Peter Cook is Concerned By Contemporary Drawing Culture, And Here’s Why

In the sixth episode of GSAPP Conversations, Jarrett Ley (a current GSAPP student) speaks with Sir Peter Cook. They discuss architecture as a tool for shaping radical thought, the relationship of the current political climate in Britain, Europe, and the United States on architectural education and practice, and how the most interesting contemporary architectural projects appear to stem from “unknown architects in smaller countries.”

GSAPP Conversations is a podcast series designed to offer a window onto the expanding field of contemporary architectural practice. Each episode pivots around discussions on current projects, research, and obsessions of a diverse group of invited guests at Columbia, from both emerging and well-established practices. Usually hosted by the Dean of the GSAPP, Amale Andraos, the conversations also feature the school’s influential faculty and alumni and give students the opportunity to engage architects on issues of concern to the next generation.

GSAPP Conversations #6: Sir Peter Cook with Jarrett Ley

Jarrett Lay: I’m Jarrett Ley, a dual-degree graduate student in the Architecture and Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices (CCCP) programs here at GSAPP, speaking today with Sir Peter Cook, one of the founders of the radical experimentalist group, Archigram. Cook is currently building with Gavin Robotham the studio Cook Robotham Architectural Bureau, or CRAB. Welcome, Sir Peter Cook. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

LEY: My first question is regarding your career, which has been uniquely structured in relation to academic institutions – first in its dramatic departure from the teachings of the AA, then as a professor and a juror, and eventually Chair of Architecture at the Bartlett until 2006. How has your history of disrupting norms of the academy informed your role in leading them?

Sir Peter Cook: I’m not sure that I’ve been disruptive. I think one of the useful things is if you are visibly doing a lot of things outside, it makes you a stronger academic. I have strong feelings about this. For a long, long, long, long time I said, “Oh, I’m just a joke academic.” Then when I started to accumulate several professorships, I had to admit that probably … and you know, my payroll was mostly from academe.

But I really do feel that. I think that in recent years, there’s been a tendency – particularly in the UK, but also elsewhere – for a kind of disengagement between academe on the one hand and offices on the other hand. And I have noticed that a lot of very clever people in schools of architecture, you know, they have become experts on Foucault, but then they have to go into an office where they just have not done a lot of architectural observation, and then they just do what the office does.

So I rather crave for a lost period when the professors in architecture were building. The discussion was mostly about the history of made objects, and the offices were therefore more easily threatened by people with ideas – because the ideas were about what they were actually doing.

I say this particularly in an American context because I think it’s been very noticeable over the many years I’ve been coming here. On the other hand, there are a few oases here and there that I tend to gravitate towards, where there are still people designing things and talking about them in school.

LEY: Which is to develop a set of potentially transformative ideas that actually have traction in the production of architecture professionally?

COOK: Yes. And my own work has been for want of a better word experimental or disruptive or concerned sometimes with even anti-building buildings – nonetheless it has been concerned with the business of architecture rather than the business of abstract culture.

LEY: Then within that spectrum of theoretical considerations on the spectrum of Foucault and then all the way into the basis in building construction and the production of architecture more broadly, – among these various sites of, say, discourse in production, may that be design schools, biennials, exhibitions, professional practice, and competitions – where do you see the most disciplinary revolution coming from today?

COOK: I think the most considerable revolution is going to come in the means of production. I mean, I’m not the first person to say this, but it’s clear that suddenly there will be a kind of collapse of the old relationship of the guy at the desk – whether the desk is inhabited by a laptop or whatever it is or a robot or whatever – there will be a collapse between the guy at the desk and the manner in which the building can happen. And I think that I would like to see a new kind of architect develop who would be more or less like a kind of extremely developed, sophisticated version of an airline pilot who actually is in a sense driving the control, under certain spheres of control, but nonetheless driving the thing that’s doing the thing rather than detachment.

Now, what that would do to the profession I don’t know. I think there’s also the corollary of that is that perhaps following that up could be a new kind of architect which I would think of rather like the village postman or the village policeman who’d be like a kind of craft helpful person, like the village doctor. The village – and maybe they’re a lost tribe also – where in smaller communities you have a local guy. There’s always somebody up the street who is some sort of architect, a kind of agent for dealing with whatever you may need in terms of sticking a kitchen on or building an apartment block.

And then that is handed over at a certain scale to a completely different kind of thing. Whereas at the moment, the threatened species is the middle, the sort of person who says, “Well, I’m sort of doing the building.” But actually already now the tendency for a lot of offices is to insist on a certain kind of procedure – a certain computer procedure so that all the services and everything goes together in one drawing – which means that there’s already a kind of standardized response and that a few sort of art buildings are allowed on the fringe.

But what really strikes me in London and obviously elsewhere is that there are almost now standard responses. You can almost predict what the building is going to do without even seeing the building. And we’ve returned to a kind of, you know – the architect is involved in pissantism, if at all. But the most interesting people in the field are really, really involved in that wing of the digital world which is concerned with actually how stuff is grown – the morphology of it and the process of it.

I haven’t done very much building. Okay – later in life I have started doing buildings and one is still struck by how primitive the process still is. You know, it’s still blokes on the scaffolding and people botching – even in quite sophisticated countries – still botching corners and covering up things and so on. But the basic formulae are there.

And I think it’s a curious moment where there has to be a rethink of the whole thing. Not of the tradition of architecture – I still think it’s very useful to see how buildings in the past responded to their culture and how interesting (I won’t say good architecture, but interesting) architecture was always a kind of compromise between common sense logic and imagination and symbolism.

I think the symbolic aspect becomes very, very interesting because symbolism is wrapped up in all sorts of kinds of territorial jargon. I mean, I’m a victim of it, too. You know, when I do make buildings, I make them do certain things which in a way they don’t have to, or they don’t have to do them like that. They could do them in other ways, and I’m conscious that I prefer them to do them in a certain sort of way because it sends out signals, because it makes references, and it subscribes to a kind of statement of a moment in time or a position or an attitude towards objects again.

You know, in a way we all tend to make symbolic objects. You only have to drive down the street outside and you can see the generic blocks are the same and the elevator positions are probably exactly the same because there’s a logic to that. And then people massage the thing in the same way that you decide to grow a beard, but maybe next year you’ll decide not to grow a beard and wear a hat, you know? You’re still there inside it.

So this kind of territory interests me. But I mean we don’t spend enough time talking about that. My most respected younger friends – and being of a certain age, nearly all my friends are younger than myself – are in this slip-stream territory. They were trained and are probably, the ones I’m thinking of, quite knowledgeable about historical architecture, they’re quite knowledgeable maybe about certain philosophical ideas. They can certainly understand a Corbusian building. They can certainly understand why Herzog & de Meuron are doing something this year that they weren’t doing last year. But they themselves are off into a territory which is almost scary.

LEY: Why scary?

COOK: Because its implications are that you will be able to grow buildings, that you will be able to manipulate space – you know, you don’t need drawings. You can bypass the drawing process virtually.

But I’m somebody who loves drawing, you know. I enjoy it. So the drawing becomes a kind of masturbatory exercise. I do it because I’m an old person who likes drawing in the sense that some people like drinking tea or some people like playing cards. So in a sense there’s a card-playing degree of relevance to life. But I won’t pursue that. I think it’s coming at the edges.

And the curious thing is that it’s probably coming via societies that don’t necessarily understand it any more than I do, but are willing to see what happens if it happens. So that some of these things happen somewhere like China, but the equivalent of the chattering classes that you would get in the States or in England or France or somewhere don’t have the mandate to respond in quite the same way. Somebody people with power and influence says, “All right, do it,” and it’s done and it’s there, and it’s sort of shocking and surprising and intriguing. But there’s not a lot of chatter down the line. But there will be.

And I think that’s interesting in a university such as this, which probably – as all the places that I know – has a high proportion of Asian students who will sooner or later go back and set up their own good architecture schools. It’s happening already. They won’t have to come to Columbia or places in London or whatever. They’ll have their own.

And maybe the smarter ones are already thinking, “We don’t have to do the old Western method.” I don’t know. I’m just speculating. I’m just using your interview as a sort of thinking aloud actually. I hadn’t had this conversation before, but I’ve had it with a few cronies, or bits of it.

LEY: You mentioned earlier these sort of buildings that transcend in a sense the need for drawings in the manner that you favor in your own production. Do you weight or see these sort of algorithms and computational methods that drive that production as of equal weight in these new regimes of architecture?

COOK: They might be. I mean I don’t understand them. I can’t do them. We still make cardboard models and, you know, scribbles. Then the computer takes over. But it takes over after the cardboard models and scribbles have made the investigation.

LEY: So what does it look like in your office within CRAB?

COOK: Yeah, cardboard models and people at small computers.

LEY: And eventually is there a moment of translation in your office where it goes from …

COOK: No, it goes backwards and forwards I think. And Gavin, my working partner, when he was a Bartlett student of mine, he interestingly never admitted to being computer literate at all. And he does beautiful drawings. He’s very known for doing beautiful, beautiful sketch drawings, not the kind I do, but sketch drawing.

And then when he went to the GSD, he was actually a TA in computing. And then when he came back, as soon as he was in a position to delegate, I rarely see him on the actual computer. He carries one of these, like I do. But he can do it. But now he’s in his late forties and he argues that the kids can do it faster, better, and they’re up to new programs and stuff.

But our friends are all mostly all in the Bartlett, which is a school that already has, I don’t know, 15 robots and God knows what, and people are growing stuff. They’re growing bits of building on the outside wall. Their conversation is there, they can point to it and you can see it happening. That’s where it gets scary. And these are our close friends, you know.

But those same close friends, as I said earlier, actually can discuss Corbusier with you if you happen to want to or something that’s going up on the corner or the difference between the baroque and the rococo or whatever it might be. It’s interesting. So they are even themselves an intermediate generation.

The danger becomes I think if the people developing those techniques – what do you call them in the States? We call them boffins or anoraks. They’re the kind of guys that sit in a corner and never come out, only sit on the computer. But if they become detached from the tradition of architecture. So in a funny way I’m a traditionalist. I think that there has to be a sort of carryover, even if it’s only conversational, even if it’s only in discussion, there has to be at least a psychological carryover that what you are still producing in the end is some kind of building in that it is an enclosure or whatever.

But that, even then, in my early Archigram days, one would have blown it open and said, “Well, you know, after all a Wellington boot is part of architecture and so is an umbrella.” And where do you draw the line? So is a pullover. Where do you draw the line?

LEY: Or the canopy or the …

SPC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right, right.

LEY: To shift gears a little bit – I’m curious: So here at Columbia GSAPP a great deal of energy has recently materialized around architecture’s capacity to engage in political resistance and radical communication. I’m curious if the story of Archigram holds any lessons for the abilities of students today to engage in transformative architectural communication?

COOK: I don’t know. We were curious in that we were not particularly political. In fact, I think of some of the Archigram members that are now dead, and I would be hard put to tell you what they voted. I would guess that they voted left, but the odd one might have voted right without it affecting the conversation. I’ve just been discussing with your Dean the whole predicament that we’re in now post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-governors, Marine Le Pen, the Mexican government – where to go?

And it’s scary. I don’t think I lived through such a scary time as this. In the UK the left and the right were not so – I lived through a long period where there wasn’t much – there were certain differences, but not dramatic, particularly in our country. It’s not been a political country until recently, and even now it’s probably less politicized than some.

But it is a scary period, and I would expect the educated – I mean, I think the real schism is between the relatively educated and the uneducated because I think it’s a proportional difference now. I think in the generation before mine the educated were a relatively small minority that had the power, money and influence. But they had to go and liberalize their ideas. Now the balance is somehow different. It’s all very weird.

LEY: Do you think that architectural representation has the capacity to sustain a new public imaginary that could begin to open up a more inclusive and democratic discourse?

COOK: In theory. But I don’t know whether many of the people in architecture have the balls to do it or have the talent to really make it. I mean, I think somebody like Lebbeus Woods, for example, to take a particular case, was a brilliant example of somebody who was extremely moral, was extremely articulate, and could draw anything and convince you through drawing that the impossible was possible. And he was highly political in fact. You know, he was extremely so, much more than myself. I don’t think there are many of those sort of people around.

I think it’s interesting, though, to look back at the role of the sort of agitprop trains and so on, the Russian period, except that when you read and dig around and get people who know about that period of history, it was still in fact the cultured elite who were using the rhetoric in order to usefully apply their aesthetic wishes.

I don’t mind that. I mean, I do it myself. But to what extent architecture can affect the populist world is a very tricky thing. It’s difficult to discuss here, you know, in what is already an elite institution, and difficult for me to discuss because I’ve grown up most of my life in London. I am a sort of elitist. I’m a tubist elitist. And I live in the London bubble just as you live in the New York bubble. But we’re not the majority. There’s something going on out there that we probably don’t even – can’t quite understand because it seems to us unreasonable and stupid.

LEY: Yeah. Just as the reverse does to our reciprocal.

COOK: Yeah, yeah.

LEY: As you mentioned, there wasn’t necessarily as much political intention behind Archigram?

COOK: No, there was not.

LEY: That being said, though, certainly at least in the way in which it figures in the imaginary of architects today do see it for its ability to present these alternative realities. Which is in a sense to ask, does an architect need to intend to be political to have a political effect?

COOK: I think architects ought to yell out more. I mean in the sense that we were not afraid to postulate certain ideas that were not fashionable, that were not discussed very much. They tended not to be political, though they had a few, from time to time certain political implications. But again, they were more to do with product, you know. We felt that architecture was a hide-bound activity, that it was producing and living in this kind of straitjacket, a kind of gentlemanly straitjacket, a kind of comfortable, pleasant straitjacket. And we found that irritating.

The other thing you have to bear in mind, that Archigram was quite an interesting coalition of people. The age difference was 10 years between the oldest and the youngest. No two people in Archigram had come from the same school of architecture, nor had the same taste in women, music, food, clothing. You know, they varied. And the two oldest ones had experienced the tail-end of the period just after the war, whereas we were the young end, we were kids. We were another generation that hadn’t had to go into the army or anything like that.

And that gives it all sorts of perspectives and influences. There was once a page or some pages in Archigram 6 done by Warren Chalk, who was the oldest. And it documented the achievements of the 1940s, which is a period that – you know, for me, I was a tiny tot – it didn’t exist hardly, and he documented all sorts of really intriguing things going on as a byproduct of the Second World War which have affected architecture.

And this is a very intriguing thing, that you can get a condition like a world war that generates all sorts of invention and resource and imagination and, you know, left my generation with a whole plethora of extraordinary things if you cared to use them.

LEY: Absolutely, yeah. And I think wartime is always a generator of new architectural invention. And it’s interesting, too. I was reminded in particular to our current political condition and the question of being an architect in a Trump era is having a real estate developer as a president and one who envisions the role of infrastructure, envisions the role, of course, of a wall, which presents a certain technological condition that is so immediate to his politics and so immediate to the public claims that there seems to be a particular ripeness to that potential for architecture to act.

COOK: And yet if you were in my generation, you remember the Berlin Wall – and at a certain moment it just crumbled, it crumbled almost by the public will. The fact that concrete was there, but suddenly it had no relevance anymore. I think there are break points.

Even if he built his wall, I can’t imagine why the Mexicans wouldn’t rise up and, you know, just break it. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong, that at a certain point it doesn’t work. But maybe he doesn’t care because that point would be decades down the line maybe.

LEY: Absolutely. And it would indeed necessitate an equal resistance from the United States for any sort of disapproval.

COOK: You know, I am not surprised that the applicants for Canadian nationality are soaring up. You know, we’ll all probably be heading over there. I think if I was American, I’d head for Canada – apart from the climate. It is quite funny because as an English person, when I come in via Canada, which I have done a few times, it’s like a soft landing. And it’s very interesting to compare Canada to the United States. They’re incredibly more civilized.

LEY: Does Canada figure more liberally now in your mind?

COOK: Oh, much. Yeah, yeah. No question. A year or so back I traveled up the Northwest, and I went in a car over the border into Canada and then had to take a plane. And what was interesting was the procedure of the usual security stuff at the airport. It was exactly the same, technically the same: the same bin, the same procedure, the same thing, you have to take the same things off. But the way in which you were treated was totally different. It was civilized and gentle, instead of the typical American airport thing where you’re barked at as if you’re some kind of idiot.

You could cut it with a knife. It was really extraordinary because the actual mechanics were the same. It was just the behavior was different. And that tells you a lot about a country I think.

So it’s interesting now; I think on the part of European liberals, who we all may be, there will be a disinclination to come to the States. There will be just a gradual disinclination to bother if it’s going to be like that. We’ll just say, “Oh, we don’t need it.”

LEY: It’s interesting, you’re pointing to the airport once again as a critical architectural site. And we spoke earlier about sort of a transaction knowledge across generations both of concerns and history. And I think figuring right now is an emergence and awareness of these explicit sites of political conflict that are emerging and how architecture can rethink them if not in a sort of covert capacity, right – to design one thing, then as a symbol of our operations.

COOK: But then if you extrapolate further, you could imagine the Trump kind of guys will hire a certain kind of architect who will make sure the corridors do a certain thing and the entrances do a certain kind of thing. You know, if you think it through you could very rapidly … Hitler must have used architects to make the concentration camps. And those guys would find a certain type of architect who would be perfectly willing to make a kind of vicious controlling type of architecture I would have thought.

LEY: Do you have any thoughts on the sort of responsible, ethical response from architects on that end within the United States?

COOK: No, I don’t. I think one of my observations of architects in America, and it’s getting to be much the same in our country, is that the majority of architects do come out of a place like this and have to get a job. And you know, a lot of them end up in Skidmore’s or whoever it might be, and the corporate thing. It really interested me, I was doing some consultancy a few years ago for Frasier King – actually in their UK office, in their London office – and there were kids coming out of the AA, which was my old school.

Now, in my period, the ’60s and older, an AA graduate was a radical. They were the troublemaker in there. They were the guy who came lippy, full of ideas, got whacked on the head, and then ended up usually pursuing the ideas and keeping the office afloat. The new kids coming out of the AA are all ready to be corporate. They’re almost being trained to be corporate, and they fit terribly comfortably into that sort of office. I was scared by that.

And when I was teaching at Harvard a couple years ago, I found a lot of the conversations I had with my own students, they were talking about a lot of their friends who were gearing themselves ready to go into the big corporate offices. Now, the ones that I made friends with particularly tended to be sort of saying, you know, “That’s not going to be me.” Well, I don’t know. But this was a discussion that so many people coming out of particularly Ivy League schools, but virtually anywhere, are already playing the game to be office-acceptable. I find that very, very scary.

Now, if they’re already doing that now, you can’t expect them to be radical, they won’t be radical. They’re already not radical. They don’t have it in their stomach to be radical.

LEY: It’s a very tricky game for a young architect to balance the needs of student debt at a university, an Ivy League university …

COOK: Yeah. I mean, we have that. We have that in London. You know, somebody comes out of college and if they stay in London, it’s a very expensive city. And yeah, maybe they like eating out. You know, they can’t afford a car, but they certainly can – you know, they eat out and it costs a certain amount of money. And they can’t do that existing on one small conversion from their uncle – so they gravitate to the offices, the big offices that can carry them. And then, you know, five years, ten years down the line they’re lost anyhow. But they’re already being made an associate or vice… – you know, all these titles that you get in big offices. And it’s too late.

LEY: If radical work is being constrained within this new connection to more corporate firms, do you think that it migrates to new sites of production?

COOK: Yeah, I think it does. We did one building in Australia, which I see you’ve used as your [lecture] poster, and I was intrigued. In Australia there seem to be quite a lot of relatively small firms that are doing interesting stuff. But the thing that really surprised me was that the building technology there, the actual way in which buildings get made, is actually quite sophisticated. We were concurrently doing a building in Austria – which you’d think has a longer tradition, sophisticated country, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah – but it’s relatively full of art by comparison with Australia.

And in countries like that, I think there are some interesting young architects that you meet, and places like Taiwan I think are interesting. You know, here and there, in small places. Portugal produces some amazing ones. Chile, which I visited a couple years ago. Those are the places where I think the radical architecture will happen actually.

Not in the USA and Germany and whatever. You track it and look – I sit sometimes on juries run by Architectural Review or WAF [World Architecture Festival] and all these things. And the really interesting stuff comes often from somewhere, where I didn’t even know there were people doing stuff. You can get something funny from Winnipeg or something funny from – well, Mumbai, okay, is a big town – but you get funny things from funny places. New Zealand produces amazing houses and so on. I mean, places that almost weren’t on the radar 20 years ago.

And I think that gives one hope that it will come from odd places. And then if that connects through… It depends what happens in China also, to what extent they will ever develop a middle scale of architectural operations. At the moment it’s still controlled by these big agencies. But maybe, I don’t know. But I think the pattern – and I’m an optimist fundamentally – but I just don’t think it’ll happen here. I don’t think it’ll happen in London. I don’t think it’ll happen in Düsseldorf. I don’t think it will happen in Paris. I think it will happen in small places.

LEY: Well, it’s hard to find a difficult place to end this conversation, but I think fundamental optimism is a good one.

COOK: Yeah. Because it will happen somewhere and then eventually trickle back.

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