Cedric Price, 1962 From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price
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1. Stanley Mathews, 'From the "Brain Drain" to the "Knowledge Economy" ', in Abley and Schwinge, editors, Manmade Modular Megastructures, AD magazine, Wiley-Academy, Chichester, January-February 2006, p 90 to 95

2. Stanley Mathews, From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price, London, Black Dog Publishing, 2007

3. Sir Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, 1626

4. Joan Littlewood, 'A Laboratory of Fun', The New Scientist, 14 May 1964, p 432 and 433

5. Alexander Trocchi, 'A Revolutionary Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of A Million Minds', first published as 'Technique du coupe du monde', Internationale Situationniste, 8 January 1963

Manmade Modular Megastructures

Stanley Mathews

Cedric Price - From "Brain Drain" to the "Knowledge Economy"

First published in Manmade Modular Megastructures (1), Stanley Mathews gives a taste of his appreciation of the life and ideas of Cedric Price, published as From Agit-Prop to Free Space. (2)

Stanley Mathews looks at Cedric Price's Fun Palace project and the Potteries Thinkbelt as polemics addressing the changing economic and social character of post-war Britain moving into a period of de-industrialization, with the expansion of higher education, and the emergence of Information Technology.

In his 1626 book New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon described a mythical utopia, an ideal society of learning and scientific advancement. The centrepiece of this New Atlantis was "Salomon's House", which amounted to a technical college dedicated to scientific research into '… the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.' (3)

There are striking similarities between Bacon's New Atlantis and the late British architect Cedric Price's Fun Palace and Potteries Thinkbelt. In their respective projects, both Bacon and Price proposed new modes of knowledge and inquiry which rejected established systems of education and thought. Both men confronted a crisis of knowledge at a time of paradigm shift. In Bacon's time, this was England's transition from a medieval world view which revered received knowledge and ancient authority, to an era of modern methods of scientific inquiry. For Price, it was an awareness of an epistemological shift from the structures and traditions of Britain of the First Machine Age to the post-industrial, post-imperial era of information technology and the knowledge economy.

In his 1964 Fun Palace and the 1967 Potteries Thinkbelt projects, Price addressed what he perceived to be the new and rapidly changing conditions of knowledge and society in post-war Britain. These were not proposals for buildings in any conventional sense, but were instead impermanent, improvisational, and interactive systems, highly adaptable to the volatile social and economic conditions of their time and place. At a time of uncertainty and instability, Price's work reflects a new approach to architecture as a site of change and impermanence, rather than as permanent and monumental symbols of cultural cohesion and consensus.

Programme cover for Theatre of Action, 1934When Price first met avant-garde theatre producer Joan Littlewood in 1962, she described her ideas for a new kind of theatre. From her beginnings in working class agit-prop street theatre to her string of successes on the London stage with her Theatre Workshop, Littlewood had longed to create a theatre of pure performativity, a space of cultural bricolage where people could experience the transcendence and transformation of the theatre not as audience, but as players themselves.

From a programme cover in 1934, the year Cedric Price was born. Joan Littlewood and Jimmy Miller, also known as Ewan MacColl, had formed the Theatre of Action in order to bring professional production values to 'agit-prop' political theatre.

Littlewood's innovative vision provided the conceptual framework on which Price began to design an interactive, performative architecture, endlessly adaptable to the varying needs and desires of the users.

Joan Littlewood as Mother Courage, 1955

Joan Littlewood as Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage", 1955

Working in collaboration, Price and Littlewood developed the Fun Palace as a '… university of the streets,' (4) providing educational opportunities in the guise of leisure entertainment in order to prepare society for the advent of the technological age. It was an improvisational architecture endlessly in the process of construction, dismantling, and reassembly.

The working class population of East London could use cranes and prefabricated modules to assemble learning and leisure environments, creating spaces where they might escape everyday routine and embark on a journey of creativity and personal development.

Axonometric of the Fun Palace

Cedric Price, Fun Palace, axonometric section, circa 1964. Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

Cedric Price and structural engineer Frank Newby designed a structural matrix with overhead cranes to allow assembly of prefabricated modules.

Section of the Fun Palace

Cedric Price, Fun Palace, section, circa 1964. Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

Cedric Price worked with Joan Littlewood to create an improvisational architecture endlessly in the process of construction, dismantling, and reassembly.

Their ideas for the Fun Palace were in many respects similar to the "spontaneous university" that their mutual friend, the Scottish "Beat" poet and Situationist Alexander Trocchi, was also proposing at the same time. Trocchi described his project as, '… a vital laboratory for the creation (and evaluation) of conscious situations… it is not only the environment which is in question, plastic, subject to change, but people also.' (5) It is clear that while Price and Littlewood influenced Trocchi's project, Trocchi's Situationist ideas on creativity and improvisation also helped to shape the developing Fun Palace.

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