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How a group of radical ’60s architects designed the future

How the Archigram architectural collective, profiled in a comprehensive new book, designed for a more radical, and random, future

Free Time Node Trailer Cage, Ron Herron, Archigram 1966.
Free Time Node Trailer Cage, Ron Herron, Archigram 1966.
Archigram Archives

Neatly bound, colorfully illustrated, and comprehensive in its scope, Archigram: The Book, a new exploration of the influential and imaginative ’60s British architecture collective, ticks all the coffee table boxes. It’s a big, bold look back at a group whose big, bold ideas—collectivist housing, flexible design, and architecture with wit, verve, and humor that seems transposed from comic books—made a massive impact on design.

The problem with that framing is that Archigram’s work still looks decidedly like the future, half a century later. Collected in whole for the first time, this compendium of the collective ideas and inspirations of Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb reads like a more colorful, creative, and upbeat view of where modern design should be headed.

Isn’t their Walking City concept from 1964—self-contained pods that roam the city streets—an early premonition about the future of autonomous vehicles? Or the Plug-In-City, also from 1964, a machine-like megastructure of modular units that constantly rearrange and rework themselves, a framework for today’s micro apartments and co-living? Sketches for wearable architecture (such as the “cushicle”) and other ideas dismissed as glib simply viewed design as something flexible, responsive, and constantly shifting and adapting.

The new book chronicles the 14-year life of the neofuturistic collective, which came together at London’s Architectural Association, collecting all nine issues of the group’s magazine, as well as hundreds of images and designs that reflect their singular take on the cities of tomorrow. Curbed interviewed members of Archigram via email to gauge how they see their work now, and how they have, or have not, predicted the world of today.

Walking City in New York, Ron Herron, Archigram 1964.
Archigram Archives

Patrick Sisson: When you look at the sharing economy, and the trends towards sharing space embodies in Airbnb, co-housing, and WeWork, do you feel like your ideas about a shared civic common and flexible buildings were very much ahead of their time?

Dennis Crompton: This question seems to assume that we were promoting a certain style of living. This is not the case! At the time of our studies in the 1960s there was a very observable shift starting to take place in British society, and elsewhere, where the traditional family and its home was undergoing change and becoming more fluid, and the individuals more mobile. Our experiments were looking at how architecture might respond to these trends through the development of new systems of construction that allowed more flexibility than the traditional methods.

Peter Cook: The sharing of space is logical: civilizations should always be prepared to ameliorate. Archigram’s flexible buildings and flexible thinking were inevitably part of such a logic.

I was struck by the way the Living City description was such a great celebration of a lively, urban life. It was a call to fight conformity and sterility in public lifewhy do you think those calls seem to have gone unheeded, looking at today’s overpriced, repetitious urban environment? What urbanist today is preaching what you would consider a similar philosophy?

D.C.: Our cities have always been lively and exciting places—potentially, if not in fact. This has not necessarily been the result of urban planning, but rather the characteristics of their population. I see no reason to believe that this is not now the case. We were not preaching, and it would have been totally wrong for us to have done so.

The duty of architects and urban planners is to create the facilities that allow rather than prevent the expressions of a lively urban life. You should look at the way that in recent years the use of London’s squares, such as Trafalgar Square, has been transformed by re-planning traffic circulation. The space is now used not just for political rallies but for celebrations as varied as a village green to a religious festival. Norman Foster with his city squares projects is just one of the urbanists who are working to adapt our city spaces to suit the varying needs of the citizens.

P.C.: The present mood is downbeat, city dwellers almost seem to apologize for hedonistic activities. I can only hope that the inevitable cycle of loves and hatred will replace the present Puritan atmosphere.

Control and Choice Dwellings, Part Section, Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, Ron Herron, Archigram 1967.
Archigram Archives

Contemporary architects have even more tools and technology at their disposal—why is their take on modern design lacking some of the optimism and excitement found in your work? What cultural forces or influences caused your group to look so far beyond the traditional architectural discourse; even today, that free-wheeling exploration and theorization feels rare.

D.C.: The lack of optimism by some, but not all, contemporary architects and designers you refer to is also a source of disappointment to us, as indeed it was back in the ’60s. But you should not only blame the designers but also their clients and a general lack of risk for fear of “getting it wrong” among those who are responsible for our cities.

P.C.: I think this raises much the same issue as your second question above. It also coincides with a very moral climate in public opinion: health and safety, rights for marginal groups (including the stupid), social media providing a voice for everybody—even those with no expertise or positional legitimacy—to express themselves. We were optimistic because we were brimming with ideas.

Cushicle in three states, Michael Webb, Archigram 1966.
Archigram Archives

How did the U.S. and U.S. culture influence you, especially after your trips to California in the late ’60s?

D.C.: These cultures influenced everybody, not just Archigram, through books, music, films, television and personal experiences of visiting American cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. One cannot be precise about how—it is too personal.

P.C.: I found the West Coast cheerful and optimistic, the East Coast pretend-European and academically stuffy and pretentious and over-influenced by French philosophy. For me, the US becomes less and less interesting year-by-year; Europe more-and-more interesting.

The recent passing of Robert Venturi has rightfully put his work and theories back in the spotlight. Did you feel he was a kindred spirit, someone who designed what people really wanted, and not what architects think they should want?

D.C.: I cannot say that I ever considered Robert Venturi a kindred spirit, but I was attracted by the title of his book Learning from Las Vegas.
 We never can know with any certainty what it is that people want, that is part of the problem, and it could well change from moment to moment. (I’m not even convinced that most people know what they want in environmental terms.) We do know that people want change over time as their interests and preoccupations evolve and develop. We sought to explore systems that were able to respond to the needs of people without limiting them.

P.C.: He was a nice man, but not a great designer in my view.

How can Archigram’s ideas translate to a world facing the harsh reality of resource constraints?

D.C.: Resource constraints were just as real to us then as they are now, just different. These unpredictable and unforeseeable changes (from the perspective of the 1960s, as from today) were the basis of our experimental architecture, which was designed with the intention of producing systems that were capable of accommodating future change of whatever character.

P.C.: They can be translated by the new generation looking at them carefully and moving on to do them better!

David Greene: I find it difficult to answer questions of this nature. For me, Archigram was not an answer it was a whole bunch of questions, provocations, and speculations on the possibilities of architecture. I’m afraid I can only respond with more questions. As they used to say, even doubt is in doubt.