Back to the future

The 1960s architectural collective Archigram had a vision of transforming Britain's drab postwar lan

With a world tour, a prestigious Riba Gold Medal and now a retrospective at London's Design Museum, the 1960s architectural collective Archigram has become increasingly difficult to ignore over the past couple of years. This is surprising, perhaps, given that this loose alliance of six occasionally like-minded architects - Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron and Mike "Spider" Webb - never actually built anything.

Instead, the group's legacy consists of a series of fantastical, futuristic blueprints offering a vision of constantly evolving, technological cities made up of mobile, interconnected buildings. Playfully embodying the free spirit of the 1960s, they sought to transform Britain's drab postwar environment into a surreal landscape of blobs and alien forms. Archigram's enemy was the modernist aesthetic, handed down from Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. As Greene, arguably the group's most eloquent member, wrote: "We have chosen to bypass the decaying Bauhaus image, which is an insult to functionalism."

Formed in 1961, the group launched a magazine - Archigram (from "architecture" and "telegram") - in which to broadcast its "manifesto of dynamic ideas for new architecture". These included Blow-Out Village, an inflatable canopy with a hydraulically raised mast designed to rehouse people hit by disaster; Walking City, a town made up of giant structures capable of moving on telescopic legs; and Plug-In City, a real-life Legoland in which buildings could be fitted together and adapted at will. The closest the collective ever came to getting something constructed was in Monte Carlo, where it won a competition to create a major entertainments centre. Characteristically, the group decided to locate it under a park and, due to a lack of funds, it was never built.

While interest has recently grown in the ideas of Archigram as a collective, Cook in particular (the group's informal leader) seems to be enjoying a renaissance. The Kunsthaus Graz in Austria, which he co-designed with Colin Fournier, certainly looks strange enough to have been one of Archigram's designs, and was described by the Architectural Review as a "friendly alien". This September, Cook is curating the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

So what accounts for the group's revival? As with the Rolling Stones, there's a sense that they ought to be appreciated while most of them are still alive (sadly, Chalk and Herron no longer are). The comparison with rock music is appropriate. As part of its rebellion against the architectural establishment, Archigram turned to pop culture for inspiration. Looking back at the group's creations, it is possible to decipher a cross-pollination of ideas and styles with other disciplines.

Many of Archigram's proposals were prophetic. The group correctly foresaw the development of an entertainment society and understood that information would become the hard currency of the future. Its Instant City, involving the creation of a network that would offer the provinces "a taste of the metropolitan dynamic", using airships to transport a series of audio-visual display systems and exhibits across the country, can be seen as a precursor of the internet. And its idea of making technological objects appear natural - as it did with the aptly named "LogPlug" and "RokPlug" components of the Plug-In City - has been adopted (often controversially) in contemporary designs for telephone masts.

Yet our current fascination with Archigram says as much about us as it does about the group's work and ideas. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in an airbrushed version of the 1960s. Something about that decade's brash optimism - its confidence that, thanks to the "white heat of technology", civilisation had a bright future - appeals to us. At a time when terror and incompetence are combining to bring many modern cities to a standstill, we embrace retro-futurism as a means of escape.

Its influence can be seen in the work of the hi-tech generation of architects, notably Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, as well as in buildings by younger designers such as Will Alsop and Future Systems. Two of the latter's most famous creations - the Lord's Media Centre and the new Selfridges in Birmingham - are good examples of the trend for designs that feel simultaneously familiar and alien. Both play with form and wilfully work against their locations. The curvaceous Selfridges is covered in 15,000 metal discs and is situated next to a church, while the Lord's Media Centre resembles the hull of a boat that has been tipped on its side and dumped at the home of cricket. And both make maximum use of that most fashionable of materials - aluminium. At the same time, they draw inspiration from a bygone era. Selfridges is an architectural version of the eponymous monster in the 1958 US sci-fi movie The Blob, while the Lord's Media Centre has more than a passing resemblance to the buildings in the old Hanna- Barbara cartoon The Jetsons.

Car design has begun to draw on a similar nostalgia. J Mays, currently vice-president of design at Ford, has built a career by creating cars that are both contemporary and backward-looking. It was Mays who gave us the new Beetle and the Audi TT, and it was his idea to reissue Ford's Le Mans-winning GT40. Elsewhere, companies such as Alessi are manufacturing products that look stylishly futuristic but, in some cases, don't even work properly.

Nor has retro-chic been confined to architecture and design. Rock mu- sic's obsession with the 1960s didn't end with Oasis's terri-ble third album. Some of this coun-try's most successful new bands, including The Coral and The Thrills, sound as if they spent their youth listening to their parents' Beach Boys records. Recycling classic 1960s movies has also become hip. Last year, Mark Wahlberg starred in a remake of The Italian Job (complete with new Mini Coopers), and Jude Law will appear in a new version of Alfie.

None of this, however, should detract from Archigram's achievement. Unlike the retro movement it helped spawn, the group was genuinely rebellious. Using a comic-book style, Archigram made its ideas accessible to ordinary people. As Warren Chalk observed, the group aimed to "extend the conventional barriers and find people without formal training, producing concepts showing a marked intuitive grasp of current attitudes related to city images and the rest". Archigram's bold, populist vision of the future was never corrupted by becoming a reality. No wonder it appeals to us so much today.

"Archigram" is at the Design Museum, London SE1 (0870 833 9955) until 4 July

Grant Gibson is a former editor of Blueprint magazine

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