Drifting Away from Form
David Greene is the living embodiment of architecture applied as a countercultural tool. Trained as an architect, forever characterized as the poet of Archigram, and forever devoted to architecture's pedagogical potential, Greene has made a career of pursuing projects that seek to deepen contemporary architectural investigation of form, and its relation to information technology and technology at large. Residing in the UK, where he remains a committed teacher at several schools including the Architectural Association, Greene continues to challenge preconceptions about contemporary architectural habits of working, thinking, and above all, learning (in a world where learning is undergoing constant reinvention). Greene’s 2008 monograph L.A.W.U.N Project 19: In-determinability and Indiscernibility, A Partial Index is in some ways a compendium of his ongoing work, including the latest stage of realizing an invisible university through cross-generational collaborations, building designs, network manifestos, books and pamphlets.
Brett Steele: To many the idea of counterculture seems to depend upon the speculation – if not outright promotion – of emerging technology disrupting existing social or spatial conventions. Technology has, following the 1960s, become equated with the very idea of a counterculture. Surely this is one way of understanding your work, which has from its outset, explored the potential of technological disturbance as an architectural project. I’m thinking particularly of Invisible University, in which you explore distributed learning environments defined by wireless forms of communication and interaction – something that was visionary in the 1970s, and is nearly ordinary today. Has an examination of the disruptive consequences of new technologies and media always been an overt architectural interest for you?
David Greene: [Reyner Banham's] The Architecture of Well-Tempered Environment was one of the first architectural books I was ever given, and the wretched influence of that book has always been with me. I still look at it – the history of the elevator, Chicago stockyards – fantastic stuff. All along, I’ve seen technology as a driving force in architecture. We certainly saw this as part of our work in Archigram.
BS: Thinking back to Reyner Banham and your generation coming of age in the 60s, why did the fascination with technology take on such a prominent role in England at the time? One could say architecture is always deeply technological, but isn't always concerned specifically with engaging technology. Was the deeply technological language, imagery and ideas of the early years in your career simply a result of a generational fascination with new technologies of all kinds, or could you locate it in a more distinctly architectural discourse?
DG: My only explanation is that by the 60s, English architecture had just gotten so dull that we had to do something. Hugh Casson, Coventry Cathedral, Basil Spence – this was not exciting stuff.
Many people today don’t realize how small the circle was of architects interested in speculating on the impact of new technologies. You could have fit them all in a room. And the audiences were also very small; a small room with a few deck chairs, that was it. It’s become a general cultural condition now, by contrast, that if you don’t have a big audience, things can’t be any good.
BS: It seems like today is an opportune moment for those, like you, who seek alternative practices in architecture, given a more general kind of malaise one might ascribe to the over-professionalization of the world, and most certainly, to architecture. As the world falls down all around, inventive or experimental alternatives aren’t just needed, but become increasingly urgent. In other words, today's situation suggests circumstances not unlike the overwhelming ‘ordinariness’ of the 50s: Miesian modernism out of which you and your co-conspirators sprang. Are there things to react to, be provoked by, today?
DG: If you’re twenty, there must be things to react to, aren’t there? The fact is, the world has become very worried about upsetting people; hurting people’s feelings. That’s one explanation for this new way of talking; the rising voice you hear these days, where every statement ends on a higher pitch, making everything into a kind of question. [David mimics the tic]
People don’t want to be very assertive, apparently. This is very different from a time when it seemed everyone was part of a counterculture – had something to say, had a voice – back in the days in California, where it all started, I suppose.
BS: When did you first visit California?
DG: The early 60s. I worked with people like Olivio Ferrari. I taught alongside him in my first teaching job; he had an amazing teaching method. Ferrari had worked with Max Bill. In the first semester, Ferrari was really tough – he would swear, shout, tear drawings off the wall – he would really scare people. He said that you had to do that to get their attention, then in the second semester you could just sit back and people would do the work for themselves. I still remember him saying that as a teacher the key was to never directly answer students’ questions. It seemed in those days, every American university had one ‘European’, most of them pretended they couldn’t speak English very well, which seemed to help with the overall impression they left. We were those guys.
BS: I’ve always thought of you as someone who seemed much more involved with architecture than building. What also stands out in your career is a truly life-long commitment to teaching. Where do you see architectural schools, architectural education – better yet, teaching – going? What should schools be doing today? What’s needed?
DG: Mostly, we should be trying to learn more about the circumstances of schools today. One of the things I regret in the book we did recently (L.A.W.U.N Project 19: In-determinability and Indiscernibility, A Partial Index) was that I didn’t include the list we generated of all the schools in the world with the word ‘architecture’ in their name. That number is frighteningly big these days.
BS: Your commitment to writing is also conspicuous – as much as anyone in your generation, you seem to have been as committed to the idea of architecture as to the act of writing. You have written in different forms almost continuously throughout your architectural career. When did that start?
DG: A long time ago, I did this project called The Story of the Thing, with Mike [Webb] and we had a model of it hidden under our drawing boards at the office where we were working at the time. In those days, there was always space under the drawing boards to hide things. That’s the problem today: no space under laptops. Anyway, that project relied a lot on narrative; it was more of a story than a design but the design and the writing became one. And I suppose that’s something Archigram did – the drawing looked like an advert: writing and images together.
But today of course, students and architects do such amazing forms – the AA DRL guys for example produce such amazing forms. Maybe the politics, certainly the stories, seem lacking – but the tradeoff of course is amazing form. The business used to be different. It took a long time to learn drawing.
BS: One way to describe the arc of your career is to see it as a move from appearance and form toward invisibility and communication. This came across very strongly in your nearly-fifty-year retrospective here last year, which progressed from early works like Mosque (1959), with its strong form that gestures toward the key Archigram projects to come, to projects from the 60s and 70s like Hairy Coat, RockPlug and LogPlug that suggest architecture as ‘portable’, and then to the later works, which pursue an architecture of near-invisibility. Was this transition from big, hard form to diffused, cloud-like information a goal, understood early on in your career?
DG: I'd like to think it was. As I saw it, technology allowed me to drift away from form, to ...
BS: To what?
DG: That’s the question, I suppose. I mean, I love architecture, I just thought that there was too much attention paid to form back then, and of course there still is. But I was much more interested in the way that technology might demand a different use of form. And that’s one of the questions for us all now, isn’t it? These days, we could all be anywhere else. The last really good tutorial room I was in was the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford. They have made an area of two or three tables and a video projector where you can bring students, sit down and begin working, talking, thinking; it’s fantastic. It seems important to mix spaces and activities up. There was an American university that was trying to mix departments many years ago – trying to get away from the tradition of the history department here and the biology department there. Instead, they completely mixed up all of their staff so that you could have a history professor here, and a biology PhD student there.
Generally, schools seem to need lots of messy, chaotic spaces – places to do things people can’t fully imagine before they begin work. The thing that annoys me most is what they call the ‘work ethic’. In fact, you need time to wander around, discover things, be sidetracked. That’s learning. Giving students enough time to make mistakes is important. I worry there’s not enough time for that.
BS: When did you begin teaching at the AA?
DG: Actually, I’m amazed I’m still here, frankly. It’s been a long time. I’m one of the few people here who has been fired – more than once – and yet I still find myself back here. I originally came from the Nottingham Art College where I filled their first visiting position. I came down one day a week to the AA from there. I wasn’t concentrating fully on teaching. I was a bit of a bad boy, and Peter Cook rather quickly got me fired; he got John Lloyd or whomever it was at the time to do the deed, telling me suddenly I didn’t have a job. Then of course, I got fired from my job in an office in London. From there, I went to America, to Virginia, and then back to take a job in Leicester. I spent four or five years hacking it in various offices in London before getting fired. After that, I got a job teaching with Peter again in the unit here. I wasn’t very good at it, frankly. I was a bit too arrogant, I guess.
BS: For someone who assumes the life of a troubadour, a traveler, you do seem remarkably more prescient – downright certain – than your personality would ever suggest. What is your take on current architectural culture? Your career pursues architecture as a genuine counterculture. Do you think you’ve made an impact? It seems to be a danger of our time that architectural culture, like other forms of culture, is becoming more monolithic, more generic and more flat.
DG: The other day Mark Fisher sent me an email that in effect said, ‘David, you’ve had absolutely no effect whatsoever’. The whole of the education industry seems very unwilling to experiment with technology. In fact, the one part of education where it does seem to have a real impact is in primary education, where you can see seven-year-olds understanding new media and technology as their environment, really, not something to ‘add’ to the world they already know. I mean, if you haven’t got a touch screen, a seven-year-old just isn’t interested in you.
BS: With that, and the fact that your mobile phone keeps going off in your pocket, what are your thoughts about the mixing of technologies and academics, including in architecture schools?
DG: Many years ago, I wrote something about the use of, and sometimes dependence on, the technology of photography in architecture schools. I feel a bit out of date now; I suppose I was trying to be a bit of an intellectual, and I probably failed miserably. There was a lot of stuff then about language, and I was thinking of photographs in linguistic terms. Years ago, pinning up photographs at juries in school was a novel thing. Of course it’s all changed now, but there is still work to do on photography and the image, presumably. The technology of drawing has certainly changed dramatically.
BS: Do you experiment with today’s drawing technologies?
DG: No, of course not! It's all too much. My idea of technology is wider than design software. As a student, all my technology lectures were done in a technical college, so I would be sitting there with electricians, bricklayers, and of course their idea of me, as an architect – you know, complete waste of space; overpaid, middle class, etc. Their idea of technology is something from a completely different vantage.
Actually, I normally think of myself as a failed architect. I remember when I was at Nottingham teaching years ago, I met Nigel [Coates] there. One day we were up on the tenth floor looking out at this dismal building next door, some modern nurses accommodation or something; really ghastly. And I said ‘what a piece of shit that is’. And Nigel looked over and said, ‘you’re just a fairy architect, David’. I guess that’s me – a bit of a flake.
BS: And, as a fairy architect, what’s next?
DG: I always start with the question: ‘What are the dominant technologies doing? Where are they going?’ That’s the question to always come back to, without knowing where it will lead.
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