Building The Future: How Archigram Inspired A Generation Of Architects
In 1964 a group of young British architects revealed plans for a remarkable building that could walk. Resembling a lumbering, land-bound airship, the squat building sat atop eight periscopic legs that could march it across land and sea, allowing its residents to escape wars and natural disasters, or simply to find pastures new.
This outlandish design appeared in an issue of Archigram, a magazine published in London irregularly between 1961 and 1974. In its pages, six young architects—Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, Michael Webb, David Greene and Ron Herron, who collectively went by the same name as the magazine—shared their plans for a better, brighter future. One issue featured a design for a city that could float from place to place, carried by a fleet of hot-air balloons. Another featured Plug-In City, a megastructure into which capsule-like apartments, offices and infrastructure could be introduced and moved around at will. One morning you could be on the first floor, the next a giant crane could move you to the top of the tower.
These may sound like futuristic fantasies, but the Archigram members are adamant that their unconventional drawings and collages tackled real issues. “Our work was experimental but we were trying to deepen our knowledge of certain ideas,” says Dennis Crompton. “To take one example: the idea that you should be able to take your environment with you. As an architect, how do you design an environment for somebody who wants it in a particular location at one point in their life but at some future point in their life they may want to take that environment with them to some other location?”
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This freedom to move unencumbered around the world was just one of the utopian ideas that Archigram explored; another fascination was how technology could be used to improve human health and happiness. “It was the 1960s; these ideas were all around us,” says Crompton.
Peter Cook goes one step further. He believes Archigram designs could have been made physical. “Archigram [designs] looked a bit unusual, but actually could’ve been built,” Cook said at the World Architecure Festival in 2016. “If you looked at [an Archigram design], it had handrails. It had toilets, and the toilets were the right size. The escalators were the right pitch.”
It wasn’t to be. Archigram collectively produced tens of thousands of psychedelic drawings and collages, hundreds of architectural models, 10 magazines, videos, exhibitions and more, but only a few minor buildings, among them a kitchen extension and a swimming pool enclosure for pop star Rod Stewart. But this lack of built projects hasn’t harmed their legacy, and many of today’s leading architects—including Rem Koolhaas, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and the late Zaha Hadid—have cited Archigram as a major influence. “By looking at Archigram’s work, you should learn to think as we think, not to do as we did,” says Crompton. “It’s the thinking that’s important.”
Multiple generations of architects in Asia have been inspired by Archigram, and their influence in the region is set to grow even further. Earlier this year, Hong Kong’s M+ museum acquired the bulk of Archigram’s archive—20,000 items in total—and moved it from London to Hong Kong. “Archigram’s influence is well known, yet the group’s resonance in Asia, from the Metabolists of 1960s Japan through to the architecture and visual art practices in Hong Kong and greater China are less explored,” says Suhanya Raffel, museum director of M+.
“Hong Kong architects and artists such as Tao Ho, James Wong and Kacey Wong have described Archigram’s profound influence on their practice. In addition, the Archigram architects themselves see Hong Kong—a city of networks, hyper-intense layering, escalators, media facades and connective megastructures—as an absolutely appropriate home for the archive as it so aptly resonates with many of their own interests.”
Discussions with M+ about their archive led Crompton and Cook to another role—that of creative directors of this year’s Design Trust fundraising gala, which will take place on October 26. “We met [M+ curator] Aric Chen two or three years ago when we were talking about the archive and he introduced us to Marisa Yiu, co-founder and executive director of Design Trust,” says Crompton. “We’re trying to get to know more about Hong Kong as the receiver of our archive, and the more that we can get involved in activities in Hong Kong, the more likely we are to understand what Hong Kong is all about.”
“All of us at Design Trust have been hoping to work with Archigram for a while, so we are hugely excited to have them as creative directors of this year’s fundraising gala,” says Yiu. “We all have role models and people we’re inspired by, but everyone I speak to about Archigram—students, teachers, designers of all kinds—has an instant positive response to them. I think people respond to the fact that they tried to see things differently. They are such visionaries.”
There are also neat parallels between Archigram and the Design Trust, as both blur the lines between architecture and academia. The Design Trust is a Hong Kong-based grant-funding platform that supports young creatives working in everything from graphics and media to architecture and urban planning, while all six members of Archigram have gone on to teach at universities. “When you examine all the more powerhouse architects, you see they’re not just makers—they’re thinkers,” says Yiu. “I think there’s this nice synergy between academia and architecture—that in order to advance you teach because that’s where you can learn and be empowered by your students.” Crompton echoes: “We were as much influenced by our students’ work as they were influenced by us. It’s not a one-way street.”
In a physical manifestation of Archigram’s interest in the next generation of architects and designers, Crompton and Cook have invited a few Design Trust grantees to contribute installations and interventions for the gala. “It’s really inspiring how these young designers are contributing,” says Yiu. “And in a way, these designers are not too dissimilar to how Archigram were in the 1960s and ’70s. They all have a little bit of an edge, they’re all pushing boundaries and doing something different.” That news aside, Crompton and Cook refuse to reveal too much about their plans for the event. “I’m not going to give away all our secrets, but in the gala you will see a lot of fun things,” says Crompton.
And maybe, beneath all the big ideas, fun is what Archigram is all about. “When you’re an architect you’re not designing for yourself, you’re designing for other people who will eventually occupy and use your buildings,” says Crompton. “If they don’t find it at least satisfying, then you’ve failed. And if they find it not only satisfying but they also get great enjoyment out of it, then that’s even better.”
Cook concurs. “Maybe Archigram’s legacy is its relaxedness, its excitement about stuff, its willingness to create spontaneously, to be unafraid of colour, to be unafraid of bold form, newness,” he says. “To create the idea of cheerful architecture.”
The Design Trust’s fundraising gala takes place on October 26. For more information visit designtrust.hk