In the studio with Peter Cook RA

Published 12 November 2012

The architect and Academician fills his London studio with a sense of fun, as Fiona Maddocks discovers.

  • From the Winter 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Entering Sir Peter Cook RA’s studio in London’s Clerkenwell, you feel you have walked into a party in full swing: a throng of young people gather round brightly coloured desks cluttered with water bottles, polystyrene food trays, biscuits, camera equipment, drawings, photographs, computers and tiny architectural models – currently a set of work stations for a university project in Australia – scattered around like dolls’ furniture. Downstairs at street level, a dry-cleaners, a kebab house, and the nearby sights and smells of Exmouth Market, give a buzz to this quarter of old industrial London.

    “It’s a brilliant area,” Cook says, his natural verve and flamboyance evident from the moment we meet.“ And as it happens, several Royal Academician architects have their practices within streets of here – Zaha Hadid, Nicholas Grimshaw, Piers Gough. It’s like a village, the epicentre of London architectural life. Everyone used to group around Charlotte Street and Fitzrovia in the West End but then we were all priced out by the advertising companies and moved east.”

    Elected an RA in 2003, Cook is celebrated internationally as a practitioner and as a trail-blazing teacher, notably at the Bartlett School of Architecture, now part of University College, London. Many of his staff and interns are past pupils, who share his outlook and philosophy. Two defining characteristics stand out: his zest for curvaceous contours in his buildings and his penchant for using colour. The circular Madrid Law Courts have a blue-black skin with markings like a Dalmatian dog. The prominent Austrian art museum Kunsthaus Graz (2003), a beautifully bulbous fantasy nicknamed the “friendly alien”, features protruding light nozzles that give the structure the look of a sea creature.

    “All of these protuberances are north lights except one, which we call the ‘naughty nozzle’,” Cook chuckles. “It’s a window looking out at the castle across the river. People queue up to peer out of it, even though they’ve just seen the same view before they entered the building…”

    This is typical of Cook’s playfulness, in work as in life. Windows aside, hardly a straight line has found its way into the studio of CRAB (Cook Robotham Architectural Bureau), the architectural practice Cook set up with Gavin Robotham, a former student, six years ago. The long, open-plan room arcs round, narrowing to one end: in part following the bend of the arterial road outside, in part because Cook and his colleagues have screened off a corner of the room to create a quiet area. Right in the ‘nose’ is Cook’s own enormous trestle-table desk, pillar-box red, like the shirt he wears to be photographed for this feature.

    Elsewhere, tables painted orange, green, red, blue, and wall panels that turn out to be cupboards, have the round-edged look of big jigsaw pieces that don’t fit together. “I like gliding round corners,” he says, as if that explains his entire aesthetic outlook, “and I like nose-shaped buildings. No doubt the psychiatrists would have something to say.”

    This Victorian brick building used to be a printing works, fittingly since one of Cook’s most influential early achievements was to establish Archigram, a progressive architectural movement and magazine of the 1960s, influenced by Theo Crosby and Buckminster Fuller. It pioneered radical ideas such as the Plug-In City, the Walking City and the Instant City. The magazine only ran for a few issues but it left an indelible mark on architectural thinking. What was Archigram about?

    “We wanted to invent a new language of architecture, to extend the vocabulary, to stop architecture becoming sterile.” Could the current fashion for pop-up buildings, from cafés to beauty salons, be equated with those youthful ideas of the 1960s? “Exactly. That’s the sort of thing we dreamed of back then. We were young, left-of-centre free thinkers, arrogant enough to think we had something to offer.”

    Born in 1936 in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, Cook was the only child of an army officer and his wife. “My parents had me late, and were eccentric. My mother would have liked to have been an artist but circumstances never allowed. They both came from poor backgrounds and wanted me to have what they hadn’t. So we went to opera, ballet, concerts, theatre.” (Cook, who is married to Israeli architect Yael Reisner, points out that he too produced a child later in life. His son Alexander is a music student.)

    After active military service, Cook’s father took on new duties that included examining disused buildings to decide on their future.

    “I remember driving around the Midlands with him, looking at Italianate buildings and it seems likely that that’s where I first gained a love of architecture.” But his father’s job also meant the family was constantly on the move.

    ‘"I lived in 14 different places as a child, including Cardiff, Norwich, Southend and Bournemouth. It meant I quickly grasped a good knowledge of town planning. I needed to find out pretty quickly where you could get model glider parts or fish and chips. And I loved watching the world go by as an ice-cream seller on the seafront at Bournemouth.“ He attended Bournemouth College of Art and then went on to the Architectural Association in London.

    That affection for the English seaside resorts of his childhood, the bright colours, fairgrounds, helter-skelters and Art Deco, finds expression in his work. In a current project, the Soheil Abedian School for Architecture at Bond University, Queensland, in Australia, opening next year, he wants to capture the mood and energy of the nearby Surfers Paradise, on the Gold Coast. "It’s a big beach town, with 50-storey high-rises and shimmering lagoons.”

    Closer to home, he recently designed the colourful Peru London Pavilion for the World Travel Market exhibition at the ExCel centre in Docklands. “I don’t want places to look drab, grey, tired.” Such as? “Brent Cross Shopping Centre for a start. Buildings should be full of energy, vitality, joie de vivre. That’s what I’m about.” The exuberant architect glides round a corner and, a little late, heads off for lunch.

  • Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. She is Chief Music Critic of the Observer.

    • Enjoyed this article?

      Become a Friend to receive RA Magazine

      “As well as free entry to all of our exhibitions, Friends of the RA enjoy one of Britain’s most respected art magazines, delivered directly to your door.
      Why not join the club?”

      RA Magazine