The Fun Palace as Virtual Architecture: Cedric Price and the Practice of Indeterminacy by Stanley Matthews

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In his Fun Palace project, Price turned not to traditional architecture or fantasy but to the discourses and theories of his own time, such as the emerging sciences of cybernetics, information technology, and game theory, as well as Situationism and theater, to develop a radically new concept of improvisational architecture capable of negotiating the uncertain social terrain of postwar Britain. As socially interactive architecture, the Fun Palace integrated concepts of technological interchangeability with social participation and improvisation as innovative and egalitarian alternatives to traditional free time and education, giving back to the working classes a sense of agency and creativity. The three-dimensional structure of the Fun Palace was the operative space-time matrix of a virtual architecture. The variable ‘‘program’’ and form of the Fun Palace were not conventional architecture but much closer to what we understand today as the computer program: an array of algorithmic functions and logical gateways that control temporal events and processes in a virtual device.
  STANLEY MATHEWSHobart and William Smith Colleges The Fun Palace as VirtualArchitecture Cedric Price and the Practices of Indeterminacy In his Fun Palace project, Price turned not to traditional architecture or fantasy but to thediscourses and theories of his own time, such as the emerging sciences of cybernetics, informationtechnology, and game theory, as well as Situationism and theater, to develop a radically new con-cept of improvisational architecture capable of negotiating the uncertain social terrain of postwarBritain. As socially interactive architecture, the Fun Palace integrated concepts of technologicalinterchangeability with social participation and improvisation as innovative and egalitarian alterna-tives to traditional free time and education, giving back to the working classes a sense of agencyand creativity. The three-dimensional structure of the Fun Palace was the operative space-timematrix of a virtual architecture. The variable ‘‘program’’ and form of the Fun Palace were not con-ventional architecture but much closer to what we understand today as the computer program: anarray of algorithmic functions and logical gateways that control temporal events and processes ina virtual device. In London we are going to create a university of the streets—not a gracious park, but a foretasteof the pleasures of the future . . .  the essence of the place will be informality—nothingobligatory—anything goes.There will be nopermanent structures. Nothing is to last morethan ten years, some things not even ten days:no concrete stadia, stained and cracking, nolegacy of noble contemporary architecture,quickly dating . . . .Joan Littlewood, ‘‘A Laboratory of Fun,’’ 1964 1 The Fun Palace would be unlike any buildingbefore or since. In this essay, I will explore how in thisinfluential project the late British architect CedricPrice created a unique synthesis of a wide range of contemporary discourses and theories, such as theemerging sciences of cybernetics, informationtechnology, and game theory; Situationism; andtheater, to produce a new kind of improvisationalarchitecture to negotiate the constantly shiftingcultural landscape of the postwar years. London in1966 was a place and a time when everything waschanging and anything seemed possible, whenradically new architectural ideas burst onto the scene,with vitality, energy, and srcinality equaling that of the Beatles, Mary Quant’s Miniskirts, and the visualspectacle of Swinging London. Price’s architecturereflected the changing character of British society inthose heady times, but it also acted as a catalyst toexpedite social transformation. Where many saw onlythe waning of an old orderor the emergence of a newfad or fashion, Price perceived new architecturalpossibilities amid the apparent cultural chaos of postwar Britain.From a Thames barge, it would have looked likea huge shipyard among the East London wharves.It would stand like the giant scaffold of someincomplete building, either in the process ofgoing upor coming down—it would be hard to tell.This was tobe the Fun Palace—not really a building at all but avast, socially interactive machine, an improvisationalarchitecture, constantly changing in a ceaseless cycleof assembly and dismantling. On their days off,swarms of East Londonworkerswould be there,usingits cranes and prefabricated modules to assembletheir own learning and leisure environments(Figure 1). It would be an immense kit of parts withwhich people could amuse themselves, so that fora few leisure hours each week, they might escapefrom mind-numbing routine and the monotony of serial existence and embark on an exciting journey of creativity, learning, and personal development. It wasto be a ‘‘university of the streets,’’ where peoplecould learn a language, watch a film, make a film,explore virtual worlds, learn to cook, teach otherpeople to cook, learn to use a computer, rehearsea neighborhood chorus, or simply watch everyoneelse. Workers whose jobs had become obsolete couldtake lessons, hear lectures, and learn a new job skill.The Fun Palace began in 1962 as a casualcollaboration between Price and avant-garde theaterproducer Joan Littlewood. Despite the string of successes that her theater workshop had enjoyed onthe London stage with hits such as  ATaste of Honey  and  Oh! What a Lovely War  , Littlewood had long 39  MATHEWS Journal of Architectural Education,pp. 39–48 ª 2006 ACSA  dreamt of a new kind of theater.This would bea theater beyond anything even Bertolt Brechthad envisioned—not of stages, performers, andaudiences but a theater of pure performativity,a space of cultural  bricolage  where people couldexperience the transcendence and transformationof the theater not as audience but asplayers. Price had already been exploring ideasfor an interactive and improvisationalarchitecture, and Littlewood’s dream became theprogram for his new Fun Palace. By 1966, it hadbecome a rallying point for scores of Englishintellectuals who saw the Fun Palace as a vastsocial experiment in new ways of building,thinking, and being. People as diverse asBuckminster Fuller, orchestral conductor YehudiMenuhin and Member of Parliament TonyBenn volunteered their services to theproject.Price and Littlewood found a site for the FunPalace in East London, at Mill Meads, on the banks of the Lea River. However, after years of planning, just as construction was set to begin, mid-levelbureaucrats in the local Newham planning officehalted the project, and the Fun Palace was nevercompleted. 2 Though unbuilt, the Fun Palace waswidely admired and imitated, especially by theyoung architecture students who formed the coreof the avant-garde Archigram group.They weredrawn to Price, who in turn acted as a guru to thefledgling group, offering them advice, counsel, andintroducing them to the ideas of Buckminster Fuller.However, unlike Archigram’s science fiction–inspiredfantasy designs, or those of Constant, the FunPalace was a real project, carefully designed andvery nearly built. 3 Although the Fun Palace wouldserve as a model of high-tech formalism for the1976 Centre Pompidou in Paris, it was also verydifferent from that project.The explicitly‘‘mechanical’’ imagery of the Fun Palace was notan aesthetic treatment but the bare bonesstructural armature on which its interactive and fluidprogram could play out (Figure 2).The Fun Palacewas primarily there to respond to the changing needsand desires of individuals, not to house prepackagedexhibits and events for a generalized public.An unspecified program and indeterminateform, such as Price envisioned for the Fun Palace, areantithetical to normative architectural practice,which requires specificity of program and physicalconfiguration. However, Price insisted that since noone could know in advance the constantly shiftingneeds and desires of the users (and indeed, thefuture direction of British society), the Fun Palacehad to be continuously adaptable to a fluid program.Moreover, any attempt to define a specific programwould foreclose on unforeseen developments andpossibilities. He felt that conventional practices of architecture and planning were overdetermined andresulted in ‘‘the safe solution and the dullpractitioner,’’ by forcing architects into the trap of trying to ‘‘get it right the first time.’’ 4 Far fromavoiding uncertainty in design, Price claimed that hisown creativity was ‘‘generated and sustained througha delight in the unknown.’’ 5 His design for the FunPalace would acknowledge the inevitability of change, chance, and indeterminacy by incorporatinguncertainties as integral to a continuously evolvingprocess modeled after self-regulating organic pro-cesses and computer codes.Price was not alone in his interests in changeand indeterminacy. During the 1950s and 1960s,chance and improvisation played an increasinglyimportant role in music and art. John Cage’srandomized music and Alan Kaprow’s unscripted andimprovisational ‘‘Happenings’’ were already wellknown in Britain.Yet, London-based artists were alsodeveloping their own art and performance based onchance. As early as in 1959, artist Gustav Metzgerissued his  Manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art  , 6 andinvited London gallery visitors (Cedric Price amongthem) to watch his acid-paintings self-destruct,morphing from rectangles of stretched nylon intoshapeless masses of goo on the floor. In the early1960s, London-based artist Roy Ascott abandonedstatic easel painting in favor of interactive andchance-based art. Decades before computer-basedart, Ascott began to merge the avant-garde trends of Pop Art, Fluxus, and Happenings with cybernetics 1. CedricPrice’sdrawingof the interiorof the Fun Palace, circa 1965. It would be constantlyunderconstruction: Users would rearrange wall panelsto create new spaces from old spaces as the program changed and evolved. Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. The Fun Palace as Virtual Architecture  40  and nascent information technology to createartworks that would interact with and respond to thepresence of gallery-goers. 7 Cedric Price knew bothartists and invited Ascott to join the Fun Palacedesign team.In addition, any apparent affinity between theFun Palace concepts of creative leisure and thecreative strategies of the Situationist Internationalwould hardly be accidental, since both grew fromcommon ideological and artistic roots. Moreover,both Price and Littlewood were close friends withScottish poet and Situationist Alexander Trocchi,from whom they learned of the Situationist strategiesof creatively aimless urban wanderings (the de´rive)and the insertion of random events into ordinarysituations (de´tournement). In his 1962 ‘‘InvisibleInsurrection of a Million Minds,’’ Trocchi describeda ‘‘spontaneous university’’ that closely resemblesthe Fun Palace idea. 8 Despite the obvious similaritiesbetween Trocchi’s ‘‘spontaneous university’’ and theFun Palace (even to the riverside location) and toPrice’s later Potteries Thinkbelt project, it is not clearto what extent Trocchi, Price, and Littlewood mayhave influenced each other. Price disavowed anyinspiration from Trocchi, and planning for the FunPalace was already well under way by the time of their first meeting. 9 While these contemporary discourses onindeterminacy and the applications of chance in artfired Price’s imagination, as an architect his concernwas solving the difficult task of finding a practicalmeans of integrating improvisation into architectureand specifically into the design of the Fun Palace.Rather than rely on mechanical and determineddesign methodologies, Price derived the architecturalparadigms of the Fun Palace from the emergentfields of information technology, cybernetics, andgame theory, which are, in essence, means of modeling and systematizing chance andindeterminacy.As such, the Fun Palace marks a significantdisplacement of modern architecture from a Platonicmetaphysics of unchanging ideality, abstract space,and purity, to a Heraclitean view of a world inconstant flux. 10 While the great social and scientificpreoccupation of the eighteenth and nineteenthcenturies had been the perfection of a causal anddeterministic model of a mechanistic world,twentieth-century science experienced a shift towardinformation and indeterminate systems theories.Indeed, we might consider science in the twentiethcentury as the site of sustained challenges to theNewtonian paradigm of determinism and positivismand the subsequent rise to prominence of probability,relativity, complexity, and the theoretical models of Heisenberg, Planck, and quantum mechanics. Newparadigms arose out of research in cybernetics andgame theory on the behavior of unstable andindeterminate systems. Price was the first architect torecognize novel applications of these theories fora new kind of adaptive virtual architecture that wouldregulate and control how the Fun Palace could adaptits form to the ever-changing and unpredictableprogram.The potential offered by the kinds of electronicand cybernetic control systems that Price had learnedof through lectures at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art particularly intrigued him asa means to achieve the programmatic variability heenvisioned for the Fun Palace. 11 Norbert Wiener’spioneering efforts in particular had established thefoundations of the new theory of the behavior of unstable systems known as cybernetics, named afterthe Greek word ‘‘cyber,’’ meaning ‘‘rudder’’ or‘‘to steer.’’ Wiener’s cybernetic system couldcontinuously adjust itself in response tounpredictable conditions by anticipating futurebehavioral patterns on the basis of feedbackinformation from prior actions. 12 Cybernetics doesnot claim precise prediction of the future but ‘‘merelythe distribution of possible futures of a system.’’ 13 Although cybernetics is commonly associatedwith computers and information technology, Wienerunderstood it as a model of the natural processesthat permit all living things to actively maintain theconditions of life in a changing world. He citedFrench physiologist Claude Bernard, who in the earlynineteenth century had described the function of themetabolic feedback systems, which enabled livingorganisms to maintain homeostasis, despite unstableenvironmental conditions. Cybernetics allows 2. The Fun Palace, drawing of the Lea River Valley Scheme. Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. 41  MATHEWS  dynamic systems to self-regulate and self-correctwithout end-state or definite goal.The performativeobjectives of cybernetics are in reality fluid criteriaand are as subject to modification as is the systemitself.While cybernetics regulated the short-termbehavior of day-to-day activities in the Fun Palace,game theory provided a means of anticipating andplanning long-term performative strategies. 14 Gametheory, first developed by John von Neumann inthe 1920s, further refines the predictive process. Itdoes not merely respond to changing conditions andsuggest short-term course corrections as doescybernetics but actually indicates long-termstrategies and modifications to the performativeguidelines of complex systems, which appear to begoverned by chance. Game theory thereforetranscends the temporal limitations of cybernetics. Inaccounting for the indeterminate and synergisticinteraction of factors, game theory models thedynamic behavior of complex social and economicsystems. Game theory and cybernetics are notmutually exclusive and can function in parallel withina highly indeterminate system.A ‘‘virtual architecture’’ like the Fun Palacewould have no singular program but could reprogramand reconfigure itself to accommodate an endlessvariety of functions. By providing methodologies forcoping with indeterminate systems evolving in time,cybernetics and game theory established thegroundwork for information and computertechnologies as well as for the virtual architecture of the Fun Palace. Neumann’s mathematical theory of games also provided the basis for the logicalalgorithmic codes of the modern electroniccomputer,which we now know as the computer program. Asearly as in 1927, Alan Turing suggested thatalterations of the sequence of Neumann’s operatingcodes would create a virtual machine that couldemulate the behavior of many different devices. 15 Avirtual machine is a device that can behave variouslyas a typewriter, a drafting board, or whatever other‘‘virtual’’ functions software engineers can dreamup for it. Virtual architecture would be similarlyflexible and capable of emulating the behavior of different buildings.In addition to its roots in information theories,Price’s interest in the temporal also bears closely onthe work of Henri Bergson, whose theory of durationreconciles time and indeterminacy with the realitiesof the modern age. Although Price never directlyreferred to Bergson either in his writings or in hisconversation (and in fact, he had a deep mistrust of things French), since Price thought of architecturein terms of events in time rather than objects inspace, and embraced indeterminacy as a core designprinciple, Bergson’s theories of duration and timeprovide a valuable tool for understanding Price’swork. 16 To appreciate the Fun Palace fully, wemight profitably think of it in Bergsonian terms asa temporal event rather than as a formal object.To Bergson, reality was not discrete objects andisolated matter but an endless and seamless processof becoming. He conceived of being as time andduration, continuous flux and infinite successionwithout distinct states.To both Bergson and Price,time was always of the essence. Bergson’s emphasison clarifying the distinction between time and space(state problems and solve them in terms of timerather than of space) corresponds to Price’s owndesign methodology. 17 The architect typically statedproblems in terms of performativity, in terms of events rather than ofobjects. He regarded events notas static snapshots but as a continuous evolution of phenomena unfolding in time.Price’s approach represents a figure-groundreversal of normative architectural practice, whichseeks solutions primarily through built form. Forexample, the conventional problem of the ‘‘house’’may confound ‘‘dwelling’’ as enclosure or spatialartifact with ‘‘dwelling’’ as human temporal activity.As an architect, Price sought to differentiate spacesand events, as he did in his famous aphorism that‘‘the best advice to a client who wants to builda house is to leave his wife.’’ 18 This deceivingly simpleand irreverent quip reveals an important key tounderstanding Price and his work.To Price, theambiguous proposition ‘‘house’’ conceals within itmultiple overlapping concepts, which confuse thephysicality ofdwelling (as space)with the temporalityof dwelling as the ongoing interpersonal relations of matrimony and family life (events in time).Architecture is not marriage counseling, andalthough a client might fervently hope that a newhouse will save a bad marriage, a building might notbe enough to alter the relationship. Price oftenargued that architecture is not always the appropriatesolution to every problem and that the architect musttake care to understand the difference betweenspaces and events, and not confuse the two. In thisrespect, Price’s understanding of architecture wouldappear to fulfill Heidegger’s concept of architectureas the site of human activity and meaning rather thanas structure or enclosure. 19 For the Fun Palace, Price began by restatingJoan Littlewood’s brief as a problem of a temporalarchitecture, which would permit multiple events andwhose spaces would readily adapt to change. Ratherthan seek the answer within a formal repertoire of objects and spaces, he considered the problem intemporal terms and sought the solution within therestated problem itself.The Fun Palace would thensimply be an entity whose essence was events incontinual flux, which adapted itself spatially toaccommodate multiple and indeterminate uses(Figure 3).Price was quick to realize the importance to suchan endeavor of cybernetics, game theory, andcomputer technologies. However, he was also modestenough to recognize the limits of his own knowledgeand abilities.This is why he and Littlewood beganto recruit a small battalion of cyberneticians andscientists who knew how to go about turningtheories into the control systems which would beessential to the success of the project. From itssimple beginnings as an idea developed by Price andLittlewood, the Fun Palace evolved enormouscomplexity through countless interactions andcontributions by many structural, cybernetics, and The Fun Palace as Virtual Architecture  42
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