(Fogs in the morning, Mercury and Venus in the sky, music in the streets. Late spring slowly turning into summer.)
Cedric Price is one of my favorite people. (He died twelve years ago this summer, but if anyone deserves to be remembered in the present tense, it’s him.) A spiritual and sometimes practical comrade of the dancers at Akasaka Space Capsule Disco, Price’s architecture celebrated the unforeseen, anticipating others who’d turn what he made to new purposes. He wanted buildings with “potential for indeterminate change,” buildings that were about events in time rather than objects in space; he wanted, above all, to be surprised – to never have the last word.
He loved how the styleless functionality of the safety pin could be turned into the gleaming, toothy integument of punk clothes and piercings. He wore only black and white (except on the first of May, when he would wear a red tie) and a pair of Hush Puppies, making grilled cheese sandwiches for Buckminster Fuller (he had a special recipe) while reciting a cheerful litany of all the places, all the ways, that architecture was not needed, except to help people get started doing whatever it was they wanted or needed to do, and then getting out of their way. In the middle of the usual chaos of a working architect’s studio, he kept “the white room,” a space meant for special conversations and thinking sessions, virtually empty, without color or a telephone or anything at all extraneous – like being in a sheet of blank paper.
He wanted to build an aviary that would move: driven by the minute pressure of birds landing and taking off from the struts, the whole thing would slowly tick across the landscape like a clockwork soap bubble. (Instead he built one of the most beautiful aviaries ever constructed, for the London Zoo, but it stood still.) He built a café for the Blackpool Zoo, designed to be eventually repurposed as the giraffe habitat: what could best meet the needs of both people getting coffee and giraffes browsing leaves? He designed one of the most inventive attempts at linking shelter and computation: the Generator project, never built, with modular chambers reshuffled by cybernetic rules run off a local mainframe to meet various social requirements. (The really Cedric touch was that if the arrangements became too predictable, the system was programmed to get bored and start swapping things around by itself.) He proposed a lung for New York City and wetlands for Hamburg and a reinvention of the university system on old rail lines and rolling stock. And the Fun Palace.
Joan Littlewood (a theater producer who used to sow chaos in the streets as part of Red Megaphones) got it rolling with Price in the early 1960s, with an eye to the bombed out Isle of Dogs in London’s East End. Littlewood saw the first sketches: “The drawing was almost inexplicable. I could make out filigree towers, varied areas at different levels, there were galleries, gantries and escalators – it looked airborne.” It was a vast open steel skeleton, with traveling gantry cranes that could assemble and move and reassemble the “kit of parts”: prefabricated walls, platforms, floors, stairs, and ceiling modules. “Skyblinds” could be drawn across in rain. It would look like “a large shipyard in which enclosures such as theatres, cinemas, restaurants, workshops, rally areas, can be assembled, moved, re-arranged and scrapped continuously,” Price wrote.
And what would be in this huge, mostly empty box of standard architectural elements, aside from what we put into it? There would be screens with live feeds from coal mines, steel mills, factories, zoos, farms, the House of Commons, police stations and hospital emergency rooms: a mosaic of all environments, to spur awareness and curiosity. Workshops, instruments, projectors. An “identity bar” (this was Roy Ascott’s idea) that would dispense paper clothing so people could adopt new social roles, new genders, names and characters. And, presumably, things from a list in the design materials titled “70 Projects for a Fun Palace.” I’ve taken a few lines from it – no further explained there than they are here. Private references for a project never built, they read like settings for a fairy tale or episodes from a dream, still waiting to be realized, open to interpretation (as, perhaps, Price would have wanted it). Make what you will:
The tower of dancing light
The inhabited universe
The elusive topiarist
The cybernetic cinema
The glittering science
The reliable breeze
The deceptive flicker
Aerobatics for all
The waiting world
A terrace amid the tree-tops
The counter-point computer
The forest of violet twilight
The fiery pagoda
The scholarly staircase
The portico of enthusiastic myths
The maze of silence
Alessandro Alessandroni, “Suor Omicidi: Sequence 4.” I’ve been listening to a ton of Alessandroni recently. He’s the guy whistling on most of the soundtracks you think of when you think of Sergio Leone movies; he’s the one playing the kick-ass guitar riff for the main theme of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. And I love, so much, the soundtracks he composed and performed for largely forgotten terrible Italian horror/giallo movies in the 1970s – like Suor Omicidi (aka Homicidal Nun). Listen to that song! So full of magnetic foreboding and slowly escalating tension. Something really, really bad is about to happen.
(Personal note: me and the amazing Lori Emerson have a piece in the latest issue of Vlak, “The Canon Cat: Processing Advanced Work,” about Jef Raskin’s post-Macintosh project and the alternate history of user interfaces and personal computing.)
The supervoid: “the Cold Spot,” “exotic physics,” the “under-dense,” and possibly the largest structure ever identified by humanity.
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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