The crumpled Kodacolor photos of our parents dating are fascinating. They offer us a glimpse of a past that is recent but impossible to recall, existing as it did, just before our time. Those images, which offer an impossible bridge across the generation-gap - out of our time, out of our agency - are the stuff of kitschy fantasy. Those clothes, that beard, those teeth! How did they get away with it? Shouldn’t we be trying, too? Trends tend to repeat themselves cyclically as a result of this generation gap, and the repeat-rate evident in any given field is a gauge of the age of its practitioners. For instance, Mike Myers was 34 when Austin Powers (32) awoke from 30 years of cryo-sleep in London (‘67- ’97) to fall for Miss Kensington (27), the daughter of his former lover (Mrs Kensington), both played by Liz Hurley, 32. On the other hand, British teens and teen-bands in the noughties recall a more recent past, opting to dress in ‘that-nineties-london-look’. They may have travelled through less time, but they’re still dressing-up like, and dating, their parents.
Architects lag behind on this curve. 40 is still young for us, and it wasn’t until recently that our curators and critics began to make timely-leaps back to the 1960’s. Lara Schrijver (almost 38) contributes to this retrospective turn with her new book Radical Games: Popping the Bubble of 1960’s Architecture. Like Myers, Schrijver has a kitschy fascination for the 60’s. She is drawn to the work of the decade because it appears to enjoy an agency that is impossible today. The projects she studies share a tendency - which she identifies as characteristic of their time - to make ambitious and idealistic proposals that remain unrealised. They are Utopian then, but not only in the direct sense. Through Schrijver's gaze – and perhaps generational distance – the paper-projects of the 60’s accrue a reflexive sense of perfect-impossibility; the optimism, the social commitment, the bubblegum colours! How did they get away with it? Shouldn’t we be trying, too? Plagued by these questions, Schrijver hopes to ‘pop the bubble’ of the Années Pop. Her book is a critical assessment of the era, gauging the legacy left in its wake. She asks - with Oedipal overtones – is it time for another pop at Pop!, or does Pop wants popping?
There is an immediate knot in Schrijver’s question. Were the 60’s really that idealistic, or were they not already a critique of ideality? Are the 60’s not best understood, in fact, as a consistent critique of a prevailing ideology, the Modernist project? That is, is there really a bubble to be popped, or were the 60’s not already an era of de-flation? Schrijver exemplifies the work of the 60’s through three practices – Constant Nieuwenhuis, Archigram and Venturi, Scott Brown - that problematise three key concerns of Modernity; the City, Technology and the Image. Schrijver shows the Situationist International and Constant Nieuwenhuis to critique the Functionalist city, introducing a concern for individual, ‘trans-functional’ requirements. Archigram’s pamplets are shown to critique the symbolic mechanisation of International Modernism, proposing an architecture that is open to a more expansive potential of technology; Venturi, Scott Brown’s documentation of decorative billboard symbolism is shown to critique the exclusive and sublime aesthetic of Modernism, proposing an architectural field contaminated by the communicativity of other disciplines.
It’s difficult to assess the success or failure of these critical projects. Archigram’s prosthetic technologies remain unrealised, but is that a sign of failure? Were they ever really a promise to build? On the other hand, we practice today in a discipline that has learned to measure the ‘trans-functional’, embraces an ever extending potential of technology, and enjoys disciplinary cross-contamination, but this success is itself problematic. Schrijver’s account recognises these ambiguities, and the double-edged work of criticism per-se; the critical practices of the 60’s identified contradictions and weaknesses in the Modernist project, but by working on these concerns secured them as tenets for a future generation. However, it’s no longer necessarily ‘critical’ to measure the whim of the Situationist’s flaneur, and propose an architecture that accommodates it; casino owners have beaten us to it, and as Schrijver notes, their recent building designs look suspiciously similar to New Babylon.
Retrospection veers into kitsch when, through the soft-focus of near-history, we project our own impossible ambitions onto the previous generation. In order to deliver the Pop! promised by her title, Schrijver relies upon a degree of such kitschy over-inflation; she sentimentalises the apparent agency of the era, and projects a wished-for idealism onto projects that were perhaps already ironic comments on ideality; Archigram’s pamphlet-proposals were never a promise to build, and the built-in obsolescence of their own designs were just part of their ironic enjoyment of a newly affluent circumstance. Nonetheless, the book is also full of sharp, intelligent pricks. Schrijver concludes, via Bruno Latour, by advocating a ‘stubbornly realist attitude’; “history changes quickly, and there is no greater intellectual crime than to address with the equipment of an older period the challenges of the present one”. Critiquing the universal values of Modernism, the architects of the 60’s raised Critique to a universal value. The task facing the current generation is to assess the role of criticality itself.
Radical Games. Popping the Bubble of 1960s' Architecture, Lara Schrijver, NAi Uitgevers, paperback, 248 pages, English edition, ISBN 978-90-5662-678-5, € 24,50