Features

Sir Peter Cook

June 7, 2012

Sir Peter Cook, co-founder of Archigram, is an iconic figure in British architecture. In 2006 he founded CRAB Studio with Gavin Robotham, and the practice is working on Bond University’s new School of Architecture building in Queensland.He spoke to AR about Bond and the ‘memory’ that is Archigram.

This interview first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #124: Architecture and the Body.

TRACEY WOODS: You’re in Australia to work on Bond University’s new School of Architecture building. What sort of considerations need to be made when designing an institutional project?  

SIR PETER COOK: I think there are certain developments that are happening now, or have happened, that make it possible for us to engage more directly with the building, although there are a lot of people who cling to the old tradition. A simple example: sitting in this hotel room, the compartment near the door is considered the ‘kitchen’, even though it is possible to put a small appliance, in which you could cook a chicken, beside me here in the living area. It is not only considered easier, but part of tradition to say that the kitchen is where you do certain things – the cooking, the washing up.

What happens if you bring it out and present it in a space that is not traditional? 

Traditionally, families had a dining room. Now, that broke down some decades ago, but still the notion of certain things that the body wants to do – like exercise itself or satisfy itself – are inhibited by the tradition of architecture, in a way, and by certain architects who would prefer that there not be anything too human going on in their buildings. They would prefer people to sit in rectangular, organised groups, like old-fashioned parents, saying: ‘Take your fingers off that’; ‘Don’t sit too near to that’; ‘You must behave.’ In fact, if I want to sit in this chair and pick my nose, I would do so if you were not sitting there. If I wanted to cook a chicken, I might go over there to cook it because it is habit, but in theory it is not necessary.

Another example may be to wear clothes that don’t necessitate me having a roof over me. It is funny because people allow that sort of thing to happen on a beach. In England, certain things are permissible on a beach that would not be permissible in a town. People display certain parts of their bodies that they wouldn’t otherwise. I have a horrible feeling that people are as height bound – maybe more height bound – than they were in the 1970s or 80s. In fact, people are returning to a lot of things we thought were breaking down. People are wearing more on the beach, hiding certain parts of their body again, maybe not in Australia, but certainly reports are that they are doing so overseas. People are doing more traditional cooking, where previously we were nearly at a point of not having a kitchen at all. There is a sort of craving for ritual and tradition somehow.

CRAB's Graz Kunsthaus building.

 

What would be the direct architectural translation of this trend? 

I was always interested in breaking down the boundaries between furniture and the vehicle. For example, you could design an armchair in such a way that you would press a few buttons, strap yourself in and it would trot out to the corridor, go down in the lift, engage with an electronically guided track and travel along the street. The chair would in fact become a vehicle – the very same chair that is used in the living room would become a vehicle. We did many drawings of such a thing in the 1960s. Your body would go directly as part of the city, or not so much your body, but the chair in which you are sitting. I think that is the whole idea of not being height bound by the traditional limits of the building, or the piece of furniture, the car, the city.

And it links with the idea of scattering a whole lot of metropolitan activities into nowhere. You could almost go out into the bush and consider it to be a city if you were adequately connected, although, for some reason, traditions of associations are still very strong. I think that there is a lot of architecture that restricts the body, but one likes, perhaps by instinct or by style, to have things applied – something that glides around you, or you mosey around them – rather than something that says: ‘You go there, then there, then you go there.’

This brings to mind Zaha Hadid’s curvilinear forms…

…which are probably a product of the same instinct, of things flowing and gliding. The current potential of a built form to flow and glide and land and fold and caress, at least instinctively, is part of that. You could say Zaha’s work is coming out of that. But there is a very strong body of architects who are the opposite of that, who want a very rational box, clear-cut, with zones.

CRAB Studios' design for the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

 

Both Zaha Hadid and CRAB have buildings on the go for the new campus of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Talking of form, it would be interesting to see each as a finished product, as I understand you are in close proximity. 

We’re on the same side of the firing line as Zaha, I believe. Her building glides up and rolls into space; ours writhes and wriggles along. Both are curvaceous; ours is a multi-striped slitherer with smiling corners.

Can you talk more about the Bond University project? 

I always like to have episodes, ideas of what people do. People are funny, just like the series of little cartoons that I prepared for the Bond University School of Architecture competition. People are naturally funny and they like doing funny things, and most buildings are almost trying to prevent them from doing that. If someone wants to eat in the cinema, it is not considered a good thing. But in upmarket cinemas you can have wine and certain foods. In a normal cinema it would be considered tacky to take in your fish and chips and sit in the third row. But, in a way, why shouldn’t you? However, there are certain limits: what do you do with the fish and chip wrapper? I like beginning with something and pushing to the edges of it.

At Bond, a group of six or eight people sitting around is not necessarily a seminar. They may be plotting to do something, or flirting. They might have something interesting to hand around, or they may be gossiping and to reduce the restriction of the class or not the class, the lecture or not the lecture, the gossip or not the gossip. It interests me to have situations that are not expected. Last night at the CRAB exhibition at Space Furniture, there were one or two students and you could talk to them differently than if they were at the other end of a crit. You want to build in as many variants as you can.

The new Bond building features a series of ‘scoops’ throughout – large, curved concrete walls. Is this an example of that process?

Yes. The scoops are what it is all about. They are the places where people pontificate, flirt, speculate, plot, moan, bang on about things, whisper in the ear, hide away – all those things that go beyond the set pieces of teaching and learning in larger spaces.

The building is essentially a free-flowing space. The studios are all open plan, punctuated by these large concrete scoops, which provide spaces in which to interact.  

That is absolutely important. It is about being in a place and then realising that you can do things other than what the curriculum can suggest, otherwise it is just a classroom, really.

CRAB's work at Bond University.

 

At the University of Westminster, the School of Architecture and the Built Environment has amazing studio spaces: rigid and small, but with an interesting use of voids and little cubbyholes. 

I think that at Bond you have proximity to the ground. At Westminster you have to go into controlled places and go up in the lift. It is fine when you get there, but it is not readily available. It’s the exact opposite to what we are doing at Bond, where we hope that you will leave the doors open. Interlopers can wander through before anyone notices you – you can walk in and use the bathroom, lie down in a room. In the UK you have to pass a guard.

Is that an example of socially governing the boundaries? 

Yes, it is. There was a period in the 1970s or 80s when stuff would get nicked from universities. People would wander in off the street, and then there were further unpleasantries that seemed to increase alongside the drug scene. It has been policed out. But then on the other hand, if you know universities you can always bypass the guard system. Westminster is almost offensively policed. They are more rigid than the security bloke at the Bartlett.

Where do you start the design process? 

One starts in the most conventional way. You may have a sectional idea, but you would start with an organisational idea: what can go here? ‘It’s all happening there … but wouldn’t it be nice if we had some stuff looking at that.’ And then you hit on a couple of ideas, not so much by accident, but when you are designing, you approach it with conversations about this and that, and something in the conversation seems like a potential fixer. ‘Wouldn’t it be good to have things that do this and that, and then if it did that it would become this and then…’ That is the fixer.

One of Peter Cook's sketches for the Bond University School of Architecture competition.

 

Do you become disappointed when you have designed something that people don’t use in the way you intended? 

I haven’t done enough buildings to test it, although there was one little thing I did years ago in Osaka, Japan, which was funny – a little water pavilion. The idea was that you pump water up over the top of the pavilion and it trickled down over the glass, which was above your head, and collected under your feet, so that you were walking through water. It was a metal face and then a black side and back, rather like the idea of the Japanese mask where you metaphorically don’t see because of the black. The idea was that the water would collect in a hopper, and when it filled to a certain point the water would gush out at the front, so all of a sudden this calm metal facade would be animated by the water pouring out. That activated a pond with a little Japanese arm, which would move when the water erupted, so it was like calm and then movement, and it was all caused by the water.

Anyway, my point being: there was a set of stairs running up the front and then you entered in the middle, walked through and came down and popped up at a little door on the side. That was what you were meant to do. Mostly it worked like that. People saw the gush, they saw the pavilion, they saw people going up, so they went up themselves, they walked around, had water poured over them and it flowed and they would come down. Now, sometimes there was a sort of lull and some people would start going in the exit, for no reason at all – there was nothing to say that you could or you couldn’t. I started thinking, ‘Oh my God, they are going through the wrong way.’ Of course it was fine. They would go up the stairs, go through the water, come out and go down. We just conceived it as being the other way around. It was odd, but people will do that. I wonder what happens about people using buildings the wrong way round, even sitting or facing the wrong way. I don’t really mind. I think misuse is quite interesting.

Can we talk about Archigram?

Archigram is a memory…

It operated as a collective, but how did that work in practice? Was it a case of someone suggesting an idea, and everyone pitching in?

Sometimes. It was more that we worked as a group but often on individual projects, and then any two or three might collaborate on one project and then another project would begin. It is rather like how CRAB operates now, in that there would be little pockets and you bring lots of people together for something key, or then the key thing would divide up into bits as something becomes an individual person’s thing.
I can point to things in Archigram books and say ‘x’ did that or ‘y’ did that in terms of the drawing. The drawing mannerisms are very easy to identify or analyse if you know what to look for.

I recently caught a video on YouTube, where you referred to the speed of drawing during the Archigram days. Was drawing important to Archigram? 

Some members of Archigram enjoyed drawing, some less so. We all drew but Warren [Chalk] didn’t enjoy it, although he did it well. Mike [Webb] did beautiful, weird drawings. Dennis [Crompton] made things, but he could draw well.
I mean we were all capable of drawing, although Ron [Herron] was the key drawer. I did a lot of drawing and gradually caught up.

Image from the book Archigram (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).

 

I’m interested in your info-gonks, described on the Archigram Archival Project website as a ‘speculative design maquette for educational television glasses and headgear’.

‘Gonks’ was Warren’s term for glasses. I designed the info-gonks, making a set of goggles from four cheap pairs of sunglasses, gluing them together and using a wire to connect them. It looked like the real thing, but of course it did not work. Then I took a photograph out of a magazine and drew and collaged a photo of the gonks on top of a girl. One often did things like that – the instant city over Bournemouth was a photo of Bournemouth out of a magazine and I drew on top of the photo.

The info-gonk appears more of an extension of the body than clothing
or accessory.

I am just thinking … you could develop a train of links with a jockstrap at one end and the Rockefeller Centre at the other. OK, at one end is the jockstrap and then the jockstrap and a pair of pants; and then jockstrap, a pair of pants and vest; jockstrap, pants, vest, shoes and socks … jockstrap … and hat. So, the point of the hat: where is the dividing line between the hat and the umbrella? Where is the dividing line between the umbrella and someone else with the umbrella? Where is the dividing line between you with the umbrella and the umbrella on top of someone’s coffee van? Where’s the dividing line between the coffee van and the kiosk, and then between the kiosk and a pavilion in the great Scandinavian tradition of the pavilion? Where is the dividing line between the pavilion and a substantial building with several rooms, and so on until we are at the Rockefeller Centre at the other end.

An extreme example perhaps, but, only if we say there is a dividing line: ‘that is not a building as it does not have permanent solid walls’, or ‘the jock strap is not a piece of clothing as it doesn’t cover you from the rain’; ‘the Rockefeller Centre is not a building as it is a conglomerate of buildings; it is more like a piece of city’. But only if you want those dividing lines to exist, only if you want Bond University to say ‘I am Bond University because I am on this side of the road’. What happens if you have an outstation up the road, like Cornell having a downtown satellite – is that part of the university? You break down obvious associations. Once you start to discuss covering something, and you are in the architectural world, it just becomes a question of scale.

 What are your interests and influences at this point in your career?

I could give you a list. I am interested in kiosks, in funny mechanical things popping out of vegetation. I am interested in pathways that aren’t necessarily streets; streets that aren’t necessarily streets; come-go buildings sitting underneath permanent buildings. I am interested in boardwalks; funny things that happen on bus stops; buildings that are not really buildings – like bus shelters, kiosks, huts, tents, someone in a cardboard box; and verandas and bits of the house that extend. I am interested in what is happening with smokers now, and buildings that have to adapt.

CRAB's Taiwan Tower design.

 

I understand you are also very excited about something you’re working on in London. 

Yes. CRAB is working on the design of a Taiwan Tower for Taichung that celebrates energy. In fact, it does more than just celebrate it in a ‘mimsy’ way: it literally oozes with algae breeders, tubes, collectors of wind, solar energy and water, layers of piezoelectric apparatus. It is elegant, flowing – not an anorak’s dream but a stylish series of drapes. I’m excited because I believe it marks the moment of maturity of the CRAB studio – five years in.

Tell me about your interest in ‘mechanical things popping out of vegetation’. 

I am always interested in the highly artificial – the contrived, the manmade – and nature. I believe that places like Australia have a higher concentration of this phenomenon. In Northern Europe, in fact a lot of Europe, when we look out at nature it is not as God left it but is the effect of wind patterns encouraging people to plant trees as a wind barrier. It is the effect of drainage leading to a stream, and that being under the ownership of one person or another. Or it is the effect of political change or a battle, or some guy giving his land to his three sons and one of the sons was smart and the other two were stupid. Or it was the effect of an extremely bad storm or an army that was not very well generalled. A lot of it is circumstantial, some of it is practical, some of it is accidental and some is pragmatic. If you overlay the accidental with the circumstantial and the human frailty factor, and then you look out the window and say that this is the piece of landscape that I can see, then it is as much a part of that. It is not ‘natural’ nature – it is ‘interfered-with-nature’. There is no dividing line between that and highly considered husbandry.

In Australia, the connection between the city and nature is important.

This is the third hotel that I have stayed in on this Brisbane street. It is the most agreeable spot in Brisbane, as it is central, and then suddenly it turns into this marvellous, contrived garden. But you get proper ‘city’, not suburb, and luscious beautiful gardens. It is not as God left it, but it is contrived – and looped by a river.

Another Cook sketch for the Bond University School of Architecture competition.

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