Fantastic news that the Cedric Price Potteries Thinkbelt exhibition curated by Barnabas Calder and designed by Alan Pert of Nord has made it to London from the Lighthouse in Glasgow. This great exhibitions reinvigorates Price’s plans and drawings as a set of instructions. Rather than conferring on the designs a value that its creator would have disliked intensely, the exhibition is instead an ambitious rethinking of contemporary infrastructure, both academic and industrial. A scale model train set showing the largest and arguably most revolutionary of all of Price’s work The Potteries Thinkbelt sits at the centre of the exhibition.
At the centre of the exhibition is a carefully planned, scale model showing, not just the tracks and trains to scale but the various housing typologies that Price proposed for the university. Around them is hung a selection of Price’s aphorisms juxtaposed with explanations of his own research, criticisms of other approaches (“the University of East Anglia is the Norwich Municipal Golf Course on the fringe of Suburbia”) and proclamations relating to the Thinkbelt. Calder acknowledges that one of the reasons that Price is best remembered is for his ability to provide pithy remarks that are endlessly quotable. In this exhibition however Price is seen as a far more nuanced thinker than otherwise he is given credit for.
Calder and Pert have offered us Price the provocateur. As well contextualising his Potteries proposal as a major rethinking of both the transport systems bequeathed to us by mass industry and the way an academic institution works, the exhibition with its model is of course, a provocation to the viewer. This is the scale an architect can think on, it says, if – and it is an important ‘if’ – he or she understands and appreciates architecture as operating within more than just an aesthetic system, but also a geophysical as well as economic, social and political one. ‘The possible must become more important than the improbable,’ reads one of the slogans on the wall.
Price famously fought to ensure that his Inter-action Centre in Camden was not listed, believing steadfastly that the building had a purpose and once its purpose had been fulfilled it should no longer exist. Price was for pragmatism and against an architecture that crystalised dominant political or social modes into pretty shapes and thereby determined the habits of future generations. Yet his former assistant Stephen Mullen, who spoke at the opening of the exhibition in Glasgow, remembers Price occasionally allowing himself a guilty moment to focus on the visual appeal of his work. Calder also proposes a romantic appeal in Price’s collaged renderings of the Thinkbelt, although one might counter, even the architect’s own predilections for constructivism transplanted to the Potteries was a provocation – a challenge to the existing orthodoxy – rather than a piece of brutalist titillation.
The exhibition chooses an unexpected route to playing out Price’s ideas but it is by now means the only way. Another exhibition, Wish We Were Here appeared in a tight space at the Venice Biennale in 2010 and again in the AA in 2011. Curated by Samantha Hardingham, it showed a series of interviews with Price by Hans Ulrich Olbrist, which have been edited together to allow viewers to select particular passages by clicking on keywords. It also featured a couple of inspiring lectures and details from his notebooks. Although the selections from these were not always obvious, they show the way in which Price ceaselessly, compulsively developed his semiotics.
Price’s put faith in architecture as an agency for man to solve his own problems rather than garland himself with fripperies. Whilst the sensitive touch of Hardingham’s curation avoided the trap of turning Price into something he was not, Pert and Calder have appropriated his work to form a manifesto for architecture as the visible element of a system. Hardingham is writing what is ambitiously called a definitive book on Price and will appear at a symposium at the Bartlett School of Architecture to coincide with the arrival of the exhibition in London. She will appear alongside Calder, Kester Rattenbury Stephen Gage and Ruairi Glynn. It is hopefully a sign that Price’s approach to architecture as a critical mode of thinking about society will find a resurgence.
NB these images are from neither exhibition, but from Price’s archive held at the CCA in Montreal