ARCHIGRAM dominated the architectural avant garde in the 1960s and early 1970s with its playful, pop-inspired visions of a technocratic future after its formation in 1961 by a group of young London architects – Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron and Michael Webb.
“A new generation of architecture must arise with forms and spaces which seems to reject the precepts of ‘Modern' yet in fact retains those precepts. We have chosen to by pass the decaying Bauhaus image which is an insult to functionalism. You can roll out steel – any length. You can blow up a balloon – any size. You can mould plastic – any shape. Blokes that built the Forth Bridge – they didn't worry.”
So wrote David Greene in a poem published in the first issue of Archigram magazine or, as Greene's co-editor, Peter Cook, called it “a message, or abstract communication”. It was published in 1961 on a large sheet of the cheapest available paper. Filled with Greene's poems and sketches of architectural projects designed by Cook, Michael ‘Spider' Webb and other friends, the magazine voiced their frustration with the intellectual conservatism of the British architectural establishment.
It was a time of radical change. Politics had skipped a generation when John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States in 1960. The theories of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss were igniting the intelligentsia; as were the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and François Truffaut in cinema. It was also a time of extraordinary technological advances when the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and the first weather satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral . The photocopier was invented, as were laser action hologram and the contraceptive pill.
Prosperous and self-satisfied after a decade of post-war reconstruction, British architecture – the “staid Queen Mother of the arts” as the critic Reyner Banham described it – had chosed to ignore these changes. Determined to develop their own approach, rather than risk being co-opted into the architectural establishment, the Archigram group inveighed against what Cook later described as: “the crap going up in London, against the attitude of a continuing European tradition of well-mannered, but gutless architecture that had absorbed the label “Modern” but had betrayed most of the philosophies of the earliest ‘Modern'.”
They sold 300 copies of their magazine at nine pence each, mostly to architectural students and assistants in architects' offices. As Cook recalled, it was “brushed off by the few senior architects who saw it as a student joke and…everybody thought it would die a natural death.” A year later, he, Greene and Webb printed a second, more substantial issue, which was typeset on stapled pages like a conventional magazine. It consisted of statements of intent by young architects including a trio – Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton and Ron Herron – who worked together at London County Council and whose names had been noted enviously by the Archigram's founders as the runners-up in various architectural competitions.
The second issue of Archigram came out in 1962, the year when Yves Saint Laurent opened his Paris fashion house, the Beatles stormed the pop charts with their debut single Love Me Do and Bob Dylan released his first album. Pop art hit the headlines when The New Realists, an exhibition featuring the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claus Oldenburg, opened in New York and, a few months later, the young British artists – David Hockney, Allen Jones and Peter Blake – were the hit of the Paris Biennial. Cook, Greene, Webb and their new collaborators – Chalk, Crompton and Herron – were invited to produce an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London . It opened in 1963 as Living City, a manifesto for their belief “in the city as a unique organism”, which is more than a collection of buildings, but a means of liberating people by embracing technology and empowering them to choose how to lead their lives.
Living City caught the attention of Reyner Banham who, having championed Alison and Peter Smithson, two of the few “senior architects” whom the Archigram group admired, in the 1950s, now hailed Archigram as the pioneers of a new pop architecture in the 1960s. Rather than dying the “natural death” as its critics had expected, Archigram – the magazine and its editors – flourished.
Archigram was defined less by a specific set of principles, than by an optimistic spirit. Its members shared a refusal to be shackled by the past – “The pre-packaged frozen lunch is more important than Palladio,” opined Peter Cook – and a belief that the potent combination of social change and technological advance would foster a more humane architecture equipped to embrace the complexities and opportunities of contemporary life. One of its strengths was the diversity of a group in which the six core members and their collaborators came from very different backgrounds with different skills and enthusiasms. “The overlap was an enjoyment of teasing,” wrote Cook, “teasing the architectural extremity, and most of the architectural language.”
The US critic Michael Sorkin defined Archigram's influences as a combination of Britain's heroic engineering heritage – Crystal Palace, the Dreadnought, the Spitfire, the Forth Bridge and the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – with Buckminster Fuller's technocractic idealism and vernacular images of Marvel Comics and The Eagle, Meccano, sci-fi films, pop music, funfairs and pop art. “Bewitched by nomadic fantasies, Archigram argued that an architecture based on mobility and malleability could set people free,” he wrote. “This notion of consumer choice combined optimised technology, a post-Beat hitchhiker's sense of freedom and the giddy styles of customisation found in Detroit .”
Critically, Archigram's approach to architecture was fun, as illustrated by two of the group's most memorable projects: Ron Herron's 1964 cartoon drawings of a Walking City, in which a city of giant, reptilian structures literally glided across the globe on enormous legs until its inhabitants found a place where they wanted to settle; and the crane-mounted living pods that could be plugged in wherever their inhabitants wished in Peter Cook's 1964 Plug-in City.
Equally irreverent were the ingenious devices that Archigram dreamt up to fulfil the functions of traditional buildings from miniaturised capsule homes like Ron Herron and Warren Chalk's 1965 Gasket Homes and David Greene's 1966 Living Pod, or Michael Webb's 1966 Cushicle mobile environment and his 1967 wearable house, the Suitaloon. In 1968, the group proposed to transport all the entertainment and education resources of a metropolis in an Instant City airship,which would fly from place to place and temporarily ‘land' in small communites to enable the inhabitants to enjoy the buzz of life in a city.
By the end of the 1960s, Archigram's magazine was selling several thousand copies an issue and had published the work of then-aspiring architects such as Nicholas Grimshaw, Arata Isozaki, Hans Hollein and Frei Otto as well as the members of the group. In 1969, the group, which, by then, had gained Colin Fournier and Ken Allison, opened an architectural practise after winning a competition to design a leisure centre in Monte-Carlo. The design was of an enormous circular dome buried underground by the Mediterranean . The seats, toilets and lights were mounted on wheels to be moved around into new configurations as the use of the building changed.
The funding collapsed and the leisure centre was never built. The cultural climate, once so empathetic to Archigram's technocractic optimism, was darkening as the brutality of the war in Vietnam and civil unrest in Northern Ireland , demonstrated the macabre side of technological advances. Over the next five years, Archigram fragmented as its members left to pursue new interests. When the practise dissolved in 1974, Archigram had realised three projects, all completed in 1973 by Dennis Crompton and Ron Herron: a children's playground in Milton Keynes, an exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in London and a swimming pool for the singer Rod Stewart. “Archigram gave us a chance to let rip and show what we wanted to do if only anyone would let us,” said Ron Herron just before his death in 1994. “They didn't.”
Yet Archigram's influence has endured. It is visible not only in the subsequent work of the group's members but in buildings by other architects such as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano's jubilantly technocractic Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris or Will Alsop's ebullient Peckham Library in south London. It is also acknowledged in the writing of later generations of architects such as Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas who described Archigram in his Report on the City 1 and 2 as being among the last “new movements in urbanism”.