THE ARCHITECT AS SUPERHERO:

ARCHIGRAM AND THE TEXT OF SERIOUS COMICS

David Walters
Professor of Architecture and Urban Design
University of North Carolina at Charlotte


(1) This article discusses the architectural collages and polemics produced by the Archigram group in England during the nineteen sixties. It presents two sets of interconnected arguments: firstly, a discussion of the medium of collage, characteristic of the Archigram magazines themselves; and secondly, a consideration of the architectural content of the Archigram collages and associated comic strips. In relation to the first argument, the essay examines:


This second discussion considers another, paradoxical set of issues; that while the collage and comic book medium of the architectural "texts" is confrontational to modernist paradigms, the content of the comics -- representing as it does various visions of a consumerist and democratic techno-topia -- is close to the ideological core of this same modernism.

(2) The article concludes by suggesting an interpretation in which the work of Archigram, despite the above indications to the contrary, can be seen not as an early manifestation of postmodernism, nor simply as an anti-modern polemic, but rather as a reuniting of the sundered strands of modernism. The architectural strand of a highly sophisticated technological and democratic utopianism is here made manifest through an aesthetic language predicated upon the other strand of (contrary) modernist themes -- the literary and painterly paradigms of fragmentation, discontinuity and ironic commentary.

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(3) But first let us refresh our memories about Archigram itself. The movement came into being in late 1960, in the Hampstead area of London as a self-generated forum for several young and recently graduated architects, the major participants being Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Ron Herron, David Greene, Dennis Crompton and Mike (Spider) Webb. The uniting theme of the group was their impatience and dissatisfaction with the limited horizons and stultifying practices of contemporary modern architecture. Following the tradition of radical modernism enunciated by Nietzsche ("Whoever wants to be creative . . . . must first . . . . annihilat[e] and destroy values"); and Henrik Ibsen ("The great task of our time is to blow up all existing institutions - to destroy"), this formative group of young architects set out to dismantle the apparatus of modern architecture through a series of consciousness-raising and confrontational manifestos.

(4) These documents were based not on esoteric theory but upon stunningly provocative graphics as the medium of their equally provocative statements and themes. The primary aim was to expand the territory of architecture from its narrow bureaucratic confines and elitist aesthetics into all aspects of cultural production, particularly pop culture and the explorative frontier technologies of space and the ocean depths. The message was urgent, and communicated in terse, staccato bursts of text and images after the fashion of an aerogram or telegram - hence the name Archi(tecture)gram. Early issues of the group's home-produced broadsheet dealt with major issues in contemporary society that were not being addressed elsewhere: themes like Throwaway Architecture in an age of consumerist planned obsolescence; or the Living City, a confluence of people, technology and creative choice, where situation, based on changing activity and participation, was more important than place, based on static architectural form; and Capsule Architecture and Plug-in City, where ideas were developed from expendable buildings to a whole urban environment programmed and structured for change.

(5) These home-produced magazines utilized collage (or more accurately, montage) as their primary medium, with photographs, drawings and text defying any attempt at conventional reading. Later issues, while continuing to deal with the major themes of personal choice and participation as the creative engines of the urban environment, began to involve other softer technologies. This was done literally with projects like the Cushicle, the Suitaloon, and the giant dirigibles of the Instant City, and it was done etymologically with computerized software and information technology.

(6) However, most striking of all the images remain those that illustrate the group's fascination with the genre of science fiction and the hardware of space exploration. In Archigram 4 (May 1964) the architect is personified by a comic strip hero involved in a political and environmental struggle in a futuristic society. With conscious acknowledgement to the parallel world of Pop Art, and Roy Lichtenstein in particular, the comic strip charts the adventures of the city dwellers interwoven with detached commentaries on the genre of the space comic itself (as the venue for the depiction of today's wish dreams of the future); and the relationship of the space cartoon medium to 'serious' architecture (as a two-way exchange between space comic imagery and the more advanced 'real' concepts and prophecies of geodesic nets, mobile computers, environmentally-controlled domes and hovercraft-buildings). As Peter Cook wrote in the editorial to Archigram 4, "Our document is the space comic; its reality is in the gesture, design and styling of the hardware new to our decade. . . . [Can] the space comic's future [vision. . . relate to] buildings-as-built? Can the near-reality of the rocket-object and the hovercraft-object . . . . carry the dynamic building with them into life?"Ref.1 It was this fecund cross-fertilization of science fantasy and near-reality that was seen by Archigram as the catalyst of change from the stereotyped modernist world of architectural banality to the explorative modern world where, in the words of Warren Chalk, a ". . more sophisticated humanity. . .(and) . . . more sophisticated technology, working together in harmony, will help our children's children."Ref.2

(7) For the early issues of the Archigram magazine the choice of the collage medium was a conscious one, a deliberate collision of form and content designed to frustrate conventional synthesis. To understand this better let us briefly examine the place of collage in twentieth century artistic production.

(8) In the book Collage: Critical Views, editor Katherine Hoffman suggests that "collage may be seen as a quintessential twentieth century art form with multiple layers and signposts pointing to a variety of forms and realities".Ref.3 Clement Greenberg is of the opinion that collage was ".... a major turning point in the whole evolution of modernist art in this century."Ref.4 And Gregory Ulmer has noted that ".... collage is the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation in our century."Ref.5 Within the tradition of western art it is recognized that "collage was introduced into the 'high arts'.... by Braque and Picasso as a solution to the problems raised by analytic cubism, a solution which finally provided an alternative to the 'illusionism' of perspective which had dominated Western painting since the early Renaissance."Ref.6

(9) It was not only in the visual arts that a new aesthetic was apparent. In the music of Stravinsky, the choreography of Diaghilev, and the literature of Pound and Joyce new aesthetic structures transformed their respective arts. Literature in the first decades of this century was, in the words of critic Malcolm Bradbury ". . . an art of crisis. The new fragmentary forms, the strange and often parodic structures, the pervasive sense of ambiguity and tragic irony . . . . express this."Ref.7

(10) Around the end of the First World War, Ezra Pound began work on an epic that he entitled The Cantos, "a fractured work . . . of the age of disunity and lost wholeness."Ref.8 Pound's ambition, like many of his literary contemporaries, was to sift through the literary tradition, and construct from its fragments and usable remnants a whole new language and set of modern forms. Amongst the techniques Pound explored was one that he referred to as 'superpositioning'. Here two or more images were set in relation to each other, no one subordinate to the others, with the intention of creating an explosion of linguistic energy through the concentration of fragments. This aesthetic and compositional structure clearly has much in common with cubist painting and collage, but very little to do with the developing aesthetic of the new architecture. This, by contrast, sought the smooth platonic expression of machine-assisted icons in the purist works of Le Corbusier's early period and in the art / machine synthesis of the Bauhaus. These two predominant strains of architectural aesthetics defined the developing style of modern architecture and by the nineteen thirties modern architecture had crafted its own set of norms from new relationships with machine production and fledgling social utopianism. Fragmentation and pastiche, parody and irony had no place in these new aesthetics, and the opportunities presented by the cubist experimentation with collage, and by Pound's technique of superpositioning were spurned for other goals and horizons.

(11) It was not until the mid 1970s that any scholarly or critical discussion of the medium of collage re-entered the theoretical discourse of architecture in any meaningful way. In the August 1975 issue of Architectural Review, Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter set out their theory of Collage City,Ref.9 where the authors envisaged the city as an aggregate of discontinuous fragments, creating ". . . a highly impacted condition of symbolic reference. . ."Ref.10 This seems very like Pound's superpositioning, or Braque and Picasso's early cubist collages, and indeed, in a key passage Ref.11 Koetter and Rowe quote Alfred Barr's analysis of Picasso's "Still Life with Chair Caning" as an incitement to architects to engage in the manipulation of multiple levels of urban reality, all constructed from disparate elements, artifacts and allusions. The "Collage City" article achieved a highly rigorous theoretical tone, and thus stands as an important benchmark in the evolution of postmodern urban aesthetics,Ref.12 but it was not the first instance of the re-emergence of collage in architecture and urban design to be published in the mainstream professional press.

(12) In 1971 the Review published a series of provocative collages of modern buildings illustrating the vision of a new dense and complex urbanism under the title of "Civilia: the End of Sub-urban Man".Ref.13 These collages were used to develop a picturesque townscape as a critique of the urban typologies of the modern movement, but they were self-consciously architectural and composed to reproduce the illusion of perspectival space. However, it was Archigram, nearly a decade earlier, as we have seen, that in fact brought back collage into the repertoire of architectural aesthetics Ref.14 as a major element in their confrontational polemics against these same typological orthodoxies.

(13) The collages of Archigram were intentionally shocking, brash and 'difficult', deliberately fracturing the illusion of real space, or providing multiple overlapping views, as opposed to the cultured urban elegance of "The Civilian Dream." The intention of Archigram was to break down real and imagined barriers of form and statement on the page just as much as on the ground in actual construction, and the media of collage and montage were the means of assault. The ambition of Cook, Herron and the others was to provoke discussion by evocative, colliding images, layered one over another so that the argument was not decipherable by the standards of conventional text or linear reasoning, but rather by the simultaneous collage of the information board. The group had particular literary objectives in their manipulation of the printed word and evocative image. They felt that in this way their message would be transmitted most effectively, and at the same time remain free from the deadening embrace of the architectural literary and critical establishment.

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(14) To understand how these architectural polemics can be simultaneously central to modernist ideology, yet critical of the apparatus of modern architecture, we must remember the extent to which, from the point of view of the "angry young men" of the 1950s and 1960s, the utopian ideals of early modernism had become contaminated and subverted by the second and third generations of the modernist establishment. Modernism had, in simple terms, become a "style" like any other, and the control and manipulation of these brittle aesthetic codes had passed into the hands of designers who had all too often become part of the bureaucratic world and thus detached from the everyday life of the ordinary people; people who lived their lives in a built environment that increasingly failed to deliver the promises of betterment of life, and where technical sophistication in the building industry was a bad joke.

(15) Archigram distinguished between the ossified culture of modern architecture and the vibrant culture of modern life; the movement was counter-cultural only in an architectural sense. In other ways it sought out and amplified trends and values embedded in modernity -- technological expansiveness (in science fiction and space exploration) and popular democratic culture -- in companionship with contemporary Pop Art movements. The group's ambition was to expand the territory of architecture, to include everything connected to contemporary life; indeed to emphasize the transient changing elements of the situation over the static architectural and formal frame. As Peter Blake writes, remembering his early encounters with the movement, "Suddenly everything became architecture".Ref.15 Ideas of planned obsolescence, individual choice and action, and technological sophistication imported from other, non-architectural genres were seen as the hallmarks of a sophisticated, dynamic and pluralistic urban society. They are clearly visible in projects such as the group's "Control and Choice Housing Study," and Ron Herron's "Free Time Node," both from 1967.

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(16) From our critical vantage point it is tempting to read, or re-read, these serious comics as early manifestations of postmodern attitudes, utilizing as they do the concepts and strategies of pluralism, irony, fragmentation and discontinuity, terms that are currently enshrined in our critical vocabulary. Indeed Archigram was utilizing these strategies several years before Koetter and Rowe brought them again to our attention. But this is to look at history only from the linear perspective of the present, seeking to reclassify fragments of the past on the basis of our current preferred position.

(17) Trawling through history with a postmodern net may indeed catch some juicy morsels ripe for reinterpretation, but Archigram's "Space Comics" are most fairly apprehended in their own cultural context of production and precedent. The collage of intentional paradox, discontinuity, referential gesture and attack on the aesthetic codes of modernist architecture does seem to qualify the Archigram group and their comic book heroes for retrospective induction into a Postmodern Hall of Fame, but to pursue such a postmodern reading of Archigram misrepresents the movement, and obscures an argument that challenges the postmodern critical position within architectural discourse. We have seen from the early history of modernism in painting and literature how irony, paradox, fragmentation and discontinuity were the hallmarks of the modernist avant-garde. Only in architecture did these aesthetic paradigms and operational devices fail to make their mark, for the goals of modern architecture became formulated around other foundations of modernist ideology, those of the machine and social utopianism. The Archigram group stepped outside the dogma of modernist aesthetics, and through their love of draughtsmanship and their interest in non-linear simultaneous means of communication, they re-connected techno-utopian architecture with the aesthetics of literary and painterly modernism, in short, the aesthetics of collage and superpositioning. These modernist aesthetics, long atrophied within architecture, contained the seeds of a radical critique of their fellow modernists and the built environment. This strongly suggests that far from being an illustration of early postmodernism, the work of Archigram is a powerful example of an attribute at the core of modernism,Ref.16 that is, the capacity for perpetual and radical self-critique.

(18) This dialectic of disparate and contradictory ambitions within modernism should not really surprise us: after all it was Marx who taught us that "all that is solid melts into air" - that what makes modern life truly modern is the fact that it is radically contradictory at its base.Ref.17 What we are able to see in the work of Archigram is not therefore an early manifestation of postmodernism in the guise of an anti-modern polemic, but rather a reuniting of the sundered strands of modernism - highly sophisticated technological and democratic architectural utopias made manifest through an aesthetic language predicated upon literary and painterly paradigms of fragmentation, discontinuity and ironic commentary. The larger question of whether postmodernism in architecture is only the aesthetic language of a larger modernism at last making its presence felt in the realm of architectural discourse is an issue that deserves to be debated rigorously and continuously as we move into the twentifirst century.



REFERENCES

Ref.1: Reprinted in "Zoom and 'Real' Architecture," Archigram, ed. Peter Cook et al., (New York, 1973), 27 - 28.

Ref.2: Chalk, Warren. "An Unaccustomed Dream," in Archigram, op. cit., 32.

Ref.3: Hoffman, K. ed. Collage: Critical Views, (Ann Arbor, 1989), 1.

Ref.4: Greenberg, C. Collage, in Art and Culture, (Boston, 1961), 70.

Ref.5: Ulmer, G. The Object of Post-Criticism in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture, ed. Hal Foster, (Port Townsend, Washington, 1983), 84.

Ref.6: Ulmer, 84.

Ref.7: Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern World: Ten Great Writers, (New York, 1989), 7.

Ref.8: Bradbury, 7.

Ref.9: Architectural Review 157 (1975): 65 - 91.

Ref.10: Ibid., 82.

Ref.11: Ibid., 87.

Ref.12: Along with the same authors' earlier article "The Crisis of the Object: the Predicament of Texture," in Oppositions 16: 108-138.

Ref.13: Edited by Ivor de Wolfe, Architectural Review 149 (1981): 326 - 409.

Ref.14: Kasimir Malevich had used photomontage in some of his suprematist architektons in the 1920s, but by and large collage was not the preferred medium of the architectural avant-garde.

Ref.15: Blake, Peter. "Introductory Comment" in Cook, op. cit., 7.

Ref.16: This is discussed, for example, in Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. by Frederick G. Lawrence, MIT Press, 1987; and Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: the Experience of Modernity, (London 1988).

Ref.17: Berman, Marshall. op. cit., 19.


Copyright 1994 David Walters

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