Utopia Unrealized: The Fun Palace

Issues 35 and 36 of ARK each ran a text on Cedric Price’s architectural wonder, Fun Palace. Curiously, ARK 35 announces “The first of a series of three articles,” [1] yet only two appeared in print. The text immediately preceding the first installment of the Fun Palace article in ARK 35 is a letter from the editor of that issue, Michael Myers. He comes to the conclusion of his statement with these lines: “The original idea for this ARK was to make some sort of analysis of current Utopian thought amongst various groups of people… So we have gathered together a number of articles whose only common feature is a concern with some aspect of the future, however immediate or distant that future may be.” [2]

If the focus of ARK 35 is utopia, then the selection of the paradisiacal non-space Fun Palace for attention was a good one. It was, at the time, praised as the most futuristic, groundbreaking concept for a built environment, a space so ambiguous, so adaptable, so forward thinking. It had the promise to change the very fabric of post-war British society.

Fun Palace was the brainchild of Joan Littlewood, theatre impresario, and Cedric Price, the ‘anti-architect’ with a vision to create wholly flexible urban spaces that invite the end user’s participation and improvisation. Price was born into a creative family; his father was architect A. J. Price, and so it was expected early on he would go to work in the same field. Price studied architecture at Cambridge, then received his diploma from the Architectural Association in 1957. In 1960, at just 22 years old, he founded Cedric Price Architects in London and set to work, and while a number of his projects were built, mostly it was the unrealized work that established his reputation as an innovative architectural mind. Price and Littlewood met at a gathering one evening in 1962, just before she was set to leave her efforts at Theatre Workshop in London’s East End behind for Nigeria. She spoke fervently to the young architect about her dream of a space in which anything could happen: “every kind of entertainment, classical and ad lib, arty and scientific; where you could dabble in paint or clay, attend scientific lectures and demonstrations; argue; show off; or watch the world go by.” [3]

When she returned from Africa the following year, to her surprise, Price had developed some ideas of his own and, rather hastily, their collaborative project began to take shape. The pair worked together diligently, Littlewood developing the social and philosophical ambitions to provide society with a ‘university of the streets’ as it is often referred to, a place where people could gather to stimulate intellectual growth, social development and fulfillment; while Price answered her musings by attempting to ground them in reality through his sketches and plans. Yet, however conceptually and theoretically brilliant, the Fun Palace was never realized, and so whether it would have been a success is debatable.

The imminence of the leisure era, coupled with the optimistic attitudes of the 1960s, fueled Price’s desire for total flexibility, impermanence and malleability within the space. Architecturally speaking, it defied definition. The Fun Palace was to be a ‘non-building’ located across five and a half acres on the Isle of Dogs at Glengall Wharf in east London. Many locals were suspicious and imagined it to be a kind of entertainment center, which would perhaps attract ‘the wrong types of people’, but Price and Littlewood reassured residents of the social necessity for new ways to learn, work and play, creatively, with plenty of space that allowed for many forms of activities. The idea was that all people, regardless of class, race, age or socioeconomic status, should be encouraged to play. Fun would allow the rediscovery of free forms of creative intelligence uninhibited by the social order of post-war Britain. In order to encourage such experiences, Price aimed to create a backdrop that would both anticipate and accommodate change: essentially, the Fun Palace had to reject conventionality. Traditionally, buildings enclose and protect us from the elements, provide shelter, have an entrance and an exit – all things we recognize as means and symbols of safety, comfort and familiarity. By contrast, the Fun Palace was to be adaptable and temporary. The overall framework was to be its only fixed architectural feature and the rest was to comprise motorized airborne catwalks, floating partitions, escalators, inflatable elements, movable platform levels and prefabricated modules—a space prime for infinite reconfiguration.

According to Stanley Mathews, who has written extensively on Price’s architectural practice, “despite the Fun Palace’s insistence on user delight, its infinite possibility and flexibility were inherently undefined and it presented no tangible reality to the uninitiated… this was both the threat and the promise of the Fun Palace”. [4] This, in all likelihood, contributed greatly to the reasons why the Fun Palace was not constructed. Several attempts were made to build the structure on a number of sites, but unfortunately for Price, Littlewood and all those who supported the project, bureaucratic debate, indecision and false starts prevented its construction. Local planning authorities, zoning regulations and economic restraint all stood in its way. This is particularly regrettable as it was one of Price’s sincere beliefs that architecture should not be constrained by administrative rules and regulations.

While the architect’s concepts for the Fun Palace were ingenious, Mathews explains that his ideas were often difficult to decipher: “Price seemed to conspire deliberately to make this so, perhaps because to explain his ideas more fully would have been to fix them in time and he was unwilling to do this, even at the expense of legibility.” [5] Indeed, the question remains whether the plans, perspectives and conceptual sketches for the Fun Palace were inspiring or intimidating. As Mathews suggests, infinite possibility can itself seem perplexing. Most users of space need some sort of direction. If constructed, might this ‘anti-building’ have been interpreted or utilized differently than Price and Littlewood intended?

Cedric Price’s reputation remains as a visionary who challenged the outdated conventions of architecture – one who wholeheartedly believed in giving the power of choice back to the people, along with the freedom of opportunity through social experimentation. The Fun Palace remains an unrealized architectural utopia of the modern day, but the concept is a testament to the free-spirited idealism of the1960s, a time that sought to usher in a new era of technological advances and one of sheer optimism for the future of Britain and the world. ◊


*This text appears in the book, “ARK: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine 1950-1978“, published by the 2014 graduating students of Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art. 


[1] Cedric Price. ‘Fun Palace’. ARK 35, Spring 1964. p.9.
[2] Michael Myers. ‘Editorial note’. ARK 35, Spring 1964. p.8.
[3] Joan Littlewood. Joan’s Book. Methuen, London, 1994. p.628.
[4] Stanley Mathews. From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price. Black Dog Publishing, London, 2007. p.165.
[5] Ibid, p.173.


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