Zoom Waves

In the ’60s, Archigram used the term “zoom” to describe the freighted experience of being modern. Today it’s a digital platform that exemplifies a deregulated capitalism built upon what was meant to be public infrastructure.

Poster for the Archigram Cities Symposium, held online from November 4–13, 2020, and sponsored by the University of Hong Kong Department of Architecture.
Poster for the Archigram Cities Symposium, held online from November 4–13, 2020, and sponsored by the University of Hong Kong Department of Architecture.

I guess we now know what it feels like when the Zoom Wave Hits Architecture. That was the obvious quip with which I began a talk at the 2020 online symposium, “Archigram Cities.” Zoom was the hastily escalated platform for the event — held to honor the acquisition of the Archigram Archives by the Hong Kong-based M+ Museum — and of course for the conduct of much of white-collar life in the past year and a half. And, as aficionados of the annals of Archigram know, “zoom” was a driving motif of the protean collective that generated excitement and controversy from the moment it emerged in the early 1960s — the “Beatles of architecture” was the familiar, and probably justified, accolade. “Zoom Wave Hits Architecture” was the title of an article in New Society in 1966 by Reyner Banham. 1 The legendary historian-critic was an early ally of Archigram and the six young men who had met while working and teaching in London, and in the article he riffed off the “Zoom” edition of the group’s journal, which a couple years earlier had established the pamphlet-like production as the leading radical publication in architecture.

The transfer of the Archigram Archive from London to Hong Kong — from old imperial center to former colony — is a prompt to reconsider the group’s reputation over the past half-century.

Now the transfer of the archive — with its thousands of drawings and photographs, hundreds of video and audio tapes, and several dozen boxes holding correspondence and financial documents 2 — has me wondering. I’m wondering about parochial questions like, who will study the Archive? (Access was always the problem for any budding scholar of the group, so maybe that will change, assuming you can get to Hong Kong.) And meta questions like, when will the Zoom Wave break? Would the read on Archigram change as we zoomed from the Zoom of the mid-’60s to the prosthetic Zoom of the present, and as Archigram’s archive zoomed from the old center of the British Empire to its former colony? The arrival of the archive in its new institutional home (designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the M+ museum was completed last year and is scheduled to open soon) is a prompt to trace the contours of Archigram’s reputation over the last half-century — and to consider as well the shifting meanings of zoom.

"Zoom Wave Hits Architecture" was published by New Society in 1966.
“Zoom Wave Hits Architecture” was published by New Society in 1966. [Spread from Design by Choice: Reyner Banham, Academy Editions, 1981]

The group thrust pop, media, and technology into the midst of architecture culture when elsewhere the modernist mandate was drifting toward the corporate, governmental, or neoclassical.

Much of the historical consensus on Archigram is clear. Over the decades, critics and scholars have largely concurred that the group — whose core members included Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb — was a pivotal new or “neo” avant-garde in architecture. Probably it was the pivotal neo-avant-garde, following on from the Futurists and Constructivists of the early 20th century and the Brutalists and Metabolists of mid-century. 3 In a series of audacious speculative projects — the Archigram Cities of the symposium’s title include a Plug-in City, a Walking City, an Instant City, a Computer City — the group thrust pop, media, and technology into the center of architecture culture at a moment when the modernist mandate elsewhere was drifting toward the corporate, or governmental, or neoclassical. In doing so Archigram created a style, a heady mix of 19th-century industrial architecture, 20th-century manufacturing, military apparatus, Richard Buckminster Fuller, science fiction, biology, technology, electronics, Constructivism, Pop art, psychedelia, and the English seaside. This iconographic mélange would inspire an architectural movement, High-Tech, and would nourish the rise of Postmodernism and Deconstructivism from the ’70s through the ’90s (think of Piano and Rogers’ Pompidou Center at one end, and Diller and Scofidio’s Blur Building at the other).

Yet in the late 1960s and ’70s, early enthusiasm gave way to harsh assessment; in those years Archigram was criticized, particularly by an increasingly radicalized cohort of students, for what seemed a kind of technocratic detachment, a disinterest in (if not hostility to) the emerging political movements of neo-Marxism, feminism, and ecology. Archigram’s surviving members still seem a little wary of criticism; especially political criticism. Their project had been avowedly “apolitical,” grounded in a liberal postwar politics of affluence in which positive social change was founded neither on socialist revolution, nor the rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment, but instead on greater access to goods, services, and culture.

Given that we now live in a kind of zombie neoliberal dreamscape, it does seem that Archigram bet on the right horse. It must have been puzzling to the group that the harder they maintained an upbeat faith in modernity, the sterner their critics became, even as ordinary folks fell in love with successive zoom waves — cheap flights, microwave ovens, post-industrial cities, VCRs, personal computers, the internet, cell phones, the experience economy, social media. In Learning from Las Vegas, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi dismissed the group’s megastructural speculations as “Jules Verne versions of the Industrial Revolution with an appliqué of Pop-aerospace terminology.” A few years later, in the pages of Oppositions, Peter Eisenman declared that Archigram’s legacy was dead; “what remains,” he wrote, “is the joyless demiurge and the dark side of the English wit — snarkiness.” In his classic 1974 essay, “L’Architecture dans le boudoir,” Manfredo Tafuri placed numerous neo-avant-garde figures, including Archigram and its “outworn images,” in a formalist boudoir where the world and its tribulations were left uncontested. 4

The Archigram Office at 53 Endell Street, London, 1972. Left to right, Archigram secretary Lisa (her last name is not listed), Bernard Tschumi, Colin Fournier, and (standing) an architectural student from Texas.
The Archigram Office at 53 Endell Street, London, 1972. Left to right, Archigram secretary Lisa [her last name is not listed], Bernard Tschumi, Colin Fournier, and (standing) an architectural student from Texas. [Kathy deWitt/Alamy]

Nonetheless Archigram had a hand in the training of stars like Bernard Tschumi and Zaha Hadid, and inspired a later generation of nineties and naughties modernists seeking a “projective practice” and leaning into the potential of technology — Future Systems, Foreign Office Architects, Diller and Scofidio, and so on. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, in their manifesto-like Speculative Everything, recently acknowledged Archigram’s influence. 5 The projective tradition which Archigram renewed was an effort to be modern in a postmodern world, to capture the strangeness of modernity while creating within it something like a civic sphere. This grand tradition, which can be traced back to the poet Charles Baudelaire and sociologist Georg Simmel, 6 does not accept that the transformative (and outright fun) potential of architecture is over, nor that it will ever end. (Think BIG.) Archigram closed its office in 1974 with no major building completed, but its presence never quite went away, and its archive became an object of mystique and speculation, squirreled away in private homes, part-digitized with public money, and attracting generous offers.

All Archigram really wanted was to think, through design, about what it is to be modern — what it is to zoom.

Along the way the group weathered a war on two fronts, against both architectural conservatism and architectural critique, when all Archigram really wanted was to think, through design, about being modern. What you see is what you get — it’s all there in the drawings and publications, leaving not much for Ph.D. types to fuss about; or so Archigram may have assumed. As to exact historical and technical and political context — who cares, if the open question remains: What is it to be modern, what is it to zoom? Still, for the tenacious/annoying doctoral types (present author included), the fate of modernity remained an open question. As postmodernism lost momentum in the ’90s, and as the world was increasingly driven by globalization and media technology in ways that seemed to sideline architecture (except in its monumental, starchitecture mode — shout-out to most of the Archigram legatees listed above), an emerging historiography started to rethink the influence of Archigram.

Back then, around the turn of the millennium, I remember one colleague telling me she was studying the group as a way to approach the question: Why isn’t architecture more technologically advanced? Another was chewing on why the communicative networks and flows which Archigram anticipated had yielded so little that was architecturally memorable (his students were studying the “architecture” of cell phones and email, he shrugged). I myself set to work on a tome which asked how postwar Pop promised so much and delivered so little — case study, Archigram — while grumbling about neoliberal austerities and slow internet speeds. The internet got a bit — [“you froze!”] — as I was saying, the internet got a bit faster. And we got a lot more internet, such as — [“yikes, kids, ha-ha, what was that, let’s try another link”]. So, how’s the future looking, folks? Are we watching that Zoom wave spread the open society across the world — calling D.C., calling London, calling Hong Kong? We sure do have a lot more interfaces; more pods needed, though, as I drive through the downtown of Archigram and Banham’s beloved Los Angeles. Oh my god, more pods needed. Better yet, actual homes. Sustainable and climate-proofed. With affordable terms, and jobs to meet them, near the aforementioned homes; and near water supplies too. To hell with visions of the future. We need this stuff right now.

And so Archigram has become one of the main sites in a general excavation of the late modern archive, where we try to understand the role of the architect in a world self-organizing (read: monetizing) through demand, technology, and information. Here is where we’re reminded that a seemingly innocuous word like Zoom is a pretty freighted description of the experience of being modern. Zoom functioned as a kind of shorthand for Archigram’s composite beliefs in Pop, technological innovation, enterprise, and indeterminacy; Zoom was also the transmission of those energies, through images, through students, and through conferences linked by jet travel (if you can remember those). But as we now know, Zoom can also mean the lightning transmission of viruses, real and electronic. The technology philosopher Paul Virilio — a participant at Archigram’s 1966 Folkestone conference, promoted as an “International Dialogue of Experimental Architecture,” or IDEA — has argued that Western history since the Renaissance prioritized speed through military, communicative, and industrial technology. All of which are, he warned, mere “simulators of proximity” that foreshadow a “global suicidal state” based on neo-Darwinist concepts of progress, technocracy, and endless war. 7

I’ll confess I went through a phase, like Archigram, of finding this sort of pessimism a little overwrought, though I now read Virilio more as an unheeded warning about our present condition. The Zoom platform on which I delivered my symposium talk — speaking late night from California, introduced by my tomorrow morning hosts at the University of Hong Kong, addressing an audience from who knows where — is properly amazing. But the platform is also an exemplar of a deregulated capitalism allowing minimal state intervention on the one hand (“freedom”), and state and corporate surveillance on the other (creepy) — all built upon what was meant to be public infrastructure.

Archigram’s Zoom, by contrast, truly was a plea for an open, inclusive future; it was a plea for liberalism. Alas, the public-spirited Zoom of Archigram turned out to lie on a continuum with wild-eyed Accelerationism and with predictions of a Singularity, where technologies gather force to deliver a Nietzschean, post-democratic, posthuman oligarchy. (“Ready Set Vote,” the Facebook landing page teed up its visitors on U.S. Election Day in 2020 — coincidentally, the launch day of the Archigram Cities symposium — in language as Archigram-era as Silicon Valley’s penchant for space travel; meanwhile Facebook nation pondered its voter choices based on sets of alternative facts.) Inequities of income and quality of life and work are ever more sci-fi, lines between labor and leisure ever more blurred. Working on my Archigram keynote from home, over the weekend, I felt more transhuman than superhuman, as trapped in media as extended by it, as though living an Archigram dream not quite sexy enough to make it to one of the iconic drawings.

Is it not striking that the Archigram Archive moves to Hong Kong just as the city’s future seems more uncertain than ever?

In contrast, the visitors projected into an Archigram world via Dennis Crompton’s green screen at the Design Trust gala, held to celebrate the archive’s sale to the M+ Museum, looked fabulous, as though Zoomed across half a century from the group’s unbuilt Monte Carlo summer casino project of 1969 to a hotel ballroom in Hong Kong in 2019. 8 Roger Wu, speaking at the same symposium, pointed out that an archive of the Zoom allure of modernity should be right at home in Hong Kong. “If anyone had built a place to deliver Archigram’s ideas and diagrams for a machine city,” he said, “it probably would not have been far from Hong Kong’s hyper-dense, multilayered, multicultural, and ever-changing urban environment.” 9 At the risk of indulging some amateur social psychology, though: is it not striking that the Archigram Archive moves to Hong Kong just as its future seems more uncertain than ever? For more than a century, that city has been a fulcrum of modernity; now it struggles as much as most places with modernity’s underside, at once legacy and ongoing, from colonization to congestion to politics to inequity to censorship to rising seas.

You can’t get much more Zoom than this twilight of postwar European techno-optimism joined with the zenith of Asian techno-optimism, at once history and present, nostalgia and vision. That simultaneity of Zoom has been with Archigram ever since Banham praised its contribution to a “history of the future.” True to the paradox, doubt about the lived present will keep Archigram current, because the Archigram Archive will forever tell us that the best is still to come, holding open the door to history as an incomplete project. In Histories of the Immediate Present, the historian-theorist Anthony Vidler posits that postmodernism constituted a “posthistoire” (a term from philosopher Gianni Vattimo, following Nietzsche), in which history no longer moved forward, in which society and its institutions had reached a “relentless stasis, an endless return of the same,” leaving as the only option a ceaseless recycling of what was past. 10 Archigram’s projective modernism has, in sunny contrast, maintained faith in the forward movement of history. Archigram secures its place in history by appearing to be outside or beyond history — too perky, too cheerfully adaptable, too forever-modern for the gravitas of museums and textbooks (but right at home there nonetheless).

Who’s zoomin’ who? I’m reluctant to admit — trained as I was by British empiricism to believe in facts — that design is ultimately a matter of how it’s seen, experienced, and read, and from where, and whether from the perspective of creator or client, oppressor or oppressed. Archigram still tries to dominate the narrative about itself (it sent a video to “crash” our nerdy symposium). But like anything, Archigram is talked about because views change, because there are competing agendas. The sale of its Archive to another part of the world further de-centers Archigram’s historiography, encouraging multiple histories, multiple reactions to Zoomdom.

The timing of the archival relocation is happily coincident with demands that we decolonize every aspect of history and practice.

The timing is happily coincident with demands that we decolonize every aspect of history and practice: the Archive’s move is a literal relocation from London to one of Britain’s former colonies, which further finds itself in a new relationship with an ascendant world power and an adjacent technology capital. (Years ago, Aric Chen, then curator-at-large of M+, claimed that the museum will put “Asia at the center” of the design narrative. 11) The relocation of the Archive unseats so-called center and so-called periphery, where Zoom-ism has been rapidly developing — city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong were becoming laboratories of hypermodernity even as UK readers of Archigram ruminated on Britain’s creaking infrastructure and “place in the world.” The gaze is reversed, as Archigram’s physical effects are put in vitrines a very long way from the Architectural Association and from their digital storage at the University of Westminster. The Zoom of today resembles the networks shown in Archigram no. 9 — with their interconnected “archizones” — at a planetary scale, a globalized Venn diagram of positions and viewpoints that are linked geographically, historically, technically, racially. We can’t disentangle any one position from any other — the positions may not be equitable, but they are relational.

Visitors to the Design Museum, in London, viewing an Archigram drawing from the mid-1960s, at an exhibition in fall 2018.
Visitors to the Design Museum, in London, viewing an Archigram drawing from the mid-1960s, at an exhibition in fall 2018. [Alamy]

In our homage to Zoomism, are we maintaining a delusion of control founded on a glut of cheap energy expropriated from nature and labor?

The decoloniality in question is not only literal; it’s also analogical, as we accept that our understanding of Archigram — of Zoom — is going to change according to the context in which it’s assessed. Suppose I bring up Archigram in one of my classes at the University of California. What questions can I expect from my students, who are increasingly diverse and increasingly disgusted with the modernity they are inheriting? Their questions will be those of a generation listening to Greta, Bernie, Me Too, Black Lives Matter — that is, to ecology, equality, social justice. In Archigram’s drawings, why do we only ever see users, not technicians? This is a question I can imagine my students asking as they wonder increasingly about the hidden hands and secretive politics of technorati in Silicon Valley and Shenzhen. Is Archigram Speculative or Accelerationist? Are the modern networks and systems celebrated by Archigram equitably and ecologically serving the public? Can we find, in any of the exuberant images, traces of that “other 1960s,” that Dark Zoom, above all the conduct of the Vietnam War and the furious protests against it? (The answer — as it has been since Archigram were wearied by the student movements of the ’60s and ’70s — is no.) In our continued homage to Zoomism, are we maintaining a delusion of control founded on a glut of cheap energy expropriated from nature and labor?

To be clear, blaming the state of the world on some extraordinary drawings from the ’60s would be utterly insane. Ask me, though, about racial, patriarchal, speciesist capitalism. And note that all this is by way of a meditation on the post-Zoomic — and honestly, it’s a tribute to Archigram that a half-century on, enroute to a museum, it can stimulate thoughts about the future (much as the glass-cased Futurists nagged Banham and Archigram back in the day). For the design disciplines, Zoom’s unabashed paean to tech can be a provocation now just as in the 1970s, when it riled up the anti-modern activism of students. One outcome of that reaction was the short-lived Street Farm, an eco-anarchist collective that formed in the early 1970s on Archigram’s home turf of the Architectural Association, advocating rapid de-industrialization through so-called Appropriate Technology. Check out their at-home farm — hey, this was the ’70s.

It would be timely to revisit with my students a volatile moment from the ’60s that feels somewhat reincarnate, at least in the U.S., where there are rising calls for radically different futures.

If we’re teaching Archigram now, I’ll include reactions to Archigram, reactions like Street Farm. History is good at showing multiple events on the same stage, and it would be timely to revisit with my students a volatile moment that feels somewhat reincarnate, at least in the United States, where there are rising calls for radically different futures, as crazily high-tech scenarios are met by a resurgence of interest in community design, ecological design, design for wellbeing. Today’s students likely won’t be looking for straightforward Zoomology, then. They have their phones already. TikTok is officially a thing. But architecture should be — as Archigram told the guests at that gala in Hong Kong — a “signal of optimism,” and more than ever that is what we owe our students.

Hopefully I’ll be meeting those students in-person in the fall for some “high-def” teaching. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were asking one another how we’d preserve something of the in-person experience on Zoom. Now switch the question. How will we preserve something of the Zoom experience in-person? Sure, we kvetched about the platform. But did you see the chat section on a good day?! Fellow teachers: I ask you, can I get some of that chat in my classroom? Among students from around the world? People, I bore witness to a Zoom Wavelet, brief, beautiful, discomforting, in the chat section of Dr. Ahmed Ansari’s free, online design history and theory course in the summer of 2020, “Modernity and Coloniality.” I had the presence of mind to Save the Chat, as a hundred, maybe two hundred folks from the six inhabited continents suddenly and miraculously found themselves in the same hyperspace, concurring, disputing, thrashing out past, present, and future, through design, through criticality, through different points of view, through a sense of justice.

A Note about Images

We had hoped to illustrate this essay generously with images of Archigram’s celebrated speculative projects, including Plug-in City, Walking City, Instant City, and so on. As it turned out, the licensing fees were far beyond  the constraints of our non-profit budget. We encourage readers to view the projects at the digital collections of the M+ Museum and at the University of Westminster.

Notes
  1. Reyner Banham, “Zoom Wave Hits Architecture, New Society, March 1966.
  2. Will Hurst, “Archigram sells archive to Hong Kong museum,” Architects’ Journal, January 25, 2019. See also M+ Collections, Archigram Archive.
  3. See Simon Sadler, Archigram: Architecture without Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005) and Simon Sadler, “L’Architecture dans le salon: The Civic Architecture of a Projective Modernism,” in Mark Crinson and Claire Zimmerman, eds., Neo-avant-garde and Postmodern: Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
  4. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT press, 1972), 151. Peter Eisenman, Oppositions Reader (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 425. Manfredo Tafuro, “L’Architecture dans le boudoir: The Language of Criticism and the Criticism of Language, in K. Michael Hays, ed., Architecture Theory Since 1968 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).
  5. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).
  6. Simon Sadler, “L’Architecture dans le salon: The Civic Architecture of a Projective Modernism,”
  7. Paul Virilio, trans. Chris Turner, Ground Zero (New York: Verso, 2002), 41, 37
  8. See Benedict Hobson, “Guests ‘enter into an Archigram world’ at Design Trust gala in Hong Kong,” Dezeen, December 17, 2019.
  9. Roger Wu, “Connecting the Archigram Spirit with Hong Kong,” Archigram Cities Symposium, November 2020.
  10. Anthony Vidler, Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 196.
  11. Rose Etherington, “For us, Asia is in the center,” Dezeen, December 4. 2012.
Cite
Simon Sadler, “Zoom Waves,” Places Journal, August 2021. Accessed 21 Sep 2021. https://doi.org/10.22269/210810

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