Simon Sadler

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Simon Sadler
Institute of Architecture, School of the Built Environment, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, United Kingdom (until September 2002). Contact:


One way in which to address the themes of this conference (such as the heritage of the ‘Founding Fathers’, the transformation of technology and modernity in the 1960s, the impact of systems theory, and the ideological struggle over architecture) is to re-examine the legacy of that infamous avant-garde of the period, Archigram (1961-74), and in particular its apparently technocratic agenda.
Technocracy – that is, governance by experts wielding the techniques of science, engineering, sociology and so on – was an idea that had originated in the early part of the twentieth century and which was enjoying something of a revival in the 1960s. Archigram, I am arguing, believed in freeing society through consumption and mobility which would be delivered through high-technology systems. In this they can be seen as technocratic, particularly since the group seemed to believe that a regime of consumer decision would obviate the intervention of politics. Yet Archigram’s technocracy remained peculiarly radical, because it was anarchic and playful, user- rather than designer-driven. Archigram’s technocratic inclinations both revived and revised the technological idealism of Modernism, shifting it from left to liberal, towards a ‘postmodern’ economy of choice.
One reason why Archigram might have wanted to cast the avant-garde in a technocratic role was that the group felt that architecture was in urgent need of technological renewal. Archigram was fascinated by the exposé that, contrary to its image, Modern architecture was not technologically very sophisticated. Archigram therefore proposed that Modernism try again at being technologically determined, to the point that architecture would become a true ‘machine for living in’ (to borrow Le Corbusier’s phrase), a pure environmental servicing that would enable the citizen to live freely rather than be constrained by preordained social and building patterns.
For Archigram technology was, almost unequivocally, the great enabler. Technology had been repeatedly validated since the Enlightenment, peaking successively in events like the Great Exhibitions of the nineteenth-century, the Ideal Home exhibitions of the twentieth-century, the mass-marketing of the automobile, and the euphoria of the space program. Technology, its image at least, had been persistently used to bestow authority upon the Modern Movement. In the 1950s and early 1960s, furthermore, sections of the European avant-garde conceded that social change might come about not through a sudden revolution, but by an irreversible escalation in the demands of ‘ordinary people’ for greater access to technological goods and services. In the 1950s and 1960s refrigerators, washing machines and even scooters and automobiles became ‘plugged-in’ to many European households for the first time.
The European avant-garde had looked with admiration towards the USA in the 1920s, but the homage paid to the American Way in the 1950s and 1960s was markedly different. American design was now being admired right down to its consumer details, its chrome vulgarity, as well as in its grand industrial abstraction of concrete silos and Chicago steel frames. Moreover, the post-War avant-garde was starting to relax the old European-Modernist ideological stricture that said that while American technology was impressive, the consumer capitalism that sponsored it was beyond the pale. The mass consumer lifestyle of the USA was now in itself the subject of some reverence, for the way in which it had seemingly achieved the worker Utopia that decades of European socialism and communism had yet to deliver. Alison and Peter Smithson, standard-bearers of the British avant-garde prior to Archigram, wrote in 1956 that “As far as architecture is concerned the influence on mass standards and mass aspirations of advertising is now infinitely stronger than the pace-setting of avant-garde architects, and it is taking over the functions of social reformers and politicians.”1
The initial objective of Archigram’s new world was to facilitate the circulation of traffic, goods, services and information at a much more complex level than had been possible within the grids of CIAM and the Ville Radieuse. Archigram’s ingenuity was called upon to work out ways of stacking traffic into the ‘Plug-in City’. Plug-in was riven by co-ordinated interchanges and multi-level precincts. Ingeniously, Plug-in combined European high-density urban grain with the decentredness of Los Angeles, which was being ‘discovered’ at the time by visiting architects.2 “The city is tight and free and all the city is the centre because the centre is everywhere”, Cook claimed of his first sketch for a Plug-in City – the ‘City Within Existing Technology’ (1963). The adaptation of American standards to the UK was not unique to Archigram, however. The seminal investigation Traffic in Towns (1963), led by Colin Buchanan on behalf of the UK Ministry of Transport, is instructive as evidence of pervasive trends in architectural and social analysis. Like Archigram, Buchanan looked at the USA as an exemplar of social, environmental and economic organisation.
How might such organisational patterns be described? “Immediately after the war a particular fantasy was exported by the United States, along with the gadgets, techniques, and experts of American capitalism: the fantasy of timeless, even, and limitless development”, Kristin Ross has written in her study of post-war France.3 Timeless, even, and limitless development was exactly the promise of Archigram’s urbanism: “In many ways the essence of the city is the supreme coming together / of evrything [sic] / of it all / people come and go / it’s all moving / the bits and pieces that form the city – they’re expendable / it’s all come-go.”4 To quote Ross again, “Capitalist modernisation presents itself as timeless because it dissolves beginning and end, in the historical sense, into an ongoing, naturalised process, one whose uninterrupted rhythm is provided by a regular and unchanging social world devoid of class conflict.”5 Since the ascendancy of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s technocratic socialism in Britain, the rhetoric of limitless growth and innovation had become a thoroughly acceptable, vanguard phenomenon, acceptable both to sections of the Right for its promotion of capitalist industrial development and to sections of the Left for its promise of a universal improvement in standards of living and social mobility. Political play was being made of those innovations – the computer, monorail and hovercraft – that were parts of the iconography of Archigram’s Plug-in urbanism. “Scientific knowledge is doubling every nine years”, Archigram announced in its 1966 film for the BBC. “90% of all scientists who ever lived are alive today ... as many scientists were educated in the last fifteen years as in all previous history.”6
Archigram’s role was as ‘avant-garde’ intermediaries between the forces of modernisation and ‘the public’. “Only people filled with respect and enthusiasm for today’s wish-dreams can adequately interpret them into buildings”, Archigram insisted in 1966.7 It is also important to note here the ‘Pop’ excitement that characterised the British avant-garde in the 1950s and 1960s. This was not quite technocracy in the sense in which it had been understood in France, then; it was not a means of organisation imposed from above, but an invitation to consumer choices, information about those choices, and the physical and social mobility to make them effective. There was a spirit of pragmatism and enterprise surrounding the Archigram project that moderated the faceless dictatorship implicit in technocracy. “Pop puts the ultimate command in the hands, if not of the consumer, then at least of the consumer’s appointed agents”, critic-historian Reyner Banham claimed in a 1963 talk in which he praised the nascent Archigram.8
Unfixed by social status and locale, the citizen of Plug-in City would find that the city was styled in his or her own image, through the complex registry of lifestyle choices. The ‘system’ facilitating those choices was cast not as an anonymous menace but as an auto-democracy. “Hitherto individual technologies had impinged separately on society,” social historian Arthur Marwick has written about the impact of technology upon Britain at the time, “now the concept of one unified technology, based on what its apostles called ‘the systems approach’, was beginning to influence every aspect of social organisation”.9 “For Archigram”, its 1966 film announced, “gadgets are less important than the new ability to understand and control a hundred or a thousand different things, all happening at once.”10 As Robert Boguslaw put it in his 1965 American examination of systems and their social ramifications, The New Utopians, “our concern is not with toys, gadgets, or advertising copy versions of a housewife’s paradise filled with automated dishwashers and potato peelers. Large-scale industrial, military and space systems are the new utopias that the age of computers has thrust upon us.”11
The myth of the system – of a brilliant co-ordination of elements and events, primarily through computers – was a central one to Archigram. It chimed with the Second Machine Age, the second industrial phase which was beginning, Reyner Banham believed at the time, “with the current revolution in control mechanisms”.12 A 1964 edition of the Archigram magazine was already lovingly noting that the “Recurrent theme in SPACE COMIC universe is mobile computer “BRAIN” and flexing tentacles”.13 For at least one member of Archigram, Ron Herron, systems thinking came naturally. A veteran of the Berlin airlift, he had first-hand experience of one of the exemplars of system design, air traffic control, whose sophistication at London’s Heathrow airport was cited in Archigram’s 1966 film. Mike Webb believed that the systematisation of the entire environment would permit the creation of ‘anything’ space, and his Drive-In Housing project, 1964-66, was “a preliminary study in the design of automated instructional, servicing and dismantling techniques applied to a large building development”.14 The vision of a cybernetic city of control and communication was never more explicit than in Dennis Crompton’s Computer City (1964), a diagram that elegantly abstracted the sorts of monitoring systems – borrowed from radio-controlled taxis, ambulance services and airports – that might permit Plug-in City to work. “The activities of an organised society occur within a balanced network of forces which naturally interact to form a continuous chain of change ... The sensitised net detects changes of activity, the sensory devices respond and fe[e]d back information to program correlators.”15
The architectural interface itself, mediating between system and subject, increasingly preoccupied the Archigram group. At an extreme, Archigram no. 9 publicised David Greene’s Bottery, his attempt to make the environment into a system (rather than insert a system into the environment),16 the network residing invisibly within the plants and robotic animals of the traditional English garden. It was the ultimate development in a Modernist interaction of architecture and nature that might be traced back to Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. “The Futurist gear of Plug-in-City was necessary at the time, in order to make the statement that ‘Architecture does not need to be permanent’. Later this can be simplified to ‘Architecture does not need to be’”, declared Archigram in 1970.17
An innocence pervaded this somewhat Orwellian monitoring environment, with its ambition to transcend all conflict through constant cybernetic alteration. Pitched against the idealism of mainstream Modernism (its search for pure form as the representation of a social programme), Archigram had become idealists themselves, believers in the purity of a hyper-functionalism. “In systems of planning”, announced Archigram no. 8, “we are reaching a point where ‘the software’ is sufficient to organise the right (control of / positioning of) arrangement of an environment”.18 Tracing a strain of anarchic individualism from Ayn Rand to the Beats, Robert Boguslaw’s study of the new utopianism presented an insight into the sorts of techno-cultural forces that wracked Archigram: “The hipster and his fellow beats are disillusioned and alienated from civilisation’s primary thrust, which insists upon using human beings exclusively as operating units in the contemporary pushbutton utopias ... Their technology is the technology of environmental escape; their utopian dream is populated with cloud-cushioned flocks of free-floating operating units.”19 Archigram’s work could similarly be read as a compromise between Beat instincts and the brave new world of systems.
Yet the need to carefully assess the politics of living within the cybernetic consumption system was one that barely figured in Archigram’s work. They tended towards the position outlined in Daniel Bell’s influential 1959 book The End of Ideology, which predicted that social decisions would increasingly be made on technical grounds.20 In this promise of a rational redistribution of goods and abolition of politics, of a world of decision-making supervised by technocrats, critics at the time noted a return of Saint-Simonian and Comtean sensibilities.21 And they noted almost as quickly the fallacies of anti-ideology. The commitment to economic growth unconstrained by the dynamics of political interaction and social conflict was itself a powerfully ideological stance. The displacement of the intellectual and the elected representative by the technocrat – the ‘noble savage engineer’22 – elicited reactions ranging from contempt23 to fear, culminating in Noam Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), which expressed alarm at the concentration of power in the hands of technicians avowedly indifferent to ideological constraint.
Archigram’s optimism was all the more remarkable now that technological modernity, recognised by even the early Modernists as double-edged (hence their concern to bound Prometheus in ‘rational’ plans and pure forms) recently numbered among its achievements the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, deforestation and the prospect of nuclear Armageddon. Somehow, Archigram had until this point insulated itself from the devastating critiques of the American Dream, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (on pesticide pollution) and Michael Harrington’s The Other America (on the persistence of wide-spread poverty), both published in 1962. It was a detachment prevalent in their circle. “Technology is morally, socially and politically neutral, though its exploitation may require adjustments of social and political structures, and its consequences may call moral attitudes into question”, Reyner Banham announced in 1962 in his quest ‘Towards a Pop Architecture’,24 and it would be many years before he admitted to his naiveté on the issue.25 When Ron Herron unveiled his Walking City to the audience at the Folkestone Conference of experimental architecture in 1966, “Cries of ‘Fascism, war machine, totalitarian’, etc. were heard”,26 accusations that would be repeated for years to come.
I am suggesting, however, that Archigram saw itself not so much as technocratic but as classically avant-garde, its priority to free architecture and its users, overturning the idealised stasis of building, semi-autonomous from a changing world. As Archigram member Warren Chalk put it defensively, “One of the most flagrant misconceptions held about us is that we are not ultimately concerned with people. This probably arises directly from the type of imagery we use … but if our work is studied closely there will be found traces of a very real concern for people and the way in which they might be liberated from the restrictions imposed on them by the existing chaotic situation, in the home, at work and in the total built environment.”27 Rather than overthrow social convention in a revolutionary coup d’état, Archigram was attempting to transgress society from within, through its own technologies, undermining hegemony by providing goods and services on demand. It made for a perplexing revision of Modern Movement principles.

1 Alison and Peter Smithson, ‘But Today We Collect Ads’, Ark no. 18, November 1956, reprinted in Robbins, ed., The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990, pp. 185-186, p. 186.

2 See The Working Group, ‘Report of the Working Group’, paragraph 424, in Colin Buchanan, et. al., Traffic in Towns: A study of the long term problems of traffic in urban areas, London: HMSO, 1963, p. 183.

3 Kristin Ross, Fast cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995, pp. 9-10.

4 Peter Cook, ‘Come-Go’, in Crosby and Bodley, eds., Living Arts no. 2, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts and Tillotsons, 1963, p. 83.

5 Kristin Ross, op. cit., p. 10.

6 Archigram, dir., Archigram, BBC Productions, 1966.

7 Ibid.

8 Reyner Banham, ‘The Atavism of the Short-Distance Mini Cyclist’, in Theo Crosby and John Bodley, eds., Living Arts no. 3, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts and Tillotsons, 1964, pp. 91-97, reprinted in Reyner Banham, Design By Choice, Penny Sparke, ed., London: Academy, 1981, pp. 84-89.

9 Arthur Marwick, British Society Since 1945, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996, p. 110-111.

10 Archigram, dir., Archigram, BBC Productions, 1966.

11 Robert Boguslaw, The New Utopians: A Study of System Design and Social Change, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965, p. 5.

12 Quoted in Pawley, Theory and Design on the Second Machine Age, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 1, no citation.

13 Anon., ‘Zoom! Space Probe!’, Archigram no. 4, 1964, n.p..

14 Mike Webb, ‘House Project’, Archigram no. 5, 1964, n.p..

15 Dennis Crompton, ‘Computer City’, Archigram no. 5, 1965, n.p..

16 Cf. Boguslaw, The New Utopians, p. 149-50.

17 Anon, ‘In This Archigram’, Archigram no. 9, 1970, n.p..

18 Anon., ‘Hard and soft-ware’, Archigram no. 8, 1968, n.p..

19 Boguslaw, The New Utopians, p. 125.

20 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: on the exhaustion of political ideas in the fifties, Glencoe, Il.: Free Press, 1959.

21 See, for instance, Bruce Mazlisch, ‘Obsolescence and ‘Obsolescibles’ in Planning for the Future’, in Stanford Anderson, ed., Planning for Diversity and Choice: Possible Futures and Their Relations to the Man-Controlled Environment, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968, p. 165, or Charles Jencks, Modern Movements in Architecture, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, second ed. 1985, p. 72.

22 Charles Jencks’ phrase: see Jencks, Modern Movements in Architecture, p. 73.

23 See Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, London: Thames and Hudson, 1958.

24 Reyner Banham, ‘Towards a Pop Architecture’, The Architectural Review, July 1962, reprinted in Banham, Design By Choice, pp. 61-63.

25 See Banham’s note (1979) to ‘Towards a Pop Architecture’ in Banham, Design By Choice, p. 141.

26 See Jencks, Modern Movements in Architecture, p. 292.

27 Warren Chalk, ‘Housing as a Consumer Product’, Arena, no. 81, March 1966, pp. 228-230, reprinted in Archigram, ed., A Guide to Archigram 1961-74, London: Academy, pp. 92-93, p. 92.

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