Ephemerality and Architecture

Saturday 10th Sept, 14.30-16.00, Room CG06

Chair: Professor Anne Massey, University of the Arts, London 

This session will explore ideas relating to ephemerality and permanence in architecture, and consider the ways in which conceptions of time have been an integral part of the design of cities.

Cedric Price and The Dynamics of Time
Professor Graeme Evans, Middlesex University
E: g.evans@mdx.ac.uk

The British architect Cedric Price (1934-2003) broke the conventional boundaries of architectural practice by continuously employing a broad pallet of potential design variables, engaging formal, infrastructural, organisational, operational and ethical factors into all of his design propositions. His readiness to collaborate with other disciplines, including Situationists, allowed him to challenge existing assumptions and introduce concepts such as impermanence, flexibility, indeterminacy and responsiveness in design. Today’s climate of increased uncertainty makes this attitude more relevant than ever.

This presentation will consider Price’s perspective on the dynamics of time through his various projects including ‘Potteries Thinkbelt’, ‘Ducklands’ and his seminal but unbuilt ‘Fun Palace’ (including its emulators such as the Pompidou Centre), and the model, but ultimately temporary Inter-Action Centre in north London (the author worked in this centre for seven years in the early 1980s and knew Cedric Price). Price’s vision for the Fun Palace was for a new kind of active and dynamic architecture which would permit multiple uses and would constantly adapt to change, thinking of the Fun Palace in terms of process, as events in time rather than objects in space. The building would have no single entry point and divide into activity zones. Price and Joan Littlewood had assembled a multi-disciplinary team from architecture, art, theatre, technology with cybernetics, and game theory, driving the facility’s day-to-day behaviour and performative strategies, which would be stimulated through feedback from users.

The Fun Palace as both a ‘laboratory of fun’ and ‘university of the streets’, continues to inspire designers and artists and this ‘timeless’ legacy from the early 1960s will be contrasted with what Cedric Price’s Fun Palace client, Joan Littlewood, foresaw as ‘permanent structures and concrete stadia stained and cracking, a legacy of noble architecture, quickly dating’. Presciently, fifty years later this is exactly what now occupies the intended site for the Fun Palace in the Olympicopolis development in Stratford, east London, and this development – and its sentimental Albertpolis ‘Victorian Futures’ historiography – will therefore be set against Price’s essentially Modernist design approach.

The Olympicopolis project (coined by London mayor Boris Johnson) seeks to develop the Stratford Waterfront area to host satellites of UCL, the London College of Fashion, Sadlers Wells Theatre, the V&A and the Smithsonian. The site forms part of the Olympic Park created from the London 2012 Summer Olympics – a mega-event where time was of the essence – both fixed in time and ‘on time, on budget’ with a ‘future’ legacy of land uses planned ahead of time, as visualised in the architects’/masterplanners’ CGI aerial images.

42134488_mcandrewDreams of The Fun Palace and Plug-In City — Architectural Modularism and Cybernetics in the 1960s
Dr Claire McAndrew, Research Associate, Institute for Digital Innovation in the Built Environment, The Bartlett, UCL
E: c.mcandrew@ucl.ac.uk

This paper considers the visionary dreams of two architectural designs, The Fun Palace (1961), conceived by Cedric Price, and Archigram’s Plug-In City (1964), designed by Peter Cook. Each radical in their thinking around architectural modularism and the embrace of cybernetics, these designs speculated on a vision of the city that was temporally adaptive and anticipatory. Their aspiration was to drive flexibility and versatility from a collection of modular units that could be arranged and re-arranged, time and time again. Reversing the assumed stability of architectural form, The Fun Palace and Plug-In City were conceived as closed systems of exchange where real-time data on human activity could control and modify the spatial form within which it was framed and so on, ad infinitum. Blending architecture, modular technology and society, their designs sought to provide liberation from modernism. And yet – in the same breath – their neo-futurist aspirations were also critiqued for bordering on experiments in social control (Matthews, 2005).

Purely dreams during the 1960s, we now find ourselves in an era where social media, GPS and apps provide data-feeds that shape our engagement within the city in a dynamically recursive manner. The Internet of Things, rise of big data applications and step-changes in building information modelling connecting digital data with designed objects, will undoubtedly shift our temporal relationship with cities further still.

Reviewing material made accessible through The Archigram Archival Project, hosted by the University of Westminster, and the Cedric Price Collection held at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (alongside writings such as Sadler’s (2005), Archigram: Architecture Without Architecture and the works of artist and cybernetician, Roy Ascott, who advised on the cybernetics committee for The Fun Palace), this paper examines some of the key expressions of digital innovation captured by The Fun Palace and Plug-In City in the 1960s. Particular attention is paid to how the tropes of architectural modularism and cybernetics are reworked into UK contemporary design discourse.

Through this commentary, this paper casts light on the ways in which time has been conceived of being designed into the architectural fabric of cities and how through examination of critical debates, design history might respond to the challenges of the digital.

Expendabilia vs. Architecture: Debates around Permanence, Temporality and ‘Glamour’ in Architecture 1960-1971
Dr Jessica Kelly, Lecturer, Critical and Theoretical Studies, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham
E: jkelly1@ucreative.ac.uk T: @ardourlayman

In 1960, Reyner Banham wrote a series of articles in The Architectural Review called ‘Stocktaking’, which explored, among other things, the theme of ‘expendability’ in architecture. The series highlighted the very different perspectives within the editorial team about the relationship between architecture, popular culture and permanence. This paper will explore these debates over the longevity of architecture and the differing ideas about architecture’s response to changes in technology and taste over time. As well as revealing ideas about temporality and architecture, these exchanges allow us to reflect on the real or imagined generational divisions within architectural culture.

For instance, in one Stocktaking article, Hugh Casson dismissed architecture produced by ‘a team of specialists’ as akin to “the cornflake packet – efficient, salesworthy, disposable and to me, without any interest or value whatsoever” (Banham, 1960; p.386). Reyner Banham countered Casson’s suggestion that these mass industrially produced objects were “of no interest or value”, arguing that to “plenty of architects and fanciers of architecture, these things are of considerable value” (Banham, 1960; p.385). There were, Banham insisted, a new group of architects or journalists who were interested in ephemeral industrial design and popular culture and were increasingly concerned that architecture could not “match the design of expendabilia in function and aesthetic performance” (Banham, 1960; p.385). He went further than simply suggesting that the cornflake packet design should be a subject of serious consideration, he argued that buildings should be thought about in the same terms as such “expendables”, buildings were, after all, just “long-term expendables” (Banham, 1960; p.385). Banham’s insistence of the equivalency of the cornflake packet design and architecture reflected his interest in commercial culture and disposable design. Casson, on the other hand, and the older generation of editors dismissed these interests as “a preoccupation with glamour”.  The term ‘glamour’ became a by-word on the pages of the The Architectural Review for this debate over permanence in architecture.

The respective attraction to and rejection of ‘glamour’ was indicative of two different perspectives on architecture’s relationship to commercial culture and popular taste. There was agreement between both generations that architecture should be representative of the “spirit of the time”, but disagreement over what and where one should define as “the time”. This paper will trace these debates on the pages of The Architectural Review to reflect on the changing responses to time and permanence in British architectural culture.

Further Reading

Kelly, J (2015) ‘Vulgar Modernism: JM Richards, modernism and the vernacular in British architecture’, Architectural History, 58.

Matthews, S (2005) ‘The Fun Palace: Cedric Price’s experiment in architecture and technology’, Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research: 3(2),73-91.

McAndrew, C (in production) Performing architecture [The counter culture version], in Campkin, B and Ross, R (eds), Urban Pamphleteer Special Issue: Open Source Housing Crisis. London: UCL & Central Saint Martins.

McAndrew, C and Marmot, A (2015) ‘Techno-utopia and office design’, Design History Society Annual Conference: How we live, and how we might live: Design and the spirit of critical utopianism, 11-13 September, California College of the Arts, San Francisco.

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