Innovators interview: Peter Cook
Video: Peter Cook is the subject of this month’s Innovators interview, produced in partnership with Hunter Douglas
Peter Cook Architecture as a pursuit is a very enjoyable pursuit. It permits a certain amount of dabbling. You can dabble in sociology, you can dabble in art. You can dabble in social observation and logistics. You can dabble in geography. There is an endless list of things that are germane to architecture. You can almost pick and mix. There are not a lot of things that somehow don’t pertain, which I think appeals to a certain kind of kid. Whereas if you go and do mathematics or archaeology, you are more limited.
Rob Gregory When I was 8 years old I decided that I wanted to become an architect, when the Faber Dumas building was new and when the Pompidou being built. Can you explain what was going on in 1944/45, when you were turning eight, that inspired you to become an architect?
PC During the Second World War, because my father had been put in charge of requisitioning buildings for the army as a professional soldier, I saw all these Italianate villas in the British Midlands. So that was one theory. The other was with moving from town to town as we did, I was always fascinated by townscape etchings; things like ‘York Prospect from the West’ that you still get in old pubs, and I started to copy or do my own versions of them. But there was no architecture in the family.
RG What about contemporary architects at the time. Did they inspire you?
PC No. I mean I saw old castles and Italianate villas and cathedrals and Roman remains. I remember a little bit later, maybe when I was perhaps 10 or 12, hustling my parents to take me to see Roman towns, which were usually a heap of stones in the corner of a field. Living in several towns, I became familiar with the idea of the town. Almost all provincial towns I lived in had a big road, a tree lined road with posh houses on it, which was usually the London road. And then there would be a dingy part of town which is where the gasworks was, to the east of the town due to the prevailing wind. And then there would be a large municipal park, in which I would spend a lot of my time. And all that was repeated, so I realised there was a discernible kit of parts for a medium to large provincial British town.
RG So those observations were essentially about a place, rather than an objectified view of architecture…
PC Absolutely, yes. Before I went to the AA, I studied at an architecture department which was a very tiny part of Bournemouth Art College. We were the last school still doing an École des Beaux-Arts programme. So we were taught to draw the five orders of architecture using dividers. We went and measured up churches and used piece of lead to go around tracery. Very strange. Already from the age of about 14 I’d been going to the public library, taking out books about architecture. I got to Corbusier, and then suddenly went to this local school that was doing old churches, so that was a bit strange. I was a Modernist before I became an architecture student, and then had to back track.
RG So was there a tension there?
PC No. I was so keen on the subject that if they said copy that sheet of ornament, I might have thought ‘why are we doing this?’ But I still did it. I wasn’t a stroppy student, I was quite well behaved.
RG And has that been true throughout your career, avoiding being stroppy, which is something that architects can often be?
PC I think you can be stroppy through what you do, rather than being a stroppy person.
RG So, has your work been stroppy?
PC Some things. During the period of Archigram, I remember Ron Heron and I would do a scheme and say ‘this will upset them’. We never said who the ‘them’ were, but we knew who we meant in the sense it was the general plodding reactionaries.
RG So what was your original mission, with the publication of Archigram Magazine?
PC Two things. There was the younger group and an older group, and we were part of a series of people who met in each other’s flats after graduating from a number of different schools. We somehow got to know each other, and at some point said we should put together some sort of broadsheet. But it shouldn’t be a formal magazine; it should be a gram - like a telegram or an aerogram or something. Reading things like the Futurist Manifesto we saw that avant-garde movements in Europe from 1920 onwards had used publications and manifestos as a natural adjunct to having ideas about things.
RG So do you think there is a place for that today?
PC Yes I think there is. But there aren’t many people bold enough to nail their colours to the mast. There seems to be more acquiescence now, with droves of people who, if some position is articulated as being good or worthy, they all seem to run along with it. There are not many people who say, ‘No. Now look. Hold on. I don’t agree with that.’ Which I find odd. It’s technically easier to produce manifestos and publications now. But in relation to the amount of architectural activity there is, most of it is reporting on what broad bodies of people do, which I find strange.
RG Do you think there is a lack of ideas? Or is it just a lack of passion?
PC I don’t think you can ever have a lack of ideas. I think there is greater fear of making a fool of yourself. I don’t think we cared about making fools of ourselves. Not that you went out of your way to make a fool of yourself, but you didn’t care if it turned out that way. But now I think people are much more circumspect. [With students] there are people who will be seen with a girlfriend or a boyfriend who seem to be useful and well connected or hang out with people who seem that way. It’s almost like getting the credentials for a credit card. They are much more cunning about positioning, even the nice and clever ones, much more cunning. We were a bit more innocent. We went in feet first.
RG Now you are designing a school in Queensland, I wonder if we can talk about your attitude to the design of the school and whether designing a building is frustrating. Whether you want to design the whole school, including its curriculum?
PC I wouldn’t mind designing the whole school including its curriculum. In recent years, the dichotomy between of the pressure of universities per-se and the creative need of being an architecture school has become more explicit.
RG And in the actual design of this new building; how specific is it to the things you’ve mentioned, about cross fertilisation of ideas?
PC It very deliberately incorporates spaces that aren’t part of the curriculum. In other words, spaces that encourage people to just sort of hang out and invent their own format. Obviously there have to be certain spaces for storing books and putting students at computers, but the key spaces are those that are deliberately open ended. But there are all sorts of somersaults you have to do to justify this, because people say, ‘well, what goes on in there?’ And you say, ‘well, not really anything goes on in there, other than a couple flirting, or six people having a crit.’ There might be people doing what we’re doing now, or whatever, or whatever. You need those spaces.
RG So how did you convince the number crunchers that those interstitial spaces are necessary?
PC You say ‘it’s for people waiting for the loo, or a lift lobby’. You have to use trickery, but it’s worth it.
RG Moving towards the idea of the gallery [having been Director at London’s ICA], do you have a view on the problem of the architecture gallery?
PC Sadly, it’s relatively untried. I think what’s useful about what an architecture gallery is that it’s a place where you can foregather. It’s essential for galleries to be places where there is discussion of ideas as well as manifestations of stuff. Not just on a screen, not just in a publication, but actually seeing somebody with something behind them that they did; then you get a sense of something coming alive. It’s very difficult to justify it intellectually, because people say, ‘why do you need an exhibition, when you can simply reproduce the information on a video, or in a publication? Why do you need some bloody thing in a frame pinned to a wall? It’s a bit archaic.’ But I think it’s like the analogy of the live lecture. You can video it and replay it, but it’s not the same as watching the person come in and you can see that they’re a bit crotchety. They’ve got x and y friends with them, which is rather interesting. And how they respond over the evening, or to questions, or what sort of person they are. The exhibition exposes the flank. It’s rather like the penchant now for reality TV; people want to see the flank exposed, and an exhibition is still a bit of flank exposure.
RG So in your studio here [in Clerkenwell], we are surrounded by artefacts on the wall. Have they been edited and curated, or are they more of a backdrop that inspires you?
PC I think the very ugliest ones probably are not on show. Sometimes they are there just to cheer you up, to make you feel at home. I suppose in old Edwardian parlours or even more recently, people put photos of their grandchildren or their aunt or the Mayor shaking hands with them, as a reassurance that you’re part of a culture. All this is really reassuring; some of it is quite old, some are just funny little bits and bobs. I’m fascinated by phenomena of every kind. I’m a great believer in looking, and then trying to figure out the reasons after. There are odd things that you notice out of the bus window, and you can’t say that they’re architectural, but they’ll come into architecture. I do indulge in reveries, most of them creative.