The ArchRecord Interview: Sir Peter Cook

October, 2007

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Introduction and interview by Bryant Rousseau

Had Peter Cook’s career ended in the early 1970s, this founding member of the über-influential Archigram group would still be considered one of the most important architects of our time. As RECORD has written, “As the Beatles of architecture, Archigram broke down the dreary conformity of the 1950s, sweeping aside sclerotic convention with their antics.”

Kunsthaus Graz
Image courtesy Kunsthaus Graz; photography by Nicolas Lackner.
Kunsthaus Graz in Graz, Austria, designed by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier.

This slideshow includes images of some of Peter Cook’s Archigram proposals; Kunsthaus Graz; and the London Olympic Stadium.

When asked to describe the inspiration for the marvelous form of his Kunsthaus Graz museum, Cook describes how an intimate familiarity with the project’s site (“It used to be the one place that you could get a drink after 3 o’clock at night”) helped make the design decisions for this acclaimed building “terribly easy.” (1:40)

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But in the decades since Archigram disbanded, Cook (b. 1936) has continued to inspire architects as a highly regarded teacher. He helped transform Frankfurt’s Staedelschule into one of Europe’s leading architecture schools, and he served as the Bartlett’s chair of architecture for a dozen years, retiring from this noted U.K. university in 2005.

And while Archigram, which received the RIBA Gold Medal in 2002, changed the direction of architecture with its theories and drawings—but not its executed projects, of which there were none—Cook has seen a number of his recent proposals get built, most notably the Kunsthaus Graz, which was on the shortlist for the Stirling Prize in 2004.

Currently, he is serving as a consultant for HOK Sport, which is designing the London Olympic Stadium for the 2012 Games. He was knighted earlier this year for his “services to architecture.”

In this in-depth interview, Cook also proves himself an engaging, witty  raconteur, discussing his days with Archigram, his design goals for the Olympic Stadium, his frank advice for architecture schools, the architects and cities he admires, and the cities (and Royals) he doesn’t.

Plus, he discusses what inspired him to become an architect, the biggest challenges facing the profession today, the drawbacks of computing power, what he dislikes about American architecture (think École des Beaux-Arts), and which notable American architect he once thought overrated and now thinks “gets better and better.” There are also two (highly recommended) audio clips. 

Bryant Rousseau: Peter, how would you distill the essence of what made Archigram unique in the history of architecture?

Sir Peter Cook: There were two essential things. One is the range of invention. Forget the mannerisms and styling and the necessary protocol; we focused on invention. The other thing is the schoolboy-like optimism. And I would still cling to the fact that invention and optimism are characteristics that are undervalued in architecture.

BR: In terms of actual buildings, many critics point to the Centre Georges Pompidou as the structure that most embodies the qualities championed by Archigram—what are some other buildings, or movements, that are clearly infused with the Archigram spirit?

PC: A lot of work that has happened in Japan in the last 30 or more years—one goes along with. The work of Toyo Ito, not just his built work but also some of his proposed projects. Over the years he has done a tremendous amount in terms of robotics and responsive architecture, as well as doing some nice buildings.

BR: Which buildings of his in particular stand out?

PC: Well, obviously The Tower of the Winds. But also some of his capsule proposals and even the elegant things he now does. And of course the [Sendai] Mediatheque.

BR: Any other Japanese architects whom you admire?

PC: There are some funny favorites I have. There’s a curious guy, Masaharu Takasaki. And obviously Shigeru Ban, and one shouldn’t forget, although she’s no longer so fashionable, Itsuko Hasegawa. And the attitudes of [firms] like Atelier Bow-Wow are very fascinating. The whole Japanese scene, its take on urbanism—it’s naughty thinking.

BR: Archigram was often said to be the Beatles of architecture, and the Beatles had a particular group dynamic that came together to produce that music. What was it about the group dynamics of Archigram that led to its success and influence?

PC: We ranged over 10 years in age. No two people came from the same academy. And the psychology of the different people was very wide. And there was a hint of internal competitiveness. So it was rather like a studio in a college would be—looking over the shoulder of the other and thinking, “That’s interesting, now I must do something, too.”

BR: How do you think you affected that dynamic? What was your specific input and impact?

PC: I was the enthusiast. Mike Weber was the genius. Ron [Herron] was the fantastically fluent member. Warren [Chalk] was the warrior. David [Greene] the poet. Dennis [Crompton] was the technologist. And I was the beaver, the operational person. Everybody overlaps, but that’s the simplified version.

BR: The London Olympic Stadium is a massive team effort, involving firms such as HOK Sport, Buro Happold, and others. What are some of the elements of the design that are distinctly in the style of Peter Cook? To me, the fact that you can disassemble it, and some of the recent details, such as the exterior cladding and roof that will be wrapped with images, seems to have your spirit involved.

PC: Yes, and there are also lots of capsule-like elements and discs and strange pieces that don’t really come under the category of typical buildings. They’re more like caravans or kiosks or tents or mushrooms.

BR: What is the overarching goal for the London Olympic Stadium? You’ve been quoted a couple of times saying you want it to be “really chirpy.”

PC: If it’s a temporary condition, then you can take advantage of that in the same way as when the circus comes to town. In a way you could say Instant City is, intellectually, the model.

BR: What do you want the lay person to say about the stadium when it’s finished? What do you want them to think, to feel?

PC: I want them to feel that it was great fun even if their favorite team lost or their favorite jumper didn’t jump high enough. They went there and had a good time rather like a state fair or a day out at the circus or a day out on the beach or going to camp—that kind of thing, rather than, “Wasn’t the main avenue very impressive?”

BR: There has been some controversy surrounding the stadium’s cost.

PC: [There’s a saying that] the English will spare no expense to save money. You know the English see the pictures of the [Herzon and de Meuron] Beijing Olympic Stadium on television and say, “Oh god, we must do something as good or better than that.” And then they spend an enormous amount of energy trying to justify the expense. And you frankly don’t do the Olympics unless you’re going to spend some money, you know? And so every time I get in a taxi, or talk with a lay person, they say, “Oh, it’s costing too much.” So there’s this terrible sort of guilt complex, which makes it very difficult for the design team sometimes.

BR: Some of the projects that were technologically infeasible when originally proposed by Archigram could actually be built today, or versions of them.

PC: That’s the lesson that one learned at [Kunsthaus] Graz—which is that one might have drawn something that looked slightly similar some years before, but it would have been, if not impossible to build, then it would have been extraordinarily expensive without the advent of computer cutting and computer modeling and so forth. Also, the effect of smart glasses and layering and embedded electronics—the whole responsive environment [concept] which we banged on about in Archigram times endlessly. It’s the world we now live in.

BR: What’s the most stunning technological change you’ve seen over the course of your career?

PC: Well, many of the things one dreamed about related to the responsive environment—things that could respond and pulsate—they have happened. But you still can’t get rid of matter; you still can’t really fold up an umbrella. One would love some amazing thing to happen so you really could fold things and put in them in your pocket. And I would add that the implications of the digital world have happened quite fast once they really got going; they’re racing away with us right as we speak

BR: And are those all mostly positive? Are there some drawbacks to all this computing power? What effect has it had on the imagination?

PC: Some of the product suffers from its ease of production. That you can press a few buttons and something quite dreamy and slithery comes out the other end, but you don’t have to stop and think about it. There’s a certain sort of product you get from having to really worry something, from having to turn a corner and fight your way to it. Whereas if the digits just do it for you, the facility can sometimes act against the intensity of thinking whilst you’re fighting your way through. I’ve noticed the computer sometimes leads to rather bland decision making; now, anybody can do a wobbly, blobby building.

BR: I don’t know if we’ll be able anytime soon to fold up a building and carry it in our pocket, but what are some of the technological leaps that you do really expect to see in the coming decade? What’s something you’re excited about? Bio-mimicry?

PC: Yes, growing the building material in front of your eyes is obviously exciting. And the whole idea of being able to produce something which is ambiguously fish, flesh and fowl—that you could have something which is both a vegetable and a covering and a building and a machine and a life support. That your TV picture appears on the leaf of a tree. Or that your chair can be eaten. We’re very near all that. An old one that we did from the Archigram time is that your comfortable chair in the living room simply goes out and becomes a car—which is an easy one, highly achievable today.

BR: You’ve invested a huge amount of energy into your role as a teacher and have been credited with transforming two architecture schools. What are some radical changes you would recommend to the deans of architecture schools?

PC: They should resist the academics. They should try to, in fact, increase the number of non-academics who teach—there should be far more professionals who are expected to teach. The demand that somebody has to get a Ph.D is pernicious. The inferiority complex that architects have vis-à-vis intellectuals, particularly in American schools, is extremely damaging. And it’s being encouraged by people who ought to know better.

And I would increase the links between the schools and selected offices. Schools ought to take certain offices into their bosom. And the offices ought to take the schools into their bosom. One thing that irritated me and colleagues at the Bartlett is the fact that [we] fed the key offices with graduates, and they would come and look at our student exhibitions two days ahead of time to pinch the best ones. But you try to get those people to come back even on a crit, and the offices sit on them from a great height, pretend that they’re at the dentist. It’s a one-way street.

And there ought to be much more overt competitions between schools. That’s one thing that the U.K. is good at; it has the RIBA [President’s] Medals, where no school can hide. And if your school is not very good, it’s clear that it’s not very good because it puts up two or three of [its best students], and you think, “My god, what’s going on down there?”

BR: How about the types of a student? Are the reasons why people are entering architecture school different than when you were a student?

PC: Yes, it’s funny. Students are much more canny, they’re much more political. They will choose very diligently which one is a good unit or group to go into at third year, and then which is a good move to make the fourth year. Not only based on who will be an interesting teacher, but who will get you a good diploma. It’s like choosing a girlfriend because of her connections or like getting a platinum card. That’s a little bit sad, but it’s a survival thing. And so it has made people operate less from the heart and more from the head. But I’m sounding unduly romantic in this respect.

Want to hear Cook discuss what inspired him to be an architect? The greatest pleasures and challenges of being an architect? His most and least favorite cities? What he thinks of Prince Charles’ view of architecture? Which famous American architect he once thought overrated and now admires? Read all this and more on page 2 of the interview.

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