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Cedric Price (1934-2003)

Behind the 9am brandies, cigars and extreme lunching lies Price’s vision of public leisure, freedom and equality

Cedric price by isabel albertos 300ppi

Cedric price by isabel albertos 300ppi

An odd and prematurely yellowed section of footage begins with a close up of a street sign reading ‘Prince of Wales Road’. Zooming out, the camera reveals the actual Prince of Wales, looking disconcertingly young and intently serious. Made in 1979, this short film documented the visit of HRH to a pioneering urban community project, Inter-Action, whose organisers felt would have some synergy with the Prince’s Trust. 

‘On an open space in the middle of Kentish Town’, Charles intones, ‘a group of talented men and women is bringing some highly original ideas into play. Their problem was how to get young people to develop a sense of community involvement, how to stimulate self-help and a feeling of creativity, in an area that doesn’t readily inspire such things.’ 

Interaction centre

Interaction centre

Aerial view of the Inter-Action Centre, London, 1970, demolished in 1981. Source: Cedric Price Fonds, CCA 

Various establishing shots show a banal-looking structure that looks as though a builder had knocked up a timber yard while entertaining fantasies of the Pompidou Centre. The Prince continues: ‘Not all of the answers they came up with are visible in this unusual purpose-built centre. After all there’s no great difficulty in erecting a lot of prefabricated buildings.’

The building HRH was visiting was designed by Cedric Price, one of few Price actually built over his half-century career. It was designed to accommodate the changing activities of the Inter-Action charity, from recording studios to a restaurant, a theatre and a club, from football to go-karting. A basic steel frame extended along the site, filled with Portacabins, log huts and a light-industrial black-clad enclosure at its heart, with round windows filched from old British Rail stock. 

Professional critics rarely concur with Prince Charles on matters of architecture, but it’s abundantly clear that the Inter-Action centre was a very ugly building. This, of course, was the point. The term ‘anti-aesthetic’ stuck doggedly to Price throughout his life. Unlike the jewel-like and rhetorical Pompidou, under construction at the same time, Inter-Action was supposed to demonstrate what taking Functionalism seriously actually entailed. Price’s vision was of a building that could accommodate an ever-shifting brief, with the configuration changing when requirements dictated. The price, so to speak, for this was a total absence of monumentality or decorum. 

Dr1995 0188 518

Dr1995 0188 518

Interior perspective of the Fun Palace, precursor to the Pompidou Centre, 1964. Source: Cedric Price Fonds, CCA

Today it’s quite hard to get a grip on the legacy of Price, who died in 2003. This is in part because there’s so little built work left. Inter-Action was itself demolished after Price fought against the Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage, who wanted it kept, meaning that his only significant extant built work is the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo. But the other major obstruction to understanding Price is penetrating the miasma of his myth.

Wafting around Bedford Square like a haze of cigar smoke, the myth is all-enveloping, stupefying and sedating an entire generation of the Architectural Association. ‘Ceeeeeeedriiiiiiic’ they all seem to purr. The tales are numerous and familiar – the phone calls from Princess Margaret; the 9am brandies; telling a couple they needed not a house, but a divorce; the friendship with Lord McAlpine, extreme lunching and more. They paint a picture of a kind, eccentric uncle, epicurean, well connected, with a restless capacity for oblique thought.

Looking machine

Looking machine

The Looking Machine, 1983

Predictably, the myth is well preserved and well documented, culminating in a two-volume doorstop oeuvres complètes launched at the AA last year. Online you can watch hours of Price at the lectern, smoking away, seemingly half-cut, changing subject at random, pausing to banter with Peter Cook and the gang. He also pipes up from the back of everyone else’s lectures. The AA depicted in these scrapbooks of memories is a bit like a gentlemen’s club (Price once designed an interior for the other Peter Cook’s Establishment), all good boys with the same accent, from the same schools. It all looks a bit unprofessional, elitist and self-regarding, a scene celebrating itself.

The obvious problem with myth is that it makes it very difficult to get to grips with the work. The aviary is strange and beautiful, although Price wanted that gone too, and Foster + Partners is now transforming it into a monkey house by adding a whimsical blob at one end. But nothing much else got built, not the Fun Palace, not the Potteries Thinkbelt, not the Generator, nor the biosphere for the Parc de la Villette. There are some early humdrum Modernist buildings, a couple of provocatively bad sheds here and there, but most of what Price actually did is now kept sealed in boxes at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, which shelled out for his archive when he died. It’s a wonder how he kept his four-storey office across the road from the Building Centre running all that time.

Dr2006 0019

Dr2006 0019

Demolished in 1981; unbuilt proposal for Potteries Thinkbelt, 1966, showing  a transfer area. Source: Cedric Price Fonds, CCA

But this is perhaps unfair, as a built legacy was the last thing Price was concerned about. For him, architecture was a set of processes, not objects. Indeterminacy, learning, change, adaptability, progress, creativity, these shibboleths of technological architecture all, to an extent, originate with Price. Postwar society was changing so fast, why couldn’t the built environment keep up? Collaboration was key, and the cast of characters crowding into Price’s life was extraordinarily diverse. Along with establishment friends, there was Joan Littlewood, whose vision of egalitarian theatre gave rise to the Fun Palace. There was Gordon Pask and the cyberneticians, boffins from the early days of computing and systems theory. Price’s leftist sensibility was also clear from his connections to New Society and his work for the unions and the Greater London Council.  

But judging him by the company he kept is still difficult. His most famous protégé is Will Alsop, who may well share Price’s epicurean palate, but whose architecture bears little connection beyond perhaps an attachment to ‘fun’. Price was much admired by the Archigram boys, who ultimately made their mark more on education than on building and, of course, Pompidou is an ossified monument to his 1960s ideas. Latterly, art-world gadfly Hans-Ulrich Obrist has tried to assert a kind of ownership over the Fun Palace, seeing in its dream of utopian leisure a prefiguration of all those tedious art beanbags and fairground slides of the last generation. 

Future city

Future city

City of the Future, 1965

Which brings us back to the ideas. There’s an old maxim attributed to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: ‘Don’t give me what I want, because that’s not it’. It means that human desire is insatiable, a process, not a goal, but it also means ‘be careful what you wish for’. And this is where many of Price’s ideas seem to lead. As Pier Vittorio Aureli and others argue, the participatory environments of the Fun Palace prefigure the Post-Fordist environment where we are all creative labourers, and we are never not at work. Potteries Thinkbelt was superseded by the genuinely radical Open University, but also itself pointed forward to the neoliberalisation of the university, the erosion of the protected scholarly space and the transformation of higher education into a service answerable only to economic impact. 

Other provocative ideas, such as demolishing Battersea Power Station underneath the chimneys to free up space (Bat Hat), partly intended to mock the conservation movement, have, in some ways, come to pass, but also speak of the vogue for facadism, where buildings are completely and regularly remade behind the streetline. Then there was 1969’s Non-Plan, an ‘experiment in freedom’, which attacked the turgidity and inflexibility of the planning system, but then climaxed in its humiliation with the laissez-faire experiments that brought us Canary Wharf and Bluewater shopping centre. 

Battersea power station

Battersea power station

Battersea Power Station compared with St Paul’s Cathedral c1983

In a way, the role Price played in architectural history is that of the Last Amateur, a fate he shared with Buckminster Fuller, 40 years older but occupying a similar niche. The two iconoclasts shared a certain holistic expertise, a non-scientific scientism, trying to make new connections across an exploding terrain of information and knowledge. This is the cybernetic dream of the harmonic reconciliation of man and machine, but it’s one that was swiftly professionalised and monetised. Price couldn’t have his career now, as nobody would come looking for his advice. Why go to a brandy-swilling boffin when there are so many biddable consultants you could tap up instead?

Despite the disappointments, the radical core of Price’s work is that it tackled head on one of the paradoxes at the heart of architecture, namely, that true fidelity to the ideas of Modernism means the disappearance of the building. There is something fundamentally communist about this, a vision of a technologically advanced society of public leisure, freedom, learning and equality. The attempt always fails, as we just can’t seem to do without walls and monuments. But it’s always worth trying. 

Illustration by Isabel Albertos