The ArchRecord Interview: Sir Peter Cook
Bryant Rousseau: You’ve said that from the age of eight you wanted to be an architect. What sparked this early attraction to the profession?
Sir Peter Cook: I was a tiny child in the Second World War, and my dad, who had been an army officer in the First World War, had a home job as the quartering commandment for the middle bit of England, and I used to go with him from the age of three or four in the car to look at buildings he was requisitioning. He was looking at buildings, and I was looking at buildings with him. And the myth amongst family is that I was fascinated by this.
I also as a kid collected castles and cathedrals. And we moved form town to town to town, and I became adept at adapting to a new town: different bus route to school, different place where there was an ice cream shop, different place where the gas works smelled or didn’t smell. And by experience, you built up a sort of repertoire of responses to buildings and environments.
I was also very early on into Modern architecture. I went to the local library as a schoolboy and I was starting to read Pevsner, and Corbusier’s When the Cathedrals Were White, and all sorts of things before I went to a little, local architecture school at the age of 16. At this school, we were told about drainage and stonework and all sorts of funny old things. I was already a Modernist because I had done cathedrals and castles when I was about 10. Been there, done that. I had become a Modernist by about the age of 13, having done the old stone stuff and lived in Norwich which has 40 medieval churches. Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all in many respects.
BR: You’ve said many times you’re still an optimist. What does the architecture profession as a whole have to be most optimistic about today?
PC: It doesn’t have much in terms of politics, society, money, et cetera. So probably one could be as pessimistic as one wants to be. But the architect at best has a wonderful mandate to create and dabble in almost anything. And I hope it will long be so. As long as you can say, “Look, the person sitting behind me is actually much more interested in sociology, and the guy sitting in front of me is into studying hedgehogs, and they both have something to offer architecture,” it’s a wonderful mandate for indulgence and speculation and creativity, if you make it so. It must be awful for people who simply want something predictable and want to make money—they should get the hell out.
BR: What’s the opposite end of that, what’s the biggest challenge, what’s most wrong with the architecture profession today?
PC: Money. Money. We are always struggling about money. And it’s a pity that we can’t behave like dilettantes anymore; we’re not allowed to. Accreditation, in your country and mine, is almost given too high an [emphasis].
BR: You’re working on three competitions right now. What sort of project are you most eager to do? You’ve done a museum, you’ve done social housing…
PC: I would like to do a piece of urbanity. I’d like to do a series of buildings or a place. When I see the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, I wince. I’d like to have done a different version of Times Square or Canary Wharf. They are awful. Canary Wharf is a tragedy. It’s so bland—it’s trying to take St. Louis and plonk it in the East End of London. It’s terrible; it’s so banal.
BR: From a purely architectural perspective, what is your favorite city?
PC: I have a group of cities that I always can trot out: Los Angeles, Tokyo, Berlin, and London, obviously, because I still enjoy it.
BR: Los Angels is a very interesting choice.
PC: I enjoy it tremendously. It’s rather like London; certain things are hidden. It’s a repository for doing almost anything. Whenever I land in Los Angeles, a smile comes on my face. I like its low scale. I don’t like LA downtown, I think it’s a waste of time, but I love the fact that there are these mysterious things up in the Hollywood Hills. I’ve been many, many times to LA, but you never can discover it all. And I like the fact it’s actually measurable; if you go along certain freeways you can actually identify the different villages as you move along. I always associate it with a lot of good conversations and interesting designers. I first went at end of the ’60s, and I didn’t go back for 10 or 11 years. I was bracing myself for disappointment, but it actually got better. Ever since that time, I’ve been going at least once a year on any excuse I can find.
BR: What’s your least favorite city?
PC: Cities that are very pleased with themselves. Rome, Jerusalem, Washington; they are so pompous. Second cities, where nobody is watching, are often much more interesting. The Gotenburgs, Antwerps, Glasgows, Chicagos—where the official power isn’t there, but the initiative, the entrepreneurship is. Take some messy place that has got to survive by its initiative, and its ideas. And it sometimes does very interesting things.
BR: Is there a building when you look at it, you say, “My god, I wish I had done that one”?
PC: I haven’t seen Ito’s Mediatheque in the flesh, but from afar I admire it tremendously. Clorindo Testa’s Bank [of London] in Buenos Aires is absolutely fantastic, one of the great buildings of the 20th century, which I’ve been lucky enough to see a few times. Actually at the time, although it’s now probably grossly unfashionable, I was bowled over when I saw Itsuko Hasegawa’s Shonandai [Cultural Center]—because it was extraordinary. It’s so silly and naughty and wonderful at the same time. Recently, I happened to be in Kansas City, and I saw Steven Holl’s museum, not completed at that time, but it’s the best thing he has done. Holl is an interesting case because I used to think he was grossly overrated, but he gets better and better. And not typically American.
PC: Well, not bland. And not near-Classic. One’s view is that American architecture has never recovered from, never really left, École des Beaux-Arts. That’s why you see Canary Wharf. American architects are still in love with École des Beaux-Arts.
BR: Who would you want to design your own home? Who would make an interesting place to live?
PC: If he had been still alive, I would have Enric Miralles do it. He was the most marvelous architect who I have known. I was shocked the other day with a student audience in France … only two people out of 100 had ever heard of him. And Neil Denari; he is somebody who’s grossly underrated. He has actually done a lot of things that other people are doing, but he did them first as drawings. I wouldn’t mind a Thom Mayne house, either. He’s probably the most thoughtful architect I know. He’s really what I call a proper architect—somebody who really agonizes in a creative way. He doesn’t just push the button. He fights every corner.
BR: On the political side, has there been a prime minister or a government that stands out as being a supporter of quality architecture?
PC: This is a funny question. It has never crossed my mind. I’m rhetorically apolitical. I tend to vote Labour because it’s the least worst. Zaha [Hadid] and I were chatting about Gordon Brown, and she said, “Oh I met him, and he’s remarkably well informed on architecture.” And there’s very few of them who are, but funnily enough apparently he is. I trust her on that because she’s pretty tough on people who are stupid.
BR: Prince Charles is quite opinionated on architecture…
PC: Oh, he’s unmentionable; there’s no point. I have this horrible feeling—this investiture which I have to go to in about a month’s time to have my shoulder dabbed with a sword, apparently he does some of them. I’m just bracing … I hope it’s Queeny.
BR: Do you have a favorite building material? Something that the texture or the sensuousness of really appeals to you?
PC: It’s always the impossible material that one can’t quite get, that one wants. You know, “Gludge”—that wonderful material that will fold up into nothing and be not only luminescent but also soft and smell nice and bend and is edible and is comforting and durable.
BR: You said you are rhetorically apolitical, but can architecture effect genuine social change?
PC: I suppose it can. There is clearly a sort of architecture that enjoys being authoritarian. It’s very difficult to create an architecture which enjoys being laissez-faire. Because being laissez-faire is slightly frowned upon by most societies, it’s not thought of as a good investment by people who put money in. So a kind of here-today, gone-tomorrow, jolly, laissez-faire, amusing, let’s-see-what-happens architecture is probably considered suspect. But I would like to have more of it.
BR: What two or three words would you want others to use to describe your style?
PC: Lyrical mechanism.
BR: What would you want on your tombstone?
PC: That he was an OK bloke. Or there’s a wonderful expression in England: that he was bit of a geezer. Do you know that one?