Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad and Majd Musa in association with Joseph Rykwert, 2001
Support for the publication of this essay has been made possible by a grant from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. Additional support has been provided by Darat al-Funun - The Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.
This essay deals with a number of issues that Professor Joseph Rykwert (1) raised in an informal presentation to Diwan al-Mimar and the discussion period that followed it. The presentation concentrated on the subject of the building process as a political activity, an issue that has been of concern to Rykwert for some time as he had been working on a book on the nature of the modern city and its future evolution. (2) By political activity Rykwert refers to the presentation of building as a factor in the social fabric, rather than the literal and narrow meaning of the term. He is concerned with the presentation of a building as an object that interacts with its society.
Rykwert believes that it is dangerous to consider the act of building merely as a technological process. Currently this process still depends on energy-guzzling devices, which are still being elaborated rapidly, and involve significant transformations in the nature of human labor and the financial structures of society.
In examining such a reduction of building to a technological process, Rykwert goes back to about forty years ago when the group of young architects in England, who called themselves Archigram, (3) launched a manifesto in which they proposed a totally apolitical kind of building that depended - only incidentally - on very high-energy consumption. Their designs showed no attempt to respond in any way to the existing social fabric, nor did it suggest any modification of it. It gave priority to individual rather than social requirements.
There were a number of other projects that were linked to Archigram, and were concerned with creating such forms of building as would aim to satisfy the physical needs of the individual. Such an idea was launched and even partly realized in Japan, especially in the works of the Metabolist Group, (4) which concentrated on multiple mass-produced, dispensable, and self-contained dwellings in which one could literally 'slot' oneself, and which supplied all of one's physical pleasures as well as needs, at least for a brief time.
Rykwert thinks the idea that the individual could in some way be totally enclosed in a self-contained element was launched as a kind of desideratum, but adds that no one would really like to live in a 'pod', as such units came to be called. People still need to congregate - not just in cafes and bookshops, but in offices and institutions - and they still like walking in streets and watching others pass by. There is a whole range of activities that have nothing to do with our immediate physical needs and that need to take place within an urban fabric. It is such activities that the structures proposed by Archigram excluded.
Another kind of project might be related to the Archigram period, Rykwert suggests: typical of them is 'the Potteries Thinkbelt' proposed by another British architect, Cedric Price. (5) It was for a university located in a disused shunting-yard in northeastern Britain. It was a time of university expansion and of building shortage; in the 'Thinkbelt' teaching could be done in mobile carriages that could be shunted according to the needs of the curriculum and to interdisciplinary associations. Anyone who has had to do with curricula and timetable knows that such a proposal has little relation to university realities. But the project was very much in the spirit of the time and it received a great deal of attention. The idea and the technological devices it incorporated were very much in harmony with the proposals of Archigram.
In 1971, not long after the first publications of the Archigram group appeared, a competition took place for a new culture center in Paris, and the winning entry was by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano (figure 1). Their project, which was renamed the Pompidou Center (1972-1976), became the first - and remains the best-known realization of the Archigram manner. The movement - or style - (6) now called High-Tech is still with us today.
Rykwert suggests that the early drawings of the Pompidou Center project depended on the ethos as well as the graphic language of the Archigram group. It had a great impact and he suggests further that although the members of Archigram did not produce a great deal of built stock themselves, their influence has been extremely important - in that without them High-Tech architecture would not have developed as it has.