Three members of the ‘60s collective talk to author Darran Anderson about postmodernism, metabolism, their values, and watching the world catch up to them.
Speaking to the trio of surviving members Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, and David Greene in London (a fourth, Michael Webb, lives in the U.S.), there’s an immediate sense of how the personalities and dynamics might have worked within the group. Particularly evident is a sense of contrast and balance between the ebullient Cook and the stoical Greene, and a wider sense of the fantastical being balanced with the critical. It’s a quality partly acknowledged by the pair. The third member, Dennis Crompton, is a meticulous archivist and methodical thinker who collected, kept, processed, and edited the vast number of projects in the book. The sheer amount of work involved is apparent when he compares the detailed reproduction of Archigram’s Instant City with the original—a large, day-glo-like painting on the wall. No detail is missed and, over the course of the entire treasure trove of the book, the result is overwhelming.
While Archigram’s projects chime with other futuristic British creations (Skylon, Paolozzi’s art, Dan Dare, Cedric Price’s Fun Palace), there is a surprising breadth to the group that reached beyond the island’s shores. Alerted via architecture magazines, they connected reciprocally with like-minded groups such as the Japanese Metabolists and the Viennese avant garde such as Coop Himmelb(l)au and Haus-Rucker-Co. Aside from common interests in everything cellular and modular, what seems to unite these maverick groups was a sense of being outside the prevailing strands of architecture. Archigram’s intention was not the demolition of the past but a reimagining of its neglected aspects. They were not anti-Modernism so much as they recognized there were other Modernisms that had been overlooked or airbrushed out of existence.
Anderson: Archigram’s influence on High-Tech and other styles is often cited but one of the most prescient aspects has been how immersed in technology we’ve become. In the book, there are many examples (MANZAK, the Plug-In City, the Come and Go Project) of proto-Smart Cities, Augmented Reality, virtual environments and so on. Has reality caught up?
Greene: Well, we never anticipated the cordless revolution. We always thought there had to be an umbilical cord.
Cook: We didn’t predict how nonchalant technology would be. How it would appear formless and incorporated. We always had wires.
Anderson: At the same time, Archigram have seemed unreceptive to claims that what you were doing was utopian.
Cook: If you look at the designs, sometimes the drawings are quite straightforward… diagrams, elevations, just architecture, really. But the proposition starts to be a bit naughty. A point I keep making to anyone who cares to listen is that we were aware of a lineage of historical avant-garde groups, particularly in Germany around Bruno Taut. He was fascinating. Taut was a committed guy, undertaking extremely considered socialist housing, but he also speculated on all manner of things. A lot of avant-garde projects were coming out of France at the time of Archigram and they were not very interested in how you would actually get onto a platform, or how steep the stairwells were, or whether there were any loos. I think we couldn’t help but put handrails in because they were meant to be buildings. It wasn’t consciously utopian at all. It was based on fairly middlebrow, socialist North European conditions. And we did some buildings for that, that strayed off the norm.
Anderson: It was small ‘p’ political then, in the sense of focusing on what people wanted?
Greene: There was almost a naïve acceptance of the values of consumerism, which at the time seemed great; this was going to be the world. The downside of that has, of course, been revealed.
Cook: It was consumer focused. We enjoyed the idea of availability, exchangeability, and expendability. It should be out there for grabs and to be enjoyed. I’m fascinated by how people misuse buildings.
My interest has always been in the vocabulary of architecture. There is a British puritan streak where you’re not supposed to care about aesthetics but I overtly enjoy what things look like. And there are a lot more things that it can look like than it what looks like. We’re working in much too narrow a territory and the key seems to be to expand the vocabulary of what is possible and what is exchangeable. The buildings I’ve built are quite consistent but consistent, I suppose, in being shocking. They’re bright blue, or have stripes, or whatever. Surely, there are legitimate colors for buildings beyond just grey or biscuit brick.
Anderson: Broadening the vocabulary of architecture means absorbing elements then from overlooked parts of the built environment and engineering...
Anderson: With 3D printing, could we see a resurrection of architectural ornament after the Modernists supposedly killed it off?
Cook: Oh yes but also impregnating architecture that will start doing things beyond human control, eating, burping, and god knows what.