Stanley-Matthews From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price
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10. Michael Sanderson, Education and Economic Decline in Britain, 1870s to the 1990s, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p 81

11. Martin Weiner, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1982

12. Lord Aberdare, 'Response to Lord Robbins' Statements on Higher Education', Parliamentary Debates, House of Lords Official Report 270:12, London, HMSO, 1 December 1965, col. 1281, Fun Palace document folio MS 1995:0188, Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

13. Cedric Price, Potteries Thinkbelt (unpublished manuscript), February 1966, p. 2, Potteries Thinkbelt document folio DR1995:0216:400, Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

14. Cedric Price, 'Potteries Thinkbelt: A Plan for an Advanced Educational Industry in North Staffordshire', Architectural Design 36, October 1966, p 484

15. Cedric Price, '10.3 Housing Areas: Unit Provision', Potteries Thinkbelt (unpublished manuscript), February 1966, Potteries Thinkbelt document folio DR1995:0216:400, Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

16. Peter Reyner Banham, 'Centre Pompidou', Architectural Review, 161, May 1977, p 270 to 294

Manmade Modular Megastructures

Cedric Price

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

Despite the promises of post-war educational reform by both the Labour and Conservative governments, British higher education in the post-war years was still largely associated with prestige, high social status, and the classics, lagging far behind Western Europe and the United States in research opportunities and technical training. (10)

Even in the new "Redbrick" universities that sprang up across Britain in the post-war years, pure science and theoretical research were privileged over technical education and applied science. A mandate for new universities to boost economic development failed to produce any significant economic improvement, for while educational authorities acknowledged a correlation between education and national economic development, they remained oddly sceptical about the relevance of technical and scientific education to industrial progress. (11) In a 1965 House of Lords debate on the lack of technical education, Lord Aberdare complained:

'I have a feeling that the universities… are still inclined to give greater importance to the arts than to the sciences, and to the academic than to the technological. There still exists a kind of intellectual snobbery that pays greater respect to the man who misquotes Horace than the man who can repair his own car. (12)

Price coined the neologism "Thinkbelt" to describe the educational orientation as well as the regional scale of his project, describing it as '… a kind of cross between Berkeley in California and a College of Advanced Technology', for twenty thousand students. (13) He hoped that his Potteries Thinkbelt would help to break down the traditional wall between "pure" and "applied" science and technology, lure scientists and technologists back to Britain, and help to put the nation at the forefront of advanced technologies. (14)

His plan for the Potteries Thinkbelt was to utilize the abandoned rail network of the Potteries as the infrastructure of his new think tank. Using the technologies of prefabrication and containerized shipping, he designed mobile, rail-mounted classrooms, computer, and data storage modules, laboratories, lecture, and demonstration halls, which would shunt constantly from place to place along the refurbished railway lines.

Potteries Thinkbelt, Madeley transfer area, 1966

Cedric Price, Madeley transfer area, 1966. Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

There were three large "transfer areas" in the Potteries Thinkbelt. In addition to providing residential "Accommodation Towers", social spaces, teaching facilities, and administrative areas, large gantry and radial cranes would handle the rearrangement of variable function mobile units in the "Faculty Zone" from and to the adjacent rail lines.

At three locations Price designed large transfer stations where the mobile modules could be assembled and moved using enormous gantry cranes. He also designed nineteen immense housing complexes using four types of prefabricated, modular housing units: "capsule," "sprawl," "crate", and "battery".

In all, there were to be thirty two thousand living units. (15) Like the mobile teaching units, the housing modules could be moved around and rearranged by cranes and rail as the program changed over time. Students could leave their homes in the morning, board the mobile classrooms, and learn while their classroom moved along the PTB rail circuit, from a demonstration laboratory, to a model factory, to an experimental station, returning back to their modular homes at the end of the day.

Potteries Thinkbelt, Diagrammatic Plan of Typical Housing Unit, 1966

Cedric Price, Potteries Thinkbelt, Diagrammatic Plan of Typical Housing Unit, 1966. Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

Each prefabricated, modular unit contained four zones:

  • A "dry" area for living and working (requiring no mechanical services).
  • A "wet" area for bathrooms and kitchens (requiring mechanical services).
  • Sleeping areas, requiring sound insulation.
  • An exterior envelope permitting various degrees of privacy, acoustic insulation, views, ventilation and passage.

These basic modular units could be combined in four configurations: capsule, crate, sprawl, and battery, depending on the site conditions.

His plan defined an interactive network of static and mobile structures, inspired and controlled by emergent computer and information technologies on which new social, economic, and industrial patterns might develop. The mobile learning units were like information quanta, the switches and transfer stations like the logical gateways of a vast computer circuit. The Potteries Thinkbelt defined a new kind of architectural monumentality, not of large object-buildings, but as a vast and dispersed field of discrete objects and disparate events.

In the Potteries Thinkbelt, Price enlarged on the improvisational, adaptable model of architecture he had first explored in the Fun Palace to create a landscape of constant change and activity, more like an electronic circuit than a static building. His redeployment of the ruined industrial landscape of the Potteries was a microcosm of his vision for architecture and for the future of Britain (a radical departure from the stolid monuments of traditional universities or the new "Redbrick" schools), offering new models of economic, educational, and social development within an active architectural matrix far more extensive than that of the Fun Palace.

Like the Fun Palace, the Potteries Thinkbelt was never realized. Price had never identified a client for the "Thinkbelt" and his proposal failed to attract much more than bemused interest.

The technical complexity of the project seemed too far-fetched to a public and a government unfamiliar with computers and advanced technology. Moreover, many of the government officials who might have been interested in Price's novel educational ideas were otherwise occupied with the development of the fledgling Open University.

Price recognized that Britain was in an irreversible cycle of de-industrialization, and in order to remain competitive in an increasingly technological world, nothing less than a complete reorientation of the British system of higher education towards science and information technology would be required. Yet he also realized that the mercurial conditions of the post-war years required a new impermanent and agile architecture, capable not only of adapting to inevitable change, but of encouraging and advancing social transformation.

Price's radical redefinition of architecture has influenced architects since the early 1960s, when he took on the role of avuncular guru to the young members of Archigram. Recognising that Mike Webb had been thinking about the Sin Centre in 1959.

Mike Webb, Sin Centre, London, 1959 to 1961

Mike Webb, Sin Centre, London, proposed section, 1959 to 1961

In 1977, Reyner Banham noted Price's influence on the following generation of architects like Richard Roger's in the design of the Centre Pompidou, writing, '… the concept of a stack of clear floors that can be adapted to a variety of cultural and recreational functions seems to recall the… Fun Palace of Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, even if the project was never as radical as the floorless Fun Palace, or as casually innovatory as Price's Inter-Action Centre.' (16)

In the Fun Palace and Potteries Thinkbelt, Price emerged as one of the first architects to develop innovative architectural responses to the new social and economic conditions of post-war Britain.

Stanley Mathews 26.11.2007

InterAction Centre, Kentish Town, 1976 (demolished 2003)

Cedric Price, InterAction Centre, Kentish Town, 1976, and demolished in 2003, the year Price died.

InterAction Centre, Kentish Town, 1976 (demolished 2003)

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