The plug-in citizen. Interview with Peter Cook

As a contemporary architecture prophet, Peter Cook spans time and space from swinging London to the city of angels, forever armed with his visionary realism.

Stefano Casciani: Dearest Peter, when did you set up this studio?
Peter Cook: We worked together on competitions here and there, but we established the studio about four years ago. We have two jobs under construction, one in Madrid and one in Vienna. We won the commission for the theatre in Verbania, Italy, but whether they build it or not is proving to be very problematic.

But you didn't have a studio when you did the Kunsthaus in Graz, the building that best represents your work. How did you work beforehand?
Well, I invented the studio for that very reason. Colin Fournier, who I worked with on the Graz project (see Domus 865, 2003), is another professor at the Bartlett, although I worked with him a long time ago when Archigram existed. Then there were a few opportunities to work in Spain, so Gavin Robotham and I decided to take a bit of a risk at that time. I was falling off the end of full-time academia and was retired as a full-time teacher. But I find myself doing so many things. We then did some consultancy together, and the CRABstudio name developed from that. We won the big competition in Vienna two years ago and that was a major boost for our activity. It's a large building that will continue to involve us for the next two and a half years. All the drawings are finished and now it's going on site. It's a very interesting situation because there are several buildings designed by different architects, but at the same time they're all being done by the same engineering group. Zaha Hadid is doing one as well as Hitoshi Abe, Carme Pinós and Edoardo Arroyo.

Why do you think it took you such a long time to get to build?
I don't know. I think it was a sort of conspiracy. When I got together with my second wife, we had a child almost immediately. Neither of us had ever had children before and people were always saying that children totally change your life. In the same way, they say that if you ever build a building, it changes your mentality. Both of these things started happening around the same time, but it hasn't really changed my attitude or my behaviour very much. So I think it was a conspiracy to keep us off both of those activities. I remember having a conversation with Rem Koolhaas who lives at the top of my street when he is in London. About five years ago we bumped into each other in the street and got chatting about people we remembered at the Architectural Association, and particularly the period between the 1970s and '80s. In those years many people said that we were just artists who only liked making paintings and drawings and didn't really want to build. Then we realised that everybody on that list with us had actually started building. And Rem said yes, it was a conspiracy. In a way, the mainstream people don't want you to build. They want to treat you as an artist, as a non-combatant.

Are you satisfied with the Kunsthaus in Graz?
About 95 per cent. The other 5 per cent is more to do with the treatment of the nozzles internally, where they come in. At a certain point, they halted works in Graz saying they'd run out of money. Really the nozzles should have completed the curve. They should also be a bit bigger to be more effective, but I'm pretty satisfied. I'm very pleased with some things, such as the walkout part at the top, the Needle. When I describe the building in lectures I always say it is a delayed-action theatre. The main body of the building is detached from the street, almost in the classic modern way where the building is higher than the street level. Then you enter it secretly, with a sort of nonchalance via the "travelator". It's rather amusing going up this very ordinary thing and disappearing into the unknown. The exhibit area is completely immersed in the unknown; it's a mysterious space. Then you climb up two floors with the hairpin and the travelator, and you're at the top. Then, if you want, you can go up and out into this surprise which is the city. If you remember the building, there are all these long north-facing nozzles except for the "naughty one", as I call it. If you look through this naughty one you see the castle. So the city is, in a sense, the museum's primary exhibit. It was a very difficult, tight site with 27 different contractors. But somehow that part of it worked well. I think it would have been harder to put up that building in some other places.

Isn't that a contradiction of your theory?
It might be a contradiction of the theory, but on a practical level you know you're lucky when in the end you manage to do what you really wanted. Curiously, of all places, I've won three competitions in Austria. One of the projects never got built, the one I did with Christine Hawley. It was a small building to be built on a hillside. It would have been a beautiful scheme but again they didn't really have the money. Nonetheless, it's interesting to win three competitions in Austria, of which two have been built. That's strange and intriguing really.

The Austrians do have a certain tradition of odd, eccentric buildings.
Their eccentricity is both a plus and a minus factor because it makes them difficult and perverse for people to deal with. But, on the other hand, perhaps it's the difficulty and perversity that enables them to understand.

Let us go back to your early career. How did Archigram come about?
I think it was because London was ready for such things. This city has always been a very stimulating sort of place, boiling underneath but without really showing it on the surface. It's also a place where people have a lower threshold for boredom. We get these broad streams of ideas coming from mainland Europe and at first people seem enthusiastic, but then they cool off a bit... Rather like the Japanese vis-a-vis mainland Asia. The Japanese are very similar to the British in that they like to pervert. They like silly ideas. We at Archigram also had some very interesting teachers. Ron Herron had been taught by Julius Posener, David Greene by Buckminster Fuller, and Michael Webb by James Stirling and Kenneth Frampton. I was taught by Peter Smithson and Arthur Korn, an important German architect from the Ring and the Novembergruppe. I think we inherited some of this spirit directly. We didn't come out from under a stone. We were directly taught by some pretty interesting people, but it was really a happy accident that two subgroups formed. The older group, made up of Chalk, Herron and Crompton, had worked on London's South Bank, for London City Council, where they'd already built stuff. Our group – with Michael Webb, David Greene and myself – was slightly younger. We had come out of school and were doing competitions, and then somehow the two groups got to know each other. We manoeuvred to work for the same man, Theo Crosby, who had been one of the editors at AD and had a station to redesign. In the end it never came to anything, but Crosby brought us all into his office and we had an excuse to work together. He also found us money to exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, as well as books and magazines to do. The Archigram fanzine existed just before that.

How did you distribute it?
By taking it to a shop that said it would take ten and see what happens. The first issue probably sold about 150 copies, mostly to friends. The second issue probably sold 250 to friends and a few friends of friends. The third one sold a little bit more and suddenly it was getting attention from the critic Reyner Banham. He wrote an article about our broadsheet and suddenly the fourth one with the pop-up sold 1,000 copies. It was reprinted, and at that point Banham had given a copy to Philip Johnson. It had got to Italy, to Florence, and suddenly a bookstore there was asking for 20 copies. Natalini and all the boys from Florence were reading it. We already had connections with the people in Austria through Hans Hollein. I'd corresponded with Natalini early on and we had connections with Japan through Arata Isozaki.

Pretty soon you were into the Milan Triennale. How did that come about?
Yes, I guess we were fairly known by then. I don't know quite who had invited us. It was the one in '68 that they shut before it opened. A bit of a disaster from that point of view, but thanks to the Triennale we got to know Isozaki in person, and then Ron Herron and I went teaching with Isozaki in Los Angeles. So that's how the Japan-Austria-England-Los Angeles connection came about. Spiritually that was a very interesting combination. Austrians, Japanese and English in Los Angeles, almost the perfect gelling point for other things.

Los Angeles was the city where Banham's career took off, and Frank Gehry's, too. But it's a city that deserves more avant-garde architecture. Why do you think you have never managed to build in Los Angeles?
It's very difficult for British architects to build in the US. Maybe one or two do now, but not really very much. Okay, nowadays a few are managing it, like Zaha Hadid, but then she gets everywhere. In any case it's not in proportion. I think America is very difficult for exploratory architecture. There are a few experimental architects such as Gehry, Morphosis, Eric Owen Moss and, in another way, Steven Holl. But then the list actually dries up rather quickly if you compare it with Europe, all the architects from the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Austria or Denmark. There are plenty of interesting people, but you go to the States and see how many architects really are of interest. A lot are in LA, a lot in New York, but how many are there really in Chicago at this present moment. Two or three, or one or two. Even the not so interesting, mechanical and commercial German architects are generally a bit more interesting than their equivalents in the States.

You have a long tradition of collaboration with SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture directed by Eric Owen Moss. Can you tell us about that?
I think it is folkloric in a way that I first taught in Los Angeles. But in the period after that, Ron Herron was working there and he was a close friend of Ray Kappe, SCI-Arc's originator. Then, some years later, I came out and the school was already established. Everything just gelled. Although Ray has identified me with the founder generation, strangely enough I identified with the next generation, the sub-generation that included Moss and Mayne and those guys. I felt I understood them better. I think it is something to do with LA itself. Maybe I even invented it as a mythology in my own mind. Another thing that strikes me about Los Angeles is how you can discuss architecture in a much less uptight way than, for example, in New York or Paris, where you have to position yourself very specifically. I think in both London and Los Angeles you can meander. You don't have to face the enemy, and even if you do you probably go and have a drink with them. Whereas in New York, if you're seen having lunch with someone people start wondering what's going on.

Do you think there is a future for architecture schools? Is everything becoming too technical?
I always hope there are a few schools that are a bit eccentric. I think the interesting schools are quite volatile and fragile. If you go back a few years to when Alvin Boyarsky died, the Architectural Association almost collapsed, which you would never have thought. It had a 150-year history and was always the key place in town. Maybe it has never quite recovered. I think the same about SCI-Arc: it's fragile and always has money problems. Now I watch my former school the Bartlett searching for someone to take my place. It's taken them four years to start looking for replacement, and if it's the wrong person it could be the end. Perhaps it won't quite disappear, but it won't be an interesting school.

But how can you get interesting schools if it's so difficult to find decent teachers?
I think one big problem is that the academic institutions are reluctant to bring in professionals or eccentrics. They want school people and there is a game played by certain kinds of architectural academics who are often theory people. They say that they know more about running a school because that's the game they play. We are people who build things or draw things; we're a bit flaky and don't understand. So progressively the truly creative people have been edged out of architectural education. Occasionally somebody breaks in again and proves that you really need creative people running the schools, and not the academics. This is my view. I know it's an old-fashioned one, but I know I'm right because you just have to look at the results. Take John Hejduk. He was a classic heroic figure. He had his own very strange poetic theories and was actually a rather interesting designer, although he didn't do very many buildings. Nonetheless, he was special and he invented a whole methodology around his specialness. What I like about SCI-Arc is that there has been a succession of quite special people. It seems never to have been in the hands of anybody boring. It is unusual.

Do you think the present state of architecture, which is supposed to be quite advanced in terms of technology and construction techniques, is part of a social-historical evolution or just a result of chance?
I think all these things are always happy coincidences. The methods we use now allow very poor designer to look as if they're doing something interesting. In the same way, you could say that photographic techniques make it possible for a poor photographer to take at least a passable photograph. If you press the right buttons on the computer and look at the right magazines, you can produce something that looks decent. Of course, the connoisseur knows whether it's good or bad and will always have reasons for valuing a certain building above others. For example, I was lucky enough to be in Kansas City at the time when Steven Holl's Nelson-Atkins Museum was about two-thirds finished. It's a very interesting building to the connoisseur. Normal people also like it; it looks nice. It isn't a lovely one but to an expert eye it's very interesting. It works well in terms of how it relates to the site and the changes in geometry, and how it deals with the translucence and transparencies, which to the connoisseur is really interesting stuff.

Which other architects do you think best use new technologies?
I think Toyo Ito is a very significant architect, probably one of the most interesting architects of my period. Every five years or so he has come up with something that moves the state of the art form. Not all his buildings are the greatest, but he's such a special architect, much more so than people who are probably more fashionable at the moment. I think he is beautifully stepped. When he did the Nomad Bar in Tokyo he made the most dreamlike use of layers and meshes that I'd ever seen, and it was just the early days. Then he did the Tower of the Winds which everybody imitates. After that he built the Sendai Mediatheque, which I haven't seen, but again he pushed the state of the art form. Every so often, he pushes it forward. When my son was one year old we took him to an exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In Ito's room every dimension responded back, and my son suddenly opened his eyes sitting in his pram and I wondered what impression he got. I always remember it as a really significant moment. Of course my child couldn't comprehend what this four-dimensional space was, and it was the first exhibit he'd ever seen. He can't remember it now, but also for his experience I think Ito is very, very important. Although he is constantly criticised by people who I think are just jealous. Frank Gehry is extraordinary when you talk to him and when he takes you around the office. The number of ideas that guy always has in his head. I don't necessarily value the people who do the most beautiful buildings, but the people who really have the ideas.

Do you see something of yourself in these colleagues?
I'd like to... Sure, at times you're jealous as hell when you see some things, like when I see Morphosis's work. I saw some work in Thom Mayne's office a few days ago. It's stunningly good. I was really intrigued by the whole layering thing, the apertures between the various levels. There are lots of people flopping around with layers, but I think if all architects had as many notions as those guys I mentioned. Phew! Other people are more elegant but not as interesting.

If you'd had today's technology when you did Archigram, do you think things would have been different?
Probably, yes. It's amazing to think what one could have done. It's funny that the drawings are looked upon as art pieces, but if one had had the instruments, those art pieces could have realised differences of nuance which were difficult to do drawing by hand. When you draw something it is either there or it isn't: these nuances are like today's nuances, but now it can all be done in a matter of minutes by someone who is relatively untrained.

Did you actually draw the Archigram schemes?
Archigram was a coalition of people who were friends. It was rather more like a school of architecture than a studio, with lots of different things going on. In a way, you're also in competition with each other on occasion. Ron Herron was doing the Walking City and I was beavering away doing the Plug-In City. Our drawing skills varied between different people. Ron Herron and I particularly enjoyed producing lots of drawings. Others were slower or more cautious, or thought about them before they drew them. I learnt a lot from Chalk and Herron because they were older than me and they had published stuff. They knew how to draw so that it looked like something in a magazine. I was a much weedier drawer before I got to know them. Sometimes I think it varies, like that drawing I did a year and a half ago, the green one there. There's a stage when you start to see if it's coming out nicely, and then there's a part where you're three quarters through and you think, "Okay, I've got to finish this drawing." Then the same thing happens with the colouring. You experiment with the colours on the surface and then it gets going. It almost becomes a mechanical thing – how many times do I use this green, how many times have I used that green? How much can I do this evening and how much can I do in a week? A sort of professionalism takes over and it has to be finished, but the thinking has gone out of it. Really, technique takes over. Sometimes you feel a sort of relief because you see the thing turning out nicely and you know that it's going to look good. Other times you just say, "My God, it has to be in by Monday," and you hack through and hope it goes all right.

How did you develop the drawings for the Vienna project?
It was a three-stage competition so there was a very early version of the designs, a middle-early version, and a final one. That's extraordinary, but when we won the competition we had to knock six million euros off it, and then a further million euros. So we had to push and pull and squeeze.... There are two buildings: the law faculty and the administration building. They're locked together with an internal archway. It's a sort of running building in layers of colour. Then the library is underneath the front part and there are lots of visible pockets for people to meet in. This building has layers of timber and it is made of coloured stripes behind, with the darkest colour near the ground and the lightest colour near the sky, with a sort of darkening on top of that.

What was the idea behind the Verbania theatre?
A theatre in a small town is not just a place where you go for a performance, but a place you can use every day and that has outside spaces for casual events. The site is the square. Do you know Verbania?

Yes I do. What kind of budget do you have?
There is a budget, but there's a strange situation. The town has access to a set-aside sum of money, not a very big amount, say 12 to 20 million euros. It's not that much when you start building, but enough to get the shell. They would have to raise money for the bits and pieces inside. There's an incentive to do it because for some reason that money is dedicated exclusively to the construction of a theatre. They can't use it to build a police station. I don't know. I'm sure you know the scene there better than I do.

Unfortunately it is quite a typical Italian scenario.
We also had trouble from Mr Gregotti, who had entered the same competition and wasn't even placed second or third. Perhaps he was fourth or fifth out of nine people invited, but he's been kicking up because it seems to be on his territory. Is it near him?

Yes, not far away. Apart from this episode, how do you see Italian architecture? What do you think about the future of Italian cities?
I think it's tragic. It's a very weird scene. Here and there you come across interesting younger firms, but not very often. It's extraordinary. If you take almost every other European country (apart from maybe Albania or something) and now even some former Eastern Bloc countries – Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia – there is a lot of interesting stuff. Italy is a tragedy. It is so much in love with its past, it's crippling. You have the design scene in Milan but it's still really a tragedy and it doesn't ever seem to change. We could have had this conversation 30 years ago and it would have been more or less the same conversation.

Do you see architectural magazines as being useful for architects?
I think you have to ask these young guys in the studio. I was very amused about a year ago. Geoff Manaugh is a writer and journalist on architecture who produces a regular building blog called BLDGBLOG. A lot of these guys in the office read his blog for their first information and when I went to take my class at SCI-Arc they were reading the same blog. But then he produced the BLDGBLOG Book and Manaugh was so pleased that he'd got this book out even though his commitment was to producing his blog! He also seemed over the moon when I arrived in LA with a copy in my hand. The students at SCI-Arc hadn't seen the book and they were all excited, too. It occurred to me that everything had come full loop: the generation that was supposed to be perfectly pleased with the blog was just as delighted with the book as the author. It's rather like saying that a piece of music on a CD has more authenticity than the same song downloaded from the Internet. Theatres are still open, conspicuously so, and for some bizarre reason people still go to the cinema more than they did 15 or 20 years ago. People are cooking their own food despite the advent of the TV dinner. I'm fascinated that things of every period can coexist together, that we can choose where we land, at least in theory. I think the future of the magazine has to be about offering something that is more special than the idea of going out and buying a periodical with pictures of buildings. You can get that online faster today, now. But when you want to home in on something, well, it probably means that magazines will increasingly become specialist books, as they're already becoming, like AD for example. As for Domus, I don't know how many copies it sells nowadays.

Not too bad. Around 35,000.
That's still a lot compared with the others. I'm delighted if you're putting me on the cover.

You deserve it. I suggested you for the cover.
Thank you. It is a very special thing to be on the cover of Domus because it's a beautiful magazine. Even the paper of the cover is thicker than some of the others. What month will it be in?

You'll be on the cover of the December issue.
December, I'll have to organise with you how to get a pile of them. When my wife brought her book out, the publisher sent so many copies and after a while I had to tell them to stop. But however many copies you have, there are never enough. You have 100 or 200 and you wake up six months later and the pile seems to have gone down, even though you don't remember giving them to anybody. It's still a valued object, and then if you're on the cover or you've done the book, you never have enough. It has a role to play. You can say, "Look me up" (laughs). Coming back to magazines, I'm always amazed at the amount of them that come out. But they don't seem to contain anything that you can't get anywhere else. I think you can say German architectural magazines have never had that special spark, and they have always produced many of them. The UK and France have produced quite a lot, too, sometimes good ones and sometimes bad ones. There was once an interesting thing in two languages, English and German, and it was called Labyrinth. Dedalus was interesting but then it died at some point. Arch+ is sometimes interesting. I have never quite understood the coming and going of people at Domus. You have had this special thing of only keeping chief editors for two years at a time. Is that the rule?

It is kind of a rule, but it's more about destiny, or luck, if you wish; bad luck, good luck…

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