Featuring a single project from some of the most significant architects of the current generation, ‘First Works: Emerging Architectural Experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s’ at the Architectural Association (AA) set out to highlight various strands of ‘experimental’ architectural practice in their germinal forms, and their attempts to combine theory and practice in the early Postmodern period. Part of a proposed triad of exhibitions, the other two being devoted to ‘networks’ (emphasizing the development of new structures of practice) and ‘machine works’ (tracing out relationships to technology and manufacture in practice), this rather grand attempt at self-legitimization aimed to map out a new history of experimental architecture in which the AA will, unsurprisingly, be found to have always been right.
The stakes here are quite high: over the last decade, the AA has thrown much of its substantial pedagogical weight behind a single strand of architecture – that is, a highly ornate digital formalism, often rationalized by shameless cod-philosophy, the critical impact of which has been, quite frankly, negligible. The false boom of the last ten years has also seen many ‘critical’ architects, whose renown came from radical paper projects and theoretical writings, drop the rhetoric entirely in order to churn out spatially audacious but politically questionable edifices. With this in mind, this series of exhibitions may be seen as an attempt to re-narrate the embarrassing failures of critical architecture as a story of the inevitable development of the new design and manufacturing techniques that the AA just happens to currently specialize in.
But this is not to say that ‘First Works’ was triumphant, or even particularly confident. Instead, curators Brett Steele and Francisco González de Canales played a very interesting game with nostalgia, the exhibition reveling in the obsolescence of the media on display: ink drawings were set out on tracing paper alongside hand-cut models, while in one room (the exhibition being split across two decades in two rooms) an old-fashioned slide-projector clattered away. The display units – veritable curiosity cabinets of lost architectural cultures – were manually constructed from crude timber, their inclined surfaces inevitably recalling a 19th-century museum. The only signs of the oncoming digital revolution were a couple of laser-cut and rapid-prototyped models made by AA students, which sat incongruously within the crafted environment.
The effect of the exhibition was one of overwhelming hindsight: knowing how careers have panned out imbues early projects with a strange, precarious inevitability, and the fact that the uncertainty at the start of a career was communicated so strongly is a testament to the curating. Some architects presented here appeared already fully formed – Alvaro Siza’s swimming pool is a consummate example of his tasteful Modernism, while Peter Eisenman was seen already properly embarked upon his lifelong critical formalist project. Other nascent practices were more tentative: the ‘British High-Tech’ of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers may have become the unbearably bland architecture of choice for world commerce, but only within the last 15 years. Before that they were still considered mavericks: working (along with Wendy Cheesman and Su Rogers) as Team 4, their design for The Retreat (1963) looks like the cockpit of a buried B-29 Superfortress, the aircraft as futuristic signifier (though the interior still shows Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence). Other works, however, seem to bear very little relationship to future developments: the interdisciplinary practice Morphosis showed no signs of their later collage–formalism, while Steven Holl’s Manila housing (1974–5) proposes the barest of infrastructures around which inhabitants can assert ownership and creativity, an idea that remains relevant but bears almost no resemblance to the American architect’s recent work.
The exhibition’s other register was one of unfulfilled promise. Daniel Libeskind’s manic ‘Micromegas’ drawings (1978–9) are fascinating abstractions of architectural drawing qua language, setting him off on a career that would see him design one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century – the Jewish Museum in Berlin – before becoming a cheapened hack best known for casinos and cowboy hats. The ‘Pop’ architecture of Andrea Branzi’s ‘Structure for Leisure’ (1966) has unfortunate echoes in the hideously tacky Modernism of the Blair years, and, of course, Zaha Hadid was here with a number of those paintings into whose decidedly flat acrylic surfaces the architecture world would (and still do) read all kinds of false hopes.
But the most melancholy aspects of ‘First Works’ were the signs of architectural streams that ran dry: Claude Parent and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Church (1963–6) is a strange and confusing work, an architecture all about death and our attempts to regulate it – menacing, powerful and without successor. While Cedric Price’s Aviary at London Zoo (1961–5) was one of the only buildings included in the exhibition that really speaks of the dream-like aspects of technology. It too seemed adrift, lost in a world that we failed to achieve. Overall, ‘First Works’ was a fascinating, complex snapshot of the makings of the current architectural conjuncture, one that showed a blossoming of varied approaches after the Modernist consensus of the postwar period. But it was difficult not to be simultaneously reminded of the reactionary state of contemporary architecture that so many of the architects in this show have been complicit in bringing about.