learned, in the face of a then-reactionary architectural profession, to apply democratic principles to the art. The members who came later assimilated those ideas and blended them with other influences, notably the futuristic urban visions of Friedrich Kiesler and Bruno Taut and the technological notions of Richard Buckminster Fuller, whom they heroized. They also formed a symbiotic intellectual association with the exactly contemporary Japanese Metabolist group, in which Isozaki was preeminent. The Japanese applauded their efforts to “dismantle the apparatus of Modern Architecture.”

Like the Dutch De Stijl group around 1920, Archigram’s cooperation was mainly through a polemical journal; and like the Hollanders, it drew its name from the title of the journal. Archigram (derived from “architecture” and “telegram” or “aerogram”) was published (almost) annually between 1961 and 1974. Archigram, more like a polemical broadsheet than a journal, directed an attack on the smugness of modernist architectural conservatism, reinforced by what can best be called Britishness. The powerful publication ran to ten annual issues, preaching an urgent message about architecture that has been described as “esthetic technocratic idealism.” Possibly the most significant architectural publication of the decade, its “pop” format, including beautifully drawn comic strips, declared the group’s “optimism and possibilities of technology and the counterculture of the pop generation.”

The 1964 issue, after a controversial “Living City” exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, attracted the critic Reyner Banham, who became the group’s champion. There followed a succession of (perhaps) outlandish architectural proposals. Archigram’s direction was urban, technological, autocratic—and some have said inhumane. The members believed that technology was the hope of the world, so traditional means of building houses and cities must be superseded. Their favorite words were change, adaptability, flexibility, metamorphosis, impermanence, and ephemerality. Accordingly, they designed a living environment that incorporated all kinds of gadgetry. They proposed an inflatable bodysuit containing food, radio, and television, and the “suitaloon,” a house carried on the back. These eccentric ideas extended from the individual to the communal: Chalk’s Capsule Homes (1964) were projected alongside Cook’s Plug-in City (1964–1966), in which self-contained living units could be temporarily fitted into towering structural frames, and Herron’s nomadic Walking City; in which skyscrapers could move on giant telescoping legs. The group published its Instant City in 1968.

It has been suggested that in the 1960s Archigram was to modern architecture what the Beatles were to modern music. But in the early 1970s they more or less dispersed, Greene and Herron (for a while) becoming teachers in the United States. Crompton, Cook, and Herron formed Archigram Architects (1970–1974). Herron and Cook then established independent practices in various partnerships. Crompton maintained links with the Architectural Association, and Greene turned to writing poetry and practicing architecture. Webb moved permanently to the United States and after 1975 taught at Cornell and Columbia Universities in New York. Chalk continued writing and teaching in the United States and England, mostly at the Architectural Association, until he died in 1987.

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