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Architecture is what you do with the potential of life: Sir Peter Cook

Can you live in an inverted pyramid? Can a vegetable be a loudspeaker? Legendary architect Sir Peter Cook on the many possibilities of architecture.

Written by Shiny Varghese | New Delhi |
Updated: September 6, 2015 1:00:29 am
Legendary architect Sir Peter Cook Legendary architect Sir Peter Cook

Looking at Peter Cook’s drawings and sketches is like going down the rabbit hole of possibilities. The London-based architect and professor has given the world a gamut of avant-garde ideas: mixing architecture, technology, nature and society in pop-art colours. Now, Cook’s artwork of over four decades is being exhibited for the first time in India.

Brought together by Gallery Espace in New Delhi and design studio Architecture Discipline, 34 watercolours by Cook present a debate on building hierarchies. The gallery’s decision to present architectural drawings is brave and takes the debate on built spaces forward. “I want to make it uncomfortable — for the philistine, for the boring architect, for the person who wants his building to be predictable,” says Cook, 78, who was knighted in 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II for his services in architecture.

A founder member of the collective Archigram (short for Architectural Telegram), Cook, along with a group of six British architects began the eponymous magazine in 1961, creating a space for alternate ideas. A Global History of Architecture (2007) records: “Challenging the grid established by Le Corbusier, Archigram’s texts, collages, and comic book-style designs emphasised the use of anything but 90-degree angles and thematised the curving and twisting of Le Corbusier’s straight lines. Archigram delivered visions of technologically advanced cities that walked on four legs, Plug-In Cities that could be stacked and changed like cords in an outlet, and Instant Cities that could be flown in and made to sprout like spring flowers into the hands of any eager architect, critic or admirer.”

Archadia Composite Archadia Composite

“When I was introduced to Archigram’s work in the ’80s, it felt like I was reading George Orwell’s 1984. Their work was a discourse on multiple streams, including art, theatre, even journalism. With Peter you don’t talk only about architecture. He brings to the table a dialogue that isn’t about an ‘ism’ and that’s when architecture begins to talk to the outside,” says Akshat Bhatt, principal, at Architecture Discipline studio.

It comes as no surprise then, that in Damstead Towers (1993) Cook turns the pyramid on its head: the tip becomes the base for an eight-floor building. In his Skywaft City series (1984-85), he challenges notions of form with his part-skeletal, part-vegetated and part-in-the-sky structures. There is a sense of theatre in Archadia Composite (1982), where slivers of several projects become the landscape to hoist hedges, trellises, and domes, weaving infinite solutions to urban living.

Graz Art Museum; Graz Art Museum;

“It is convenient for mainstream to dismiss certain architects as artists or as academics. But what happens when the dreamers start building, when they build on time and on budget? For us, me, Rem Koohlaas or Zaha Hadid (Koohlaas’s student), it is important, and it is the same business. We have to build toilets and houses, and we are interested in keeping the water out. But the conversations are more elaborate. It’s about extending the vocabulary of architecture,” says Cook.

During the time that Cook was chairman of the Bartlett School of Architecture, London, he embarked on building his first project. In 2003, along with fellow countryman Colin Fournier, 67-year-old Cook built Kunsthaus or the Graz Art Museum in Austria. With its amorphous, translucent blue, acrylic-glass skin, sun-catching nozzles and its “communicative display” façade, the public art gallery sits snugly on the site, winking at the traditional buildings around it. A glass shaft cantilevered on top of the building offers panoramic views over the city, echoing Cook’s Montreal Tower (1963), which is also on display at the Delhi exhibition. He confesses that many locals hated the Kunsthaus. But after its completion, when they experienced the building, they loved it. “Now, it’s on their postage stamps, on chocolates and other products. That’s because it’s an Archigram building,” he says.

Currently, Cook heads CRAB Studio (Cook Robotham Architectural Bureau) in London, with Gavin Robotham. In their institutional buildings — the Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University, Australia, and the departments of Law and Central Administration, Vienna University of Economics and Business — their experience as university teachers informs the projects. “Having taught for over 45 years in architecture schools, and Gavin too, has taught and studied in them, we didn’t go by the rules. We exchanged anecdotes, like ‘remember that crit room’, ‘that room where you could sleep in’. So the spaces were built out of necessity, including providing scope for escape. You have a boring professor and you’re wondering, how the heck do I get out,” says Cook. “Architecture is what you do with the potential of life.”

Damstead Towers, a watercolour Damstead Towers, a watercolour

Cook’s paintings come from understanding the city and its environment. While drawing his tower series, he usually visits a city multiple times until he evolves a tectonic and cultural response to the place. “My parents were in the army and we moved around a lot when I was a child. I lived in many houses, and that’s why I grew interested in urbanism. As a child, when you arrive in a town, you have to know where the chip shop is, where the bus stop is, and how to get home. Then you begin to notice, especially in a north European town, that the rich live on the west and the poor on the east, because that’s how the wind blows. Then if there is a lake or river crossing, there will be a railway line close by, and slowly, you begin to sniff your way around the town. It’s the same vim or approach to drawing. You get interested in the way different psychologies affect cultures. One can’t just do a painting without knowing that. In Oslo, for instance, there are certain colours preferred by modernist artists. That’s because those are the dyes you get in certain plantations on the plateau, so then the reality of the place affects colour, and a colour is used by a certain architect in his buildings. Then, weather too reflects in choice of colour. Vienna sees a lot of cold, grey days. So in the Law University, Gavin and I thought we should cheer it up a bit and bring in colour. Today, it’s a building that students love,” says Cook.

During a talk at Gallery Espace, Delhi-based architect Romi Khosla, Cook’s student at the Architectural Association, London, introduced his teacher as “the only one globally, in the last 50 years, who has focussed on conjectural architecture. I learnt from him that you can invent futures and believe in them.” Cook’s Veg House series (1996) is a case in point, where “vegetation creeps in insidiously towards living spaces”. “I wanted to show the idea of metamorphoses. How can I mix technology and nature? It wasn’t about growing grapes or cabbage but can you get a kitchen appliance under a leaf? We are getting closer to morphing. Nowadays, we are morphing body parts, babies, and sheep, so why can’t a vegetable be a loudspeaker?” he says.

It is that suspension of disbelief and faith in things not yet seen that makes Cook the agent provocateur he is. “Art is endangered in architecture and architecture in urbanism. My argument for urbanism is that you have to think a new thought. Sadly, master planning hasn’t moved beyond the 19th century. People are still laying out cycle paths and basement parking, tennis courts and swimming pools. But Delhi, as a town of trees, has huge potential. Imagine having buildings under trees,” he says. As the boundary lines are redrawn in the heart of the capital, hopefully, somebody’s listening.

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