“…emerging through a cloud of fumes, the Hayward Gallery rose up on its giant insect-like legs, dust and debris crumbling around it, water from the severed pipes and electric cables crackling in the darkness below. Then a primal roar sounded from the building’s massive ventilation shafts, the sound of a concrete and steel beast, rising from its riverside berth after decades of slumber. Rearing its massive concrete snout, the Hayward slowly makes its way past the Queen Elizabeth Hall, that has also began stirring in its berth. Moving with mechanical elegance, its floodlights illuminating the sprawling refugee crowd desperately waiting to board their Mega Cities at the riverside. It then dips one leg, then another into the river, joining the space between the already mobile National Gallery ahead and the Battersea Power Station slumbering behind, in their long journey through the flooded Thames estuary. The Great Migration has begun…”
In the early 60s, the Cold War climate of nuclear tension and the Space Race stirred the imagination of people in art and design. Such were Archigram , a group of forward thinking British architects aiming to encapsulate a new reality, a hypothetical future where the post-apocalyptic collapse of society is a possibility, and where the sum of human technology is geared towards survival. Archigram’s neo-Futuristic views imagined a damaged world, where cities and buildings are replaced by massive mechanical light-weight frameworks – where standardized habitation, entertainment, resource and production modules are combined, and machines have become fully independent and responsible for the automation and maintenance of this new kind of living.
Perhaps a nomadic kind of living, in the vision of Ron Herron – who was one of Archigram’s founders. Through the prism of its neo-futurist dogma, he envisaged The Walking City, a giant, mechanical, self-sustaining insect-like ark – containing its inhabitants, drifting endlessly across Earth’s now desolate landscapes, and connecting with other Walking Cities to create expanded hubs, exchanging population and resources or sticking together against the challenges of this New Era of humanity.
Although Herron’s and Archigram’s ideas were somewhat frowned upon by the architectural establishment at the time – partly because of their gloomy futuristic vision, partly because of the lack of practical detail in the inner workings of these machine habitats – there’s evidence that their visuals have resonated with architects since then, with various possible interpretations surviving as actual buildings among us. Take for example The Arc in Hammersmith or the Centre Pompidou in Paris : They’re not walking anywhere fast, of course, but with a bit of imagination, we can recognize Ron Herron’s and Archigram’s lasting influence in architectural vision :
When not in full neo-futurist mode, Ron Herron was involved in several well known actual projects, most notably in the conception and building of the aptly named Imagination Headquarters, and previously assisting in the design and acoustics of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s South Bank. I often think of him and his vision as I walk past the nearby Hayward Gallery, and knowing his story and that of Archigram’s, I like to imagine that there’s more to it than it meets the eye !
* Very special thanks to Mr Steven Atkinson of Atkinson & Co, with whose kind permission these stunning visuals of The Walking City are used. The interesting exchange we had was the inspiration for much of this post. You can purchase prints of The Walking City here
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