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Syndromes, Influences and Projects

Peter Cook

Syndromes, Influences and Projects
By Peter Cook -

Nowadays I find it convenient to refer back to the seaside as a reason why my architectural tastes are often drawn towards the strange and relish in the casual, the temporary or the eccentric. After all, a seaside town naturally metamorphoses between Summer and Winter. In the north of Europe the weather does not encourage you to go down to the shore, but in early March there are the seeds of optimism: a guy will start painting bits of balustrade and almost anything else, in late March he will be unrolling the canvas or plastic awnings and wind-breakers. In April, the coloured lights might go on. For the next few months the town is bigger, fuller, brighter, noisier and physically different - so surely the Plug-in City was a subconscious - if not conscious realization of the metamorphic city. The critic and cultural commentator, Reyner Banham had written about Santa Monica Pier as the prototype mega-structure and most of the members of “Archigram” collected the type of silly objects that you might get at the seaside.
It was as if the English seaside, with a slightly raunchy, slightly tacky, slightly “alternative” reputation suggested another way for the individualist to enjoy urban life. Of course it was not a revolutionary or even radical situation: the British don’t do radical. The true reason for my attraction may also be that of familiarity: of the ten places I lived in until I was in my twenties, four were seaside towns - including that of Bournemouth, where I also made my first architectural studies. Working on the beach (selling fruit and ice creams) in a metal caravan was perhaps the real experience of life in a “capsule”: me, 60 wasps, fruit and the occasional angry parent complaining that I had sold their child a dud peach! The real life out there on the beach could have been on the moon, or in a contaminated area: I had done my early forays into town-planning in the sand with stick-drawn roads and I had not learned to swim. My capsule was my own world - apart from gossip with fellow-students who came over for a free banana.

Moving to London to study at the Architectural Association was an inevitable step. It enabled me to actually make contact (at least eye and ear contact) with a generation of English architects who (unlike earlier modern periods) were being taken seriously by the outside world. There is, inevitably, a great difference between being influenced by someone’s work by seeing it on a page and seeing the someone - with ‘warts and all’ in the flesh. Thus I and the other people in Archigram got to know Eduardo Paolozzi - this extraordinary chunk of a Scottish sounding Italian with a fascinating combination of irony and sensitivity behind the physical presence. Or Cedric Price - the escort of Princesses, actresses and playwrights who was not only a devout and active worker for the Socialist Cause, but probably the only true architectural philosopher of our generation.
Price’s relationship to Archigram was close but more that of an amused cousin than a brother. After all, Archigram were a ramshackle lot: a coalition rather than a family: though we did quite often go as a group (with wives) to concerts by the Yes, the Band, Miles Davis, The Average White Band or the Manhattan Transfer. Warren Chalk was the oldest (ten years older than Mike Webb) and most acerbic to those who didn’t know him well. A painter and jazz drummer who probably found the making of a drawing the most painful of us all, though able to summarize a whole attitude in a form of studied cartoon: it was he, after all, who designed the cover of “Archigram 4”. Whereas Ron Herron was the smoothest, fastest sleekest draw-er that I had ever met. David Greene had also wanted to be a painter but the rest of us: Dennis Crompton, Mike Webb and myself had quite happily gone straight into architecture. This coalition was such that we did not share each others’ tastes in clothes, music, girls or food but all did subscribe to the wish to challenge the “comfortableness” of English architecture - even to open up the conversations beyond those of the Smithsons on the one hand or James Stirling on the other.
David looked to the beat poets, Mike to Buckminster Fuller and Warren, Ron and I would discuss whether a parallel to Bruno Taut’s “Frühlicht” was not timely. The broadsheet “Archigram” from which we had derived our name is a reasonable barometer of our development: the first issue a crazy, student-y outpouring. The second a collection of short essays with pictures: at which point Mike, David and I (the younger end), invited Ron, Warren, Dennis and Cedric Price to contribute. The third was rhetorically on the subject of expendability - the idea of “throw-away” architecture. The fourth - probably the classic issue - took the link between the American comics (and their depiction of cities of the future), pointing out the similarity to the ideas of Taut and his friends. The fifth dealt with “urbanism” , and by this time we were inviting all sorts of people to “put in a drawing”. The sixth was a piece of serious research on the forgotten period of ‘the forties’ - made by Warren - who, after all, had experienced the period as an adolescent. The later Archigrams went further into speculation about vegetation and even the ‘dissolve’ of architecture.
A characteristic of the group was the production of individual work as much as that made by any one, two, three or four members working together. Mike pushed on with his auto-environments, Ron devised the “Walking City” - still the most evocative “Archigram” icon, Dennis with “Computer City”, David with the “Living Pod”; and for me, there were the various iterations of “Plug-in”: the city, the university and subsequent “clip-ons”.
The existence of a colleague’s project acted both as an encouragement and a kick in the ribs - like a very good School an element of rivalry fitted into the obvious camaraderie. Having produced a project, the best praise from one of the others would be that “this’ll upset them”. The precise identity of the “them” was never quite spelled out but was, broadly the self-satisfied and the purveyors of uptight architecture.

At this point I am referring more to the AA as I returned to it as a teacher, than its impact on me as a student. Perhaps in retrospect, it was the history lectures of John Summerson and the town-planning lectures of Arthur Korn that stayed - every bit as much as Peter Smithson’s critiques. John Killick and James Gowan were my most outstanding tutors and when I returned at the age of 27 I was consciously borrowing as a teacher from their coercive but enthusiastic mannerisms, as well as inviting them back as critics.
The important aspect of that school, as far as my own creative work was concerned, lay in the fact that it remained a “hothouse”, that there was always someone down the corridor smarter than you, that it seized upon the talents of students and pulled them back to teach pretty quickly. The overlap of Archigram with OMA, Libeskind with Zaha, Tschumi with Peter Wilson and many, many more was all of this as well as a symbol of the plurality of the place. Sadly it seems that few good schools right now have the strength or the wit to encourage such plurality.
Yet it served as a further, direct canvas for Archigram people to develop their ideas and for me to discover new allies. Indeed, one can note that the interval of age between Peter Smithson and myself is only a shade more than the gap between myself and Zaha: this 14-year thing gives you a form of “alliance” - which is tough, maybe, on the in-between generation.

At a certain point around 1975, Ron and I decided to do the competition for Roosevelt Island in New York and virtually broke a school rule. Together with a fellow tutor, Ingrid Morris, we invited our six best students to join in with us and have a waiver on five weeks’ studies. The result was an intriguing mixture of mechanistics, vegetation and romanticism. Almost all of that group have flourished in the profession: Keith Priest, Penny Richards, Gerry Whale, John Robins, Tom Heneghan and Christine Hawley. The last two not least as significant teachers and Christine’s work in particular displayed a unique talent in folding-in what we would later refer to as “lyrical mechanism”.
She was already known in Archigram circles as “Ron’s best-ever student” and had broken more rules by having him as tutor for four years in a row. Together we moved from Roosevelt through to a number of projects involving meshes, grottoes, and tentacles that are best described by our Trondheim Library scheme. After some years, many competitions and several house projects we built in Osaka, Berlin and Frankfurt.
Yet, as with the Archigram period, the joint work benefitted from a parallel stream of our own individual projects - the “bouncing” action being critical. For me, a central project was the “Arcadia” series - a form of urban narrative based upon social types: the “hip”, the “combative”, the “old with great memories”, the “romantic” and so-on. Out of this period came some significant younger players such as CJ Lim who taught with Christine at the Bartlett and later Gavin Robotham, with whom I have CRAB. So that by the 1990s “Hawco” (the joke name we gave ourselves) brought in Lim and Robotham to create a run of three competition projects of which that for Bad Deutsch - Altenburg was for us, seminal.
A characteristic of the later work was also the use of the sheet-steel plate: as a backdrop in the (built) Osaka Pavilion, as a carcass in our favourite (but unbuilt) Langen Glass Museum and as a series of plates in different postures in the four elements of the Bad Deutsch - Altenburg museum park.

On being made the Professor of Architecture at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt I continued to teach at the AA with Christine Hawley, to spend two-thirds of my time in London and bring many London people over as critics and lecturers. To link between teaching and building was, after all, the expected role of a German Professor and we entered several competitions which always seemed to be organized so that the most predictable name was the winner. As I prepared to marry my former student, Yael Reisner - a fiercely individual risk-taker both architecturally and romantically - her suggestion that we could possibly live in Frankfurt led to my instinctive response: “no I don’t want to leave London”. Why was this? Simply that it contained the richest and most cosmopolitan range of people and positions. Frankfurt, better though it is than its reputation, remained too “local” for me.
The issue was solved when James Gowan, who had been brought in by the Bartlett School of University College London to recommend them someone who could revive the school. For he suggested me. In eight and a half years I had internationalized the Steadelschule but with a ceiling of 30 students. A big school was a challenge. A big school that had lost its way an issue and one that was only seven minutes walk from the AA was a very particular task.
Both places had been in existence for 140 or so years and the accepted role was for the AA to be avant-garde and the Bartlett to be scholarly but dull. I attacked fast, brought in twenty new part-time teachers (twelve from the AA) and reconstructed the school as a Unit-based set-up where even young teachers could have a major influence. Again I wanted a rich and varied mix. At a selfish level I am best stimulated by people around me doing their thing not my thing and I strongly believe in competitiveness between teachers as well as students.
Only an observer can really see the pattern of creativity between academic activity and design activity. There are many aspects of running a school that are manipulative and creative and, like a design project, benefit from the editing process. Over the sixteen years at the Bartlett there grew up again that heady experience of knowing that there were several people up and down the corridor who were smarter than you. Moreover, I was encouraged to keep a three-days-a-month toehold back at the Staedelschule which enabled me to experience the brilliance of Enric Miralles at close quarters. Cedric Price became a cigar-smoking crony of Enric and the Frankfurt juries expanded even further.

We persuaded Colin Fournier, (who as the young lieutenant to Archigram had been a key player, so many years before, on the Monte Carlo project) to come to the Bartlett and set up the Urban Design course. He had built a whole oil port city in Saudi Arabia and been a successful AA tutor but was languishing somewhere in Austria. Then we decided to go for a competition in Graz for the new Kusthaus. It was to be tucked into a tiny site at the foot of the castle hill. Our scheme was not chosen, but the site was wrong anyway and we eagerly entered the new competition - for the Kunsthaus to be located on a more generous site on the side of the River Mur. We won in a field of 103 schemes and there was immediately an incentive to get started: the target being the advent of Graz as “Cultural city of Europe” in 2003.
The design had been produced in almost a classic manner: we met in Colin’s Bartlett room every day at 6pm and had a session lasting two or three hours. We gathered a small group of talented (and computer literate) students who would process our deliberations overnight. Of these, Niels Jonkhans, a German-speaking Dutchman was, and remained, the sheet-anchor support. After a month pursuing a “box-and-ramp” solution, we realized that we were making the thing too complicated. One day, we just sat down and said: what should it really do? We should fill the site: “SPLAT”, like poured ketchup. We should create a sense of hidden mystery, raised above the street. The building should have a simple access - on a travelator - running up from the obvious point of entry. The bulbous shape seemed inevitable. The idea of nozzles came from the earlier Kunsthaus scheme. And that, (apart from five weeks of massaging and massaging) was it!
The directness of the project and the brilliance of Klaus Bollinger the engineer were key points: for the exhibition of all the entries revealed the fact that even some of our most illustrious competitors had seemed to make things very complicated: with spikes and layers and all kinds of histrionics.
In the years since, it seems as if my identity can so easily be summed-up by the laziest journalist and I sometimes parody their assessment when I start a lecture: “Young P. Cook = Plug-in City… Old P. Cook = Kunsthaus Graz… now you can go home!” Moreover they fall over themselves in calling it an “Archigram building” - which it is not. Time, reality and an awareness of the idea of architecture as theatre had intervened. Moreover, Colin Fournier was as much as me, the thinker and designer behind the scheme.
Another colleague then came back into view - for Gavin Robotham had finished his postgraduate work at Harvard and was working in London. We remembered in particular how we enjoyed the three competitions (with Christine and CJ) and were encouraged by another friend, Salvador Perez Arroyo (a Madrid professor who enjoyed sorties into the Bartlett) to set up a studio.
With his help we designed a housing block for Vallecas in Madrid, worked on a master plan for Pinto and several other Spanish projects. Both of us still teaching a bit and having links with several Schools, we slowly gathered a core group around ourselves.

The Spanish work nosedived with the well recognized demise of the economy. Only the Vallecas housing survived - up to a point.
The project drawings reveal a sexy system of shutters, a rooftop sports centre and a series of kiosks sitting under the raised legs of the building. As with Graz, the idea was to bring the street right in. In fact, the Pinto scheme was designed to have a whole cluster of such buildings, with the boardwalks and encouragement of the flaneur as constituents of a vital piece of town. Halfway up, construction stopped: the builder had gone bankrupt - and so it stayed for more than a year. The Barcelona builder who was eventually found to complete the project cut out every frill and used a cheaper surfacing material so that this intended “blue building number 3” (the others being the Berlin Lutzowplatz housing and the Kunsthaus), was not-so-blue.
Yet the result raises interesting issues: I grumble because the roof and ground activity are, to me, both social statements and organic “enliveners”. The shutters are sophisticated devices and cheerful elements. The blue is a statement against the “oh not again” terra-cotta colouration of so much of outer Madrid. On the other hand, the apartments work, the three big light wells are bright and characterful, the stairs and small balconies have a jaunty (dare I say “seaside”) air about them and maybe, one day, the kiosks will open up and life will take place at this one point in the very barren atmosphere of Vallecas? It raises the question of essentiality: are only the walls, doors and windows essential, or is a building an amalgam of major and minor elements: coercing events, encouraging play. I think you can guess my answer.
Like most architects we enter innumerable competitions and on this subject I can make a few observations: in the “Archigram” period we won a very big competition - for the entertainments centre at Monte Carlo. We started to be a “proper office” and brought in Frank Newby (the engineer friend of Cedric and James Stirling) as well as a bureau d’etude. After nearly three years work we realized that Prince Ranier had lost interest. One speculates as to what differences it would have made if built? Would we have become a big office? Would we have experimented less?
“Hawco” wins (for solar houses in Germany and the Bad Deutsch - Altenburg park) were not built either and when Graz really took off, I could hardly believe it - even if Colin and I never made a cent out of it.
At CRAB, one of our favourite “wins” has been the Verbania theatre: but Italy is Italy and it was not proceeded with. Another favourite (non winner) scheme is that for Birmingham New Street. In terms of idea, this has a wonderful progression of kaleidoscopic colour reflecting back into that rather grey city. Similarly the Taipei music strip - that has both a colour progression and a formal-geometrical progression setting up a counterpoint between them, still intrigues me as a proposition.
The success of both the Vienna Law School and the Bond University Architecture school comes partly from knowing - at a day-to-day level - how university life plays itself out and focusing - in both cases - upon intersticial space - the corridor conditions, the “scoops”; the “nooks and crannies” and a developed sense of theatre.
So we are at a watershed: it is sometimes hard for us to get onto invited because we are hard to categorize: but feel that we are at last breaking through.
More and more I feel that the projects have a narrative as well as mannerisms. More and more I feel the sense of ‘the theatre of the everyday’ becoming a central motivator.
Gavin Robotham’s sheer talent as a designer - his sense of “eye” - is exciting to parry with. We have at CRAB Mark Bagguley as a builder-craftsman figure, we have Jenna Al - Ali as the scrupulous one (also with great “eye”), we have Lorene Faure as the fastest rider of the mouse and ace pictorializer and last, but not least we have Ting-na Chen the strategist par excellence.
It’s the “smart down the corridor” thing again.

Peter Cook

(Melbourne - on tour)




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