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Archigram: the permanence of change

Archigram: the permanence of change

The new thinking of the mid-to-late 1960s is most often expressed in pop culture, with vibrant colours and sounds. However, the exploration of new ways to think and to live went far beyond Sgt. Pepper and Axis: Bold as Love. Archigram is one of the most important architectural groups of that era, displaying completely new ideas of how to live and presenting them amongst a riot of sound, visual effects, and light. 50 years later, Archigram is still going strong, and we caught up with the group's Dennis Crompton at their new show at Modern Art Oxford to discuss its impact.

 

How has your thinking changed, and remained relevant, across Archigram's long and rich history?

I have been in teaching for 40 years. I really enjoy talking to students. Not lecturing to students, but talking to them. They discuss things that you have never thought about. I'm 77 and my claim is that I'm still; 23. The reason is that I spend so much time with people who are 23. You get into it. They might not see it that way, but I do [!], and I still have a dozen exhibitions that I would like to do.

 

There's always a buffer of things coming in.

You have been upstairs (to see the exhibition) - seen the mannequins wearing the T-shirts? We first did T-shirts in 1967, so it's not new, but for the last 7 years, we have been working with a T-shirt company that, each year, does a collection based on our designs. I have been trying to persuade a gallery, anywhere in the world, to have an exhibition of T-shirts. They don't understand. This is the first time that I've been able to sneak them into one of our exhibitions. Now that I have done it, I'll send a video to a gallery tomorrow.

How does it feel to see everything up there?

It's great; it's always great. It keeps me alive.

 

Does the "remix" element of the exhibition help to keep the material alive?

Yes, in a sense. As far as this gallery is concerned, we did one exhibition in 1967 and are doing another exhibition in 2013. But, between those times, we have done exhibitions [!] There's one in Monaco at the moment... there are always things going on. It isn't a 50-year gap. We had an exhibition which opened in Vienna in 1994 that has travelled around to around 20 places in 20 years - it has just been in Portugal - but it isn't the same exhibition as it was in 1994. It evolves. The exhibition went to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco about 10 years ago, but they only had a gallery space which was smaller than the exhibition. The MoMA curator talked with the local art school to help out with the space. One thing that we are always associated with is inflatables - 'We'll have it if there's an inflatable'. At the Design Museum about 6 years ago, most of the gallery was 4 to 5 Metres high, but one end was just under 3 Metres high. We looked at this and said that none of our drawings meet these walls.

Working with the curator, we used that space to be a reproduction of our studio from the 1970s - no computers, all drawing boards. That becomes part of the exhibition. So, everywhere that the exhibition has been to since, we've had this installation of our studio. And it goes on.

 

Given the way that the exhibition is constructed, you're presented with so many colours, lights, images... nowadays, it feels like media has caught up with what you were talking about in the 1960s and 70s.

On the High Street, it has. You have some very interesting people here tonight, and they probably don't know the links between them, as they were operating separately. One of the things that we were involved with in the 1960s was Light/Sound Workshop at the Hornsey College of Art. That was the beginning of Pink Floyd. They provided the sound, because they lived in the house of one of the guys, Mike Leonard, who did the lighting. I was just talking to Jonathan Park, an engineer. Jonathan was the tutor of Mark Fisher, who is a globally-known set designer. At that time, Peter Cook, one of the Archigram group, was teaching in Los Angeles at the same time as Woodstock. What he was drawing, people thought that it was better than Woodstock - because it's the same thing. You're creating a temporary environment: towers, lighting, music, stage, performers, audience. They are all involved in something on the scale of the city. Woodstock had 500,000 people - perhaps around the same population as Oxford, but temporary. There are all of these links.

There are journalists who are historians of urbanism. They think that urbanism is a medieval city which is modified over centuries. This is what Oxford is, in terms of its fabric. But, if you talk about Oxford in terms of its culture, it's a different story. It's different to several centuries ago. It has elements of that, and other things fed into it. The city, as a total urban environment, regenerates itself in a number of different ways. One way is in terms of its fabric, but the other is in terms of its culture - in particular, its popular culture. It's that whole area which interests Archigram. We are basically architects, and you observe things like Woodstock, or Pink Floyd, or other temporary cities based on a common interest. As an architect, a designer, an urbanist, how do you design those cities? They have the same infrastructure and problems. People want feeding, entertaining, they want to sleep.. all the basic needs are the same, but one is a temporary urbanism, and one is permanent.

 

Archigram

 

The only thing which makes us different from other urbanists is our concentration on the temporary. Journalists misunderstand; it's not as if every city should be like that, but there is a very long history of urban designers who know how to deal with permanent cities. There is not the same history of designers who can deal with temporary structures... and that is where we fit in. It's not as if we want to get rid of the other guys; they are doing a great job. It's a co-existence. In architecture, like anything, one of the big conversations in the 1960s was about housing. Nobody has solved it, and it's worse now than it was then. In the 60s, it was appreciated as being a very large, urban, social problem. There were too many people who don't have proper living accommodation... and how do you deal with that? What was done in the 60s was to build permanent buildings. We were saying at the time: this may be partly right, but it's partly wrong as well. What do you plan for, 40 years later? [You plan] for these permanent buildings to be demolished, because they no longer provide environmental conditions which are suitable for the people who came to live in them.

 

I went to a secondary school which was built in 1965 as a temporary structure, and became a permanent one. Do you think that one of the worst things to happen to temporary urbanism is that it becomes permanent?

It's one of the problems. The reverse of it is worse: if the temporary structure collapses before its usefulness has been extracted. You have to have a balance and it's not just design, it's economics, the way in which it's financed. The thing about housing in the 60s which was totally wrong was that the Government, together with the local authorities, were financing housing based on a 75-year period. There is no way that the housing which they were designing would last for 75 years. So, inevitably, after 40 years, you have a problem. You have an investment which you have not been able to pay off, and you have a structure which was collapsing - or, at least, inappropriate to how people were now living. You have got to get all of the aspects right. When we were designing in the 1960s, television, as an example, was not something for the recipients of social housing. If you had a television, then you didn't need social housing. That was very-short lived, as suddenly you had a situation where everyone had a television. It's not a luxury - it's the way in which you know what's going on.

 

And that argument is still taking place today with other goods.

Yes. The problem for us as architects and urban designers is: how do you design a school [for example], not as a school, but as a system, which is flexible enough to change over time, but is permanent enough to be useful through its whole life? I have been very irritated by the news report of the past few weeks, of parents trying to get their primary school, but could not because of the lack of places. It's absurd... it's politically criminal. It's not as if you don't have five years' notice of a number of children who will be going to primary school. You have plenty of time to organise it. You know the birthrate, you know how it's going to affect schools, housing, for the next 20 years. Why don't you get it right?

 

That implies to me that whether it's hard systems like buildings, or soft systems like the support of children of education... the intellectual nous of politicians simply isn't there.

They're totally impractical. They are looking at the number of votes which they will get from their policies, rather than seeing what is necessary for the future. What is necessary for the future is not party political, it's practical. You have a population... it might be expanding, it might be moving, it might be contracting in some areas. You have to deal with it. It's a social problem, not a political one. It's a problem for planners, architects, designers, and so on. How do you deal with it? It's deal with in some areas, with slightly more elegance now. For example, telephone companies, who now depend on making profits... I hope that somebody, somewhere, is worried about the fact that I get a bad signal when I'm sitting here, because I can't pay any money for making a phone call. On the other hand, social housing is only one part of what councils are interested in. They have made much more fuss about the economic situation in the past 3 or 4 years than doing something. What do you do? You have a housing crisis and they say that you can't spend your way out of a crisis. Work it out! The problem is there.

There are very embarrassing numbers of people who are homeless, or living in the wrong sort of accommodation. The current policy is based on withdrawing support so certain people are forced to move. The fact that there isn't anywhere to move to, isn't part of the conversation. But, 'we' can solve that with people that are living in places larger than their means, and we have people in overcrowded places. So, 'we' make it embarrassing, economically, for the people who live in larger properties, and they will move out so the other people move in. You don't need to do anything other than manage the economics of it. But, the people who move out have nowhere to move into, and can't afford to rent.

 

They have been backed into a corner.

Yes. That's a political argument. The architectural problem is: how do you design structures which deal with that sort of problem? Again, it's not as if it is unpredictable. The statistics are there. It works on a scale which isn't impossible for the building industry to deal with. You need classrooms: you have five years' notice. You know the size of families, what's needed... all of these things are not difficult to forecast, as long as you have a system that deals with it. Part of that is the architect's problem, but how do you make individual habitats, or urban districts, which are able to adapt?

 

Archigram

 

Given your views of a world - the world in 1968 - do you see 2013 in terms of society, and its understanding of architecture, as somewhere that you expected it to be? Have we moved on enough?

One of the qualities of an architect, is that you have to be pompous, and we tried not to be pompous. It gets nobody anywhere to say 'I told you so', but what we were doing in the 1960s was trying to deal with a problem which, at the time, was emerging: social mobility. Not just within social classes, but physical mobility. That had not become a crisis until the 1960s. It had become a crisis, partly through industrial development and heavy industry. Urbanism from 1760 from 1939 is all to do with the development of heavy industry. There were various people - philanthropists if you like - such as the Cadburys and Titus Salt who were building accommodation because their industry depended on workers which were migrating from rural to industrial society. What started happening after the Second World War was the decline of heavy and certain other industries: mining, wool, shipbuilding, and so on, and the development of light industries in the south east. That created a design problem: how do you develop for mobility? You know the Tebbit quote - "Get on your bike" - it's a shorthand way of saying that you either move to where employment is, or the Government intervenes and moves employment to where you live. If it half-works, then that's OK. If it doesn't work, then it's a disaster. In the 1960s, it was interesting to discover how designers worked with that problem. It's not an ideological problem. I upset the archivist here, because he was writing about our work, saying that it's Utopian and idealistic... and that's our biggest problem. It's easy to dismiss what we did by saying so, but it's practical. If we didn't do drawings that grab somebody's attention, then who's listening to us? The people who dismiss it, who use this criticism of Utopianism and idealism... it's not true. It's deadly serious and we were very practical.

 

If you had to persuade the archivist that your work isn't Utopian... is that often the case - to communicate that it's anything but?

That's always been a problem. Most people, including journalists and historians... they come for a theory, and are looking for its evidence. Whatever you say, they turn it into the evidence to prove their theory. And, from my point of view, it's intensely irritating, because they're just not listening. You just validate their ideas.

 

And you remain deadly serious and practical.

Absolutely.

 

 

Dennis Crompton

 

Dennis Crompton is part of Archigram"Archigram: Beyond Architecture Remix 2013" is showing at Modern Art Oxford until 02/06/13. For further information, visit the Gallery's website.

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