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Michael Webb shares his thrill of driving fast into and up through a building

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Michael Webb about his lengthy student career, inventing “Bowellism”, much celebrated thesis project Sin Palace, and his Archigram years.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Sep 30, 2021

Michael Webb (b. 1937) grew up in Henley-on-Thames, England, a town about one hour west by train from London’s Paddington Station. Being a gifted draftsman since childhood, he followed his father’s suggestion to pursue a career in architecture. His own preferences, however, were more towards designing trains, buses, and airplanes. In a way, that’s what, at least in part, explains why the buildings he imagines look like these dynamic means of transportation. The visionary architect, living and teaching in America since mid-1960s, first attracted attention with his experimental student projects at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture in London (now the University of Westminster) between the years of 1953 and 1972, a somewhat lengthy student career. Two of his designs became particularly well known through publications – the fourth-year project Furniture Manufacturers Association Headquarters (1958) that featured in Visionary Architecture, an important exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1960 and his thesis project, Sin Palace (1961).

Temple Island, Plan Projection of the Regatta Landscape | Interview with Michael Webb | STIRworld
Temple Island, Plan Projection of the Regatta Landscape Image: Courtesy of Michael Webb

At the invitation of Peter Cook, Webb became one of six founding members of Archigram, an avant-garde architectural group (1961-74). The other four young architects were David Greene, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, and Ron Herron. Their radical and utopian proposals were influenced by Pop Art, science fiction comics, and everything technological. They rose to prominence for their captivating neo-futuristic speculations exploring such themes as large movable infrastructures, interlocking continuous systems, accessibility, interaction and merging of vehicles and buildings, modularity, minimal living, transparency, as well as glamour and fun. Cook described Archigram – a conflation of “architecture” and “telegram” – as “a reaction to the boringness of postwar British architecture”. The six Brits were dubbed “the Beatles of Architecture”. Their alluring works are still being celebrated regularly by books, exhibitions, symposiums, and in 2006, Archigram was awarded the Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Temple Island, Plan Projection of the Regatta Landscape | Interview with Michael Webb | STIRworld
Temple Island, Plan Projection of the Regatta Landscape Image: Courtesy of Michael Webb

Webb’s other most renowned projects include, Cushicle (1964), Temple Island (1987), and the ongoing Drive-In House series. The architect’s work was presented in a recently published book, Michael Webb: Two Journeys (Lars Müller Publishers, 2018). In 2018, M+ Museum in Hong Kong acquired roughly 1,500 drawings and sketches produced by Archigram collective for £1.8 million (USD 2.36 million); the highlights of the purchased archives were exhibited in 2020 and accompanied by the online symposium. The following is a condensed version of my conversation with Michael Webb over Zoom between New York and Wakefield, Rhode Island, where he now resides. We spoke about his student projects, studying under James Stirling, resenting pragmatic architecture, inventing a new architectural movement called “Bowellism”, collaborating with Peter Cook during their Archigram years, leaving for America, and the thrill of driving fast into and up through a building, as he imagined in his now seminal thesis project Sin Palace.

Temple Island, The landscape of a river, as viewed by an observer | Interview with Michael Webb | STIRworld
Temple Island, The landscape of a river, as viewed by an observer Image: Courtesy of Michael Webb

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): You went to study architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. Here is the first question I am dying to ask you – how come it took you 19 years (from 1953 to 1972) to complete a five-year program there?

Michael Webb (MW): I was duly enrolled at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London in their five-year program. I enjoyed being a student immensely. The only cloud on my horizon was the realisation that one day the supposedly Bohemian life of pulling all-nighters on the drawing board and all-night parties in friends’ flats would come to an end–to be replaced by the drudgery of a nine-to-five job in some dreary office. And indeed, at that time the work emerging from London offices was dreary. So, to answer your question, as to why it took 19 years to graduate–I would like to say it was intransigence on the part of my instructors, but that would not be true. What delayed things was my thesis design. Initially sited at Alexandra Palace in north London, I had suggested a vaguely Frei Otto-esque monstrosity of an entertainment building, which, due to admittedly inferior drawings, failed miserably. It was then suggested to me that I move the building to the city centre, so that instead of it being sited in a derelict Victorian pleasure park it was now plonked down right in the middle of London’s West End where all the crowds were. So, thesis version two was a very different animal. Nevertheless, this also failed, mainly because of the inward pressure exerted by the building’s tension membrane skin would have compressed its interior into a veritable black hole. It was only in 1969, when I was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design that the administration, aware of my professorial abilities, had decided to investigate whether I had ever received a degree in architecture.

VB: I see, so you started teaching long before completing your own degree. Did your father want you to go into architecture because you initially planned to become an artist? He saw architecture as something more pragmatic, right?

MW: That’s right. It’s interesting that you called it pragmatic because that’s just what mainstream modern architecture was at the time. It is no longer so, as digitally produced drawings and fabrication techniques have made the exotic in architectural design almost commonplace.

Furniture Building, Screening Room as a cantilevered structure, 1958 | Interview with Michael Webb | STIRworld
Furniture Building, Screening Room as a cantilevered structure, 1958 Image: Courtesy of Michael Webb

VB: I like your word exotic because the project you designed as a student in 1958, the Furniture Manufacturers Association Headquarters, was exactly that–exotic. What was the main intention behind it?

MW: That project was the main design assignment in the fourth year at the Poly. The young instructor who assigned it was James Stirling. His teaching method was to sit at the back of the studio and read the Daily Telegraph. I recall once approaching him and asking: “Can you see me now?” He slowly pivoted his head up from the newspaper until his gaze met mine: “Yes, Webb, I can see you,” at which point his eyes slowly rolled back down to his text. He appeared at my drawing board 10 minutes later: “Yes, Webb, keep going with that.” [Laughs.] Nevertheless, being the architect of the University of Leicester’s Engineering Building to come, even such simple statements from Stirling were encouraging enough for all of us.

At that time, the Poly had a reputation as a good solid school, turning out young design professionals who would be useful in an office. Not like what went on at “the other place” – the notorious AA or Architectural Association where experimentation was encouraged. It was the period of high modernism and back at the Poly nothing was allowed to rock that boat. Unfortunately, though, in terms of complying with the pedagogy of the more senior instructors, two of us, a one John Davidson and I, started rocking; rocking the boat of good but safe architecture. We had been led astray by the likes of Buckminster Fuller and Frederick Kiesler, namely his biomorphic furniture and, above all, his Endless House, whose influence on our two projects is evident.

I suspect that had my father enrolled me at the AA, I would have done nothing of that sort. What challenged me to produce was the opposition of the senior instructors. I needed to impress my bourgeois instructors at the Poly.

The projects were published in a student magazine inevitably called Polygon that was started by a student named John Hodgkinson who was in the year after us. He later changed his name to Outram and his architectural affiliations from modern to post-modern. He later formed a practice, John Outram Associates in London, producing a series of post-modern buildings that became well-known, such as the Isle of Dogs Pumping Station dubbed “The Temple of Storms”.

Furniture Building, Screening Room and access tubes, Plan, 1958 | Interview with Michael Webb | STIRworld
Furniture Building, Screening Room and access tubes, Plan, 1958 Image: Courtesy of Michael Webb

VB: At the same time, despite your struggles with the instructors at the Polytechnic, the Furniture Manufacturers building was later celebrated, right?

MW: Certainly not by everyone. Nikolaus Pevsner, a well-known German British historian, in a radio broadcast, as part of the Reith lecture series, referred to the project as “looking like a lot of bowels sitting on a plate”. At least this is what I remember him saying. The transcript of the lecture, as it appears in The Listener magazine has no such wording. Either my memory is faulty or he bowdlerized the wording of the broadcast prior to publication.

Somehow, Reyner Banham, an English architectural critic, caught wind of these goings on and published a thumbnail size image in the Architectural Review that was evidently seen by Arthur Drexler, a curator and director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Drexler was then planning his Visionary Architecture exhibition at MoMA. There is the Furniture building, like its more seasoned neighbours, gracing MoMA’s walls in a series of giant blow ups, including, by the way, Kiesler’s Endless House! [Laughs.]

Furniture Building, Visionary Architecture, MoMA, New York, 1960 | STIRworld
Furniture Building, Visionary Architecture, MoMA, New York, 1960 Image: Courtesy of Michael Webb

VB: It was the beginning of something quite new in architecture, right?

MW: I felt at the time that architects tended to take themselves a trifle seriously and that some of the dogmas associated with modernism needed poking fun at. Taking from Pevsner’s description of the Furniture building, quoted above, we (Davidson and I) invented a new architectural movement: Bowellism, the movement. Banham was wrong when he claimed paternity. Some took it seriously: a writer, I forget who, claimed that the building he was describing had “bowellist” undertones.

VB: And, interestingly enough, these ideas were in the air because not only you and the other student were working on similar ideas, but many others because soon all kinds of radical projects started to appear in Britain, Italy and Austria. And about a decade later, those ideas materialised in the winning scheme of the Centre Pompidou by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, which brought entirely new aesthetics to the profession.

MW: Yes, there followed a veritable infestation of groups: Archizoom in Italy, Haus Rucker and Co-op Himmelblau in Vienna and Ant Farm in the USA. And then Raimund Abraham and Friedrich St. Florian began producing drawings out of New York and Providence, respectively. But it was London that seemed the place to be in the late 50s and early 60s. With Archigram starting up and Cedric Price teaching at the AA. By the way, it’s possible to claim that the Centre Pompidou is a non-operative mock-up of Cedric’s design for the Fun Palace project.

VB: At what point did you meet the future members of Archigram? I understand that initially, the idea was to start a publication, right?

MW: Archigram was really Peter Cook’s idea. Without him, there would be no Archigram. A disparate group of scruffy young architects started meeting in a “greasy spoon” cafe at Swiss Cottage, London, to talk about the sort of architecture we imagined making, and then go home afterwards and draw it. So inevitably the conversation turned to thoughts of publishing some of this stuff. Hence the Archigram magazine…as in telegram or aerogramme. So, the first issue of Archigram featured the work of young architects Peter admired. He has written rude words like “skin”,  “bowellism”, and “move” all over the illustration of the Furniture building; the words defining the essential qualities of the component they annotate.

Furniture Building, End Elevation, 1958 | STIRworld
Furniture Building, End Elevation, 1958 Image: Courtesy of Michael Webb

VB: In one of your talks, you said that Archigram was not trying to propose new architecture but rather represent architecture that would be necessary for the scene that you wanted to create. Could you touch on the intentions behind some of the projects?

MW: Archigram’s drawings were never intended to be understood as windows through which the future might be viewed; the fact was that the Brits in the early 60s seemed to have left behind themselves the strictures of the immediate post war period and were starting to enjoy life. This fact was reflected in the arts: John Osborne in the theater; Mary Quant in the world of fashion. We wanted to simply create an architecture to represent and accommodate these changes, something those dreary designs for buildings coming out of architects’ offices were not doing. Our architecture was of the present, not the future.

VB: Archigram was disbanded in 1974. But you left for America even before that, in 1965. So, you worked remotely, right?

MW: “But westward look, the land is bright”. This quote from the 1848 poem, Say not the Struggle nought Availeth, by Arthur Hugh Clough, gave credence to the feeling of some of us in the group that the USA was the place to be; for over there the architecture seemed to be already in use that would support the new society mentioned in the previous response. The drive-ins, the mobile homes, the space program, all described most beguilingly by Reyner Banham in articles like A home is not a house. The reality was, of course, quite different. We found out, upon arrival, that not every American had forsaken colonial architecture in favour of an inflatable dome. Nevertheless, the land was bright enough to tempt Ron Herron spend a couple of years in Los Angeles and, of course, David Greene and I were teaching in south west Virginia at Blacksburg.

Sin Palace, Plan, 1961 | STIRworld
Sin Palace, Plan, 1961 Image: Courtesy of Michael Webb

VB: Could you talk more about the Sin Palace, your thesis project for Leicester Square that you mentioned in the beginning? What was the key intention for that?

MW: Most fundamentally, the project was about the thrill of driving fast into and up through a building. I have a memory from childhood of a trip to a seaside resort and being intrigued by seeing a building with a car driven up an external ramp on to the building’s roof. You must remember that in the 1940s multi-story parking garages were quite rare. The other influence was from my first flight in a Boeing 707 and of sitting in the window seat behind the wing being fascinated by its knife edged flaps. All in beautiful aircraft grade aluminum too. The technology transfer from plane to building, of course, was not without its problems, which also explains why my instructors had such a problem passing it. In the end though, when a student project has been published many times, failing it, how shall I put it…is problematic.

VB: And what have you been working on lately?

MW:  Let me describe another scene from my childhood: my grandmother is taking me to Twyford, a railway station on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway to watch the expresses from London race through the station. At Twyford the four tracks had been laid completely level and straight to the horizon in both directions, thus creating a three-dimensional demonstration of the principles of perspective projection. And I knew that at the eastern intersection of the eight ribbons of steel, the vanishing point, lay the magical city of London.

Decades later this event would lead to a study of perspective projection and its relationship to concepts of infinity. But it is representation that causes the most angst. When one technology supersedes another much is gained but something is lost too. Fathoming what is lost when it comes to digital drawing currently besets me.

What do you think?

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