Rebellious Brit Architects Pushed Modernity to the Limit

It’s easy to forget that in the early 1960’s, when the Beatles and their Brit-pop clones were invading this country, the real story was the enormous changes being wrought on British culture by postwar America. After 15 years of rebuilding, the English were finally entering a period of economic expansion, one of international optimism and fervent consumerism. Dour social realism was out; the swinging London of Blow Up and The Avengers was in. And in everything, the limitless expansionism of American society served as both the model and the supplier, as American consumer goods flooded the British market. In every way, America showed the promise of industrial modernism, and it was good.

As Simon Sadler documents in Archigram, the first book-length survey of the design collective of the same name, in few areas did the postwar fever for American modernist culture manifest itself more than in architecture. Like the rest of Europe, Britain had spent a generation literally rebuilding itself, largely along the coldly rational lines set out by the modernists in the 1920’s and 1930’s. But by the late 1950’s, British architecture had reached a crisis point. For much of the 20th century it had sat well behind the leading edge, producing few innovators and mostly aping what came out of France, Germany and Italy. In the immediate postwar years, this meant taking Le Corbusier’s notion of modern architecture as a “machine for living” literally: Apartment blocks that would’ve been at home in Moscow or Warsaw sprang up in Manchester and Birmingham—a roof overhead, but one made of bare concrete. And so, with their society’s material needs met, young architects of the late 1950’s began to ask, along with their artist counterparts: Is this it? Is banality the ultimate reward for economic development?

The answer on both sides of the Atlantic came in the flowering of pop-influenced art movements during the early 1960’s, with Archigram, a loose affiliation of rebellious British architects, as its architectural component. Modern society, Archigram argued, shouldn’t simply be about efficiency, but about the freedom and pleasure efficiency affords.

One thinks of the New York art scene, the electric guitar, Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes—anything and everything that embraced popular culture as a means of pushing modernity to its limits. America was already well along this path; the challenge for Archigram and others was to reconstitute its cultural DNA to fit British sensibilities. As Mr. Sadler writes, “Connecting with a new culture of beat literature, angry young men, abstract expressionism, and existentialism, this reverie counterbalanced the policy-making positivism that confined inquiry in schools and offices in the early sixties to narrowly defined research programs.” The future was imminent, and it was New York City.

Archigram was best known for several exhibits and its sporadic but highly popular, eponymous magazine; the collective didn’t open an office until 1970, and even then completed only a few minor projects. Instead, like the Soviet Constructivists of the 1920’s, the members of Archigram were less interested in building than in thinking, in exploring the potential that the changing cultural and technical landscape afforded. Archigram’s first show, at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1963, broke new conceptual ground by arguing, through magazine collages and fantastical architectural images, that the city was defined not by its physical structures but by the ever-changing flow of life within it—and that, as a result, architecture should move toward forms that could readily adapt to the needs of modern man. Plastic buildings, walking cities, mobile homes that plug into urban grids—all of these ideas sprang from Archigram’s insistence that the promise of modern architecture couldn’t be fully realized until architects made form subservient to desire.

The keys to unlocking this potential, Archigram believed, could already be found in American culture. Going beyond the superficial embrace of American products, Archigram lauded the seemingly unlimited potential for movement within American society. With its car culture and newly announced national highway system, with its burgeoning skyscrapers and suburban idylls, America seemed the place where modern technology had finally merged physical and social freedom. Such was their faith in America that, as late as 1970, the members of Archigram could still write: “It is no accident … that so many Europeans (such as contributors to this Archigram) have been inspired by the experience of the United States. It is still a place where things are done—not just talked about.”

But faith in modernism’s potential began to wilt as the 1960’s progressed. Vietnam, Third World liberation movements, emerging environmental consciousness and the sprouting of alternative lifestyles called into question the idea that technologically driven growth was necessarily a good thing.

Mr. Sadler’s writing isn’t always as clear as it could be—the book follows themes rather than chronology, and readers may easily lose track of key figures and dates—but he’s lucid where it counts, particularly in his final judgments of the movement and, in general, the optimism of early 1960’s culture. He suggests that the root of the postmodern reaction was a sort of cultural nausea, brought on by the breakneck speed at which modernism was dissolving tradition, place and cultural boundaries. Such a reaction cut to the core of Archigram’s belief that architectural form and the tight bond between place and architecture needed to be erased. “By dissolving place into a nexus of servicing points joined by free-roving human receptors, it too threatened to dissolve place,” Mr. Sadler writes. “Archigram sought the solution to modernism’s shortcoming in making modernism more extreme; the appetite, postmodernists were discovering, was for the opposite.”

But if Archigram’s moment quickly passed, its shadow remained. In a way, it closely paralleled another product of the pop-culture 60’s, the Velvet Underground: The band’s actual output was minimal, but its influence was enormous. Many of the architectural movements to emerge since the early 1970’s can be traced back to Archigram, some directly through students and colleagues. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Center in Paris, with its colorful inside-out piping, is perhaps the most famous Archigram-inspired structure, but the work of everyone from Sir Norman Foster to Zaha Hadid to Rem Koolhaas is unthinkable without its precedent. And if recent interest in the group is any indication (a major retrospective last year at London’s Design Museum, for example), the lessons of Archigram are not yet wholly forgotten. While many of the collective’s fantastical plans are clearly of a time and place, its underlying belief that buildings and cities must serve the people who inhabit them is something that today’s architects forget at their peril.

Clay Risen is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Rebellious Brit Architects Pushed Modernity to the Limit