Walking, Plugging, and Floating: Archigram Cities in Asia
In the work of the London-based Archigram group, architecture was about change, possibilities, and alternatives. Rather than building anything in the conventional sense, the group created speculative, utopian designs through publishing, teaching, and exhibitions. In the 1960s, the group—composed of Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb—was largely seen as a peripheral agitator to the architectural mainstream. The last five decades, however, have shown the broader influence and relevance of Archigram’s projects.
The Archigram Archive, consisting of around 20,000 items from over 200 projects, entered the M+ Collections in 2019. Alongside a series of events titled Archigram Cities in November 2020, M+ commissioned Beijing-based Drawing Architecture Studio (DAS) to create three posters inspired by Archigram’s practice. These intricate drawings show how Archigram’s ideas of the city resonate with architectural projects and urban phenomena in Asia.
We spoke to Li Han and Hu Yan, founders of DAS, about architectural drawing as a specific medium for their design practice and how they conceived the imaginary worlds that make up the three posters.
Could you tell us how DAS started? Why the emphasis on ‘drawing architecture’?
We started DAS in 2013 after we published A Little Bit of Beijing. In this book, we tried to portray the most interesting urban spaces in Beijing through different formats of architectural drawings (axonometric panorama, black-and-white line drawing, and graphic novel). It was well-received, which encouraged us to further explore the potential of architectural drawing as a practice. Unlike a constructed building, an architectural drawing doesn’t rely on clients or external factors. We can freely decide the content and form.
Traditionally based on the use of ruler and compass and today mostly created with computer software, architectural drawings—comprising plans, elevations, sections, and axonometric projections—demonstrate a unique aesthetic that appeals to the public and presents an architect’s distinct ways of seeing and interpreting the world. Compared to other ways in which environments are depicted, architectural drawings can represent far more complex spaces, especially cities. With their density, layers, and ever-changing intricacy, cities provide an inexhaustible inspiration.
We initially used architectural drawings to represent real urban spaces. Gradually, we started to overlay real scenarios with fictive elements—such as collaging elements from different times and locations in a single image—to express our thoughts on the city. Architectural drawings can depict a corner of the city, critique a certain urban issue, or reinterpret classic architectural concepts based on contemporary urban contexts.
In the beginning, we initiated most of our projects. Over the years, as ‘drawing architecture’ has become our speciality, we’ve been commissioned to apply our architectural drawings to various media, scales, and occasions—including public murals, graphic novels, and illustrations applied to both interior spaces and exterior building facades.
How has the work of Archigram influenced your practice?
Archigram was both a collective and a magazine. They were architects, but they created architecture through drawing and writing. They inspired us to discover alternative ways to practice architecture—ones based not on the construction of actual buildings but on a cultivation of architectural culture that can be easily disseminated and accessed by the public. Their works have demonstrated that architectural drawing has enormous potential as not only a design and research tool but also a finished product and powerful medium in and of itself. Deriving inspiration from mass media like magazines and comics, they enabled architecture to cross professional boundaries and be incorporated into mass culture.
How did you conceive of the three thematic directions for the Archigram Cities posters?
We developed three themes for the posters based on three of Archigram’s most well-known projects: Walking City (1964), Plug-in City (1964), and Underwater City (1964). We called the themes Walking, Plugging, and Floating. They relate to relevant urban topics and have a lot of room for expansion.
The Walking theme relates to mobility. Mobile architecture inspires thinking about temporary spaces, events, scenarios, and atmospheres.
The Plugging theme relates to megastructures—scalable buildings and entirely self-sufficient cities built of prefabricated changeable units. Archigram’s Plug-in City illustrates a megastructure in which standardised housing units can be plugged in or out of a larger framework. Megastructures evoke architects’ interests in infrastructure, systems, prefabrication, and adaptability.
The Floating theme is about building cities on, or in, the sea. Some architects envision ambitious megacities on water, while others design more individual and nomadic structures.
We want to use these three themes to bring together architectural projects from different times and places, creating a dialogue between Archigram’s works and other architectural practices.
How did you select the various architectural projects to be represented in the posters?
The commission asked us to consider works that are represented in the M+ Collections, alongside other key architectural projects across Asia, to be placed in dialogue with Archigram’s work. This dialogue is the overarching concept behind Archigram Cities.
In Walking, for example, we selected Demonstration Robot—a three-story-high performing robot with control booths that moved around the crowd in the festival plaza of Osaka Expo ’70—by Isozaki Arata. Similar to Archigram’s Walking City, it reflects a fascination with architecture’s relationship to machines and mobility. We also included MAD’s Superstar: A Mobile Chinatown (2008) for its similar ideas about travelling and self-sustaining cities.
Other architects consider mobility more from the perspective of sustainability—by building light, employing reusable materials, and requiring fewer resources. This is the case, for example, with Atelier Bow-Wow’s White Limousine Yatai (2003), a 10-meter-long street-side food cart on wheels that allows large gatherings in any outdoor location. We also included the rotatable bookshelf with bicycle wheels designed by Yung Ho Chang in 2000 for Xishu Book Store in Beijing. When these mobile architectures of different scales are put together, they evoke a transitory assembled urban scene—like Archigram’s Instant City (1968–1970), a transportable kit of parts that could temporarily infiltrate different communities and transform them into mini cities.
In Plugging, the emphasis is on the analogy between Archigram’s Plug-in City and works by some of the Metabolist architects in Japan. To represent megastructures, we overlaid the diagonal tubes of Plug-in City with the megastructural forms of Isozaki’s Cities in the Air (1960–1963)—a structure with large cylindrical cores lifting housing units off the ground. To represent designs based on modular units, we selected Capsule Homes (1964) by Archigram, units from Nakagin Capsule Tower (1970–1972) by Kurokawa Kisho, and modules from Isozaki’s Cities in the Air. We tried to reveal the similarities and differences in the thinking around megastructures by architects from various geographies and cultural backgrounds.
In Floating, we used Buckminster Fuller’s Triton City as the background. It consists of a floating megastructure assembled from tetrahedral modules that can be extended as the population grows.
Metroplan West Kowloon Reclamation Concept (1988)—a flexible, modular commercial and cultural development built on a floating deck by Hong Kong architect Tao Ho— is portrayed in the middle ground. Archigram’s Underwater City (1964), consisting of interconnected spheres under the sea, occupies the foreground.
These designs exemplify their architects’ grand ambitions for inhabiting the ocean. Other architects, however, responding to the smallness of human beings in comparison to the ocean’s immensity, have instead considered building with lightness and flexibility under nomadic or minimal conditions. To represent this architectural strand, we chose to depict Pao: Dwellings for the Tokyo Nomad Woman (1985) by Toyo Ito; Archigram’s Seaside Bubbles (1966)—pneumatic units suspended on masts by the sea; and Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong’s Paddling Home (2010).
Why did you decide to include vernacular examples—that is, structures and urban phenomena built and designed by non-architects, often through community efforts—from across Asia?
When Archigram was conceiving their ambitious and utopian megacities, the focus of most architects was to develop top-down systems for individuals to fit into. But in the decades since, focus has gradually shifted to the individual. Many prosperous urban districts are developed from the bottom up, composed of relatively independent architectural units. These are not usually designed by architects; rather, they’re spontaneous developments initiated by various actors in the community.
Although grand urban visions by architects are distinct from structures built by non-professionals, the core concepts behind their projects are similar. For example, the floating houses or villages in Cambodia or Bangladesh and Metroplan West Kowloon Reclamation Concept by Tao Ho are all types of floating settlements on the sea. The tricycle vendors in Bangkok and White Limousine Yatai by Atelier Bow-Wow are all mobile commercial facilities operated by manpower. The Central–Mid-Levels escalators in Central Hong Kong and Archigram’s Plug-in City are both examples of using movable systems to connect urban units.
Many architects’ utopian dreams are never realised due to practical constraints, but spontaneously formed urban phenomena and naturally developed neighbourhood settlements can incarnate those dreams through other approaches. For example, hutong communities in Beijing and urban villages in Shenzhen do not rely on external planning but are composed of internally developed individual units.
To reflect the main theme of this drawing series—Archigram Cities—we cannot ignore vernacular constructions that form the fabric of cities. If Archigram’s and other architects’ concepts represent professional idealism, then these vernacular buildings represent how the masses respond to changing social realities.
How did you choose to reinterpret, and render, the projects by Archigram and other architects?
Our visualisations emphasise Archigram’s drafting aesthetics. In the 1960s, they used pencil, compass, and ruler to represent three-dimensional space in a flat, graphic style through non-perspective projections (plan, elevation, and axonometric projection). Today, we use AutoCAD, which, to us, is just a digitised pencil, compass, and ruler. Drawing with AutoCAD not only preserves Archigram’s drafting aesthetics but also enables us to create more complex graphics.
Archigram’s signature style involves highly saturated colours and the 'clear line' style. Comic art and pop culture were important references, from which we also borrowed similar techniques. For example, in Walking, many architectural components overlap and intersect to show movement and speed. This is combined with the use of motion lines, a technique found in comics.
Archigram’s works present not only bold imagination on a macroscale but also fine details on a microscale. We were dealing with projects that were as big as a city or as small as a food cart on the street, so we had to resolve how to represent these two scales in a single image. We didn’t use the rule in which objects appear smaller as their distance from the observer increases. Instead, we contrasted two different scales: 1:200 for large projects on a macroscale and 1:60 for smaller projects on a microscale. We put the city-scale projects like Walking City, Triton City, and Plug-in City in the background and the microscale projects like Capsule Homes, White Limousine Yatai, and Paddling Home in the foreground. To balance the difference between them, we used variable-size elements like gridded pavements, ocean, or highways to interweave and organise everything.
In the end, each drawing looks like a perspectival image, but with no fixed viewpoint. Everything is portrayed through axonometric projection from different viewpoints and revealing multiple layers. This allows the viewer to easily transition between big and small, inside and out.
Did creating these posters make you rethink Archigram’s practice, and their relationship with architects in this region?
We used to understand Archigram by reading their words and looking at their images. Drawing their works has let us carefully study their beautiful details, but it also helped us see Archigram in new ways.
Firstly, although Archigram is from Europe, their city dreams are actually closer in spirit to Asia. Asian cities don’t always care much about order, formality, or immutability, but are more concerned with prosperity, fusion, and rapid change. Archigram’s Instant City reminds us of night markets throughout Asia: food courts that suddenly appear at night and disappear without a trace by daytime. Plug-in City has beautiful structures and complex traffic flows, but (as its name conveys) the more wonderful elements are those plugged into the city: shops, houses, and inflatable balloons in the plazas. For example, if Isozaki’s Cities in the Air focuses on the idea of a megastructure composed of repeated units, then Archigram’s Plug-in City looks closer at the actual design of the units. The megastructure of Plug-in City demonstrates the mechanical framework of how scalable and expandable units are integrated. Based on our experience with many Asian cities, which require architects to adapt to changing conditions, Archigram’s distinct urban vision makes them especially suited to designing in the context of Asia.
Secondly, considering the radical proposals of Archigram and their peers in the 1960s–1970s, we were surprised to find that, in our view, there has been almost no intrinsic, comparable breakthrough achieved in the work of contemporary architects. In other words, the grand visions in the utopian proposals from the 1960s are difficult to surpass. This should force us to think of alternative ways forward. Architectural drawing can not only imagine the future but also document, represent, and critique current realities, including city textures, architectural uses, and sudden changes. We believe that by doing so, new ideas will naturally appear. Ultimately, documentation, representation, and design should be part of the same process. This is our new understanding of the mission of architectural drawing.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
For Drawing Architecture Studio (DAS), Archigram’s greatest influence lies in their demonstration that architectural drawing has enormous potential not only as a design tool but also as a medium. Through forms of communication like magazines and graphic novels, drawing enables architecture to cross professional boundaries and enter mass culture. Inspired by the radical 1960s architects’ exploration of imagined futures and possibilities in the built environment, DAS makes architectural drawing a pivot point in their practice, transforming phenomena from the real world into digital images for narrative or criticism and communicating these images online. The drawing series DAS created for Archigram Cities is a reinterpretation of Archigram’s avant-garde concepts in a contemporary urban context, juxtaposing the group’s projects with designs for cities by other architects as well as everyday structures in urban spaces in Asia. The drawings are conceived as a series of visual dialogues between the past and the present, and dream and reality, and within the profession and beyond.