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From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price

by Stanley Matthews
Black Dog Publishing, London, 2007
285 pp., illus. 89 b/w, 42 col. Trade, $45.00
ISBN 10: 1904772528; ISBN 13: 9781904772521.

Reviewed by Boris Jardine
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge


Cedric Price may always bear the title of ‘visionary’ architect: One whose schemes were grand but unattainable; a futurist whose ideas were ahead of our time as well as his own. Yet, as this extensive study of his two major unrealised schemes makes clear, Price’s plans for the Fun Palace (a user-guided leisure emporium) and the Potteries Thinkbelt (a technically oriented collegiate network) not only came close to realisation but also were direct products of post-war social and architectural trends. Rarely will a retrospective seem so justified in concentrating on works that never came to be.

Matthews presents us with adequate biographical material on Price and his Fun Palace collaborator Joan Littlewood, before tackling the various contexts for the two ventures. The Fun Palace is shown to have been a systematically vague scheme, embodying Littlewood’s determination to create anti-elitist venues for education and leisure and Price’s commitment to high-tech, high-flexibility structures. This was no mere proto-Millennium Dome, but rather an attempt to reconfigure the ways in which people spend their free time, the ways they learn, and the way they interact with a built space. The Fun Palace rejected top-down structures, literally in that it undermined the role of the architect, and figuratively in that it implied user-oriented purpose throughout. As Matthews puts it, "technology promised to erase the distinctions between work, education, and leisure" (p. 69). To this end, Price and Littlewood teamed up with experts in cybernetics and game theory in order to optimise plans for a ‘building’ that would allow its users to "improvise and change their own spaces, using cranes to assemble prefabricated walls, platforms, floors, stairs, and ceiling modules" (p. 77). The Fun Palace repeatedly came close to the kind of financial and political backing it required; Matthew’s account of these vicissitudes and the project’s eventual failure is as detailed and as fascinating as one could wish. It is easy to glimpse of the excitement Littlewood and Price conveyed, the possibilities of such a flexible space, the implied socialism of the plan, and the local-political fastidiousness that eventually finished it off.

The Potteries Thinkbelt, by contrast, was an altogether less convincing idea (one can’t help but wonder whether this is in part due to the absence of Littlewood’s charisma and energy). It was a massive project that aimed to rejuvenate a swathe of the North Staffordshire Potteries region. Again Price intended systematic indeterminacy: a sprawling campus was to be linked together by a service railway, which would take students between various housing areas, faculty buildings, and operational factories/workshops. The aims of the Thinkbelt, a project undertaken largely in Price’s spare time, were undoubtedly admirable. While both Labour and the Conservatives neglected technical training, Price was attempting simultaneously to rethink the physical structure of institutes of higher education, to provide technical training on a large scale, and to rejuvenate an unhappy post-industrial area. Matthews expends fewer words on this less glamorous project, and perhaps some of the space devoted to the Fun Palace could have been sacrificed in order to deal more fully with the radical nature of Price’s approach. For example, we find the latter writing, in 1968, that "education is today little more than a method of distorting the individual’s [mind and behaviour] to enable him to benefit from existing social and economic patterning" (pp. 198-9). The context of this article, and a deeper analysis of Price’s educational/political commitments would have been welcome; how far was he adapting or aping Littlewood’s sentiments? Did others have similarly radical approaches to the architecture of educational institutions? Was the Thinkbelt more propaganda than realisable scheme? The analysis of the Thinkbelt does not mediate so easily between the small- and large-scale analysis that Matthews handles so skilfully with the Fun Palace.

From Agit-Prop to Free Space is a book constrained by the fact that its genre – architectural retrospective – implies literally ready-made material with which to engage; the audience for such a book might have used and been fascinated by the buildings it details, and its structure can be determined by the responses to a building, as well as its architect’s intentions. The Fun Palace and Thinkbelt produced no buildings, and the nature of Matthew’s account – theoretical, social-historical – is largely determined by that fact. For that reason From Agit-Prop should appeal to those interested not only in the technical aspects of Price’s work, but in the broader context of post-war British politics and culture. Price’s work emerges as a kind of social indicator, imbibing various political, economic, scientific and formal trends, and almost succeeding in producing something determined by them yet wholly new. One of the most astute comments on his work comes from Rem Koolhaas: "Price wanted to deflate architecture to the point where it became indistinguishable from the ordinary […] Nobody has ever changed architecture more with fewer means than Cedric Price" (p. 254). Because and not in spite of their unrealised nature, the Fun Palace and Thinkbelt remain relevant.



Updated 1st April 2008

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