14 March 2011

Auto-Environments, II













Despite my glib remarks of earlier -- yes, there are certain sensibilities (aesthetic, cultural, temperamental, etc.) that are very specific to their era. Possessing an character whose "aura" can't be revived or duplicated via any degree of retro- recycling, can't be fully accessed or comprehended once its moment has passed and faded. It's what we talk about when we use the term zeitgeist -- the distinct and definitive hallmarks of a given epoch, and how they were formulated or embodied across the spectrum of cultural artifacts (be they archetypal or anomalous).

The images featured here and in the previous post are from the portfolio of the Archigram group, a firm of designers who were active in London throughout the 1960s. Plenty more where those came from in the Archigram Archival Project, here.










It was an problematic decade for architecture, the 1960s -- a pivotal decade. One could argue that it was the decade in which modernism's momentum began to run aground. Sure, plenty of modernist architecture was still being designed and erected. But by this point, it had settled into orthodoxy and redundancy -- as manifest in rote, unimaginative reiterations of standard formulae and a proliferation of bland, by-the-numbers designs.

It was a schizophrenic era as well, because a next-gen of theorists and practitioners were entering the field, many of who were dissatisfied with the status quo and viewed modernist ideas as obsolete and insufficient for addressing the dynamics of needs and dynamics of contemporary society. The problem with modernism, some argued, was that it was predicated on bygone notions of social evolution and a misguided faith in the inevitable course of industrial development. Like some of their peers, the architects behind Archigram viewed late-capitalist, consumer society with a degree of critical skepticism, yet still ventured to incorporate many of its vernacular elements into it own proto- postmodern style of designerly "adhocism." Concerned with the difficulties posed by an increasing concentration of urban populations, the Archigram architects envisioned solutions that emphasized a modular (and podular) approach to architecture and urban growth, for a future in which populations would become increasingly mobile and nomadic -- as exemplified in the group's noted designs for Walking and Plug-In cities.

Unabashedly "avant garde" and "visionary" in nature, many of the projects dreamed up and designed by some of this 1960s new breed were wildly speculative proposals, and existed far outside the realms of likelihood or viability. The work of Archigram -- as well as that of Superstudio and similar visionary design groups of the time -- bring to mind the following passage, recently encountered in James Wines's book De-architecture:

"Many of the functionalist considerations of Modernism survived the 1960s, but the sources of imagery had shifted away from technology and toward human values. Naturally the course of architecture and its attendant theories mirrored the social unrest of the times... While most design manifestos shared the decade emotional fervor and idealism, they also compounded its impotence. Youthful architects... [believed that architecture] should be reclaimed by the people as a statement as a statement of individual identity and ecological responsibility, reversing the trend of cities and suburbs that were devoured by the greed of industrial capital. ...

[T]he young revolutionaries of the 1960s never managed to find an architectural vocabulary that could both change society and offer viable schemes of construction. Instead, their work took the form of eccentric and exotic proposals, such as suburbs of tents and inflatables and horizontal megacities running for hundreds of miles. Like other charismatic radicals of the 1960s..., these designers had their hearts in the right place. But they left no sustained or profoundly influential philosophical heritage. Architects of the era asked many provocative questions and demanded revolutionary changes. Then, for reasons of choice, economics, or failed creativity, they built only a few conventional structures, or didn't build at all.
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At the very least, all of this constituted a growing recognition of the changing course of social development (and, by extension, social and human needs). In retrospect, one might conclude that it was still unclear -- at the time -- in what ways society was changing. It could be argued that the idealism behind the work of groups like Archigram didn't constitute a sufficiently radical break from the utopian and futurist ideals of early modernism. Wildly imaginative in many ways, they also perpetuated some of modernism's most myopic attributes, chiefly its blinkered faith in technological progress -- unquestioningly presupposing an innate capacity for unlimited growth and copious resources, the assumption that the pre-existing arc of socio-economic progress would remain unbroken.




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