Making a Scene
Peter Cook is always making a scene. Whether he is attending a conference, running a school, or envisioning a future city, he is stirring up the mix, wryly lobbing in topics, people or programs to tweak an otherwise ordinary situation and make it into a scene. Volume talked with him about the education scene, design in North America and Europe, and his marital affairs.
JI: You’ve been involved with broadcasting architecture your entire life. Can you talk about that?
PC: Yes. If you are passionate about what you do and really believe that it’s infuriatingly interesting, you can’t keep silent about it. I’ve never been able to keep silent about anything. I’ve been an architecture enthusiast since I was about eleven and think every means available should be used to externalize it.
One is aware from a very early age that architecture is a difficult territory to explain. I was saying to my students this morning that in a funny way I regard architecture as a sort of sophisticated bullshit. I mean, there’s no real criteria for architecture. We’ve invented them. It’s a series of invented systems of criteria. Value systems emerge, but they’re objectively quite difficult to justify. That doesn’t mean they’re not marvelous. The rest of it is intriguing and I think architecture is very intriguing. If you’re really interested in architecture you can stand at a bus stop and look across the street at some third-rate building and say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting! That guy was trying to do so-and-so. And that’s terrible, but it’s terrible in an interesting way.’ I can even sit in this completely bland room we’re here in now and find something of interest: ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ That intrigues me.
JI: This summer there were reports in the newspapers that your marriage with the former supermodel Christie Brinkley was ending in divorce and that you had had an affair with a 19-year-old. Do you care to comment on this?
PC: I am not sure I know what you’re talking about. [cf. The relationship with Christie Brinkley involved another architect named Peter Cook.] Oh that. Well, we received a phone call from my mother-in-law in Israel saying that a friend had heard about the divorce and thought it was very unfortunate for my wife.
JI: Are there any cities that fascinate you at the moment?
PC: Yes! I’m always fascinated by Berlin which I find easy to correlate with London. I’m still in love with LA after 35 years and still prefer it to New York. I’ve just been to Chicago, which I really do not like! Sorry about that if you come from the region. I would trade Busan for Chicago anytime!
There are some cities which have a very strange ability to revive themselves despite all economic tendencies. I cannot fully understand why Glasgow appears to be thriving. It’s depopulating, has no particularly strong economic base, and foreign money and the high-tech industry in Scotland have moved to Edinburgh. Nonetheless, Glasgow has a certain spirit and you can’t quite put your finger on it. Is has somehow kept its spirit, despite all indications that it shouldn’t have.
Second cities are also fascinating. Göteborg is more fascinating than Stockholm. Antwerp is more interesting than Brussels.
JI: Are there cities that you don’t find fascinating?
PC: There are cities that irritate me intensely. I think there are some cities that are very pleased with themselves. Okay, it’s loaded, but Jerusalem is very pleased with itself, while Tel Aviv is loose-limbed. Rome is very pleased with itself, but Milan is loose-limbed. I always prefer loose-limbed cities. They often produce better architecture because they’ve got nothing to lose.
JI: Somebody wrote that your work in the 1960s explored the epistemology of fun, pleasure and entertainment, the historical repository of knowledge about pleasure. Would you agree with that assessment?
PC: No, I think that’s over-philosophizing. I enjoy cheerfulness. I want normal life to be cheerful. I like the slight amusements of normal things, not searching for fun or dealing with fun per se. It immediately gets embarrassing once you put it like that. To see the naughty side of normal things is more interesting and I find it very amusing that a commonplace condition or a sensible building can have wry aspects. In architecture you can do something with a sensible building that puts an edge to it.
JI: Are there architects who are underacknowledged for their tongue-in-cheekness? Who are quite witty or funny but whom people take too seriously?
PC: My basic attitude toward this is that architecture is essentially theater. Even the most dour architecture is theater. Even a shed for garbage trucks could have an edge to it, even if it’s just the noise that the galvanized gate makes when you shut it, the fact that it has a cat flap, or that you deliberately allow for some of the garbage to spill over the back of the truck when you pull up the brake. Although it’s not my particular bag, I think there has often been a certain sort of architect who will put it into the detailing, where the detailing has a coyness, or a cuteness, or is even dangerously cute.
JI: You were responsible for one of the most theatrical events in architecture with Archigram magazine. One thing that is fascinating is the pop graphics. Nowadays those kind of graphics are relatively easy to do with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. But then, selecting, composing and scaling the images was much more difficult. Ironically, while it is easier to work that way now, the graphics done then appear more sophisticated and complex.
PC: This is so because it was less self-conscious. One just did it; you sat down and just graphicked a page. The graphics came out of what you were doing, you made it up as you went along.
JI: Where did you look for inspiration at the time?
PC: That’s not often mentioned about Archigram. David Greene was reading Beat poetry and looking at Evergreen Review. We saw that and we were listening to Ornette Coleman. There were links with art school. They were very open in terms of graphics and territories in between. I went to an art school architecture school as did David Greene and Warren Chalk went to a third one. So the three of us came out of art school schools. The links with pop art were not direct. I mean, we’re different groups of people, but the linkages were there, the origins were the same, the things you were hitting against were the same things.
JI: A lot of Volume’s readers weren’t born then, so can you explain what pop is?
PC: I think pop is a definable period of consciousness about Americana, about low culture, things that would upset your mother to some extent. It’s very much a distillation of American imagery, seen through English eyes and with very little chit chat, very little in the way of words. It was very untheorized.
JI: Can you talk about the stencil lettering work?
PC: It was just a device to get bigger lettering than a typewriter could generate. You see, a lot of these things are sort of seen as being more weighty than they were. You wanted bigger lettering and the stencil was easier because you didn’t have to go to a shop and buy stick-up. If somebody had come along with another way, we would have used it. I can remember as a student at the AA that there was a fetish for using the same metal plate stencils that Le Corbusier had used. There were arcane conversations about whether a certain kind of lettering was the one that Corb used or not, which even at that point seemed to me a bit daft, you know. I just wanted to get big letters.
BC: You spoke earlier about the qualities of cities and you said that you don’t think that’s always your area of expertise. But I wonder if that really is your area of expertise. The work you’ve done with the Bartlett, with Art Net, and with Archigram it seems as if your particular talent is not necessarily bringing a body of knowledge to an institution, but rather creating a scene. I wonder what the potential is for doing that for a city. I mean, should we hire Peter Cook to make this city the next scene?
PC: I think you should! It’s true, yes, I think that it’s about a scene, really. Of course, it’s easier in some places than in others. I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’ve mostly operated out of my apartment in general, but there’s enough people coming and going to make a scene.
JI: In an earlier interview you mentioned the idea of teasing the most out of architectural language. What about doing that with cities? If Peter Cook were hired to make a scene in a city, what are the things would you want to try to tease out of a city, to tease out of the language of a city?
PC: I suppose you’d have to tease out some of the key people. Then you’d have to look at what’s happened in recent years, where the potential for eccentricity is, and look at the potential for where things could move very quickly. You might find that there was a great instinct for sport or ballroom dancing, or keeping dogs or breeding chickens, or something that’s really not my bag, but you’d have to roll with it and say, ‘Right, it seems that they are still peasants at heart and they like breeding chickens and dogs. If they’re into dog breeding maybe the city square should become a place for dog shows.’ I’m giving a ridiculous example, but you see what I mean.
JI: So, do you have a favorite brand of sock right now?
PC: No. [laughs] Cheap!
JI: You once described yourself as Gothic. In what sense are you Gothic?
PC: I’m interested in drama and light and the manipulation of the fingering of space. I’m very bored by axial geometry. I’m very bored by lining things up. I find that very tedious and not interesting. I find that America is still preoccupied by alignment. America is still very much the child of the École des Beaux Arts. And it’s survived much more than people would like to admit.
JI: Have you heard any good gossip lately?
PC: It’s not gossip because it’s already known news, but it’s more interesting than gossip because it has resonance. What I find interesting is that at four fairly significant architecture schools in the USA Asian architects trained in the States have taken over: MIT, USC, UCLA and Harvard. I’m interested to see what happens when Asia develops significant schools of architecture.
The interim phenomenon has been American paranoia with European architecture. America has been fascinated by theory. While they were doing theory, the Europeans were getting on doing good buildings, end of conversation! They missed out! They dived down their own rectums doing theory and lost out on architecture. It’s like they deserved what they got!
JI: And what did America get?
PC: America’s stuck with well-read people who don’t know how to design. And they still have the École des Beaux Arts somewhere in the back of the system.
BC: You’ve mentioned that Cedric Price was a key figure with whom you were aligned when you were working with Archigram. His project for the Pottery Think Belt was one of many provocative concepts in England at the time that were rethinking schools as a communicative network. Did that influence your thinking as director of the Bartlett, for example?
PC: Oh, not at all. [laughs] But I’m always very aware that certain schools are networked in the sense that they’re absorbing from a network. I mean, if you’re lucky enough to become a major or fashionable school, the majority of people in your school come from somewhere else. This is so at Columbia and at the Bartlett where the majority of people have actually started somewhere else and then gravitated there. Therefore you’re feeding back into the network. It cycles. You’re like a sieve that absorbs the network and sends back into the network.
I’m fascinated by these guys who come from other schools expecting to inherit a certain product at Columbia and replace their previous product with the Columbia product. I had students coming to my Masters class at the Bartlett saying, ‘I want to learn the Bartlett style.’ I was appalled by this, but I could see that it is something where, you come to Columbia, you want to go out wearing that hat. I think the really interesting people are the ones who discover that they hate the Bartlett or the Columbia style and they’ll do the opposite. The thing you find at a good place is some very bright people who respond this way
A guy I work with in my studio went to the Bartlett, then to the GSD before returning. I said, ‘What was it really like at the GSD?’ He said, ‘Two-thirds of the people are really not interesting, the projects we did are not interesting, but I’ve got an amazing address book!’ This is cynical, because he actually got more out of it than that, but I think it’s really interesting that education is market-driven. This happens and it always did, but it’s far more noticeable today. I can’t be some sort of Luddite who says it’s not, but do I say, ‘Okay, we have to be realistic. This is how it is: school style is a commodity.’
I think we’re rolling with it. I mean, we’ve been saying that it’s positive in a way, but as for some its social aspects, I wonder. As an educator you play it, but you might be playing a subplot underneath it. You must conceal your subplot.