Peter Cook has long been a pivotal personality on the global architecture landscape. He was one of the founding members of Archigram, the visionary British Futurist architecture group, with whom his work on the Plug-In City, first proposed in 1964, is still considered a fundamental and paradigm-shifting proposal. Cook and professional partner Colin Fournier gained much attention and acclaim when their design for the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria was built in 2003. He has won many international competitions for social housing and museums, including a RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Archigram. Cook has worked as the director of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Art Net gallery, is a senior fellow and professor at the Royal Academy, Professor Emeritus at University College London and a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art among many other accolades. He received a knighthood for services to architecture in 2007 and is Commandeur de l’Order des Arts et des Letters of the French Republic. Masoud Golsorkhi talked to him about working practice, dreaming and his new building for the Arts University Bournemouth.
Interview: Masoud Golsorkhi
Portrait: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie
Masoud Golsorkhi The theme of this issue is “bubbles”, which is one of the reasons why we wanted to come and talk to you.
Peter Cook We’ve just completed our first English building in Bournemouth, and it is a sort of bubble, a sort of landed object. It’s a very small building and it’s very blue.
MG It’s a little similar to the Kunsthaus Graz.
PC I think people will probably think it is, yes. It’s entirely steel. It’s a studio in the Arts University there, for all the departments to draw in. It’s the idea of the vice chancellor – everybody, even if they’re making films, or whatever they’re doing, should draw.
It does what I wanted it to do, because I wanted it to have four types of light: the northern light, then a secondary cloistered light that bounces light off the back wall. Then the door is glass, so there’s a curve and a sort of wash of light, as well as a bench that sits above that low light, so light will pass between people’s legs. It’s an experiment to have four types of light in a fairly simple building. And it was made in a shipyard in Germany. It was shipped over in big pieces.
MG You got all your accolades and medal-winning out of the way first and then got around to building buildings.
PC Yes, I didn’t start building until I was in my fifties and I didn’t have a child until I was in my fifties. People would always say, “If you have a child, it will change your life,” and “If you start building, it’ll change your life.” I think it’s a conspiracy to keep you off the case, actually!
I don’t think I’ve changed that much at all. I was supposed to be a non-child-giving person who drew and then you start having a child during building! For years, I was “Mr Archigram”, “Mr Plug-in City”, and because Plug-in City happened when I was 27 or 26. I was that bloke who had done that scheme. Then we did Graz. And then suddenly people were like, “Ah! It’s art!” Not because it necessarily is, but it was easy for the journalists to say that it was.
And apropos the bubble, they also say it’s a blob. And then there was the Guardian that said it was “the march of the blobs” and all that. But we didn’t design it as a blob – it came out like that. At the time, [the co-designer] Colin Fournier would do these sorts of things in scribbles, overnight, then the people working with us would tweak the scribbles and then it came out a blob! And then you become a blobby person, so you have to join all the other blobby people.
I think all these labels are useful when they’re useful and really not useful when they’re not. You can kind of attach yourself to a number of things. One can say, “We’re into masts and diagonalised structures,” so you can become a mast person. Although we haven’t managed to make any landscaping on anything – we’ve built a few things now, but no one will let us take on the landscape, so that’s one of the things still in my back pocket.
MG Is all architecture, in some ways, a bubble?
PC My wife is doing a lot of research and writing – she’s also an architect – and I accused her of being in a bubble. And then she said, “When I’m drawing, I’m in a bubble”. You know, we’re at two ends of the room at home right now, and she’s in one bubble and I’m in another bubble. But at one point we’re both wearing headphones. She had a deadline today and I’m starting a big new drawing. We went in our bubbles and then we were getting hungry and then we had to come out of the bubbles.
MG But is architecture also a sort of bubble from the outside?
PC In terms of the abstract bubble, not the physical bubble. I think the bubble is always there to be burst and it is necessary for it to be burst, otherwise you get arcane, overblown, inbred, overdeveloped. On the other hand, the bubble is very useful to have as one of your pieces of apparatus to open up.
I think it’s very important to be able to construct a bubble, so much so that sometimes you’re quite rude to people around you. You have to go into the bubble. And I think the contemporary thing that is most noticeable is headphones. It’s amazing: before, if somebody put on their headphones, they were a bit off. Now, everybody puts on headphones.
I like to wear headphones very consciously. I’m making a sort of statement and I’m focusing. The other thing is the effect of e-mails on the bubble. I deliberately don’t have emails on my phone, but I check them early in the morning, in the middle of the day and late at night. Email interferes with bubbles, because suddenly something comes in by email and suddenly diverts you. It’s rather like the old days when somebody would pop their head in and interrupt your conversation. We get phone calls now, but it’s more emails that suddenly throw you off on a tangent.
As far as a formal bubble is concerned, I’m not sure about complete-totality things. I like bubbles on things. And it’s a combination of bubbles and lattices and things that allow the bubbles to hang off of them. I quite like that and I quite like gloopies! Things that hang off things. So in the Dark Ages you have the towers and armature and you hang stuff off it – you’re hanging different stuff now, of course. But the principle is the same.
However loopy this all seems, I’m still an old-school architect, because we work in plan. You came here, off the bus or a taxi or however you got here, from Great Portland Street, which I’m very familiar with. There are 13 ways of getting from here to the Great Portland Street area. And they are mostly horizontal. You might have come up the escalator or climb up to the top deck of the bus, but most of it is horizontal. I love the diagonal; I love moving things up a diagonal.
MG What do you think has been the key feature of the way architecture as a discipline has evolved? Architecture seemed to be taking over the world at a certain point, just before the crash. A decade ago, everybody wanted to go out and work for Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid and work on those big projects, but do students now just want to do smaller projects?
PC London, for example, is a very difficult town for young architects for a number of reasons. Reason one, it’s expensive. Reason two, there are a number of quite good, or very good, depending on your point of view, large offices. Therefore you’re not necessarily consciously selling your soul if you go and work for these big architecture offices. And number three, and I think this is a very particular one: the English are not very good at giving the young projects. My wife is Israeli – when young architects graduate there, an uncle or somebody’s friend will give them a project, maybe not a big project, maybe it’s sticking something on the back of something, but they get off the ground and they’re trusted. Here, there is an innate nervousness, a conservatism.
Looking back at the track records of my ex-students at, for example, the L’École Supérieure in Paris, I had students who were bloody shit-hot, they were top-end students, really all of them. They’re getting by, but you know, these guys will never get given a building. They can do interiors; they can do restaurants; they can do a sort of exhibition or maybe quite a big interior; but they won’t get the buildings. But those students who are in Hong Kong, because of the physiognomy of Hong Kong, go to all the big offices and, this is true of Singapore too, they have a little bit more of a chance.
MG There’s a glass ceiling of sorts.
PC There’s a different sort of glass ceiling! I’m nearly 80 and I only just got an English building.
MG Rem Koolhaas once told me that architecture was 95% impotence and 5% omnipotence. Just one of these processes of waiting or pitching and not getting to build for a long, long period of time. But when you do get to do stuff…
PC Probably about eight years ago, I bumped into Rem on the street and we were talking about all the people we remembered from the Architectural Association, over a period of about 20 years. It included everybody, Ron Herron as the oldest, Nigel Coates, Peter Wilson. One of us said, you know, some people would say we were the arty wankers. We were artistes. We drew. We were paper architects. And then one by one by one, we all built. While we were paper architects, we were safe, we were noncombatants. Now whether that’s a bubble...
MG There’s a sort of protective element there, isn’t there?
PC There certainly was in the Archigram period. When we started doing Archigram, we made contact with various people with whom we were sympathetic, around the world, and then they started to become real people. Like the Japanese architectural community. I was introduced to Itsuko Hasegawa and all the architects there who are still my friends. They represent another sort of bubble. I met Kazuyo Sejima, but wasn’t sure if I found her a bit too cool for me. And then more recently I got to learn from [her architectural partner Ryue] Nishizawa and began talking to Sejima again and then gradually we became friends. You’re always a bit suspicious of each other and then you sort of realise, in some bizarre way, that you are both on the same side of the firing line.
MG Do you think that idea of protection has a resonance with your approach to building?
PC I had a set of dreams of physical metamorphosis, the dream of the metamorphosis of an idea, the dream of slithering. So what preoccupied me over several different projects and drawings was the idea of slithering. The idea of the melted orifice. The idea of the thing that metamorphoses and then the idea of an interface with vegetation. In a way, you can do that artificially; I mean, you could take bubbles and stretch the analogy and say, what material should I put under here? What material will I put in under something else? §