'Peter Cook: City Landscapes' exhibition opens to cheer people up

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Peter Cook at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art where his dream-like drawings explore architecture as theatre, mystery, and magic moments.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jan 31, 2022

The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a beautiful compound of art, architecture, and landscape, on the shore of the Øresund Sound in Humlebæk, about one hour drive north of Copenhagen in Denmark, is known not only for its strikingly appealing natural and built setting, but also for its thought-provoking exhibitions. In the past few years, the Museum presented several memorable architectural shows, as part of its Architect’s Studio series celebrating the work of a new generation of international architects who became particularly known for their sustainable projects and forming attitudes in their resistance to globalisation. On January 21, following the Museum’s closure for four weeks, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, its reopening coincided with the opening of yet another architectural show that demonstrates the power of artistic imagination and ways of resisting anything that’s preconceived and conventional. Exhibition Peter Cook: City Landscapes brings together 120 drawings—visionary, kaleidoscopic, and dream-like architectural mutations—by one of the most influential contemporary architects, London-based Sir Peter Cook, the founder of famed Archigram (1961-74), an avant-garde architectural group and author of such cult-like revered projects as Plug-in-City (1963-66) and Instant City (1968-70).

Peter Cook, São Paulo Tower (2003) | Peter Cook: City Landscapes at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Peter Cook, São Paulo Tower (2003) Image: Courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

City Landscapes is presented in several rooms, one of which features a detailed timeline of Cook’s projects and a film that was done especially for the exhibition. However, the show is not a full retrospective; it focuses on the architect’s post-Archigram days—some drawings date back to the 1970s, while others are as recent as from last year. The exhibit does not include any of Cook’s built works either—the architect designed nine completed buildings, including the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria (2003), the Vienna Business and Economics University's Department of Law and Central Administration (2013), and Bond University’s Abedian School of Architecture on the Gold Coast in Australia (2013). The show also almost entirely excludes Cook’s competition projects. It should be mentioned that in 2019, M+ Museum in Hong Kong acquired roughly 1,500 drawings and sketches produced by Archigram collective. 

Peter Cook, Filter City (2020) | Peter Cook: City Landscapes at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Peter Cook, Filter City (2020) Image: Courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Peter Cook (b. 1936) studied architecture at Bournemouth College of Art in southern England and at the Architectural Association in London. He served as the Chair at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London from 1990 to 2006 and taught at numerous schools and continues teaching at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal College of Art, and at University College London. In 2002, Archigram was awarded the Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Cook curated the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004 and Cyprus Pavilion in 2006. I recorded the following interview with Peter Cook over ZOOM between New York and Humlebæk on the day of the opening of his City Landscapes exhibition, which will remain on view at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art until May 8 of this year. We discussed Cook’s interest in stretching architectural vocabulary, imagining buildings that disintegrate and are infiltrated with vegetation, about the need to bring into a program more than what's obvious, and how not to miss the magic moment in the process of both drawing and creating a building.

Peter Cook, Island City (2011-12) | Peter Cook: City Landscapes at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Peter Cook, Island City (2011-12) Image: Courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Speaking of your show City Landscapes you said: “Most of the items are trying to SAY something, to work out an architectural idea, to scribble around a theme.” What would you say unites these drawings? What do they communicate, investigate, and provoke collectively?

Peter Cook (PC): These drawings bring together and examine closely the vocabulary of architecture. The point is not only to experiment with various mannerisms, but also to investigate different types of surfaces and combinations. I believe, the language of architecture that architects have been using is very limited, very narrow, and very repetitive. If you want to make an enclosure or if you want to make a hole in a wall, over and over, we see the same ways of doing these things. I am interested in stretching this vocabulary. But this is not the only theme, by any means. Particularly, I am interested in the process of metamorphosis—the ability of an object to transform into a new condition. I am looking into the interaction between vegetation and solid architecture, if you like. I am looking at the idea of a building that disintegrates. I look into a proposition of what is a town or city. I look at buildings that are situated on the edge of water. What happens with buildings that sit on the edge of a forest?

VB: Your buildings do look somewhat like landscapes. I believe you explored this idea when you said: “The air percolating through and between the pieces of building—an aerated city.” Could you talk about this idea of pulling a building apart and breaking it into elements and pieces? That’s what turns your buildings into landscapes, right?

PC: Yes, sometimes. But not literally. These landscapes can consist of hard juxtapositions, sure. But I am more interested in sort of soft interactions. In some cases, I use geodesic-like structures as the basis, and then I infiltrate them with vegetation. And that’s a whole other direction. There are many directions. For example, the inhabited wall is a direction that I am interested in exploring. Another direction is about transforming a building’s roof into a hill.

Peter Cook, Inhabited Wall (2020)) | Peter Cook: City Landscapes at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Peter Cook, Inhabited Wall (2020) Image: Courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

VB: Early on, your work was more about assembly of parts, constructivist in character and spirit. Then your architecture became more loose, mixed, merged, melted, fused, and, in a way, organically growing, articulating ambiguity between solid and soft materiality. What is the reason for that transition and was there a particular point when this started to occur?

PC: I would say, there were several stages. The early work was sort of mechanistic and had to do with a disintegration of the mechanistic. Then there was almost an anti-architecture period. And then, there was a kind of reintegration again. And then there are themes that I leave for a while and go back to surreptitiously. The megastructure is such a theme. I was intrigued by it in the 60s; then by the mid-70s, I was no longer even remotely interested in that. Then I became intrigued by introducing forest inside the megastructure. Then I moved away from it. And then very recently, I started looking again into structures on that scale, at least as a support mechanism to make a proposition, to make a giant cage structure that could hold certain things. And then the idea of an artificial hill that pops up, then disappears, and then pops up again. Certain things have a power of being fascinating. They attract my attention. Then I put them on hold, but just for a while, and then they creep up on me. And, interestingly, once I started building—over the years, I have done nine buildings—what I learn from that experience, creeps into my drawings. I see that as a kind of feedback. I am not an abstractionist and most of my work is referential to all kinds of things, stories, accidents, and so on. I may get influenced by a very trivial thing.

Peter Cook, Crazy City (2008) | Peter Cook: City Landscapes at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Peter Cook, Crazy City (2008) Image: Courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

VB: You mentioned that your work is driven by the search of the picturesque. Could you touch on that?

PC: Yes, I think it is both a weakness and strength of the English attitude toward aesthetics. I do enjoy picturesque, even though there is a danger in that because it may get too sweet, too fussy. I am aware of that, but I do like what can be called pictorially agreeable. I am not apologetic about it. There are architects who are afraid of the picturesque or have an arrogant stance by not acknowledging its importance.

VB: Could you touch on such techniques as collage, layering, and overlapping in your drawings?

PC: Well, collage is a technique I sometimes use to overlay one system over another system. But I would say, I try not to rely on such techniques too much. I think it would be too easy, a bit straightforward. Let me say that fundamentally, I have little respect for the retention of the classical order. I am not a classist. I am instinctively Gothic, romantic, and picturesque person who is trying to avoid any preconceived order and organisational system. 

VB: And how would you describe a good building?

PC: One that has a sense of theatre. One that can give you almost a comedic experience of theatre rather than a kind of a building that you go in, you see it, and it is what it is. Thank you very much! Nothing more to say. What I like is to notice a suggestion that there is something happening within. Then you go in and there is even more happening than the expectation was. That’s what I like. And the experience of progressing through the building is important. If experiencing architecture is like a journey, that’s a good building.

Peter Cook, Urban Retreat (2018) | Peter Cook: City Landscapes at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Peter Cook, Urban Retreat (2018) Image: Courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

VB: You also said, "Architecture is the ability to do more than necessary."

PC: Of course! A building can be done simply by following the requirements. That’s the obvious thing—the offices go there, the toilets should be there, the stair obviously there, the floors' height is that, and then you know where the roof goes and at what level. Thank you very much! Why would you need an architect at all?! Or, you could say—What are the possibilities with these conditions? What are the opportunities here? What happens if you introduce one additional random factor? Or, one quirky factor? Or, one mystery? Or, one exaggeration? So, architecture is the ability to bring into a program more than what’s obvious. Architecture is about the speed, with which you move through the building. It is about the amount of light that you can get into the building. It is about the amount of surprise that you can reveal in the building. Or, how you load the program with something that enriches the experience. For example, you make the vestibule the most exciting space in the building. Or, you set out to make the whole building the most intriguing object and not the pieces in the foreground, which you would expect normally. But what if you make a fairly normal building up close, but from faraway, it could be dangling something at you? I am interested in playing with these kinds of perceptions and expectations. And when I draw, I like to show the same object from various distances. I want to show the movement towards the object to reveal different aspects of it and present a sort of kinetic tale.

Here is what I am interested in to know—What is the magic moment in the building? Or—What is the magic moment in the drawing? Is the magic moment in the scribble? Is the magic moment when the scribble starts to rationalise itself into a plan? Is the magic moment in the structure revealed under the building’s skin? Or, will the magic moment happen when the furniture comes in? And so on. It varies in every project, and probably, the real magic will NOT be in the scribble, it will be closer toward the end of the design or realisation process. Typically, it happens when you either arrive to the construction site or close to finishing a drawing and you realise: “Yes, it’s coming, it’s coming!” And you can’t blow it. You need to be careful not to have too many trees in the background or too many spikes on the roof because then you can pass this potential magic moment. That’s what I am interested in—in the process of creativity and editing.

VB: You said, “Without the rebels, life could be unbearable.” That’s you, right?

PC: Clearly! I am rebellious fundamentally, in the applications of what I do. But I am not picky about details.

Peter Cook, Outcrop House (2018) | Peter Cook: City Landscapes at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Peter Cook, Outcrop House (2018) Image: Courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

VB: You said: “I still feel that architectural expression and its ability to make theatre of everyday experience is relatively cautious. Attacking that is underwriting the show, I hope.” How do you think your drawings and buildings can make an impact on those who interact with them?

PC: I hope both my drawings and buildings can cheer people up. What I know from personal experience is that the public gets slightly puzzled. Many of my projects need an explanation, unlike most paintings. And I do typically have captions and in this show these captions are shown quite extensively and especially about programs. Many people think my drawings look pretty or amusing. They get surprised when they read my captions. But most of the people who are interested in my work are architects. They have other agendas—amusement, irritation, support, enthusiasm, or, hopefully, going home slightly uncomfortable. You know, asking themselves: “Why is my stuff so boring?” [Laughs.] That’s my sort of hidden agenda.

VB: Speaking of your early Archigram days you said that you and your fellow members of the group were irritated by what was being built by developers in London in early 1960s. What do you think about the projects being built now? Are you still irritated, and would you say the young architects should be irritated by what is going up today? 

PC: Yes, I think young architects today are also victims. It is very difficult for them to exist independently. And most buildings are done for apparently good reasons. They can be explained and rationalised in the name of the economy, efficiency, responsible urbanism, ecology, and so on. But in the end, most of these buildings are boring.

VB: You once said something interesting that leads surely to solutions that are anything but boring: “The computer does things correctly, and I think it's very important in architecture to also have the incorrect.”

PC: Sure, people think that computers know all the answers and they use them very predictably. It is very important to be able to deviate from this kind of predictability. You know, we used to enjoy doing the wrong thing. Now people are worried about doing the right thing. But that means that we would not go beyond what we already know.

What do you think?

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