What the M+ Archigram Archive Means for Hong Kong

The Archigram archive is in Hong Kong. Now what? That’s the question M+ has been exploring over the past month. A year after the museum of visual culture acquired the visionary British architecture collective’s body of work, the full potential of its opportunities for research and exhibition are just beginning to be revealed. In a series of online discussions, scholars and architects pondered the implications of Archigram’s ideas about buildings, cities and technology – and what they have to say about our urban lives in the 21st century.

If you missed it, don’t worry: there will be plenty of material left to explore when M+ finally opens the doors its museum next year. “For us, physicality is important,” says M+ design and architecture curator Shirley Surya. Images of Archigram’s work have been widely published over the years, but there have been few opportunities for the public to see the original objects produced by the collective. “It’s not just something that we can show online or publish but it’s something we can see in scale as artefacts,” she says.

Archigram

Model, Instant City in Bournemouth, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, Ron Herron, Archigram 1968 – © ARCHIGRAM ARCHIVES – Photo courtesy M+

Archigram was founded in 1960 by six architecture students at the prestigious Architectural Association in London: Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Ron Herron, Dennis Crompton, Michael Webb and David Greene. They were a motley group who didn’t agree on everything, but together they were dissatisfied with the rigidity of High Modernism and fascinated by the potential impact of new technology on the way we live. Their first pamphlet, Archigram I, was published in 1961, and in the years that followed they produced fantastically illustrated concepts that explored how cities could be made more flexible and responsive to change. 

This was a time when the Modernist ethos of “form follows function” was sacrosanct. The early 20th century wave of exciting ideas that shattered calcified notions of space, place and function had receded, leaving behind only the most rigid, prescriptive and inhumane fragments of thinkers like Le Corbusier. Archigram was not anti-Modernist, but as David Greene put it in a 2018 interview with the design writer Darren Anderson, they thought “the exciting revolutionary aspects of Modernism had completely evaporated.” Although the collective was Modernist in style and outlook, it was “strangely Victorian” in ethos, according to Peter Cook, referring to the way “Victorians gleaned stuff from all over.” Archigram was eclectic at a time when architecture was not.

It was all very conceptual—fantastical, even—presented with the aesthetic of a psychedelic reverie. But it planted the seeds of ideas that have since permeated the foundations of contemporary architecture. “Running through Archigram is the essential insight that buildings should respond to the lives that go on in and around them, and that when those lives change they should be able to change too,” wrote architecture critic Rowan Moore. 

In The Plug-In City, published in 1964, the group envisioned a modular city in which living units acted like the cells of a body. The same year, The Walking City presented the idea of a city populated by autonomous, self-contained pods that roamed the landscape at will. In 1968, Instant City built on the idea of a nomadic city to envisage an oversaturated metropolis of networked advertising screens, airships and robots that could descend onto existing settlements – a concept that hinted at the future influence of the internet, which at the time was only the faintest concept, instead of the omnipresent force we know today.

Archigram’s ideas informed some real-world projects, notably the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Completed in 1971, it was designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano as an inside-out exhibition hall, with all of the guts of the building—fire escapes, ventilation shafts and the like—taking the place of a façade. The radical transparency of its structure, along with a vivacious colour scheme of electric blue, shocking yellow, artificial green and incandescent red (representing the respective flows of air, electricity, water and people), owe an intellectual debt to Archigram.

For the most part, though, Archigram’s influence was felt through its ideas, which have become so pervasive, they can be hard to tease out from the threads of contemporary architecture – and everyday life. By examining how the personal can be fused with the technological, Archigram proved itself to be remarkably prescient. Archigram offers insight into our humanity – what makes us human. And why when it comes to architecture we shouldn’t just think of numbers, we should think of who makes a city,” says Eric Schuldenfrei, head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. 

In his own career as an architect, Schuldenfrei—who runs the studio Eskyiu with his wife Marisa Yiu—says he never deliberately sought to reference Archigram. But he can see its influence in the undergraduate thesis he did at Cornell University, in which he was inspired by land reclamation and typhoon shelters in Hong Kong to propose a system of floating structures that could travel between different places. “[Archigram] enters the psyche,” he says. “When we think of influence in architecture we often might think of [it] being a visual influence, but with Archigram it’s an intellectual reference. Of course, their visual matter is also incredible.”

M+ acquired the Archigram archive last year for £1.8 million (HK$18.6 million). The purchase was controversial in Britain, where some felt the archive should never have left the UK, but Schuldenfrei says having it in Hong Kong offers a chance to focus on how Archigram has influenced architecture in this part of the world – and how it may continue to be relevant as China and India develop at a breakneck pace, moving hundreds of millions of people from rural to urban areas. “It’s not an archive of the past,” he says. “It’s a living document that allows us to produce new work into the future. As it moves to M+, the ability for it to have a larger impact in Hong Kong and this region becomes more tangible.”

The discussions over the past month delved into some of that impact. Architectural historian Evangelos Kotsioris examined the influence of Archigram on avant-garde Soviet architects in 1970s Moscow. Architect Tsukamoto Yoshiharu discussed how Archigram’s ideas developed in parallel with similar concepts espoused by Japan’s Metabolist movement – which included now-renowned architects like Fumihiko Maki, and which influenced Yoshiharu’s own practice, Atelier Bow-Wow. Architect Roger Wu mused about the way Hong Kong’s “hyper-dense, multilayered, multicultural and ever-changing urban environment” reflects the kinds of cities dreamed up by Archigram.

November’s events were just the beginning. When M+ opens next autumn—after another delay of several months—its opening show will include some materials from the Archigram archive. It’s one thing to see digital versions of the collective’s images and quite another to see them in person. Some issues of Archigram’s famous magazines are just loose sheets of papers; others are more elaborate. “Some are like newspapers, others are full colour with pop ups,” says Shirley Surya. One even contains seeds. 

Instant City in a Field, Elevation, Peter Cook, Archigram 1968, © ARCHIGRAM ARCHIVES – Photo courtesy M+

Many of the archive’s materials have yet to be catalogued. “Dennis [Crompton] gave us a hard disk of all the films they have,” says Surya. Only a few were retrieved before going into temporary storage. “I found all these little bits and snippets of their animations. Those were not exhibited, they were not published before.”

Surya is also excited by the prospect of such an influential collection of work being housed at a Hong Kong institution. There has long been a pervasive notion that it is only natural for a European or American museum to take a global perspective on things, while Asian museums are expected to focus only on Asian things. “There is all this discourse on decolonising and decentring,” she says. “We aren’t going to use those words – but we are [aspiring to do] that. There are other ways of looking at Archigram, not only from a [single] Eurocentric perspective. It has global significance.” 

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