The show winds through the first floor of the museum, starting with a recreation of the group's central London studio (wonderfully jumbled working environment, featuring Sonny Rollins and Yes on the turntable!) taking in a bean-bag strewn multi-projector film show, through to numerous original models, posters, and videos.
Seeing this wealth of material brings home what an extraordinarily prolific group they were. Though producers of ideas rather than buildings, their conceptual work - such as the Plug-In City - seems more relevant than ever.
That's the piece I always return to, rather than the more immediately compelling Walking City. Aware of an increasingly throw-away culture, Archigram decided to work with this "disposable aesthetic", and propose buildings and cities which could be replaced section by section. Working amidst a maelstrom of cultural change - yet seeing "the crap going up in London", as Peter Cook put it - they were increasingly aware that buildings wouldn't last. Their Plug-In City proposes that change could and should be built-in. I hear their talk of modularity and reusable components, and I hear echoes when software engineers talk of code being refactored, swapped-in and swapped-out of more virtual structures.
Their work here prefigures elements of the adaptive, pattern-based, How Buildings Learn, Brand/Alexander approach to building - but wholly sidesteps any inherent anti-modern conservatism, 'nostalgia', or in-built resistance to progress which could be levelled at that movement. If any group were able to graft the best elements of modernity on to a fit-for-purpose architecture built for change, this lot could.
Their influence is generally lazily 'detected' in solutions like the Pompidou, but there is evidence everywhere of their prescience (not least the recent buzz around moveable housing).
Equally important was their emphasis on communicating these ideas - using the stylistic tropes and blazing visuals of the day, their flyposters, newsletters, banners and postcards still look engaging. But there was substance there too. These were radical ideas alright, but not to be tidied away into tomes like Radix/Matrix. Perhaps only Rem Koolhaas/OMA take a broadly similar approach, but do their beautifully-produced, Bruce Mau-designed books feel as exciting and accessible as Archigram's missives? Perhaps Archigram's approach is inherently more democratic, expressing their ideas in the 'street vernacular' of the day (and selling 5000 copies per issue of Archigram magazine by the late-60s).
As ever with the Design Museum, the show seems rather small. Also, some may find the quality of the work suffers in comparison to the Superstudio work exhibited in the same museum 12 months ago. Personally, whilst I love Superstudio, Archigram's sheer verve does it for me. The essence of their architecture described above, their sampladelic aesthetic, their pop bravado. But like Superstudio, there was intellectual substance underneath those dazzling surfaces too, in sharp contrast to much of today's form-obsessed 'architectural solutions'.
"A new generation of architecture must arise with forms and spaces which seems to reject the precepts of ‘Modern’ yet in fact retains those precepts. We have chosen to by pass the decaying Bauhaus image which is an insult to functionalism. You can roll out steel – any length. You can blow up a balloon – any size. You can mould plastic – any shape. Blokes that built the Forth Bridge – they didn’t worry."
David Greene, published in the first issue of ARCHIGRAM, 1961.