M+ Matters: Archigram Cities Online Symposium
Organised with the Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong
Zoom 1: Inhabitations
Date: 4 November 2020 (Wednesday)
Time: 10:00am–12:30pm (Hong Kong)
Peter Cook, Archigram. Instant City, elevation, 1968. M+, Hong Kong. © ARCHIGRAM ARCHIVES
Zoom Wave Hits Architecture
The Archigram archive has at last been placed in a museum. Over the last couple of decades, architects, critics, and scholars largely concurred that Archigram was a pivotal ‘neo-avant-garde’ in architecture—perhaps the pivotal neo-avant-garde, boldly putting pop culture, events, and futurism at the centre of architecture while modernism’s mandate elsewhere drifted. Archigram’s place in history is certain, then, yet it has also appeared to be outside of history, too perky for museums and textbooks, and opting to narrate its own story as far as possible. Scholarship relating to the group, from Reyner Banham onward, has sometimes followed that cue with ‘history of the future’–style wordplay, and this talk’s title likewise alludes to the perennial challenge of positioning Archigram. The title is also a little cheeky, perhaps, because some half-century on, Archigram might induce nostalgia for a jet-pack future at odds with our own experience of accelerating climate change and inequality (the postcolonial context of the museum where the archive finds its permanent home adding further frisson). Indeed, the Archigram magazine stood accused of being anachronistic towards the end of its run. Now scholars and viewers assemble around the archive once again, and in an era that feels a little like the 1970s redux. A further factor with which to contend is that the twenty-first-century world of tech-driven neoliberalism and its global communications networks was anticipated by Archigram in the 1960s, with mixed returns on the promise of liberation. Against its own era of incipient postmodernism, Archigram made a good bet on the acceleration of post-industrial modernity. Perhaps, though, Archigram proposed multiple futures, and multiple liberties. Since a stridently optimistic Archigram viewed architecture as the key medium for change—for ‘progress’—this presentation briefly parses the different modes of change-by-design in the group’s work, the better to ask how the archive remains an aid for thinking about history, architecture, and visual culture.
Simon Sadler is Chair of Design Department and Professor of Design at the University of California, Davis. His research is centred on the ideological programmes of design since the mid-twentieth century. His publications include Archigram: Architecture without Architecture (MIT Press, 2005), Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism (Architectural Press, 2000, co-edited with Jonathan Hughes), The Situationist City (MIT Press, 1998), and numerous essays and articles on counterculture and design. He is a past Fellow of the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art and of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
Peter Cook, Archigram. Control and Choice, section, 1966–1967. M+, Hong Kong. © ARCHIGRAM ARCHIVES
Housing Subjectivities: From the LCC to Uncle Wilf
In Homo Ludens, written in 1938, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga introduced the idea of play as a fundamental constituent of human character and culture. This concept profoundly unnerved the consciousness of architecture, influencing a body of thinking across the European neo-avant-garde movements of the 1950s and 1960s. It served as an impetus for young architects to rebel against the functional and rationalist impulses of modern architects, especially in arenas of late–CIAM urbanism. This presentation examines its ultimate manifestation in the repository of utopic impulses—that of social housing—and specifically its expression in the work of Archigram’s idea-grams for dwelling in the city. Huizinga’s concept of the ludenic became a cry for an emotively based, humanistically re-examined form of housing, taken up by Team 10 and many other iconoclastic architects. For more radical groups like Archigram, however, the concept served as the basis for undermining structural organisational paradigms across scales, from cities to buildings. Archigram’s proposals for urban dwelling served implicitly as a critique of the late-functionalist housing then being built by the London County Council (LCC)—from which three of the members of Archigram had recently emerged. This critique functioned as an allegory of the colossal failure of many of the LCC’s largest and most prominent projects in London; demolition continues to the present day. Archigram’s repositioning of housing principles presaged many of the terms now regarded as essential to the rethinking of traditional ‘top-down’ strategies of large-scale (universalist) housing: choice and self-determination, diversity, ambiance, and indeterminacy. These terms inform many of the principles taken up more pragmatically in contemporary cooperative housing typologies, in opposition to the ‘regenerative’ practices happening in London today. This presentation traces the evolution of Archigram’s ideas, beginning with the housing proposals which largely constitute Archigram 2 (1962), and continuing through the refigured hierarchies of urban housing in mobile and kinetic infrastructures and the precepts of the dwelling unit in the definition of the ‘vital city’, comparing and contrasting these ideas with contemporary policies. The emblem for much of the final and most important rethinking is found in Peter Cook’s complex Control and Choice dwelling of 1966–1967, featured in Archigram 8. Hidden in provocative, absurdist graphics, the principles set forth in this project were deadly serious provocations for housing to be reoriented humanistically, ending in the atmospheric fracturing of the functionalist megastructure into radically subjectivist forms of individual expression and interaction, or living as a form of play.
Annette Fierro is Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Associate Chair of Graduate Architecture at its Weitzman School of Design. In her research, she addresses issues of technology within contemporary architecture and urban culture. She is particularly interested in how diverse forms of cultural production intersect with and manifest in technological artefacts. She is the author of The Glass State: The Technology of the Spectacle, Paris 1981–1998 (MIT Press, 2003), which focuses on issues of transparency and technology in François Mitterrand’s grands projets. Her current research traces the network of legacies instigated by the radical technological speculation of the 1960s in London. This work, a book soon to be completed, encompasses technological utopias as they were embraced in different eras. It speculates on, among other topics, the effect of the Second World War on the technological iconography of the city, the influence of experimental theatre of the 1960s on the evolution of urban space and morphology, and the lingering aura of the radical group Archigram and the rise of British high-tech architecture.
Warren Chalk, Archigram. Bathamatic, sketch, 1969. M+, Hong Kong. © ARCHIGRAM ARCHIVES
A Home Is (Still) Not a House
While Archigram is best remembered for ebullient urban imagery, some of the group’s most radical proposals reformulated the dwelling—complete with its occupants—as the product of transitory desire. If housing was the first programme to be addressed collectively by the modernists, early experiments were predicated on a conception of the individual as secondary to greater social aspirations. Team 10, therefore, demanded a re-evaluation along structural lines of the urbanism to which housing was beholden and proposed that the domicile be configured in relation to the interconnectivity of the city rather than its functions. Archigram, by contrast, dismissed the hierarchy of public life altogether in its conception of housing as a transportable standard-of-living package in which form temporarily captures lifestyle. This presentation expands on the politics of Archigram’s indeterminate versions of pluggable, mutable, and wearable domesticity in their historical context, and reflects on the implications for the experimental practices that they inspired. Technological development has caught up with what was once speculation. Archigram’s conflation of bodily and architectural desire wrapped shelter closer and closer around the body in a manner that anticipated Iris van Herpen’s protective haute couture printed from biopolymers, for example. Their embrace of consumer culture led to the acceptance of technological development thoroughly bound up with the aesthetics of consumption even at the most intimate of scales. To rephrase the question posed by Reyner Banham in 1965, when is it that a home ceases to be a house?
Hadas Steiner is Associate Professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Her research focuses on the cross-pollination of technological, scientific, and cultural aspects of architectural fabrication. She is at work on a manuscript, The Accidental Visitant, which studies the influence of the modern field of ornithology on architecture and the conceptualisation of the built environment as an ecosystem. Steiner is the author of Beyond Archigram: The Technology of Circulation (Routledge, 2008) and her scholarship and reviews have been published in October, Grey Room, New Geographies, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, the Journal of Architectural Education, the Journal of Architecture, and arq.
David Greene, Archigram. Living Pod, model, 1966. M+, Hong Kong. © ARCHIGRAM ARCHIVES
Worlds Less Travelled
Our perception of the world is largely shaped through the mediums of fiction. Through designs such as Archigram’s visionary city proposals and science fiction films, we imagine alternative worlds as a way of understanding our own in new ways. It could be argued that Archigram’s fictions have had as much influence on post-war British architecture as any built work. Their projects stand as iconic examples of the provocative potential of speculative architecture and the discipline’s role in critically exploring the possibilities and implications of emerging technologies. Today, our imagined futures are typically based on a solutionist view of technology and are marketed to us as simplified better and brighter worlds, often ignoring the complexities, subcultures, and unintended consequences that result when technologies are democratised and rolled out at scale. Inspired by Archigram’s contribution to the discipline of speculative architecture and their multimedia projection Archigram Opera (1972), this presentation narrates a series of stories from these worlds less travelled and tours fragments, vignettes, and snapshots of my films to create a portrait of an alternative future of technology and automation. Worlds Less Travelled is a live cinema performance, an audiovisual expedition across a series of landscapes found somewhere between the present and the predicted, and the real and the imagined, stitched together from fragments of landscapes and designed urban fictions.
Liam Young is an architect who integrates his knowledge of architecture and urban studies with methods from storytelling, video games, and cinema to investigate scenarios for the future of cities. He portrays how new technologies and networks influence space and human behaviour and imagines new forms of agency within these processes of change. He is the founder of the Fiction and Entertainment Master of Arts programme at SCI-Arc and of the research collective Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, which explores the possibilities of fantastic, speculative, and imaginary urbanisms. He co-runs Unknown Fields Division, a nomadic research studio whose expeditions document emerging trends and uncover possible futures. He is a faculty member of Strelka Institute’s The New Normal speculative urbanism think-tank.