Contracted from architectural and telegram, Archigram is a word that came to stand for a radical, whimsical approach to urban and domestic design in the 1960s, chiefly through the work of six British architects and their eponymous leaflet. This publication brought Peter Cook, Michael Webb, Dennis Crompton, Warren Chalk, Ron Herron and David Greene together in a project that sought to shake up the rigidity of established modernist thought and put the fun back into functionalism. Although the bulk of their work was never realized, its utopian, feel-good spirit helped to re-orient architecture to the driving themes of the times, namely consumerism, entertainment and ecology.
Indeed, throughout the trajectory traced by this satisfyingly complete exhibition, the group returned again and again to projects that were designed to provide pleasure through earth-sensitive, organic structures that took advantage of the latest technological metaphors, if not the technology itself. The show begins and ends, for instance, with multipurpose fun houses that clearly sought to unite the populace in a swinging, dancing, gaming groove, a democratic rave against the machine. One of the first, Michael Webb's Entertainments Centre (or Sin Palace, as it was also known) from 1961-63, draped a multilevel car park/bowling alley/department store/dance hall/saloon with a high-tech skin of translucent plastic sheets and steel cables that anticipated much of the fetishistic engineering associated with today's leading British architecture. Archigram comrade David Greene's Seaside Entertainments Building from the same time presented a much different approach to the problem, utilizing an organic, bodily model that resulted in a hairy, bulbous tower for amoeboid creatures – part Philip Guston, part Sid and Marty Krofft. As these diverse examples illustrate, one of the things that make Archigram projects so appealing is the devotion to visual presentation. Whether drawn, collaged or served up in model form, each project is an engaging, sensory affair.
Visual pleasure is, of course, consistent with Archigram's emphasis on corporal entertainment, and the group's work almost seems propelled by a desire to equip the ultimate party palace. Instant City in a Field (1968), for example, was a plan for a temporary, demountable fairground, a plan that had as much to do with the urge to come together and party Woodstock-style as it did with the technological showmanship of Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan, a prototypical high-tech city of the time. Alternatively, a “soft,” ecological approach to the same design problem was explored in Features Monte Carlo (1969-74), a detailed competition entry for a waterfront site in Monaco. Here, a huge, flexible, “robotised” environment was unfurled in an underground cavity, then covered by a grassy, tree-lined knoll that featured a discrete outdoor amphitheater perfectly suited for mind-bending concerts by the likes of Miles Davis or Weather Report. The project tread lightly on the land (as many other similarly disposed experiments would do later in the decade), yet still provided a full-service eating, dancing and gambling hall as the competition program dictated, yielding a hedonist's heaven.
When not designing for play, Archigram devoted a lot of energy toward designs for rest, and their domestic shelters are equally buoyant and optimistic, though often far-fetched. One of the most enthralling was Webb's 1964 Auto-Environment, which was not dissimilar to his Drive-In Housing and Rent-A-Wall projects of 1966 in its utilization of modular housing that could be easily expanded or collapsed as dictated by the inhabitant's needs. In the first version, an on-site plastics factory churned out panels that could be used for floors, walls, ceilings or doors, enclosing or opening up space within a three-dimensional grid. A more fantastical dwelling was offered in Webb's Cushicle (1966), where a guy, slovenly clad in sagging clear plastic (picture an aborted Martin Margiela suit), transforms his unconventional outerwear into a fabulous bubble room where he can snooze and suntan at the same time.
Underlying both projects is a deep understanding of the expendability associated with consumer lifestyles, in which transitory tastes and planned obsolescence conspire to keep culture on the move. Perhaps this market savviness is what makes Archigram look so appealing and prescient today, now that the media is pervasive and urban planning is increasingly indistinguishable from shopping-mall design. They seemed to have it pegged 30 years ago, making virtues out of commercial vulgarities. So why isn't our consumerist culture half as fun, uplifting or socially redeeming as Archigram predicted it would be? What went wrong?