In June of (almost) every year, a medium-sized city emerges for a weekend in the West Country, then disappears again. The population – over 200,000 people at its peak – would make it the seventh largest city in the south of England, after London, Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Brighton (possibly its nearest relative).
Regarding the Glastonbury Festival as a “city” might seem counter-intuitive, given its premise of a partial return to ancient rural civilisation – fake stone circles and all. But a city it is, with a massive system of infrastructure and spatial organisation that is no less impressive for being temporary. This is a place where at least one of the dreams of the 1960s lives on – or where it went to die, depending on your view of the festival and its attractions.
In the 60s, the sharpest edge of British architectural culture was represented by Archigram, a collective of designers moonlighting from day-jobs working for London County Council (LCC) who put out a magazine of the same name, full of proposals for what future cities should or could look like. Many of those designs are now safely slotted away in the category of “impossible but fun” – the Walking City, the Floating City … all of them rendered in gloriously lurid Terry Gilliam-like drawings, with attendant functionalist justification for the seemingly absurd.
At the LCC, many in the group had a major role in the design of London’s South Bank Centre, but as Archigram, their ideas for festivals of culture were far away from heavy husks of concrete housing orchestras and art galleries. In particular, the Instant City took the form of an airship that would move over an area which was poorly served, culturally speaking – urban, rural, it didn’t matter – and dispense cinemas, theatres and concert halls in lightweight, disposable structures that could be packed up as quickly and easily as they were unpacked. Habitually, Archigram’s legacy is reduced to the massive static art gallery of Paris’s Pompidou Centre, but the Glastonbury ‘city’ proves just how prescient they were.
It didn’t need an airship to drop the contents on Worthy Farm, but as Douglas Murphy points out in his book The Architecture of Failure, Archigram’s Instant City really was achieved at Glastonbury and its like. “If we follow the stream of Archigram thought to its logical conclusion,” Murphy writes, “there is literally no better spatial embodiment of their obsession with transience, fun, media entertainment and spectacle than the pop-up cities of the music festival – 50,000 middle-class people in a field staring at Bono is where the Archigram version of utopia takes you.”
So what sort of a city is Glastonbury, and how well is it planned? In terms of built structures, from its inception, the main stage at the festival has been the Pyramid, a lightweight structure based directly on the pyramid of Giza – eternal-looking, but still basically pop-up.
The lovely, rolling Somerset fields feature several campsites with attendant portaloos, ‘streets’ of stalls, and bars run by the Workers Beer Company that are named after various Labour heroes. Although rain can make the city look dystopian, there are extensive networks that keep it together, many of which draw on the festival’s environmentalist legacy.
Much of the infrastructure is adapted into the site’s other life as a working farm: the Pyramid Stage has doubled as a cow shed, and the waste from the 6,000 portable toilets is used as compost. Most of the stages and installations are kept for the rest of the year in the Green Barn in flat-pack form; during the festival, this barn is an event control centre with a staff of 500.
The sheer scale of the planning can be ascertained from the 3 million-litre reservoirs needed for storing water. Oxfam provides the stewards, but amazingly the site was not policed until 1989. As the organisers now point out on their website: “The festival is a town in its own right, and the town needs policing.” The Avon and Somerset police force carries out “regular visible patrols” and maintains an office (or rather a ‘Police Village’) on site.
This being England, there is even CCTV. Yet compared with festivals that occur in permanent cities such as Leeds and Reading – where security guards are always ready to enforce purchases of alcohol and food from only the licensed vendors – Glastonbury still feels a relatively free city. A super-fence may keep out most of those who haven’t paid, but if you work at a stall or volunteer to clean up afterwards, you can still get in for free.
Ultimately, the thing that most distinguishes Glastonbury City from a real one is its lack of paving. When it rains, a real taste of the pre-industrial metropolis can be obtained, as tens of thousands of people stomp around in a sea of slurry. Indeed, it’s this tendency to transform into a bog which might explain why the Glastonbury model of giant-festival-on-a-farm may be in decline, in favour of those that combine various musical attractions with a chic city break: Sonar in Barcelona, Transmediales in Berlin, Unsound in Krakow. There, the attractions of a certain kind of creative city are part of the appeal, rather than rolling hills, instant infrastructure and misty views of the Tor.
Alongside this, some music festivals have started appropriating earlier spaces of modern architecture itself – such as the Pontins camp in Camber Sands, which has played host to music festivals since All Tomorrow’s Parties set up there in 1999. The Camber Sands site, with its little glazed chalets, laid-on electricity and grid-planned order, is a product of a rather more demotic, proletarian modernism than that propounded by Archigram. It is a lot more conformist and clean – “canned”, they might have said – than the world of travellers and free festivals.
Yet this less adaptable, less alternative modernism of the holiday camp festival holds an obvious appeal to anybody who has found themselves covered in slop during one of Glastonbury’s rain years. The Instant City has been transformed back into an older model altogether, the Radiant City: clean, elegant, precise, and – English weather permitting –sun-soaked. It is a small council estate filled with only middle-class people, and Throbbing Gristle playing in the background.