Drawing, Movement and Medium: Michael Webb in conversation with Mark Dorrian, Episode 1

Mark Dorrian and Michael Webb

Michael Webb (1937), Furniture Manufacturers Association Headquarters, project. Side elevation. High Wycombe, England, 1958. Graphite and ink on tracing paper mounted on board, 597 × 813 mm. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

Mark Dorrian: Hello everyone – it’s a real pleasure to welcome Professor Michael Webb, our George Simpson Visiting Professor this year. Michael is a very important and interesting architect, closely associated with Archigram, of which he was a member. He has a fascinating architectural trajectory and development, which involves the early exhibition of his student project for a Furniture Manufacturers Building at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The idea of the interview is to develop a conversation with Michael about the background of his work and the ideas that drive it. And we’ll talk about drawing as well. It seems to me that Michael’s work is exemplary in its exploratory approach to architectural representation and the way it demonstrates the power of drawing as a force for architectural speculation and thinking. We’ll allow the conversation to move where it wants to, but we’ll aim to finish with the Temple Island project – and we have some images which we’ll show as the conversation develops. To get things started, I wanted to ask you, Michael, if you would talk a little about the educational context in which you began working – that of the Regent Street Polytechnic, where you developed this project. Although it is, in a way, very familiar and has been widely reproduced, it is not often talked about in any detail, so it would be useful if you could say some things about the ideas behind this work.

Michael Webb: I feel that when you’re designing a project, when you’re first conceiving of it and making sketches, you bring the design to a certain level of completion in the drawing. Then perhaps three hours before the deadline, before you have to hand it in, you think to yourself: ‘Oh my God it doesn’t look right somehow.’ Suddenly it occurs to you how you should have done it. Then how impossible it is that you couldn’t think – you couldn’t conceive – of the way it ought to have been. That has been constant throughout my life and I presume other designers feel exactly the same way. And seeing this building of mine up on the screen there makes me realise: ‘Yeah, that double horizontal line separating one part of the building from another, that should have been… not a solid but a void. Dammit’ [laughter]. I’m getting on to a subject which is an answer to a question that Mark has not yet asked me, so I really need to be serious and actually stick to the script and answer the questions. So, let us look at London in the 1950’s when you had basically two schools of architecture. One was the Architectural Association: the famous ‘AA’ in this beautiful square in the middle of London, Bedford Square; in three Queen Anne houses thrown together; where experimentation and the – how should I put it? – the development of architectural design into forbidden or dangerous areas (and I mean by that those away from the conventionally accepted architecture of the time) was welcomed; where work by  figures like Buckminster Fuller and Frederick Kiesler, the Austrian who emigrated to America and lived in New York and started producing rather extraordinary projects, was admired and promoted. By contrast the Poly, which was where I studied, was the sort of cheap place. It was referred to at the AA as ‘The Other Place’ and was never mentioned by name. It was a regular school of architecture, whose mission was to turn out office fodder for London offices and its view was ‘Thank you, but we don’t want anything bold or crazy or daring’ because that wasn’t the tenor of the times. And, I suppose the existence of the classic modern movement and the strict adherence to rectangularity, to grids, to proportions, was certainly advanced at the Polytechnic and anyone, any student who started to waver from the way, the truth and the light, was certainly discouraged from doing so. But the fact that we were told not to do something just encouraged us further to do just that. On the way here today, Mark was mentioning one John Outram, a young architect in the year behind me who was very inventive and assertive and started a magazine called, needless to say, Polygonusing the name of … umm …

MD: Hodgkinson, wasn’t it?

MW: Oh yes … he came to the Poly known as John Hodgkinson and then for some reason changed his name to John Outram. But he took it upon himself to publish the work that I was doing and others in the year and produced this magazine, which got into a lot of trouble because it became representative of the work of the Polytechnic in a way that other avenues of publicity didn’t. And so there we were – but then of course they hired people like James Stirling and that changed the flavour of the Polytechnic too because James was very encouraging of experimentation. I’ve just been told by Mark, by the way, that both James Stirling and James Gowan his partner were vying for a position at the AA and Gowan was chosen and Stirling wasn’t and Stirling somewhat resentfully I think, accepted a position at the Poly, realising that this was “the other place”. And I think he took it out on us rather. His method of teaching, his teaching style, was rather odd and very much at odds with what is promoted nowadays. And I mean by that that he would bring in, in the morning, the Daily Telegraph – which was a conservative newspaper too – sit at the back of the studio and read it. We would be there working, and I would go up to him and say: ‘Can you come and see me now, sir?’ Of course, he was looking down at his paper and he would raise his head like that and look at me and say [in a husky voice] ‘Yes, well – I can see you,’ and go back to his paper [laughter]. Then about ten minutes later, he would come by and look down at my drawing and say: “Hmm, keep going with that,” and then he’d walk off. Very bizarre really. But just those words, coming from someone like Stirling, were a benediction, a blessing – and I think that’s how it is. I mean, if you’re really the darling of the student world because you’ve just projected the Leicester Engineering Building, which was an incredible project – built in Leicester of course… 

MD: Yes.

MW: Oh God, I’m anecdoting now. He took us on a site tour of his project down in a place called Ham Common, near Richmond, and it was still under construction but close to being finished. All I remember is – here again I’m rather borrowing an anecdote – that the builders were just finishing, guys were plastering walls and attaching door frames and so on. It was a conventionally built building – it had to be, there was no choice at the time. What you basically had was a stud wall, with sheetrock either side and a door opening and this rather beautiful corridor that they’d designed that we walked along. In conventional construction you had the doorframe which was flush with the outer face of the plasterboard and then you had what was called an architrave attached to that to cover up the joint. And that’s very important, see, because the plasterboard is going to move and so is the door, and a crack will open up sure-as-hell after two years between the doorframe and the plaster wall. So, you cover it with a rectangular piece of wood which you attach to the doorframe and it hides that joint. But the trouble is the smoothness of the wall – and I sympathise with him completely over this – is gone and instead you have this rather ugly, chunky effect to the door. So, he left the architrave off and so, of course – it was just completed – you had a beautiful line going up. No crack, no nothing, perfect, just smooth – it looked great. And the builder came up to James Stirling in front of us and said: ‘Look sir, this isn’t going to work.’ You know, imagine James feeling uncomfortable – he said: ‘Well well well, that’s alright, just keep it going.’ And he walked off [laughter]. What do we think of that? So anyway, enough of an answer. That was the Poly at the time anyway.

This text has been published to celebrate the addition to the Drawing Matter collection of the first element of a new model, made by Michael Webb, of the Sin Centre.