CEDRIC PRICE (1934-2003) was one of the most visionary architects of the late 20th century. Although he built very little, his lateral approach to architecture and to time-based urban interventions, has ensured that his work has an enduring influence on contemporary architects and artists, from Richard Rogers and Rem Koolhaas, to Rachel Whiteread.
Taking the view that architecture should be enabling, liberating and life-enhancing, Cedric Price’s approach was all-embracing. From landmark projects such as the 1960-61 Fun Palace, to designs for Christmas tree lights on London’s Oxford Street, his projects were governed by the belief that architecture must “enable people to think the unthinkable”.
Through projects, drawings and teaching, Cedric Price (1934-2003) overturned the notion of what architecture is by suggesting radical ideas of what it might be. He saw the role of an architect as that of asking the right questions, as Reyner Banham has commented: “…the basic approach is certainly one that appeals to me, a way of really not saying, ‘What kind of building do you want?’, but almost of asking first of all, ‘Do you really need a building?’”
Price – or CP, as he was called – was born at Stone in Staffordshire in 1934 to an architect father, AJ Price, who worked for the firm which built the Odeon cinema chain. CP completed an undergraduate degree in architecture from Cambridge University in 1955 and a diploma from the Architectural Association in 1957. After teaching at the AA and working for the architects Maxwell Fry and Denys Lasdun, he founded his own practice in 1960 beginning with the Aviary for London Zoo, designed in 1961 with Lord Snowdon and Frank Newby. Employing the most advanced technology of the time, they used aluminium castings, stainless steel forgings, welded aluminium mesh and tension cables to create a light weight structure giving maximum flying space for the birds.
Price’s reputation is chiefly based on the radicalism of his un-built ideas. His 1960-61 project, The Fun Palace, established him as one of the UK’s most innovative and thought-provoking architects. Initiated with Joan Littlewood, the theatre director and founder of the innovative Theatre Workshop in east London, the idea was to build a ‘laboratory of fun’ with facilities for dancing, music, drama and fireworks. Central to Price’s practice was the belief that through the correct use of new technology the public could have unprecedented control over their environment, resulting in a building which could be responsive to visitors’ needs and the many activities intended to take place there.
As the marketing material suggested, there was a wide choice of activities: “Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”
Using an unenclosed steel structure, fully serviced by travelling gantry cranes the building comprised a ‘kit of parts’: pre-fabricated walls, platforms, floors, stairs, and ceiling modules that could be moved and assembled by the cranes. Virtually every part of the structure was variable. “Its form and structure, resembling a large shipyard in which enclosures such as theatres, cinemas, restaurants, workshops, rally areas, can be assembled, moved, re-arranged and scrapped continuously,” promised Price. Although never built, The Fun Palace was one of his most influential projects and inspired Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s early 1970s project, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Price eventually put these ideas into practice in a reduced scale at the 1971 Inter-Action Centre in the Kentish Town area of north London. The building constitutes an open framework into which modular, pre-fabricated elements can be inserted and removed as required according to need. Central to his thesis that a building should only last as long as it was useful, the centre was designed on condition that it had a twenty year life span and was accompanied by a manual detailing how it should be dismantled. For Price, time was the fourth spatial dimension: length, width and height being the other three.
In 1964, Price critiqued the traditional university system in his Potteries Think Belt project. Radically rethinking the basic concept of a university, his proposal provided a mobile learning resource for 20,000 students utilising the infrastructure of a declining industrial zone. Largely in response to the rash of university campuses being built during the 1960s, Price’s proposal transformed the derelict Staffordshire potteries into a realm of higher education, mainly on railway tracks, creating a widespread community of learning while also promoting economic growth. His proposal “took advantage of local unemployment, a stagnant local housing programme, a redundant rail network, vast areas of unused, unstable land, consisting mainly of old coal-working and clay pits, and a national need for scientists and engineers”. It offered a solution to the need for educational facilities whilst also offering to do something about the economic and social collapse of the Potteries. “Further education and re-education must be viewed as a major industrial undertaking and not as a service run by gentlemen for the few,” opined Price.
This flexible approach extended to all aspects of his work. Finding ingenious and elegant solutions for everyday problems he championed ‘anticipatory architecture’, firmly believing in impermanent architecture designed for continual change. Price redefined the role of the architect as an agent of change, whose main responsibility was to anticipate that, and offer new possibilities for society as a whole. Constantly challenging and questioning the accepted mores of architecture, his approach was witty and irreverent; he famously suggested that the man hoping to transform his life with a new house might be better off getting a divorce.
Price’s desire for ‘Doubt, Delight and Change’ was clearly demonstrated in his 1984 proposal for the redevelopment of London’s South Bank. Here he anticipated the London Eye by suggesting that a giant ferris wheel should be set in a public space extending out onto the River Thames. Price went on to develop the Magnet series of short-life structures installed in existing sites that he believed to be misused or underused. For example, he proposed that an impermanent bridge could offer better access to a railway station and turn the space into public advantage only to be removed when no longer necessary.
Every aspect of each idea was meticulously researched: as if each idea was to be built. By engaging with existing economic, political and structural networks, Price explored architecture’s potential to nurture change, intellectual growth and social development. To Cedric Price architecture was not about the finished building but more about an ability to enable and facilitate change in a changing world and to “allow us to think the unimaginable”.
1934 Born in Stone, Staffordshire.
1955 Graduates in architecture from Cambridge University and enrols at the Architectural Association in London to study for a diploma.
1956 Invited by Erno Goldfinger to assist – together with Victor Pasmore and Helen Philips – to construct the Group 7 installation in the This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. There, he meets Frank Newby, a member of Team Ten, as well as Alison and Peter Smithson. Attends lectures at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and befriends Reyner Banham.
1958 Becomes a part-time teacher at the Architectural Association, where he will teach for six years. Also employed by Maxwell Fry and Denys Lasdun
1959 Meets and befriends the visionary US architect R. Buckminster Fuller.
1960 Founds Cedric Price Architects and starts to develop The Fun Palace with Joan Littlewood.
1961 Collaborates with Frank Newby and Lord Snowdon on the Aviary at London Zoo.
1962 Joins the ICA Exhibitions Committee and teaches part time at the Council of Industrial Design as well as at the AA. Collaborates with Buckminster Fuller on the Claverton Dome and designs an art gallery for Robert Fraser in London.
1964 Unveils his radical vision of a modern university as a catalyst for economic regeneration in the Potteries Think Belt.
1969 Publishes Non-plan, a radical rethinking of planning orthodoxy, with the planner Sir Peter Hall, the critic Reyner Banham and Paul Barker, editor of New Society magazine.
1971 Completes one of his few finished buildings – the Inter-Action Centre in Kentish Town, London.
1971 Founds Polyark – Architectural Schools Network.
1984 Presages the London Eye by proposing to construct a giant ferris wheel on the River Thames opposite the Houses of Parliament.
1997 Presents the Magnet scheme of ten reusable structures.
2003 Cedric Prices dies in London.
2005 The Design Museum presents a retrospective of Cedric Price's work in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.
Cedric Price: Works II, Architectural Association, 1984 republished as Cedric Price: The Square Book, Wiley-Academy, 2003
Cedric Price: Opera, edited by Samantha Hardingham, Wiley-Academy, 2003
Re:CP, by Cedric Price with Arata Isozaki, Patrick Keiller and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Birkhauser Verlag AG, 2003
A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham, Centennial, 1999
Addition, Andrew Holmes + Cedric Price, Architectural Association, 1986
An Alternative View of Kew, Cedric Price, Architectural Association, 1982
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain