The Architects who Invented the Future

In the course of a few weeks in 1969, my visual imagination shifted from an obsession with Spiderman to one with Archigram. A Marvel Comics fanatic, my complete four-year run of doubt-ridden Peter Parker’s illustrated adventures was my most prized possession, every boldly-coloured number protected by a plastic bag from the grubby hands of my five younger brothers. These precautions were for naught; while I was away at architecture school, my siblings and their friends literally tore through my Spiderman collection.

That said, my imagination carries a more permanent legacy from the architecture pushed to the limits by Archigram than the heroics of Spidey-man. I saw Plug-In City featured in Life magazine about the same time I saw Douglas Cardinal’s St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, Alberta published in Time. The latter attracted me because it was weird, it was local, and hey, it was 1969. It took writing a book on Cardinal to get that project out of my system. Archigram is different, hard-wired into broader regions of where I think about architecture–there being no similarly purgative action available to rid oneself of the architects who invented the future.

A massive and enthralling exhibition of Archigram’s work runs through August 24 at Winnipeg’s Plug In Institute for Contemporary Art. The name of this leading Canadian visual art institution was itself lifted 30 years ago from that very same visionary piece of paper architecture. Archigram: Experimental Architecture 1961-1974 makes it clear that these architects were deeply sensitive to their times, while achieving cosmic transcendence of them–to indulge an appropriately ’60s turn of phrase.

No wonder Life magazine and every other four-colour rag on the newsstands loved to feature their work. Like another 1960s commercial illustrator who parlayed a hot pencil into more ambitious artistic ideas–Andy Warhol–the six Archigram architects used the visual conventions and graphic tools of illustrated magazines as their medium, as well as their subject, some say. Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Michael Webb and Ron Herron used Letraset, dot screens, photography and air brushes like Frank Lloyd Wright used soft pencil, or Lou Kahn cardboard models. The scaled figures in their otherwise ink perspective drawings were cut directly out of magazine advertisements, more likely to be attired in bikinis than business suits. No one did this before Archigram.

Sheer audacity and visual verve jumps out from the over 100 drawings and models in the Winnipeg exhibition, spilling from the DIN-designed Plug In space into the Ace Gallery down the street. These guys could draw: draw like angels, draw like demons, draw like machines, draw like raygun-beaming aliens. Christopher MacDonald, Director of the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia–a graduate of the early 1980s Architectural Association (AA) school when Archigram’s influence was still strong–suffered from only a touch of opening night hyperbole when he described a finely-worked Michael Webb pencil study of an escalator as “one of the finest drawings of the 20th century, right up there with Corbu and the rest.”

Inspired by Cook, Chalk and Herron during our own student sojourn at London’s AA, the late John Yamada and I returned to produce satirical drawings in the Archigram manner for a design competition shown at an Alberta Association of Architects annual meeting in the late 1970s. In producing our housing schemes called Helvetica New Towne and International Units (my only publicly exhibited drawings ever, let’s all hope!), we found it surprisingly hard to draw and design like Archigram. The legacy of Archigram is much more than a set of visuals; it’s their ideas that have set the architectural agenda for the last half-century. With their members starting to die off, this fact was belatedly recognized in their recent receipt of the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, placing them right up there with Aalto and Le Corbusier. Only recently have we peeled away the screen of pop culture and irreverent fun to look behind and see just how thoughtful and prescient Archigram really was.

I can offer no finer tribute than a few notes on Archigram’s influence in this country. Ray Affleck was quick to acknowledge it was they–every bit as much as Le Corbusier and the Brutalists–who were a key source for ARCOP’s visionary Place Bonaventure in Montreal (1964-68), a Walking City megastructure where an inter-modal transit hub does the moving. The technological utopianism and structural expressionism of the entire Expo 67 site was as close as the world will ever get to an urban landscape as conceived by the heterogeneous non-collective known as Archigram. Aided back then by the Winnipeg exhibition’s organizer Dennis Crompton and some of his other Archigram mates, Peter Cook actually designed a building in 1963 for the Montreal World’s Fair, never built for understandable reasons if one studies the zesty if impractical drawings. In fact, Entertainments Tower, Montreal for London’s Taylor Woodrow Construction was the prototype for Plug-In City a couple of years later.

Archigram’s shaping of Canadian architecture extended from Montreal to Toronto and the West, and continues through today. With its strutting trusses and cables floating above an unreal lake, Craig, Zeidler and Strong’s Ontario Place (1968-70) could have been lifted holus bolus from one of the tamer corners of Archigram’s drawings of nearly a decade earlier. When Torontonians have worked through their current smorgasbord of international star architects, they might return to the rich landscape of ideas already represented in their own city.

When they do, they will find that in the 1970s, that landscape was dominated at its Jane-Jacobsian, place-based end by Jack Diamond, Carmen Corneil and other students of Kahn and Aalto. At the Techie, process-based other end of the debate was found ex-Londoner and former Director of the University of Toronto School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture Peter Prangnell, as much influenced by Archigram as he was by Team Ten. The conception of Vancouver’s Granville Island by late Diamond/early Prangnell-era U of T alumni Norman Hotson and Joost Bakker owes equal debts to Prangnell’s theme-and-variation “Support: Fill: Action” ethos, and Diamond’s considered neo-vernacular urbanism. The current design work of RAIC President Ron Keenberg (whose firm IKOY, now based in Ottawa but with its roots in Winnipeg, helped underwrite this exhibition) and Vancouver’s Peter Busby is inconceivable without the ideas, forms and buccaneering role model provided by Archigram.

This is because Archigram’s contemporaries Richard Rogers and Norman Foster might have remained button-down modernists had it not been for the rhetorical push offered by their paper-building intellectual friends. As the importance of such Archigram-related practices as that of Cedric Price is coming to be understood, the entire High Tech movement can be thought of as one of many branch exchanges running off the trunk line of Archigram’s architectural innovations. The Winnipeg show has a particularly effective diorama, complete with an Astroturf floor, showcasing the environmentalist and organicist streak in their design work. Greg Lynn and you blobsters, Oliver Lane and you cybernauts; remember from whence your modish forms derive!

This raises the important issue of architects whose primary work is the production of images for buildings never built–indeed, often unbuildable. The precious and thin design work of the current generation of paper architects looks very meager indeed when compared to the hope, confidence and sheer love of architecture evident in the paper architecture on show in Winnipeg. There is a huge difference between the unbuilt work of Archigram and that of our present paper professors. Metaphysicians, stand aside; these Archigram crazies actually like buildings, people, fashion, Modern Science, pop culture and the other contemporary realities that so much paper architecture works so har
d to avoid. This summer’s real blockbuster is not a computer animated two-legged arachnid at some multiplex, but the animated drawings of the 12-legged spider which is Archigram. An un-missable three-star exhibition worthy of a journey. Point your Michelins toward Winnipeg before the Manitoba maples turn colour.

Vancouver critic Trevor Boddy’s Georgia Straight cover story “The Californication of British Columbia” received the Western Magazine Award for best arts, culture and entertainment writing. All images are copyright the Archigram Archives.