Formed in the early 1960s, Archigram was a collective of six young renegade British architects (Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb) who sought to turn the established notion of architecture as something permanent, static, and enduring on its ear. The group took their name (a reduction of "Architectural Telegram") from the proto-zine which the group published whenever it saw fit. Through this publication, Archigram showcased its surreal designs, as well as pop manifestos outlining the group's broad aim: to adapt architecture to the technological and social changes that were already sweeping the world. Inheritors of emerging postwar technology, disciples of Buckminster Fuller, and giddy advocates of a burgeoning consumer society, this irrepressible flying circus of counterculture architects would manage by the mid-1970s to rethink just about everything and anything that might conceivably have been fabricated out of lightweight metal alloys and synthetic polymers.
It all comes across as an elaborate and sustained flight of fancy, as one soaks in the exhaustive yet always playful array of nearly 200 models, drawings, and photographs documenting Archigram's utopian visions. From the Suitaloon (housing you wear on your back) and Cushicle (an inflatable body suit containing food and water, radio and television) to the gargantuan Walking City (in which 40-story superstructures perambulate around the landscape on huge, telescoping insect legs), Archigram's grand vision runs the gamut from delightfully experimental to downright terrifying. But each of Archigram's proposals seems in one way or another to serve an emerging human agenda where, as David Greene states, "nomadism is the dominant social force; where time, exchange and metamorphosis replace stasis; where consumption, lifestyle and transience become the programme; and where the public realm is an electronic surface enclosing the globe." A similar agenda was advanced by Guy Debord and the Situationists prior to the formation of Archigram. In a 1956 issue of the Belgian surrealist journal Naked Lips, Debord published his seminal "Theory of the Drift," which he described as "a technique of transient passage through various ambiences." At the end of his essay Debord states, "One day we will build cities for drifting."
Archigram religiously adhered to the notion of a "responsive environment," believing that architecture is not so much about permanence and beauty as it is about energy and change. In their Plug-in City for instance, modular living pods are outfitted with hoverchairs, inflatable beds, and all manner of electronic gadgets, suggesting a kinetic lifestyle where everything is in flux. Buckminster Fuller envisioned similar human storage containers in 1927, when he began his Dymaxion investigations with a proposal for a mass-produced bathroom and a house. Fuller's revolutionary Dymaxion House bombed when it was unveiled in 1949. But his serious attempt to redefine housing as a kind of appliance presaged many of Archigram's portable shelters. While Dymaxion House was considered dead on arrival, the banking industry would soon begin to regulate credit loans for mobile home buyers. Today the "manufactured home" (trailer) is a sadly unresponsive and immobile reality. And with its "responsive" retractable roof, our half-billion-dollar baseball stadium is now the most expensive single-use appliance in America.
Archigram's designers further distinguished themselves from their peers with their ready acceptance of the exploding spectacle of consumer culture. In 1967 Peter Cook boldly announced that "the prepackaged frozen lunch is more important than Palladio,'' the great neoclassical architect of 16th-century Italy. Many of Archigram's proposed structures resemble nothing so much as consumer packaging; vast baggies, stylish margarine tubs, and sardine tins for us all to live, work, and play in.
An engrossing feature of the exhibit is the collection of the original Archigram zines. One particular issue's splashy headline screams, "Instant City Strikes Again!" During the '60s this no doubt sounded like a utopian revelation, where a new global tribe of empowered nomads could have their big city funplex wherever they fancied it. The breathless ad reads, "Instant City is a travelling kit of parts that sets your town alive and then moves on, leaving a net of life behind. But really it's quite friendly -- the metropolis at your doorstep. And who could mind 'Rupert' the bountiful blimp who drops his capsules where needed -- so now trucks don't have to do it all. The city really infiltrates this time... the whole thing loose and useful and there!" This typifies the Archigram ideal where city and country are the same. Anytime, anywhere, Rupert the bountiful blimp might drop capsules on your droopy little two-horse town, and transform it into a sort of clip-on Piccadilly.
Of course those blimps never arrived. We never got our Bell Labs jetpacks as were promised. But while not a single one of Archigram's designs was ever built, their ideas are everywhere: The electronic viewscreens and "rent-a-walls" that feature prominently in many of their designs are now common in our public, private, and desktop spaces. By the end of the '60s, cable television had begun its spread across America, exposing even the most isolated small towns to the news of the world, straight from heaven's dishes, in greater detail and with less lag time than ever before. Through CNN and MTV, Cosmopolis would literally come to the sticks. Today, by means of the World Wide Web, Instant City "infiltrates" everywhere all the time, as promised; just plug in! The public realm is now "an electronic surface enclosing the globe." Debord's dreaded spectacle at large and Archigram's blessed city of perpetual motion have merged on viewscreens that are never more than a few feet in front of our noses. Archigram's future has arrived, and those of us who are well-equipped nomadic telecommuters (computing portably, telephoning cellularly) can't help but notice the ill-equipped nomad (homeless, unclothed, unfed) who really looks like he could use a Suitaloon or a Cushicle right about now.
In a video presentation dating from the 1980s, Ron Herron proposes an environment suited to the post-post-modern homebody. The Studio Strip, a collapsible video wall measuring 5 x 10 meters, is the high-tech centerpiece of an otherwise conventional house. As tall and as wide as the largest wall spaces in most small apartments, this glorified TV screen captured my imagination, as I considered the inevitability of increasing numbers of us living in ever more cramped and unaffordable living quarters. I imagined vast numbers of us letting go of the dream of an enclosed house-type space (Dymaxion, plug-in, or otherwise), as we strap on the more affordable, all-weather Cushicle and hit the road for good with our web browsers and bun warmers fully charged. Then I pictured the rest of us, the lucky ones, resigned to the inevitability of living tucked away in human storage lockers, down the hall from THX1138, prone on our inflatable beds, gnawing on Soylent Green while we program our luxurious Studio Strip to play back prerecorded vistas of wide-open spaces, or South Park reruns, or the eBay channel, or whatever. The Archigram dream, realized in full. Our homes will be glorified appliances, upgradeable packaging material in which we will suck air and merge with the spectacle... "the whole thing loose, useful, and there."