Life Without Buildings

In the late sixties, radical architects expressed their scorn in satirical utopias, where the world’s landmarks and landscapes are eaten up by the power of capital.

A few years ago in Hamburg, I walked past an occupation of derelict buildings, about to give way to yet another complex of office blocks and luxury flats. Around were tents, little geodesic domes, and some words, chalked up on a blackboard. They read: “If architecture can only commit to the bourgeois model of private property and society, we must reject architecture. Until all design activities focus on primary human needs, design must disappear. We can live without architecture.”

The quote was uncredited, but was from Adolfo Natalani, of the Italian architects’ Superstudio, and it encapsulates 1968 in architecture. Because capital made a humane architecture impossible, architecture would remain on paper.

Looking from the perspective of 2018, the dystopian perspectives can seem puzzling. Many architects in Europe now look back on the 1960s both as a time when they had a degree of power in society and one they would never repeat. In Britain, for instance, every town and city had a group of architects in its direct employ, who would then shape the city through the mass construction of public housing, schools, parks, and hospitals. Now, when new, architect-designed public housing is either residual, in France, Spain or Germany, or inconceivable, as in Britain, Ireland or Eastern Europe, the statist sixties appear as a period of remarkable equality and fairness. This is seldom how they were seen at the time. Radical architects strained at the era’s limits.

The earliest example of this is Constant Niewenhuys’ New Babylon, an all-encompassing communal playground elevated above the earth, constantly in construction, never to be finished, taking technological ideas from endlessly self-adapting spaces like the factory and the airport and making them into the model for a post-capitalist future. But perhaps the most influential of the sixties paper architects was the British collective Archigram – certainly, they’re the most easily enjoyed today as charming Yellow Submarine kitsch.

Taking time out from their day jobs at the London County Council, designing schools and art complexes (commissions that even the most feted architects today would kill for), they published a zine showing designs for walking cities, “Sin Centres,” instant cities, and suchlike, which their lurid draughtsmanship rendered as mechanically plausible and aesthetically outrageous. For Archigram, mass production was being wasted on heavy, permanent structures, rooted to the ground — an absurdity when jet aircraft made cinema-restaurants flying thousands of feet into the air an eminently normal proposition. They didn’t stop at the idea that housing should be as well-designed and allegedly pleasant as airplanes — a modernist commonplace since Le Corbusier in the 1920s — but that housing should be as disposable as an in-flight meal. “The packet of frozen peas and the house,” they declared,“are exactly the same.”

Superstudio and Archizoom are often treated as kindred spirits to Archigram, purveyors of what they called “Superarchitecture.” Superstudio are best known for the “Continuous Monument,” a mirror-glass grid intended to be a model of settlement that could be reproduced anywhere in the world, Archizoom for the “No-Stop City,” an all-encompassing air-conditioned artificial environment; goofy and technocratic projects ostensibly much like those of the British group. But as Douglas Murphy points out in Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture, these were actually scornful satires of Archigram’s utopia of bikinis, spaceships, jumbo jets, and disposable products.

In now famous photomontages, Superstudio took the mirrored-glass grids that were then becoming the basis for thousands of fundamentally identical office complexes around the world, and changed them from “buildings” into “landscape.” The grid runs through the desert, into the mountains, across waterfalls, and charges into Manhattan. It is a fantastical image, in a sense, evoking seventies dystopian films like Zardoz and Logan’s Run, but it was intended as a challenge. This is what capitalism will create, if it isn’t stopped.

If Archigram resembled New Babylon with the politics taken out, Superstudio and Archizoom forced it back in, making these images of high-tech fun chilling. What happened next was slightly younger designers, like Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), falling in love with their aesthetics. OMA developed the ideas of the “Radical Architects” into real projects that would be both satirical and actual.

When designing for banks, state broad-casters, and property developers, these aging ’68ers bring to bear an eye for the sinister and cruel that was once intended as a means to reveal the inherent logic of capital. Peculiarly, capital ­— which now considers the reformism of the “official” sixties to be beyond its means  — doesn’t seem to mind.