Interview: Michael Webb

Axonometric of Helical Stairway part of the‘Entertainments Palace’ on the site of the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, London. Originally ‘failed’ as student final thesis project at the Regent Street Polytechnic.

Michael Webb was born in Henley-on-Thames in England. Along with his fellow members of the Archigram Group, Webb has contributed more than any other British architect to the wholesale revolution in architectural drawing that took place in the 1960s. Co-opting techniques and approaches from advertising, graphic design or pop-art, Webb together with his fellow Archigramers Warren Chalk, Ron Herron, Dennis Compton, Michael Webb, David Greene and the other one rethought the role of architecture, as a facilitator of modern life rather than a picturesque backdrop. He has gone on to consistently push and reconsider the manner in which architecture is presented at drawing stage. I spoke to him at the CCA where he was working on his current project. 

View of Henley Regatta from a postcard showing finishing lines and lines of perspective

You are working on a project whilst you are at the CCA that is based on a postcard with an image of Henley Regatta on it. Tell me a bit about the postcard.
I found it in November 2010 on the internet along with 500 other images of the regatta. The source was a company that markets old postcards. It’s actually the card and not a reproduction of it. And there is a message on the back that was from a young crew man to a young woman at the Blandford School for Girls. It should have been romantic but it wasn’t. I’m sure she would’ve wanted something a bit racier from him, as it were.

It’s a fascinating conflation of nostalgia and futurity. You’ve taken a rigorous set of technical approaches to perspective and sections applied to a pastoral scene of extreme Englishness.
Ah. The hats women are wearing – rounded hats with a broad brim – would suggest that it is the 1920s. But the stamp on the other side has the head of George VI on it, which would suggest it was 1936 after the abdication.

How have you addressed the image?
I am a romantic soul but strictures imposed by the Anglican church and school training make romanticism acceptable only if it is trammeled; contained within a rigorous mathematical or philosophical corset. If you happen to think of the postcard view of the regatta as an elevation rather than as a perspective then you can move things around and not violate any law of perspective. So if you move the umpires launch forward to the front of the image, it would appear much smaller because you don’t change the size when you bring it forward. So the guys rowing would look to their right and see a tiny little boat there with old men in it. I thought that image would be very funny.

A very small version of Michael Webb's current project

But then that’s not that you’ve done with the oil painting?
A suite of drawings, elegiac and interpretive in nature, that depicts the regatta course at Henley-on-Thames does not fit neatly into any known category of architectural endeavour. Though authored by an architect…me, a perusal of the suite might reveal, if anything, an interest in the more arcane areas of perspective projection.

The photographer has exposed the film at the precise moment the prow of the leading boat touches the finish line. For eternity will the winning team savour their triumph and the losers the ignominy of their defeat.

I feel irresistibly drawn along the lines of course markers to this point. I want to journey to the point of infinity. Allowing a moving point to represent my progress…is the journey to be understood as a 2D traversal of the surface of the photographic emulsion or as an incursion into the 3D space of the regatta course depicted in the photograph?

Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish

Is it normal for you to spend this much time on a piece?
The method by which it is painted involves a long time. I love the work of the American illustrator Maxfield Parrish. He loved to paint paintings of mainly naked asexual young people disporting themselves in some idyllic environment. In the 1920s or 1930s he was very popular and many houses in the US had a print of a particular painting he’d done which was set on a terrace with classical columns in front of a lake with mountains on the other side of the lake. So ideal. And I saw one of these in the flesh and it was full of light in beautiful gradations of colours and all without the single evidence of a brush stroke. To hell with modern art and Picasso. Maxfield Parrish is skill without invention… it is quality kitsch.

A hotrod from the 1960s. Air-brushed. Nice.

But your picture doesn’t look kitsch.
That’s because the subject matter is quite different. His would take all about a year, because you would have drying time of your oil paint to worry about. Can’t put another layer of paint on top of a layer of paint before about a week. A huge number of layers as well. In fact that’s where the beauty of it builds up, you get all these layers on top of each other.

It was a technique rather like all the crazy hot-rod artists from California in the 1960s. When they’d do a car they’d probably put on about 24 / 25 layers of paint but they’d put one layer on and they’d hand rub it. Even the finest sandpaper would be too rough, so you’d have some sort of powder, you’d rub it with a cloth and it makes the paint incredibly smooth. Then you’d put another layer of spray paint on 20 times and in the end you’d get this amazing layer. They have this depth to the colour, which is amazing: with great transparency and depth.

This guy Maxfield Parrish wrote about oil paints and he said you can never mix paints together. He said that if you wanted a grey and you mixed white and black you would get opacity and you would lose transparency. You get to wait a week or two to dry. The worst thing you can do is start too soon and then you start disturbing the layer beneath. Forget it if that’s happened.

Did you ever use airbrush techniques with your drawings for Archigram?
I started using airbrush and I didn’t enjoy that at all. Now some people do amazing things with it. You only have to look a those illustrated books of World War II fighters and bombers you find displayed in book stores.

I was trying to use airbrush on illustration board. I bought an airbrush and a compressor. But if you were spraying, and someone nudged you on the arm or you had a spasm, you screwed it up and there was nothing you could do about it. Airbrush is a very hair-raising experience. You don’t enjoy doing it. Unless of course you’d done so many that it becomes second nature.

What was the technique used for generally?
You could work on a small scale with the smallest ones, for jewellery and also for photo retouching. A friend of mine was teaching at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and his brother was a retoucher, using an airbrush and he was doing very well at it and from one year to the next his business was wiped out because Photoshop was invented. Think how easy it is now to take the rubber stamp tool and remove a hair from a girl’s face… And they would have had to mask it off course, go through all this rigmarole to do the same. It’s a sort of tragedy that airbrushing went though; a revolution in drawing.

Elevation of car ramp system from the Entertainments Palace

Funny that the term has entered into popular usage and yet we no longer use it…
There’s an airbrush tool on Photoshop, isn’t there? Do we still use the term to airbrush something out? We do don’t we… They were invented in the 1920s for commercial work. Archigram started using them in the late 1960s and the early 1970s after forsaking coloured overlays.

Tell me about who owns the Sin Centre pictures now.
Niall Hobhouse. He commissioned Cedric Price to do some farm buildings, knowing that it was unlikely any buildings would get built. He told me he said in desperation to Price there’s a museum in Bath, you could help me design that. Price went away and came back 5 days later saying, “Dear Niall do you realise that there are already 18 museums in Bath?” So nothing ever happened.

Entertainments Palace, Leister Square (The Sin Centre), EW Section, Michael Webb, © Archigram 1961-63

When did you finish the Sin Centre project?
I started on the Sin Centre in 1962. It was my thesis projects. But I’ve done a few drawings on it between then and now. I did a few for a show at Cornell in 1990 or maybe later. I’d done some drawings in the 70s. There are two types of artists: some I think do a project and never think about it again; others, for example Schubert when asked how he composed said, “I finish one piece and begin the next.” Brahms kept revisiting early stuff and trying to improve it. I’m like that. I can’t bear to let something go…Hence this harking back to what I’d done quite a few years back.

Why did you go back to it?
Maybe it is also vanity. I felt the initial drawings I’d done didn’t do the project justice.  They just didn’t capture it. There were ideas that I hadn’t mange to express in the drawings. So yes, the reason I kept going back to the project is vanity. Vanity and a wish to be thought of as a virtuoso; neither are particularly worthy attributes to have.

But also the models were destroyed I believe.
Yes, Model No. 1 is not around any more… Landfill somewhere near London. In bits. Not extant. Decidedly not extant.

The second model was much better; but it still wasn’t good. It was done in 1964.  That didn’t last either and could very well be occupying that same landfill as the first model. It went on view at the AA and I had little cars to scale, and some rotter pulled them off when no one was looking.

of 90 Deg. And Elevation of 270 Deg. of Circular Car Ramp, Entertainments Palace, aka Sin Centre by Michael Webb, aka a member of Archigram

What is so good about the current model?
The current model has attached to it sheets of 0.005 inch thick stainless steel. It’s called shim stock and you cut it with a special guillotine. The idea was that the sheet metal would look like an airplane wing. When I designed the Sin Palace I’d been fascinated by the precision and beauty of an aeroplane wing… the beating it took. Whenever the flaps of the spoilers deployed and how they sill managed to be perfectly down flat afterwards. By contrast when Gehry uses metal sheeting it seems merely decorative.

The third model has been made over a period about 15 years and it’s still not completed. And it never will be. It’s too complicated. It’s got to be the scale of Matchbox scale. It’s about 1:57, that’s the average scale of a Matchbox car, but they do vary.

What did you think of the 3D computer printing technology?
Hmmm. Mixed. The curves of the stairway had a corduroy texture you had to apply epoxy filler to get smooth. Still rough but I’m not all that impressed with the current quality of 3D printing. Given that on my model many surfaces had to be covered with epoxy. It doesn’t seem to work at small scale. There are tubes sticking to which the rest of the stairs are attached. There’s a subtle joint worthy of Conrad Wachsmann but the computer printer couldn’t handle it. I had to drill holes and insert a brass tube and attach a strut to the tube.

Konrad Wachsmann's hangar project for the USAF. You don't hear about him much anymore

Could you tell me a bit about your admiration of Wachsmann?
Yes you don’t hear too much about poor old Konrad Wachsmann anymore. Interesting guy: he started off in Europe and went to US and did a project for the US Air Force designing giant hanger to house and protect B52 bombers. The structure of theses hangers was huge: a giant space frame composed of aluminum tubes and ingenious designed joints. It was more like jewelry production than construction, so fine and delicate were the joints. Of course, a labourer, an employee of a building company or a steel fabricators, their tool of choice is a sledgehammer. When they’d hit a joint it shattered, so it was never taken seriously and it remained a beautiful model. Space frames all told are a bit of a lie. No matter what structure you use it helps that it’s thicker in the middle than the ends due to the transference of loads. Space frame doesn’t let you do that because they’re of uniform depth throughout.

An Immelman turn

Tell me about the staircases in the Sin Centre.
Probably wouldn’t work but, hey… How the escalators turn was modeled on the Immelman turn – world one fighter ace maneuver. If say an English Sopwith Pup, a biplane fighter, was following a Fokker Wolf, if the pilot of that Wolf was one Max Immelman and he’s being chased, he’d climb up and rotate as he climbed. He’d then dive repeating the same move. Lo and behold! The chap in the Sopwith Pup would suddenly see Immelman in his rear-view mirror.

What is this? 

Entertainments Palace, Leister Square (The Sin Centre), Membrane Roof, Front Elevation, M. Webb, © Archigram 1961-63

It’s a lines drawing. If you are developing a floor surface that is constantly changing angle, especially if you have a ramp in one place and a ramp going the other way so you have twisted floor plates. There is a connection and the way a lines drawing is made of a ships hull, which includes sections taken through the ships hull and at right angle to the axes of the keel and to the waterline. So you get three planes that you can work out the subtle and beautiful shape of the hull.

When was the building first published?
By Kenneth Frampton in November 63 in Architecture Design. Thank you Ken! Architecture d’Aujourd’Hui came after that.

Looking up the double-helix staircase at The Chateau Chambord in France

Where did you get the idea for the Double Helix ramp?
Of course this was about the time that Crick and Watson had developed their vision of the double helix DNA molecule, but I’m not sure if I was fully aware of that. I was familiar with the double helix staircase at the Chateau Chambord in the Loire. They beat me to the draw by about 300 years.

I note from your description of the project in your thesis the following line: “maybe the transatlantic displacement of the idea is inept, but the only time you get to do something really nutty is when you are student.” What did you mean by transatlantic?
Going to America I suppose.

How did you first get to America?
I was offered a job at Virginia teaching in 65 and I took it. That was because David Greene had gone there with the help of an intermediary Ken Doggett, and he’d gone there and they liked him and they thought if he’s like this then I must be like him, and they discovered to their chagrin that I was not like him.

Was there a natural drift towards the USA for Archigram?
All of us in Archigram were rather fascinated by America or at least that which we took to be America. America was Bucky Fuller and Wachsmann and a land of drive-in architecture, a lifestyle that involved families moving house much more than in Europe. It seemed then that America was the future and it was a bright future. I remember Churchill in one of his wartime speeches quoting a poem by Hugh Clough, ”Say Not The Struggle Naught Availeth.” One of the final lines talks about light coming through western windows. Churchill used that in one of his wartime speeches, gently hinting to the US that they might want to join in the fight against Germany.

Although in a very different way, we looked to US similarly for redemption. The future was to be seen in America.

Is that still the case?
I’m afraid to say that I think the situation has been reversed. UK seems to be more modern. When you arrive at Heathrow, you can arrive and take a fast train to London. When you get to JFK, you take a train and you have to change at Jamaica station before you can do anything else.

Francois Dallegret's illustration for Banham's A Home is not a House.

What were the influences leading you to look to America?
Part of the awareness came from Reyner Banham. I read A Home is Not a House so many times I could almost quote it verbatim. I was just intrigued by this argument that when your homes contain so much gadgetry, so much wiring, for heating, ventilation ducts and so on, why have a house to hold it all up? He makes a case that the developing lifestyle of moving quickly and never spending more than 5 years as was becoming the case in the USA is better accommodated by an inflatable enclosure than a permanent house.

This was architecture appropriate to the US, far more suitable than period colonialism. He praised drive-in and talked about that a bit. It was so influential on us, I tell you. But then one realised that the mobile home is no more mobile than the ranch-style split-level. Well it could be mobile but it wasn’t. If one has pleasant fantasies about another country, one shouldn’t certainly go there and one certainly shouldn’t live there.

So why did you decide to stay in the USA?
Given my gradual realisation of who I was – that comes in ones 20s and 30s, too late perhaps for that first major mistake one makes – I decided I basically wanted to sit at home and make drawings. I hate to say it, but the US system of higher learning allows one that. I would have found it much harder in the UK rather than the US. I also felt that the others in Archigram were a bit to close. I needed a certain distance. On the other hand to share the same place producing drawings would have helped. There’s always a flip side.

How did the other Archigram-ers operate or relate to the USA?
David Green was already in Virginia Tech. Warren Chalk was teaching over here too. Ron Herron went to LA – he was at UCLA for 3 years and worked for César Pelli.

Logplug - A speculative design for service sockets for mobile and temporary living in landscape settings.

How did the reality of America influence Archigram’s work?
David Green, I think was affected by America quite deeply. If you look at his Rok-plug, Log-plug project you can really see it. If you married the motivation behind the Hudson Valley School of painters with us, you got this project. They were painting the wilderness of North America in the mid 19th century as a means of preserving it. Sometimes you have a whiff of smoke coming up. The iron horse is racing across the landscape… If you put together that sadness about the disappearance of the natural world plus the high tech stuff we were interested in you have that project. It is the working out in drawing form of the nation that Banham had started to address in A Home Is Not a House. David’s project is a plastic log that in a rural or park situation provides an access to networks of supply pipes. That’s a direct influence of America filtered through Banham and drawn by David Green.

How about the others?
Ron was more attracted to the brashness and cockiness of the USA; what Americans like to describe as that ‘can-do’ attitude. He liked the America were you asked someone how they were, and they’d say “great” whereas in the UK they’d say “oh y’know bearing up.”

You get much more times to oneself and you are very adequately compensated. I’m also fond of US students by and large. There’s a certain enthusiasm there. I particularly like the enthusiasm of the younger students. Yet I even found the world-weariness of the older students interesting. They’d learned how to play the academic game but they still worked hard. You had a few nuts, of course, and a few hopeless cases but you have them anywhere.

Do you regret leaving in England ever?
Yes. Sometimes I regret forsaking England. I think some English émigrés feel far more English in America than they ever did at home. There’s nothing I like more that to watch public broadcasting channel and see an English program. If you want to love a country the best place is to be out of it. You remember the good things when you are away. If I want to love England then I stay in America. But I can see that is selfish. I suppose a part of me feels like I should go back and create Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

I’m still very English. I couldn’t become a US citizen, which reminds me I’ve got to renew my green card. A customs official said to me recently, “you’ve been an alien longer than I’ve been alive.”  That’s dubious again because you live in a place but you can’t participate in the governance of it.

There are some architects that are form givers, Kahn, Corbu, who create a system of form in building. We didn’t do that. What we did was to visualise the lifestyle that seemed to be developing and show an architecture that would not only stand alongside it but also enable it. Some of the most classic drawings that were done by Ron and Peter one has to say. Amazing drawings where 75 percent of the image is of a photograph of lovely young people who these days are looking jaundiced and curling up at the edges.

Eckhard Schulze-Fielitz, Raumstadt, 1959. 700 x 700 x 1350 mm. Collection FRAC Centre, Orléans, France. Photo by Philippe Magnon via Megastructures Reloaded

Then up in the corner is a space frame roof borrowed from Schultze-Fielitz in the top corner. You never hear that name much. Yona Friedman used that Space Frame idea and Konrad.

We tried to introduce it into the Montreal Tower. It was a huge tower that Archigram proposed where we borrowed Bucky’s idea but the way that the triangulation of the panels coming off the towers in a flowing form reveals the lack of understanding of the geodesic and structural implications of geodesic forms. Mind you Fuller didn’t understand it. What he says domes can do is not what they can.

How did Archigram change drawing?
If you think of the sort of drawing one was expected to do prior to the beginning of Archigram there was very little projection or experimentation in projection. If you had a figure it should be modest and there merely to indicate scale, certainly not to occupy three quarters of drawing surface. We were a breakaway but on the other hand if you look at Richard Hamilton, “Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” you can see where we got the idea from. Richard Hamilton was an interesting guy. He was one of the Situationists. The Appealing picture is a collage made of magazines and it shows a very conventional, even cheap looking, living room. Bathing beauty and a muscle man posing; huge biceps and then out of the door and there’s a beautiful marble staircase leading to the floodlit cinema entrance. It is a beautiful dream-like picture. Archigram’s drawing style derives from that.

Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Why we needed it was to show an architecture appropriate to our period of time. It was an exciting period full of experimentation, bright colours, casual sex; it was the spirit of that period. That was put into those drawings – particularly those by Ron, Peter and to an extent Denis. It wasn’t really about showing new architecture it was about showing the building is in itself fun and exciting and is perhaps merely a backdrop to what is going on. The big thing is the fun times and the architecture that merely enables it but doesn’t determine it. The view of architecture prior to that was that you live according to the dictates of the building you are in. You are inventing a life and the architecture allows you to do it.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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2 Responses to Interview: Michael Webb

  1. Pingback: Michael Webb interviewed by Tim Abrahams : socks-studio

  2. Pingback: Archigram – Visual Conversations on Urban Futures

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