"It was well into the detailed design of the project that, at an alcohol-inspired brain-storming session off Times Square in 1962, we decided on the name Fun Palace for our short-life conglomerate of disparate, free-choice, free-time, voluntary activities, planned as a public launching-pad rather than a Mecca for East London." – Cedric Price, from Talks at the AA, AA Files 19 (Spring 1990), p. 32.
Cedric Price (1934 – 2003) was one of the most influential and visionary architects of the late-twentieth century, focusing on time-based urban interventions and flexible or adaptable projects that invited the user’s participation. His implicit criticism of contemporary notions of architecture earned Price heroic status among fellow architects such as Will Alsop, Archigram, Arata Isozaki, Rem Koolhaas, and Bernard Tschumi.
Fun Palace is Cedric Price’s most celebrated work. Whether characterised as a giant toy or as a building-sized transformable machine, the project’s interest resides in its radical reliance on structure and technology, its exemplification of notions of time-based and anticipatory architecture. With Fun Palace, Price addressed social and political issues that go far beyond the typical bounds of architecture.
Fun Palace was conceived and commissioned in 1961 by renowned theatre director and producer Joan Littlewood. Price developed plans for the project through 1964, both for the main project and for a smaller, more mobile “pilot” project. Neither were realised. Attempts to get planning permission for a wide variety of sites within and around London continued through 1970, amidst opposition from church, citizen groups and confounded city councils.
On the one hand, Fun Palace was inspired by the egalitarian philosophy of eighteenth century English pleasure grounds, such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh, with their sprawling spaces for strolling, amusement, and gossip. On the other hand, Price’s unrealised project was up-to-the-minute, interpreting current Cybernetic theories, avant-garde theatrical principles, cutting edge technology, and a free-spirited, Monty Pythonesque sense of fun. The ultimate goal was a building capable of change in response to the wishes of users.
The project also involved a Fun Palace Cybernetics Committee, led by Gordon Pask (1928 – 1996). One of the leading figures in the study and development of Cybernetics, which was concerned with information, feedback, identity, and purpose, Pask examined such issues as how the human organism learns from its environment and relates to others through language.
If, as Price believed, “technology is the answer, but what was the question?,” then the architect must undertake extensive research in order to truly understand and adequately respond to a project’s requirements. In the case of Fun Palace, where users would determine those requirements, Price surveyed friends and colleagues about what activities they would enjoy and also tried to anticipate uses to which the building might be put. Throughout the documents for Fun Palace, may be found dozens of analytical tables in which Price studies everything from the relationship of similar activities to the spaces they require, to a complex analysis of his own decision-making and design process as affected by external consequences. In a single chart titled Comparative seating analysis, Price studies all possible variations of theatre configurations based on such variables as capacity (audiences of 10 to 1,000), grade of theatre shell (6° to 35°), distance to stage from front and back rows, maximum number of seats per row, width and depth of seat banks, and the height of the front of a bank of seats from the stage.
The only fixed element within the Fun Palace was to be the structural grid of steel lattice columns and beams. All other programmatic elements – hanging theatres, activity spaces, cinema screens and speakers – were to be movable or composed of prefabricated modular units that could be quickly assembled and taken apart as needed. The columns, or service towers, in addition to anchoring the project, also contained service and emergency stairs, elevators, plumbing, and electrical connections. In conjunction with the main Fun Palace project, Cedric Price developed a smaller scheme or pilot project that could be assembled more quickly and disassembled and re-erected on a new site as required. One site in particular, the London borough of Camden Town, was investigated through a series of drawings.
The CCA Cedric Price Archive includes documents covering nearly 50 years of activity, from his student work of the 1950s to projects undertaken in 2000. The archive holds more than 13,000 drawings and prints; over 50 models including one full-size prototype; nearly 400 linear feet of textual documents comprising correspondence, meeting notes, specifications, promotional and press material, and site photography; a rich ensemble of photographs documenting built and unrealised work, exhibitions, and events; as well as tape recordings of interviews and lectures. The CCA also acquired Cedric Price’s complete library of books and periodicals, many of which were annotated by the architect shortly before his death.