The English tell good stories in architecture. Starting in the early 1960s with movements such as Archigram, they began reimagining architecture as forms that we might not be able to make today, weaving them together in comic books and posters that made a bizarre or ludicrous sense of growing buildings, sci-fi planets, and walking cities.
The exhilaration of these fantastic narratives continued in the work of Bernard Tschumi, FAIA, when he taught at the Architectural Association in London, became abstracted in the drawings and models of Daniel Libeskind, AIA, and moved into mainstream architecture through Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, while going largely underground in the work of Nigel Coates and NATO.
If during the 1980s, the Architectural Association was the production factory for such experimental work, in recent years, the focus seems to have shifted to other schools, while the transition into mainstream production has faded away as a concern. If you want to experiment, and are less concerned about building the largest possible erection, London is the place for you. And if previously the Royal College of Art, under the direction of Coates, as well as the Bartlett, part of Central London University, led by Peter Cook, were the place to go, it seems that the scene has moved at least partially to more outré location of the University of Greenwich, where former Bartlett head Neil Spiller has collected a crew of émigrés from the center city to kick out the jams under the shadows of some of the world’s finest Neo-Classical buildings (though the School will soon have its own, purpose-built home).
I had the pleasure of attending final reviews at both the Bartlett and Greenwich this December. At the Bartlett, Allan Smout directed a group of students who visited Florida and looked at how the human-made landscape could be responsive to ever more violent natural conditions. I thought the standout was the project by Farah Aliza Badaruddin, a young woman who fills her sketchbooks with visions of architecture that look to Star Wars and Star Trek more than Wren and Vanbrugh for its inspiration. She proposed harvesting lightning at the old Cape Canaveral site to increase the soil’s fertility, and showed visions of tethered balloons, helicopters servicing the fields, and a field of fragments coalescing into agricultural structures. Her drawings had the intensity and near insanity that draws us into the warped world of science fiction and comics.
At Greenwich, Laurence York, under the direction of Simon Herron, displayed a similar hand, imagining fragments of London becoming cancerous with mechanical equipment spilling out from its hiding places to compete with the city’s columns, pediments, and traffic. The drawings had a messy logic to them that made you almost believe his crazy ideas. His thesis proposal was for a new bank for the Commonwealth countries, which would evidence itself as an enclosed garden on the site of the National Gallery’s ill-conceived Venturi Scott Brown and Associates–designed addition. The bankers were to regain sanity there, while the actual work took place underground, unless there was a dispute between countries, in which case a tower would push up through the garden, enclosing the disputants until they came to agreement.
Adam Bell had a darker view of old London. He visited old men’s clubs, and then imagined them coming alive, so that mechanical protrusions would uncloak the gentlemen as they entered, along the way revealing the city they carried in with them. Will Lamburn, directed by Spiller himself, was more poetic, inventing forms out of nothing more than moonlight, and trying to create an alternative world that would shadow that which we see in the sunlight. Its central monument would a series of incursions that he wove together across the statues and fountains of Trafalgar Square. Other students imagined suburban trains turning into roller coasters, movie theaters powered by the sweat of people working out in a gym above, or a fairytale mountain hiding in plain sight in a park.
It was all weird and wonderful, offering ways of rethinking and re-seeing London’s landscape. These were what-if propositions, not meant as proposals for construction, but as exquisite drawings and models that make us see what might be hiding under the contours of the visible, what might be possible, or what might have existed. It is a mythological architecture, evoking a city that can only exist in the beautiful and productive freedom of a good school. And, by the way, it proves that gorgeous drawing is alive and as capable of evoking wonder and thought as ever.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.