Leave it to technology to burst my Suitaloon of memory. Old emails tell me that I met Dennis Crompton — architect, Archigram founder, and the group’s de facto archivist — on a spring day in late April. We sat for more an hour on a bench in Cooper Square while he graciously considered my adoring questions.
The six-member British group — Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, David Greene, Ron Herron, Michael Webb, and Crompton — produced some of the most revolutionary designs of the 1960s and early 1970s, thumbing their collective noses at the precepts of modernism and embracing the excesses of postwar pop culture. It befuddled Crompton that they were occasionally dubbed The Beatles of architecture. “We didn’t know the Beatles at all,” he said that day, nixing any hopes for intersquad comparison. Still, there I sat, fangirl posing as journalist.
I had remembered the day as chilly, perhaps fall, since the park trees were bare. This fact is important, because while we sat there Crompton gestured past the branches to the sky above the buildings and said this could be a space for Archigram’s Plug-In City. And there in my minds eye the group’s fantastic mechanical architectures filled Gotham’s skyline — a self-building, computer-controlled megastructure drawn equally from the systems ideas of the group’s mentor Cedric Price, Yona Friedman’s The Spatial City floating over Paris, and comic books.
Much of Archigram’s best-known works are siteless speculations brought into the world in drawings, collages, and the group’s magazine. In its offset pages, the first of which were published in 1961, the future is a place where cities defy planning principles and erupt, walk, and are instantly deployed. My heart holds a place for a large blimp named Rupert that floats through Herron, Crompton, and Cook’s Instant City drawings.
And yet Crompton is Archigram’s pragmatist, with others filling archetypes of front man, mad genius, critic, maker, and idea guy. (After a lecture in San Francisco, charismatic Cook once invited himself along on a road trip to L.A. with a lascivious wink. An opportunity I have mixed feelings about not taking him up on.)
Crompton reminded me that in the early years they all worked in the London County Council’s architecture department — design in service of the public. All the pods, inflatables, and technofuturist systems, then, could be understood as societal fixes, not simply fantasy. And that momentary vision of a second city layered over Manhattan, less sci-fi and more utopian than I could possibly imagine.