Untangling the Archive


5 December 2016

Consider the architect Cedric Price, and a mere handful of projects will spring to mind. The London Zoo Aviary, perhaps, which was co-designed with Frank Newby and Lord Snowdon, or the completely adaptable, unbuilt Fun Palace, which in 2014 led curator Hans Ulrich Obrist to dub Price as important to architecture as Duchamp was to art.

Delve a little deeper and there is the Potteries Thinkbelt, a university based in disused train carriages, and the Generator, a series of 150 modular cubes, neither of which were built. These are just a fragment of the schemes that Price worked on over the five decades of his career, most of which are unbuilt and nearly all of which remain obscure.

For an idea of the sheer scale of Price’s works, turn to Cedric Price Works 1952-2003: A Forward-Minded Retrospective, published this autumn by the Architectural Association (AA) in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). A colossal box-set consisting of two tomes that together amount to over 1,400 pages, the new publication is so substantial that it comes with its own canvas bag to help transport it. It is the work of the writer, editor and curator Samantha Hardingham, who has been engaged in its creation since 2009. Although Hardingham modestly calls it “a starting point for any scholar to now dig deeper,” it stands as an extraordinary achievement and an invaluable document of Price’s practice.

Hardingham first encountered Price as a student at the AA. “I was a second year architecture student,” she recounts, “who was not sure that I was actually working on architecture. He came to one of my juries, and said ‘Oh yes, this is architecture.’ He was the first person to say to me that anything was possible.” This began an ongoing series of interactions as Price came in and out of the school. Then, around the turn of the present century, Hardingham approached Price about creating a book to document the second half of his career. “He didn’t agree to it initially,” she says, “but he changed his mind. And that was the beginning of having a real conversation with him.”

The outcome was a volume called Cedric Price: Opera, a catalogue-style work that was published by Wiley in 2003. Although Price voiced a desire to stand completely back from the process, he couldn’t help but interfere. On the first of a series of weekly meetings, he pulled the contents list out of his top drawer. Though he claimed Hardingham was free to roam through his papers, she would find a set of drawings laid out on the table on each visit. “He’d already selected a lot of the content,” says Hardingham, “although he did it in an incredibly light, almost invisible way.”

Price died in 2003, and Hardingham was contacted by his long-term partner, the actor and writer Eleanor Bron. The two spent three months sorting out his vast library, which resulted in 2006’s bibliographic Cedric Price Retriever. Then, in 2009, Bron enquired whether Hardingham would be interested in compiling something akin to a complete works. Hardingham accepted, and embarked on A Forward-Minded Retrospective.

Hardingham’s research began at the CCA, to which Price sold his archive in 1995. “If they didn’t buy it,” explains Hardingham, “likely it would have gone to RIBA [the Royal Institute of British Architects] – an institution that Cedric spent a lifetime railing against.” The archivists at the CCA had noticed that researchers tended to consult only a handful of Price’s projects. Catalogued by numbers rather than topic, it was a bewilderingly vast collection of drawings and texts. Granted a visiting fellowship to allow her to remain working at the centre, Hardingham delved into Price’s papers.

The process was smoothed considerably by a fortuitous discovery. “Cedric made a key drawing that, mercifully, I found early on,” says Hardingham. In it, Price explained the different stages of his drawing process. “There were four types,” Hardingham continues, “his initial in-head drawings, his sketches, his working drawings and finally what he called his 'forward-minded retrospective' drawings,” which provided the title for the book. “They show him reflecting on his work, although Cedric wouldn’t have called them reflective, as it would have been too ponderous.” Once she possessed this system, Hardingham was able to begin untangling the mass.

These drawings form the basis of A Forward-Minded Retrospective’s first, longer volume, which provides a guide to each of Price’s projects. Arranged in chronological order, each scheme is presented by a text and a selection of drawings. The set’s slimmer – though still hefty – other half gathers Price’s writings and lectures. “At one point,” says Hardingham, “they were going to be part of the same thing. You can imagine how big and heavy it would have been, and it didn’t make sense in terms of the clarity of projects.” Instead, the second book has marginal references to the projects in the first.

While the architectural tome has a unified aesthetic, the text-based volume presents its items in different typefaces and formats - in many cases based upon their original presentation. “I’m aware,” Hardingham explains, “that most people who read this now will have never known him, and never have known that period of time. I thought that a sense of knowing what the articles look like would help with the voice.” This presentation certainly draws one into Price’s often cryptic writing style, in a way that a straight, dry format might not. It also seems an honest reflection of the architect’s adventurous, polyphonic style, constantly trying out new ideas in both pen and pencil.

This sort of experimentation – in Hardingham’s words, “Cedric was very consistent in his production but inconsistent in that you never knew what you were going to get” – represents one of Price’s greatest legacies. So is his self-identification as an anti-architect, and belief in the importance of the unbuilt as much as the built environment. It’s a spirit that Hardingham sees in some of the contemporary architects of Europe and Japan, such as Spain’s Juan Herreros. She is less sure about his legacy in the UK: “We make huge assumptions about him here. Cedric pissed a lot of people off, which he probably did deliberately. As a result there’s a sort of animosity.” A Forward-Minded Retrospective should do much to sweep way such predispositions.