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1980 October: Folio: Cook’s Chefs-d’oeuvre

Over the past 20 years Peter Cook’s output has been unique in terms of quantity, status, and sustained ability to inspire others. More than any other he has fathered just about every ounce of experimentalism in Britain.

Thank God the bottom’s dropped out of the architectural drawing market. Now that artists have woken up to the saleability of 20, architects don’t stand much of a chance. Clear-headed, we can take another look, with the help of the Pompidou Centre’s massive retrospective of architectural drawings, more or less from the time of the first photograph’s to the present day.

Among the British participants in the contemporary section of the show, it is hardly surprising that Peter Cook should be chosen for special treatment. Over the past 20 years his output has been unique in terms of quantity, status, and sustained ability to inspire others. More than any other (there is no other) he has fathered just about every ounce of experimentalism here in Britain, as well as a lot that may not appear done by his builder offspring. As fate would have it, he has not built much himself, but he’s drawn, written, talked, travelled and taught a great deal, and consequently has managed to affect just about all of us.

A drawing of his called ‘Metamorphosis’ (1968) was the first to rivet my attention. On stumbling across it in his book ‘Experimental Architecture’, I studied it for hours-to pick up the evolution of its kit of interior parts as it moves from one date to the next and to get the hang of its mix of visual sequence and slogan text …

‘GREAT NUMBER = MASS PRODUCED PARTS USED WITH SPIRIT-WHICH MEANS THAT A SYSTEM CAN BE BENT -AND THE PARTS SLOWLY BUT CONTINUOUSL Y EVOLVING-A SENSORY AND RESPONSIVE ROLE.’

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Visually, perhaps, it already looked dated by the time I found it (1971 ), yet in terms of ideas, not only has it anticipated the room of the future, but the work of others too. Perhaps it wasn’t precious enough to be called a Drawing. Now all drawings are given a capital D. In any case the point of ‘Metamorphosis’ and the ‘Archigram’ magazine that preceded it was to push out a view of the city as a pulsing social organism and for architecture to be part of the culture boom; part of sputniks, twin tubs, Jasper Johns, Take Your Pick (‘open the box’), fish fingers, stiletto heels, the Wonderloaf. Similarly the idea of the magazine was to convey quickly and disposably (as in tele-gram, aero-gram). With no real fuss about drawings as more than a means, it teamed up better with the litho press than with the gallery wall. But why, I ask, has the Pompidou Centre (which as a building owes its entire conception to Archigram) chosen the Sleek House (1979) to represent two decades of activity? As a design

it’s not so very interesting, with its shiny aluminium facing rolled around two facades. As a drawing it’s smaller than most, has a slightly awkward axial composition, and was done uncharacteristically with Cumberland crayon. What good is a postcard when the author has designed a whole city? I’ll admit, though, that no single drawing of his would really do. His work, when looked at in toto, demonstrates a consistent passion for buildings that flow like the mind which has made them. They look for an architecture that contains the flux of experience instead of the facts alone. Any of the pages of the ‘Archigram’ magazine’s nine issues may have little to do with the Sleek House, but for both the ‘order of things’ is a changing one.

Sometimes nature does the changing, sometimes people, ultimately even the buildings themselves, as if they had a will of their own. If he tries to do a drawing that just looks expensive, it doesn’t quite work. So-looking on at how he draws. .. ‘I’m not much of a sketcher. Ideas tend to be more or less worked out before I start drawing them. I know pretty soon if it’s a goer; if not I get bored. People think I must be patient but I’m not.’ He’s got the pen in one hand and a curve template in the other.

Essentially his method lies in the best architectural tradition, with ink line on tracing built up via a series of overlays. ‘This lets me change the height of a tower or the curve of a ramp.’ But it’s just this sort of process which allows him to work metamorphosis, his pet idea, into the final design. .. whether the drawing is a city landscape-axo, a family of towers in elevation, or a sequence showing how a building evolves once it has been built.

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In every drawing, he explains, there will be an idiosyncratic relationship between the whole and the parts / the back and the front, the top and the bottom, the inside and the outside. .. so change is also implied in every act of composition. Certain ordering elements will be there to suspend the quirkier ones, whether they are bendy balconies, lantern pinnacles or a glimpse of grid breaking through undergrowth.

This does not mean that he isn’t influenced by others, or books / or current events. Indeed one of his qualities is his ability to pick up the ‘sniff’ of the time and somehow work it in. Now and then you’ll spot Ron Herron, or Peter Wilson, or Will Alsop … but every time it’s worked back into the prevalent versions of continuous project. Indeed reference is central to both his method and his manner ‘For example, when I was teaching in Oslo a couple of years ago, I managed to do piles of work, because I’d got hold of the place. At night I’d go for long walks and just look at the buildings. I’d take in the scale of things, but then I’d notice the same small feature repeated everywhere, like the faceted lanterns they’ll have over doorways. Before I knew it they had crept into my drawings’.

Likewise a book on Constructivism, or Swedish Classicism, may be useful because it brings out his ability to combine mental acrobatics with the resonant qualities of the place. Layer City, the multi-stage project carried out during the Oslo sojourn, is just such a combination of strategy, form and place. I imagine the shores of fjords were exactly right-through earlier drawings he’d been there already; oddly they were autobiographical. What’s more, when fjords have cliffs, they suit designing in elevation. (At school PC had always drawn panorama of imaginary cities all over his exercise books.)

Even if the key strategy of ‘layering’ happened with the maps, Layer City caught its essence head on, with giant arcades that slip into the water, meshed with angularised curtain-wall cliffs and towers built up from glacier mints. In terms of colour, Layer City holds no real surprises with its northern lights. It was deliberately toned down. But airbrush has often been the tool for turning up the colour so loud that the hard-line attempts to form three dimensions have submerged under a lamination of iridescent inks. Which bit is supposed to jump forward, we ask? The bile-green landscape or the pink veins of curtain wall, the acid rain sky or the cocktail-blue staircases?

The meshing of machine-made and nature-made must be the argument in support of this colour-crazing. I worry a little because, whether vivid or pale, the colour only happens as a final stage, like giving a new car its first waxing. Indeed, airbrush especially gives the enamel hardness of cars, an effect which I suspect he does not always look for. Interestingly enough, the Arcadian acid softened down as Christine Hawley began to work with him. The water colourist’s mop took over from the air gun. Simultaneously the collage characters became fewer, finally to vanish after their dual authorship project for a Rollerama (1978). This was exactly the period when water colour and fine crayoning was an ‘avant’ form of rendering, although others used it to complement moods of effete ‘poetry’ or a comforting sense of history.

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No doubt both these sentiments stick in PC’s throat as they do in mine. But if Arcadia, Monte Carlo and all their subsequent hide-and-seek monsters peep playfully through nature’s camouflage net, then most of his post-Oslo drawings, whilst apparently softer, seek to join landscape and building into one and the same. Nature now is a kind of mosaic interpretation of it, erected from squares of coloured glass built up into formalised organic outlines, either handled as pure facade, or as Rubie growths on elongated frameworks that mesh to balance one another. Sometimes this new sense of decorative mass does, however, run the risk of being mere surface, even when there are plenty of curved tubes added to put some life back again. These seem to work best when handled as specific gestures that stress the mass much more than masking it.

No doubt this is why I home in on ‘The House of Two Studios’ (1981), also drawn under Scandinavian influence. It achieves an extraordinarily relaxed yet mobile coexistence of favoured themes. .. of clipped vegetation, of ambiguous, spaces enclosed by mechanical serpentines, of planar wall surfaces interrupted by high points of Jugendstijl eccentricity. Hence true romanticism finally arrived with a steadying of the protagonists, with nature as ‘the hedge’ and the city as ‘the house’. On the other hand, just when things seem to settle could be just the moment to tighten the wires, and so get the blood pulsing once more. I’m not even certain that he was happy with that soft stuff anyhow. On the board now is a new bridge and expo complex for Brisbane (he’s just got back), with totemic towers either side of the river linked by the spans of aborigine bows. Like earlier drawings it binds the movements of its users to its form, although more with expressive metaphor than earlier. I see a return to brightness, directness, to the city vision. Hence one year before the prediction of

‘Metamorphosis’ runs out, those inspired by the fluidity of programme as well as of form will mix the early with late … to see just how angled both are on the present. He even says that words will be back on the drawings soon. No sign yet of falling off his perch.

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