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Wednesday23 August 2017

Francois Dallegret: Beyond the Bubble

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God & Co: Francois Dallegret Beyond the Bubble
Architectural Association,
36 Bedford Square, London WC1. www.aaschool.ac.uk
Until December 14

4/5 stars

A show of this idiosyncratic artist’s work rediscovers his extraordinary vision

It’s not easy to explain what Francois Dallegret actually does. Born in 1937, he trained as an architect at the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris before embarking on an idiosyncratic 50-year journey through graphic design, installations, architecture, performances, photography, furniture, and any form of visual expression that you might think of.

A friend of some of the late 20th century’s most revered artists, Dallegret was a key figure in the breathlessly optimistic period of architecture that flourished through the 1960s and 1970s, exemplified in the UK by Archigram and their loose collective the Zoom Wave. But compared to the superstar status that many of his generation enjoy, there is a sense that the AA’s new show of his work is something of a rediscovery.

Dallegret’s story begins with his youthful passion for cars and his exquisite talent for ink drawings, many of which are on show here. Fantasy vehicles drawn in elevation gradually metamorphose into intense and intricate machines, spacecrafts and habitations, with Dallegret — like many other architects of the time — feeding off the excitement of the space race and the aesthetics of “big tech”. His virtuosic technique is notable for its elegant forms, stark contrasts and faintly baroque sensibility, contrasting with the more rough and ready imagery created by Archigram, for example.

The work for which Dallegret is perhaps best known is “A Home is Not a House”, the collaboration he created with Reyner Banham in 1965. In this seminal stage in the development of architecture’s awareness of its own environmental presence, the two collaborators are depicted sitting naked in an air-conditioned bubble perched on the peak of an indeterminate landscape — perhaps the perfect example of that period’s fascination with ephemerality, pneumatics and the freedom that serviced environments promised. Dallegret’s beautifully poised drawing “Anatomy of a Dwelling” from the same series is a compact mass of ducts and antennae depicting everything required to make a house habitable — only without the house, that heavy symbol of history that was supposedly in the process of being discarded.

The sense of joy that permeates Dallegret’s work is infectious. “It’s nothing if it’s not fun,” he explained before the exhibition’s opening. “It has to be something where you feel free.” His self-consciously dapper figure smiles out at you from so many of his works: there he is behind the wheel of his fantasy cars, stretching out over his furniture or posing with his gadgets.
This particularly consistent and genial artistic persona allows him to tie together some of the more disparate and whimsical works in the show, such as his bizarre smoking machine (1976); the uterine “Le Drug” (1964) — a pharmacy/boutique/gallery/etc that he designed in Montreal; or his enigmatic “KiiK” set of quasi-products. It’s all a sign of a roving and impulsive creativity, or as he puts it himself: “I’m never forced to do anything so I’m lucky, I’m feeling totally independent — which is unusual!”

Perhaps what is most satisfying about Dallegret’s work is the gently ironic interrogation of the meanings of technology, the dreams that it can provoke in us. Less naive than Archigram, but nowhere near as cynical as Superstudio, it’s refreshing to have his place in that milieu recognised, especially at a time when our cultural relationship with technology is in such flux. And while some of the objects in the show are a little tenuous — perhaps kitsch at times, — it is fun letting yourself be carried along by this versatile artist’s offbeat vision.

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