Cook Architecture's Grand Chef

Peter Cook is the living, dinosaur. Even by his own reckoning he should be doddering around a vegetable garden somewhere in Suffolk, but here he is, suddenly and hugely more relevant than ever to world architecture. It’s going to make more than volcanoes, climatic shifts or rogue meteors to bring Cook into line.

His anarchic, psychedelic designs, so tied to the consciousness and memory of the Swinging ‘60s, have been way out and radical for so long that they now finally seem ‘cool’ - all over again. Proof, if it was needed, that opinion finally comes around not to provide a slap in the face so much as a slap on the back, is the demand for his services. There’s barely time to draw breath between roles as hired gun consultant, lecturer and academic. And then he needs to make time for his own practice.

For Cook the Archigram man, academic and working designer, it’s all a bit like The Kinks or The Beatles being appreciated not simply for the old hits, but finding a whole new resonance and relevance four decades on.

His astonishing, jelly-fish like art gallery at Graz, Austria dubbed Blobmeister by many among the German design press is typically offbeat. Skinned in acrylic panels and illuminated externally by some 927 circular fluorescent bathroom lights, the whole effect from street level at dusk is of a strange, highly liquid creature illuminated with octopus-style suckers. Apparently just washed into the city centre.

Blobmeister rankles Cook only on the basis that the Germans and Swiss have such a love affair with rectilinear, clinical order. It is not so much that he sponsors design chaos as takes a jackhammer to the stereotype that seems to have so many architects in its thrall.. Deep down Cook must be proud of the Kunsthaus project. It confirms what he has argued all along; that what seems extravagant on paper is all entirely achievable on budget and time. If he has any regrets its that he is on his fifth rather than his 25th building.

‘I was able to finally cut loose in Graz, but I have a Pandora’s box view of architecture. If I had done more buildings I could be better and the work even wilder.’ Cook’s first substantial building, a housing project in Berlin, drove the point home to him. ‘We screwed up with a 3 and a half degree shift in plan. When you go into the apartments, you think that it was builder that got it slightly wrong. To make it effective you needed a 6 degree shift, but you have to build before you realise that.’

Cook’s fortunes share more than a passing resemblance to that of Frank Gehry who struggled for creative freedom until his Guggenheim for Bilbao, confirmed what many contemporaries always suspected was within his grasp. Graz however was already an architectural hot-house before Cook and co-designer, fellow Bartlett College professor Colin Fournier arrived. But somehow it is the flawed brilliance of this blue acrylic bladder with amputated apertures that has really confirmed the city’s pre-eminence on the European architecture trail.

Cook is acutely aware of the criticism of architecture as an extension of the bourgeoisie. It sits uneasily with his social democratic leanings. The Graz project offers an open-hearted, adaptable space. designed as contemporary art gallery that could just as easily be converted into something else altogether in its next life. It is this aspect which greatly pleases him. ‘If it eventually becomes a supermarket and serves its purpose, I’ll be happy,’ he confesses.

Another confession. ‘It’s not high-tech it’s crap-tech. And it’s about enjoying crap-tech,’ he says with a delight that would make many a German architect gag on his or her sauerkraut. He relishes recalling how tradesmen would arrive on broken down bicycles ridden across from Brattislava. ‘By a lot of standards there’s bad welding, but it works.

‘It’s an assemblage of the most inexpensive parts and pieces we could get our hands on. And we delivered within one and a half percent of budget and two months off the original program. Within the world of Arts buildings, I call that hitting the target.’ Against the mass and grain of a medieval city such as Graz, the gallery offers a theatre of layering and revelation. Cook loves the shimmering reflections provided by the gallery’s surfaces which bulge out and over the Hansel and Gretel surroundings like a balloon wedged in a vice.

His views on the Kunsthaus and education are interleaved. On the education of architects, Cook is forthright. He prefers themes like ‘Stuff’ and ‘Shimmer’ rather than the self-perpetuating waffle that strangles healthy design development. He quotes his common North American experience that produces graduates who can recite French philosophers but are not especially interested in how a stair goes around a corner. “I’m more interested in how a stair goes around the corner and if necessary I’ll invent my own philosophy for doing so.

“What’s happening in the United States for instance is that students graduate with their Masters, put their books up on the shelf, stick on a business shirt and then copy something weird someone has done in Switzerland or Norway. Then they wonder why nothing makes sense when the philosophy and experience don’t connect.

In the past few years there has been a conspiracy by architecture academics to try and become more academic than architects. “Robert Hughes recently did a book review on English television. He reviewed a piece of text about Mondrian that was written by Godbridge years which was so clear and perceptive. He compared the original to some new text by this geezer and it was a such a joke. You couldn’t penetrate the first three words. Hughes said of Godbridge’s plain English, ‘Guys, look... here it is’. I feel very strongly about that; about saying what you mean and stripping away the intellectual game. It’s probably not what you want to interview me about but I think that underlines a lot of what I’m trying to get across.

“There are people who are tempted and are pulled both ways. The old European tradition has the small-time, talented young architect who becomes better known and who teaches, finally becoming a professor. But he or she is still basically doing buildings. Now there’s other requirements that come in where you either have to go the whole hog and write accredited, wordy texts in accredited journals that are read by about 3 people and a dog.

‘It can be very difficult because you’re fighting a culture. It’s like saying how do you get someone to make a decent cup of tea or an original film? There’s a tendency for a lot of young architects now to buy labels. The worst offending case I met was a girl I met in Zurich. She was doing a Phd in Colombia and working in Europe and she showed me her CV. She had worked for Aldo Rossi and Richard Rogers and a list of other famous architects and I turned to her and asked: ‘What do you believe in?’ Well she turned to me bewildered as if I had asked a very strange question. The people she had worked with were so inconsistent but they were all very famous. And of course that’s what it was. It made me very suspicious of her. It became clear that she was clever, but also very opportunistic.

‘One of my recent lectures was called Stuff and to me that’s what it’s about. One thing that has to come across is the way that materiality and the quality of material can feed into the conscious way of dealing with experience. I think architecture should be theatrical.

‘The tendency for the technical people is to say we’ve got this new product so you guys come up with this application and we will make it better and better. The other way around is that circumstances feel the need for a certain product. If only there was a fog. If only there was pill you could take to remove your clothes. If only there was something that could make the bottom half of you warm and top half cool. If only there was something where I didn’t have to stop and have lunch. If only there was something where an armchair could become a car. These are the kinds of design conditions which sometimes, usually a decade or two later generate a formal object, device or material.

‘Some people my view Cook as puritanical but he dismisses the suggestion. ‘I’m not a brown rice, hair shirt and wood kind of animal. I love plastics and acrylics and new materials. The principles of ESD are fine but it becomes a puritan in-song that needs to sound sort of grungy and not appear too wonderful.

Ever the intellectual ragamuffin, Cook says he enjoys the idea of architecture that has some highly identifiable bits and ‘then spills out at the edges and sort of lets its shirt hang out at the back. For the past 40 years I’ve regarded myself as a joke academic. I often roll over to my wife and say it’s a joke that I’ve been paid for doing this for 40 years and been paid for it. It probably means I’m a real pro. But I’ve always regarded myself as a designer who happens to be a professor on the side, rather than a professor who does a bit of design on the side.

‘I think you can over rationalise. A lot of my friends who are very clever and are good designers, or could be, get their knickers in a twist because they pre-think why a certain decision has flaws. At a certain point you’ve got to say; ‘Bugger it. Let’s go for it’. I also stay mentally young working with people who are considerably younger on average by a couple of decades. For a lot of reasons I understand their conversations more than I understand those of my contemporaries.’

In one way Cook belongs to another era, yet his footprint remains so formidable. He was working well before Woodstock and the Vietnam war and certainly before global warming and global dimming. But here he is; causing plenty of young whippersnappers to reflect on what the future holds. His footprints lead somewhere useful and sometimes even dazzling. On a good night out he swaps his architect’s charcoal uniform and re-lives the glory days in a shirt psychedelic enough to play tricks on the eyes of everyone attracted to its mind-bending patterns. Cook remains every inch the guru of style
...and substance.

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2005


Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.