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Viewpoints: Peter Cook on Architecture and the Economic Crisis

Peter Cook

Economic pressures could radically reshape the profession - and for the better

There can be few people who are not waking up these days wondering if their luck will last, and mostly just trying to hang on. Yet one might see the economic crisis as some kind of universal kick that throws every one of us out of our comfort zone.

One day, early in my career, the construction company that had unwittingly carried a crazy group of architects (already being referred to as ‘Archigram’) gave us the sack. For me, the panic was short, for the very same day the Architectural Association invited me into that enduring and tantalising comfort zone called academe. Some 42 years later, the great British ageist machine deemed that I must be ‘retired’.

Very disquieted at first, I started to enjoy being a real architect and using time differently. In a school of architecture, the phrase ‘can I just have five minutes?’ has its own dreaded significance: it means 35 minutes minimum. Even in Germany, a 10 o’clock start means a 10.30 lurch into action. Yet when money has to be made time means time. Of course, the loveable aspects of academe remain: the range of speculations, intriguing red herrings or the collective paranoia (but also pent-up power) of a lot of over-bright people: arguing over who should occupy a seminar room.

The corporate office has strangely parallel comforts: of course 10 o’clock meetings really do start at 10, yet if there is little time to speculate (considered superfluous), there is enormous time found to discuss the obvious via systems of procedure, such as who can be referred to as ‘director’? (The cynical answer is to make everyone a ‘director’ of something, a ploy that has even been borrowed by some dull academics).

In former times, architecture could survive through cosy regionalism: the local bigwig architect could become the local professor; the local folklore handed on, reduced but identifiable. Some good things came out of it: Barcelona’s take on Art Nouveau, Berlin’s take on Modernism, Tokyo’s take on expressionist mechanism, Mexico City’s take on colour. (Pick your own favourite.) Yet the brandishments of ‘Internationalism’, ‘systems’, ‘Parametricism’ or even (my pet hate) ‘biscuit modesty’ are all on offer as a cover for a survival strategy: give me something identifiable that I can carry in my pocket as a currency that I can exchange for survival − now − tomorrow − here − anywhere.

So, as a serious lover of architecture and a believer in the history of ideas and a believer in passion and integrity, I am aware of an uncomfortable challenge to my own value system. In the same way as the £/$/€ value system is slithering around under me.

The dreaded Margaret Thatcher may have had just one good idea − which was to ‘get on your bike’. All students should not only leave home but switch schools: preferably in another country and for at least two years. It was Kenneth Frampton who surprised everybody by using his Columbia sabbatical, not to research another book or take a visiting professorship, but to (presumably digging out the odd white shirt) go and work in Richard Meier’s office, reminding everyone that back in London he had successfully built social housing.

There is a chronic and stupid insistence of good offices that dissuades staff from teaching; holds the brightest of them in endless procedural meetings and invented deadlines when they want to exercise their critical talents and refresh themselves among bright kids. There is the chronic and stupid insistence of academies that dictates teachers come in on a Tuesday but not a Wednesday, or be full-time and effectively leave operational architecture. For in the UK there is a creepy suspicion of builder-architects.

There is much lingering suspicion in many countries of ‘foreign’ architects and their ways, nearly always referred to as ‘difficult’. What is the real fear? Is it the charming of our girlfriends/boyfriends/contractors/coffee-sellers?

Having a rather different take on the delineation of an electrical circuit or the jib of a window-sill? Or perhaps having a clearer intellectual position expressed in new terminology? It’s all the same really.

So a kick up the bum could really be equal to the software revolution or the invention of plate-glass − and even be quite interesting − in an uncomfortable sort of a way.

Last words

‘Erring on the folkloric and looking like trees in children’s stories, sprouting arms and sporting faces, they really did feel alive.’
Jonathan Glancey in the Guardian’s obituary of Imre Makovecz, describing his ‘building beings’

‘Some of the best Postmodernists are Modernists on a holiday.’
Charles Jencks, in conversation with Rem Koolhaas, at the V&A on 30 September

‘Wall Street has not invested in a nuclear power plant in 30 years. Architects have their hand on the global thermometer.’
Jeffrey Inaba, discussing architecture and sustainability at the UIA in Tokyo on 27 September

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