From the Suitaloon to the City Crusher, Sam Jacob looks at Archigram’s enduring pop architecture legacy

Spitfires dogfighting in the sky above Kent, tanks rolling across the Egyptian desert, the English Channel clogged by ships disgorging men and machines on the Normandy Beaches. Gadgets like tanks, jeeps, field telegraphs, parachutes and radars scattered across the muddy fields of Northern France defending King and Country. Gizmos for freedom and democracy.

The Second World War was the first real gadgetised war, where machines extended the capability of warfare to a global scale. Engineering transformed war over land and extended it under the sea and up into the air. Technology extended the physical capabilities of men and amplified communication, speed and destruction, from Spitfires to Radar to Submarines and V2 rockets, accelerating to the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, the future members of Archigram were little boys in grey flannel shorts. This is important because only little boys, and particularly only little English boys, could have loved the machines of war so sweetly. Images relayed home by newsreels shown at the Saturday morning cinema showed technology, machines and gadgets that were good, innocent and liberating (in all senses of the word). Machines as heroes,
crushing Nazis, welcomed with smiles and flowers by French villagers.

Peter Cook, Ron Herron, David Greene, Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton were the loose group that made up Archigram. They explored ideas about architecture that drew on high technology and pop culture. They imagined new approaches to architecture through drawings and their eponymous fanzine. The name came from a contraction of Architecture and Telegram. And Archigram landed like a multicoloured carnival in the dull grey postwar landscape of English architecture. Their work is usually seen as a kind of groovy, swinging sixties kind of thing, an architectural version of the Beatles, Mini Coopers, loon pants and lava lamps.

But maybe it’s something else. Maybe Archigram’s helmet-as-architecture projects echo those childhood scenes of warfare. Their Suitaloon and Cushicle, wearable suits that could inflate into pieces of architecture, might simply be peaceful and civilian versions of the Second World War Tommys and GIs, covered with kit, equipment dangling from belts and tents on their backs.

Perhaps the Battle of the Hedgerows, where the Allied invasion force battled across the Normandy landscape, through hedgerows bristling with Nazi equipment is the inspiration for Hedgerow City a kind of camper-van hippy urbanism lining the blindside of English country lanes.

The Home Front transformed the English landscape. Urban programmes changed from buttoned up 'civicness' to a desperate mix of utility and pleasure. Dig for Victory transformed parks into vegetable patches and farms. Anderson air-raid shelters were built in suburban back gardens. 'Holidays at Home' festivals were organised, where sand was poured into public squares to make urban beaches complete with donkey rides.

Meanwhile gigantic architectural hoaxes were improvised out of scaffolding, tarpaulins and paint to fool the Nazis. Basil Spense, Britain's leading modernist architect worked with construction teams from Shepperton Studios to build fake towns, fake military camps and fake airfields to trick the Luftwaffe spy planes and disguise the real intentions of the Normandy invasion.

Perhaps all these ad hoc and temporary interventions are the latent origin of Archigram's urban 'Tune Ups' – cheerfully collaged reworkings of public space. Suburban streets jazzed up with plugged in space pods, LED screens and girls with short skirts.

Archigram's Peter Cook explains how he drew Instant City, a city assembled out of cranes, pods, Zepplins, flashing signs that could roll into town, bolt together and plug itself in overnight, in the spring of 1967. A few weeks later he saw Woodstock ('mine looked better' he suggests). It's a cute coincidence, playing to the groovy 1960s myth. But there is a contemporary precedent that's not quite as hip – the instant cities of Korea and Vietnam. They looked even better but were actually much worse. Never had so much metal moved so far so quickly intent on inflicting as much destruction. Temporary cities were assembled by the sheer accumulation of gadgets. High technology juxtaposed with jungle. In Vietnam we can see a viable alternative version of Archigram. This fully operational plug-in architecture designed by an anonymous team of Pentagon visionaries whose radical approach to urbanism was so completely fulfilled.

Of course war and modern architecture were already well aquatinted. The Futurists 'glorified the love of danger and violence' and proclaimed war the 'hygiene of the world'. Reyner Banham, the architecture critic who was Archigram's great evangelist, locates the Futurists as the progenitors of Modernism in his book Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960). While Futurism developed in close alliance with Fascism, English Modernism was far more liberal: distinctly non-violent and non-revolutionary. It was a tradition with its roots in the picturesque as championed by Ruskin, the Arts and Crafts of William Morris, Mackintosh and Lutyens, and the town planning of Ebeneezer Howard. This kind of proto-modernist Christian Socialism did not want to destroy the past, but rather reconcile the past with the industrial city.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the anthem of the British Labour movement (with its roots in Christian Socialism) is a William Blake poem called Jerusalem. For Blake, the New Jerusalem was a mystical/spiritual/religious vision. For the Labour movement the New Jerusalem was worker's rights, welfare provision and later, the post-war New Towns. The lyrics look to the future by invoking the past – and a very strange past involving the legend of the 'ancient feet' of a teenage Jesus, living near a tin mine in the west of England owned by his uncle, Joseph of Aramethea.

Many of the progressive movements of English culture around this time attempt this escape from the present to a better future by way of the past. English modernism was more forgiving, practical, nicer and a whole lot less exciting than its continental cousin. It reconciled disparate tendencies. In Ruskin: man and landscape; Morris: the medieval with mass production; Ebeneezer Howard: city and country. All of these movements were driven by a response to impact of the Industrial Revolution on cities and society. The same concerns are echoed in Archigram projects: the desire to return to nature through technology and escape cities through urbanism.

William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) is set in a sci-fi post-revolutionary future London – a London where the Houses of Parliament have become a manure store. Where children learn in a forest that has grown in Kensington Gardens. Morris's future is echoed in Archigram member David Greene's Bottery a project that proposes a park as the architecture of a university, in which learning takes place on the grass or leaning against a tree. This is techno-primitivism, a belief that only technology can return us to a bucolic state.

And maybe this is what Greene's RokPlug project is all about too. It's a lump of fake rock that hides a high-tech network node and power supply. It's designed to be placed in rural locations to enable communication and activity. RokPlug can't help but remind you of Stone Age megaliths – objects that were also communication devices of a supernatural kind.

Julian Cope, the ex-Teardrop Explodes frontman and now ancient Britain megalith expert, speculates on the moment the first standing stone was erected: 'The joyous and unconscious act of erecting a standing stone in response to the jubilation of learning to farm may have been the single specifically inharmonious act which has become know biblically as the Fall. For it was at this moment that humans first peeled themselves away from the Mother Earth just long enough to feel a true Separation'.

RokPlug rewinds history to when it first went wrong, isolating the moment architecture was invented. It uses technology to lay the stone back on the ground, un-inventing architecture. The father of the Victorian Garden City movement, Ebeneezer Howard, responded to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on cities by recomposing existing situations, the Garden City equation of city+county is perhaps a precursor to Archigram's techno-pastoralism and high tech ruralism.

Continental European radical urbanism was overtly politicised and articulate. Urbanism for Archigram’s French contemporaries, the Situationist International, became barricades on the streets and a country close to revolution. The biggest influence of the SI in England was not to destroy the state but to make pop music.
Just as Le Corbusier used grain silos as a device to destroy Beaux Art architecture, Archigram used spaceframes, pipes and wires against architecture. If architecture could be a suit that turned into a house, if cities could arrive overnight and move on next week, if universities could be grassy landscapes and robots, then who would need that boring, slow expensive old-fashioned kind of architecture. If engineering could be detourned to displace architecture, perhaps something better could take its place.

But the work of Archigram has been assimilated into architectural culture as engineering, its cultural content ignored. Architects used engineering not to liberate us from the mono-cultural tyranny of architecture, but to bind us to it more tightly. Engineering and technology became an escape route at the moment Archigram revealed architecture as a cultural and consumerist idea. Architects could forget the challenge of RokPlug by drawing hypnotically repetitive modular structural systems in perspective.

Even now, younger generations have been seduced by the promise of technology as a way of progressing architectural culture. As architectural technology evolves, architecture becomes ever more architectural – and hence less interesting. Technology has become an evasive tactic. The more architects become obsessed by responsive environments, intelligent skins, and structural systems pushed to their limit, the further architecture drifts from real, visceral culture.

In the journey from representation as drawings, poems and
magazines to architecture there is a denuding of ideology, a silencing of radical rhetoric. This neutered image of Archigram lives on through High Tech architecture, from the Pompidou centre to the Lloyds building to all those flagship Millenium New Labour projects with shiny stainless steel structures, guy ropes and space frames. But without the ideas, these state-sponsored monuments only look like Archigram, and looks alone don't really make them the same.

Contrary to popular belief, Archigram’s really revolutionary project wasn't a crazy multicoloured drawing, it was a slogan: 'to declare a moratorium on building'. A statement proclaiming architecture as the problem not the solution. Later, a project by David Greene goes further. Based on a machine called the City Crusher which breaks up concrete back into aggregate. Greene worked out how long the City Crusher would take to break up the Empire State Building. A positive and optimistic way to flatten New York's skyline. Archigram are celebrated for developing an instant, pop up, plug-in architecture. Perhaps more importantly, they showed that dismantling buildings was architecture too.

A major Archigram retrospective will be hosted by London’s Design Museum from 3 April – 4 July.

Sam Jacob is a member of fat and architecture editor for contemporary