From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
Kate Goodwin: You’re renowned in the architectural world both as a practitioner and as a teacher. I was wondering, when did
you first become interested in architecture?
Peter Cook: It was during the Second World War. My father was what was called a quartering commandant, which meant that he requisitioned big houses for troops, and as a child, I would go round in the car seeing these big houses. Travelling from town to town I became fascinated in particular with those etchingsthat you get in provincial, small hotels – you know, ‘Sudbury Seen from the North-West’ or ‘Winchester Seen from the Top of the Hill,’ always engravings with buildings and a cathedral in the middle. I started doing my own take on them, drawing towns in biro. My dad’s office, I remember, was full of maps with pins in them. I was fascinated by maps – I still am – and I started to invent towns and draw my own maps of them. I was nearly put to work for the Ordnance Survey doing maps, when I was 16. And then I saw that a local art college, Bournemouth College of Art, had a scholarship to go to the architecture department, and four of us from my class at grammar school went there.
What was the teaching like at that time?
In Bournemouth it was a very particular, weird leftover. A pleasant local architect and his wife ran this mini architecture school andwe were made to draw all the orders of architecture to scale, by measuring withdividers. We had to measure churches, we had to take tracery with lead and then redraw it, we had to work our way through Victorian architecture books such as Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture (1896) and copy lots of things, including reproductions of Assyrian temples. I had started to use the Bournemouth public library before art college, reading books on Modernist architecture – The Modern Flat (1937), Scandinavian architects like Alvar Aalto, and Le Corbusier, whose book When the Cathedrals Were White (1947) I read when I was about 15. I looked at magazines, and I was fascinated by South American things and people, like Roberto Burle Marx, the landscape architect. So I had read all that stuff before I went to the architecture school. I was a Modernist beforehand, then I did the old stuff at the college, and then I returned to Modernism. When I got into the AA (Architectural Association) after Bournemouth, I had lectures from distinguished critics and historians like John Summerson and Reyner Banham. You couldn’t do better than that, so actually when I hit the AA, I hit the big time.
That time at the AA must have been exciting.
It was surprising. I realised that the smart young things were more interested in what went before than what was going on then. I had been reading magazines about Modernist architects and artists, such as Alison and Peter Smithson and Eduardo Paolozzi, and when I arrived at the AA, a friend of mine said, ‘Paolozzi’s giving a lecture tomorrow afternoon’. But the lecture was in the basement and there were only about six people listening to him. The same day there was somebody talking about English arts and crafts and it was absolutely packed. I was shocked.
Was the magazine and subsequent group Archigram a reaction to that? What sparked the first issue?
I think I got very lucky. I was working in an office by chance when I met the architect David Greene who was working in the same office, and then I met Michael Webb through people I knew who lived locally around Swiss Cottage in London. A lot of us lived around there and we would meet up in the evenings and discuss doing some sort of broadsheet. I think a new publication was in the air if you were really interested in progress in architecture, because architecture had got itself into a tight linguistic trap. The magazine, and our work together, stemmed from a wide range of things we were reading: Buckminster Fuller, the Beat poets, car manufacture and the idea of prefabricated buildings. We all rolled one thing into the other –we put all those things together and had new directions of travel. Our plan for a modular city, Plug-In City, for example, was a romantic extension of prefabrication into something else.