Apparently, 1976 was the year when the British people enjoyed their best quality of life, at least according to the 'happiness statistics' of a recent report by the NEF. But it was also a year of strikes, riots, hijacked planes and nuclear tests. A series of devastating earthquakes climaxed in the destruction of Tangshan. Meanwhile, Concorde started commercial flights. Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer on April Fool's day. The CN Tower became the world's tallest free-standing structure. The Olympics arrived in Innsbruck and Montreal. The Viking 1 Lander touched down on Mars. NASA unveiled its Space Shuttle project just as filming began on Star Wars. The Sex Pistols signed to EMI and released 'Anarchy in the UK' on the same day that Microsoft registered its tradename as a company.
In London's leafy Bloomsbury, architects from around the globe gathered at Art Net on West Central Street for a ten day rally on architecture. It was 1976 and the UK was gripped in a record-breaking heatwave. 'still' is an exhibition of screen-grabs captured from this extra-sweaty rally and other architectural events recorded that year at Art Net and at the nearby Architectural Association (where the exhibition is currently located). Each image is coupled to a short citation from the relevant recording of talks by such latter-day luminaries as Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, and critics such as Clement Greenberg, Colin Rowe, and Ken Frampton.
Organised by Archigram's Peter Cook, funded by future Tory party peer Alistair McAlpine, during the few years of its effervescent existence Art Net was part art gallery, part project exhibition space, and part tribal gathering for architectural 'scenes'. For twenty-first century eyes, the mise-en-sc?®ne retains certain antiquated but colourful psychedelic traces in spite of the black and white footage. The viewer is immediately struck by the fashions that parade across the screen. As a prog-rock band noodle their way towards a climax at the opening of The Rally, Reyner Banham arrives at the lectern in a Superman t-shirt and an ex-army jacket studded with badges to deliver the opening talk. Curlicues of smoke rise like question-marks in the air above long-haired audiences adjusting their kaftans or fine-tuning their beards while they lounge in a grid of deck-chairs. In between lectures the space becomes a sartorial wind tunnel of flares and lapels. Almost always in the eye of the hurricane is the incomparable Cedric Price, juggling one or two glasses of brandy while relighting his cigar, perpetually ready to demolish anyone betraying signs of excessive self-importance.
An off-the-cheesecloth-cuff remark by Robert Maxwell, former Dean of Princeton's School of Architecture, during a lecture on Manfredo Tafuri entitled 'Cries and Struggles in the Boudoir' reveals something of the milieu:
I don't think it's a secret that Art Net is supported by friends from a certain capitalist coffer and that it dispenses cheap wine with the bravura of the chief steward on the Titanic. Not much of what happens here would escape Tafuri's bleak judgment on architecture as art. Are we all then boudoir boys?
Allegedly, 'Boudoir Boys' was considered but quickly rejected as a potential exhibition title (partly because a quick search online exposed an adult magazine of that name that showcased scantily-clad male models and claimed to be aimed at 'sophisticated women'). Instead, 'still' was chosen. From Alvin Boyarsky explaining his chairmanship of the Architectural Association as the development of a place 'where the general culture of architecture could be opened up to allow each area of investigation to be as close to the frontiers of knowledge of that particular discipline or area of study' to Tom Heneghan's witty critique of the rise of the celebrity and 'architectural superstars', the speakers and topics included in the exhibition provide a sectional view of what others sometimes referred to as the avant-garde of that period. Although frozen in their pixellated frames, the stills powerfully illustrate both the continuities and the discontinuities between then and now.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London