Archigram: Graphic Design and the City

Archigram: Graphic Design and the City

From ‘Archigram’ Archival Project

It was by walking that man began to construct the natural landscape of his surroundings. And in our own century we have formulated the categories for interpreting the urban landscapes that surround us by walking through them.

Francesco Careri, Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice

After its digitization and subsequent reemergence on the web in 2010, Archigram (1961-1974) is as relevant as it was during its years of publication under the young, English architects of the “lost generation” Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Mark Herron, and Michael Webb (Allen 2003: 36). Each of the nine and a half editions of the ‘zine is comprised of bundled or saddle-stapled sheets of paper, depicting carnivals of loudly and multi-colored, high-contrast images of walking cities, abstracted layouts, and diagrams with a multiplicity of typefaces and sometimes even objects: The seventh edition (1966) “Beyond Architecture” houses seventeen sheets of variously sized paper and an electronic resistor. In the ninth edition (1970), a packet of Steward & Drewell Ltd. Night Scented Stock flower seeds. Archigram is almost as much an artifact of the contemporaneous Fluxus art movement as it is a ‘zine.

Archigram 8

Archigram 8

An aspect of the ‘zine that has largely been ignored, save a few footnotes and off-the-cuff mentions in passing is the materiality of the ‘zine itself. Though the now popular images of “Zoom Architecture” from the well known Archigram 4 (1964) advertise the comic book style, the eye meets more than just Marvelous classics. The publication’s graphic and typographical design mimics that of architecture itself. So while Archigram’s project provided visions for the future, it is in fact the medium within which these visions were housed that is the message.

Most pages enclose black and white illustrations closely akin to Pop, with many images calling back to the Dadaist Happenings in the late 1910s and early 1920s and the Paris’ May 1968 Revolution happening contemporaneously across the English Channel. Following the trends set by Whole Earth Catalog and the growing industry of the popularization of space images (example: Earth Rising, 1968), and emerging from the contention between these young revolutionaries and the Architectural Association, Archigram is a strong call for environmentalism and sustainability, supplying you with the seeds to do so.

In his book Design by Choice, Reyner Banham describes Cook and his crew’s orchestration of this image-text circus as

“rhetorical, with-it, moralistic, mis-spelled, improvisatory, anti-smooth, funny-format, cliquey, art-oriented but stoned out of their minds with science-fiction images of an alternative architecture that would be perfectly possible tomorrow if only the Universe (and especially the Law of Gravity) were differently organized” (1981: 64).

Archigram 7

Archigram 7

Similar in revolution, but perhaps slightly more aggressive was the group Situationist International, born of the avant-garde movements Dada and Surrealism. Franscesco Careri outlines the ideological heritage of the Situationist group, a theoretical timeline illuminating the conceptual ties between these two groups: Careri describes the movement’s lineage through Dada and Surrealism’s visits, Happenings, and deambulation (1910s-1920s) to the Lettrists driftings and situation construction (1950s) and finally to the Situationists’ dérive and psychogeography (1950s-1970s). and he outlines these practices through the performance of walking (Careri 2003). While walking, either at that time or in contemporary parlance, is not often thought of as an artistic practice, due to postmodernist land art and performance art such as Robert Smithson (b. 1938 – d. 1973), Richard Long (b. 1945), Richard Serra (b. 1938), and John Cage (b. 1912 – d. 1992), we can see the performance of walking and specifically wandering as aesthetic practice.

Like the Situationists’ psychogeography, wandering through the pages of Archigram is much like wandering through a city. In what the Dadaists call deamubulation, drifting though city and rural landscapes is like “a sort of automatic writing in real space, capable of revealing the unconscious zones of space, the repressed memories of the city” (Careri  2003, 22). Already, the gesture of walking is likened to writing and reading, taking the artistic gesture from the physical, three-dimensional to the conceptual two-dimensional and then to the subconscious. Guy Debord defines psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviors of individuals” (Knaubb 1981: 5).

Archigram 8

Archigram 8

Carrying on to describe Haussman’s Paris, a city organized under the direction of a single George Haussman, Debord describes the suffocating and oppressing features of forced, pre-planned roads, “Haussman’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Knaubb 1981: 5) Debord borrows from Faulker the discontent that emerges from traveling in pattern after pattern along the boulevard. The avant-garde tendency, (avant-garde carries with it militaristic denotations), is to revolt from the generation before them. So to get past the inconvenience and discontent of trudging along in the foregeneration’s footsteps, they created their own maps from their own memories, creating new signification for their own paths. Archigram‘s streets, boulevards, texts, and images definitely have a Haussman(n) feel, but less George, more Raoul.

Like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968 – 1972), which Simon Sadler describes as “a collage of content between iconic images of the earth,” Archigram is a collage of image and text, an architecture of wandering. The group, though certified and practicing architects, was indeed much like Brand, who was an “architect in the way he provided a institutional and material framework through which to stage the desires of others” (Sadler 2008: 121). Archigram is all about the reader, and the its imagination is all about the walker. Each edition in Archigram collects unique, hand-drawn, text and image layouts, and the variance in page size, composition, and binding is completely to the editors’ discretion. It’s up to us to decide what page or box of text to read next. In casting aside the tradition of the typical, traditional grid, Cook opted for circumambulating, papiers collés-ish, D. I. Y. methods of expression, manifesting within the magazine’s unique graphic design. The gesture of reading and flipping through the magazine is comparable to the gesture of walking through a city: Instead of keeping to the routes of the sidewalks or even along the “L” in Chicago’s downtown Loop, Archigram is a sinuous stroll along the reader’s own lines of desire.