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19 Oct, 2020 / by Li Han, Hu Yan

Walking, Plugging, and Floating: Archigram Cities in Asia

A poster featuring a detailed, colourful architectural drawing in which multiple architectural projects, structures, and phenomena are collaged and put into the same space. The image is dominated by a green grid-like pattern.

Drawing Architecture Studio. Plugging, 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio

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.

Four books are laid out in a row at the top of the image. The books all have a detailed coloured or monochrome architectural drawing on the cover, and the title in a round colourful circle. Next to the books is a page with large Chinese characters. Below are two rows of three open books showing spreads of detailed architectural drawings, and one spread showing text in a book next to a monochrome image of a cat.

Drawing Architecture Studio. A Little Bit of Beijing, 2013. © Drawing Architecture Studio

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.

A brick building facade in an urban area displaying a large, detailed, and colourful architectural drawing of a city viewed from above.

Drawing Architecture Studio. 798, Hyundai Motorstudio Beijing. © Drawing Architecture Studio

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.

A poster featuring a detailed, colourful architectural drawing in which multiple architectural projects, structures, and phenomena are collaged and put into the same space. The image is dominated by a large, grey, insect-like structure in which a collection of multi-story buildings is mounted on giant, telescopic steel legs.

Drawing Architecture Studio. Walking, 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio

A blue and white illustration of multiple versions of a large, insect-like structure with giant telescopic steel legs. The structures are joined together by telescopic steel tubes. The text ‘A Walking City’ is printed at the bottom of the image.

Archigram. Magazine, Archigram 5. 1964. M+, Hong Kong. © 1964 ARCHIGRAM

The Walking theme relates to mobility. Mobile architecture inspires thinking about temporary spaces, events, scenarios, and atmospheres.

A poster featuring a detailed, colourful architectural drawing in which multiple architectural projects, structures, and phenomena are collaged and put into the same space. The image is dominated by a green grid-like pattern.

Drawing Architecture Studio. Plugging, 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio

An architectural drawing of a cross-section of a large structure, dominated by a green grid-like pattern. Different parts of the structure are numbered, with labels corresponding to the numbers listed below the drawing to show the different parts of the structure: residential units, escalator tubes, shop supply tubes and silos, shop units, compound unit shops, fast monorail, local monorail, craneway, heavy duty railway, maximum circulation area, fast road, local feeder road, local parking, local goods sorting, and environment seal balloon.

Peter Cook, Archigram. Plug-In City, typical section, 1964. M+, Hong Kong. © 1964 ARCHIGRAM

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.

A poster featuring a detailed, colourful architectural drawing in which multiple architectural projects, structures, and phenomena are collaged and put into the same space. The image shows a complex network of structures built on top of a body of water, which contains floating units and buildings on stilts.

Drawing Architecture Studio. Floating, 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio

Two images side by side. The image on the left is aAn architectural drawing of a system of repeated nodes and connectors of different sizes in a blue-purple space. The nodes are depicted in shades of pink, purple, and blue. The image on the right is a monochrome illustration of the same system of repeated nodes and connectors. The words ‘make this 15b’ are scrawled below, and crossed out.

Warren Chalk, Archigram. Underwater City, elevation, detail, 1964. M+, Hong Kong. © 1964 ARCHIGRAM

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.

Two images side by side. The image on the left is a detail of an architectural drawing showing a robot-like white structure consisting of a head, body, base, and three arms with human-sized buckets at the end. The head contains four control rooms. People are milling all over the robot. The image on the right is a photo of a robot-like white structure consisting of a head, body, base, and one arm with a human-sized bucket at the end. The head contains two control rooms.

Left: Drawing Architecture Studio. Walking (detail), 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio
Right: Isozaki Arata, Expo’70 Osaka Demonstration Robot, 1970. © Arata Isozaki. Courtesy of Arata Isozaki & Associates

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.

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a detail from an architectural drawing portraying a large star-shaped structure, partially obscured by a network of structures and steel tubes. The image on the right shows an image of a large star-shaped structure hovering in mid-air over a street in the middle of a city.

Left: Drawing Architecture Studio. Walking (detail), 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio
Right: MAD Architects, Postcard of New York, Superstar: a Mobile China Town, Venice Architecture Biennale 2008, Italy, 2008. M+, Hong Kong. © MAD Architects

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.

Detail of an architectural drawing showing people interacting with multiple structures. This includes long food stalls on wheels with white W shaped roofs, and a large bookcase with what appears to be a large wheel obscuring the top.
Two images side by side. The image on the left shows multiple black bookcases inside a room. Each bookcase sits on bicycle wheels attached to their sides. The bookcases are all laden with books. The image on the right shows a long white cart on wheels sitting outdoors. People sit on stools on either side, eating food, and servers stand beside them. The cart has a white W shaped roof.

Top: Drawing Architecture Studio. Walking (detail), 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio
Bottom left: Yung Ho Chang (Atelier FCJZ). Xishu bookstore, 1996. © Atelier FCJZ
Bottom right: Atelier Bow-wow, White Limousine Yatai, 2002 © Atelier Bow-wow

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.

Two images side by side. The image on the left is an architectural drawing of an orange crane against a blue background. The crane carries two small housing units with the cross-sections visible. Two other housing units hang from above, including one unit consisting of three tubes tied together. The image on the right shows a cross-section of a small housing unit with green walls. Two women lie and sit inside on a small bed and stool respectively.

Left: Drawing Architecture Studio. Plugging (detail), 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio
Right: Warren Chalk, Archigram. Capsule Homes, overhead view, 1964. M+, Hong Kong. © 1964 ARCHIGRAM

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.

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a detail of an intricate, colourful architectural drawing in which multiple architectural projects, structures, and phenomena are collaged and put into the same space. The image shows a complex network of structures built on top of a body of water. The image on the right shows a monochrome image of a large structure with many levels and rooms floating on top of a body of water.

Left: Drawing Architecture Studio. Floating (detail), 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio
Right: R. Buckminster Fuller. Inventions: Twelve Around One—Submarisle (Undersea Island) (1963) over Triton City (1967), 1981. M+, Hong Kong. Photo: Courtesy of Carl Solway Gallery. © Estate of Buckminster Fuller

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.

Acrylic and cardboard architectural model depicting a plan in which an extended deck floats over the water next to a harbour. The deck includes structures and a tower, depicted in transparent acrylic.

Tao Ho. Site Model, Metroplan West Kowloon Reclamation Concept, Hong Kong, 1988/2013. Acrylic and cardboard. M+, Hong Kong. © Irene Ho

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).

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a detail from an architectural drawing in which five small units float across a body of water. The image on the right is a photo of a man standing on top of a small unit floating on the water in Victoria Harbour, with Hong Kong’s skyline in the background. The unit sits on wooden planks attached to car tires.

Left: Drawing Architecture Studio. Floating (detail), 2020. Commissioned by M+. © Drawing Architecture Studio
Right: Kacey Wong, Paddling Home 4, 2009. M+, Hong Kong. © Kacey Wong

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.

Two images side by side. The image on the left is a detail of an architectural drawing showing three houses standing on planks in the water, with people going up and down staircases leading from the water to the houses. The image on the right is a photo of a group of wooden houses standing on planks in the water, with ladders leading down to small wooden boats docked in front.

Left: Detail of floating houses in Floating by Drawing Architecture Studio
Right: Stilt homes at floating village in Kompong Phluk, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo by Todd Brown via Getty Images.

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.

Detail of a poster featuring an intricate, colourful architectural drawing in which multiple architectural projects, structures, and phenomena are collaged and put into the same space. The image is dominated by a green grid-like pattern of tubes.

Detail of Plugging by Drawing Architecture Studio. In the drawing: Hong Kong’s Central–Mid-Levels escalators, Tokyo commercial towers, Beijing hutongs, Shenzhen urban villages, and Asian vernacular houses

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.

Two images side by side. The image on the left is an architectural drawing of a large, grey, insect-like structure in which a collection of multi-story buildings is mounted on giant, telescopic steel legs. The image on the right is an architectural drawing in which the same insect-like structure is surrounded by numerous other shapes and structures against a blue background.

Left: Archigram’s Walking City depicted in Walking by Drawing Architecture Studio
Right: Detail of Walking by Drawing Architecture Studio

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.

Detail of a colourful architectural drawing in which multiple architectural projects, structures, and phenomena are collaged and put into the same space. The image is dominated by a green grid-like pattern.
Sepia toned photograph of four large structures in which repeated capsules are suspended in the air over cylindrical and modular megastructures. The capsules form shapes reminiscent of layered triangles.

Top: Isozaki Arata's Cities in the Air depicted by yellow-coloured megastructures in Drawing Architecture Studio's Plugging
Bottom: Isozaki Arata. Cities in the Air, 1960–1963. © Arata Isozaki. Courtesy of Arata Isozaki & Associates

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.

Three images side by side. The image on the left shows a tower consisting of a central steel pipe with geodesic sphere attachments. The image in the middle shows an architectural drawing of this tower with geodesic sphere attachments in red, green, and white against a blue background. The image on the right shows a detail from a colourful architectural drawing in which the tower with geodesic sphere attachments is portrayed amongst numerous other architectural projects and structures.

Left: Kikutake Kiyonori, Expo Tower, 1970. Photo: Hiromasa Matsuura. © Kikutake Kiyonori
Middle: Expo Tower and Pao in Floating by Drawing Architecture Studio
Right: Detail of Floating by Drawing Architecture Studio

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.

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