Peter Cook RA was elected a Royal Academician in 2003 and has recently completed his Kunsthaus in Graz. Here he talks to Jeremy Melvin about the building which has come to be known as ‘the friendly alien’.
‘It’s a great British building in a funny place,’ says Peter Cook of the Kunsthaus in Graz which he designed in collaboration with Colin Fournier. ‘Wolfgang Prix of Co-op Himmelblau called it a British building with a sense of fun and play that is not American or Austrian.’ Dubbed “a friendly alien”, it is a bulging blue form hovering above a glass base, bubbling into nozzles on the roof and pierced across its top by a precariously poised glass “needle”. ‘The basic proposition is to take the boundary line of the site and hug it to maximise the amount of space,’ explains Cook. ‘The indentations in its façade are wilful. But you have to mould it, otherwise it’s boring.’
‘The design had an interesting trajectory. We worked on one approach – a ramp creeping around the outside of a rectangular building – for about two and a half weeks, before one of our assistants asked “is this what you really want?” and we said “no, the building we really want is this” – and drew it. The old design allowed us to get to know the site and sizes of everything, so the new design came quickly, and then we spent three days tweaking. You can’t overestimate how good it is to turn and tweak it, to make sure the pods are in the right place. The result is a much more sophisticated way of displaying art than the old thing of three white rooms with equal numbers of objects in each.’
A giant travelator greets visitors in the Kunsthaus Graz and takes them up from ground to the first display level in the bulbous blue shape. A second doubles back and rises to the upper level under the nozzle-like rooflights. ‘Working with a good engineer is essential’, says Peter Cook. ‘Here, Klaus Bollinger said “the material you are really looking for is plastic.” He encouraged us to cantilever the long corner.’ The effect creates display spaces which seem to invite movement while being large and well serviced enough to cope with a wide range of installations. ‘I think the building is very theatrical. There is a strong element of theatre in almost every project I do. The first image you see in an exhibition or gallery is critical as it prepares you for what is to come. People are exposed to sophisticated imagery such as television advertising and film; this is something the drama of form and space can create in an exhibition.’
‘Some artists want you to regard their work programmatically or in a particular way. If you have three photorealist presentations of a head, the last thing you want is to look at is a fourth head. I think that demands a certain sort of space and the logic is that artists begin to create work for particular spaces, as Sol Le Witt is going to do for an installation in Graz. Exhibition design begins to interact with the programme of the building.’
Austria and other cultures
‘Although I once thought Graz was a place beyond the mountains with goblins and gremlins, by the time we started designed the Kunsthaus in 2000, I knew it well enough to know this bridge,’ says Peter Cook about the site for the Kunsthaus Graz. ‘It led to a few sleazy bars and I had been here with students looking for late night drinking. But with the Kunsthaus and the conversion of some 18th century buildings into an architecture centre it is becoming a little cultural enclave and the effect on local wine bars is interesting. The brothel has moved too. Even so, I am not sure the Kunsthaus is alien in this context.’
‘Austria is incredibly traditional and hierarchical. When you’re sitting in an open-air café and a canon of the cathedral comes past, everyone stiffens, and when the grand-daughter of the last Habsburg emperor visited a friend’s office, everyone had to behave. This has lasted longer than in Britain where if Lord Plonk visits an office you just call him Fred Plonk. But in Austria you can be Von Plonk and be experimentalist: one of my colleagues from the Stadelschule – the art school in Frankfurt where Cook holds a professorship – owns a bloody great castle somewhere, presumably with servants or whatever goes with a castle. There is a very progressive arts scene including art in the street which is much more relaxed than in the UK.’
‘I regard myself as a collaborator,’ says Peter Cook, ‘even though I’m identified as an iconic creature.’ Ever since Archigram formed in 1960 his work has evolved through various collaborations, some long term, others formed for single projects. Longest of all was his partnership with Christine Hawley which produced several competition wins and a couple of completed buildings in Germany, while recently he designed and built the Graz Kunsthaus with Colin Fournier, with whom he had first worked when Archigram won a competition in Monte Carlo in 1969. ‘I tried to do the dream team of Christine, Colin and myself’ he says, though so far it hasn’t happened.
Working with other people is essential to the evolution of his ideas. ‘I don’t know what I would do if I were doing a building on my own, me, P. Cook personally. But the only sorts of people I can work with are people who work quickly and are chirpy. We sit on either side of a table and say, “you could have a thing going down the side there”, or “you could have something going up there”. It has to roll like that, not when someone says “I’m not sure of your terms of reference and I’ll have to research that”.’
‘I have lots of ideas about what should happen in architectural education,’ says Peter Cook, who has long been one of the most influential architectural educators and for the last 13 years professor of architecture at UCL’s Bartlett School. ‘The Cook Plan exists clearly in my head. There would be more architectural schools, or studios networked with architectural schools in special towns like Bournemouth, Norwich and Carlisle. They would use the local talent for teaching and you would send a few people around to cheer it up. The Studios might have painting alongside architecture and this could help to re-establish regional arts just as 50 years ago Newcastle was important with Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore; there was even a certain moment when Ipswich was important in pop music.’
‘Above that would be a tier or regional schools, East Anglian and North Western. Students who are good enough to survive that would go on to another school until at the top you would have schools where only the very best would go. As you move up the hierarchical system you would have better and better people with the best only international, and Mr Super Newcastle would have to compete with Ms Super Buenos Aires. Students network and join the international circuit. I’d be bored witless if I had an entirely English group of students.’
Mafia of naughty architects
‘My international connections came from Archigram,’ reminisces Peter Cook. Archigram, the group he co-founded in 1960 which won the RIBA’s Gold Medal for Architecture in 2002 for its visions of the future, ‘inevitably became networked all over the place and the people who made these connections became our closest friends. I don’t feel much different walking down the High Street in Frankfurt than walking down the High Street in Hampstead, and much more comfortable in Berlin than Bristol.’
‘This was incredibly unfamiliar when we started Archigram, but we began to find we would overlap with friends like Reyner Banham in Los Angeles for a month. You could put a pin in a certain bar in LA at a certain time and find P. Cook, C. Hawley and Wolfgang Prix, each with their own bottle of champagne, though the day before they might have been in Tokyo or Lincoln, Nebraska.’
‘Students then take up these networks and the advantage, beyond challenging them, is that it offers a liberalisation from certain trains of thought. Even if you come from a privileged architectural city you tend to work within the local culture, which in London is “polite modern” – that’s better than “polite something else”, but I wish it was less polite: it may be a little bit provincial [Educating Architects]. Then as students become professors or chairs of local associations, the network becomes an imperceptible reality and I forget where all these people come from. They become part of a “Mafia of Naughty Architects” who share my fascination for the puzzlement of the strange thing.’ And if that Mafia has a godfather, it’s the nonagenarian Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer.