by Vladimir BelogolovskySep 30, 2021
Some architects are eulogised for both their buildings and their drawings—Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, for example. Then there are those whose built output will always be seen as secondary—Antonio Sant’Elia and Lebbeus Woods. Perhaps Bernard Tschumi. And definitely Peter Cook.
Cook was one of six core members of the charismatic London-based collective Archigram, formed in 1960 and, for a decade or so, leader of the architectural avant-garde in Britain. Rejecting the rigidity of form and mindset displayed by their modernist contemporaries, Archigram harked back to the radical experiments of modernism’s early years. It mixed consumerism, constructivism, Pop, technology and transience—with generous helpings of provocation and humour—to create alluring futuristic visions that foreshadowed high-tech and postmodernism.
Despite Archigram's international impact—Japanese architects proved particularly receptive—the group produced almost no buildings. Three of its members were involved in London’s South Bank Centre, an expressive piece of layered placemaking, or a hostile concrete labyrinth, depending on your perspective. Other schemes foundered as the public appetite and economic climate for megastructures waned in the 1960s. A belated attempt to establish a more conventional practice ended in 1974 when Archigram’s one major project—an entertainment centre in Monte Carlo—was cancelled. By that point, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou was rising in Paris, realising some of the group’s ideas, while revealing their limitations when confronted by realities of client, site, finance, and fashion. As a result, Archigram’s reputation rests almost entirely on its drawings—its archive contained around 4,000 when it was acquired by M+ in 2019. Cook played a leading role in the eponymous magazine in which many of these first appeared, and also produced some of the most enduring. His Plug-in City drawings from the mid-1960s—along with Ron Herron’s Walking City—are probably the most famous of the lot.
To mark the sixtieth anniversary of Archigram’s first exhibition—Living City at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (of which Cook was later director)—Richard Saltoun Gallery in Mayfair is holding a retrospective of Cook's drawings from Archigram onwards, entitled Cities. The earliest work is a chunk of Plug-in City from 1964—a "Max Pressure Area" to be superimposed on a London borough, capable of expanding across the capital, and extending over the English Channel and beyond. Hung within its massive diagonal grid are prefabricated units of urban life—theatres, offices, plazas, shops—all connected by travelators and lifts, and supported by massive towers containing car silos and apartments. Trains run below and cranes soar above, ready to relocate units or remove them at the end of their useful life. It remains powerful as both vision and artefact, with its precise black outlines filled with optimistic slabs of primary colour. The only other work at Richard Saltoun from Archigram’s heyday is A Room of Thousand Delights, a text-heavy Pop collage extolling the leisured freedoms offered by augmented reality. Even in 1970, its exuberant psychedelia must have felt just a little passé.
During the 1970s, Cook discarded both these aesthetics for a more varied, and more delicate, palette of watercolour washes and coloured pencil, with text making only rare appearances. This gentler approach is evident in the Arcadia series from the 1970s and 1980s, in which nature plays a prominent, even picturesque, role as a container for glimpses of legible architectural expression. But these new environments became increasingly fantastical and increasingly difficult to decipher. On exotic islands or in sci-fi interiors, organic forms—perhaps plant, animal, plastic, or next-generation tech—merge with mechanical elements, glazed panels, and lengths of tube and tunnel. Amidst such assemblages, there is stuff to recognise, and stuff to confuse—ambiguous swathes of fabric, curvaceous strips that could be highways, industrial components, serpentine blocks, polygonal protrusions, and mysterious ripples of colour. Small silhouetted figures make occasional appearances, dwarfed by their impressive surroundings.
For Cook, this coming-together of diverse elements—organic and inorganic, practical and impractical, expected and unexpected—is liberating. It allows our drab public spaces to be reimagined, and architecture’s vocabulary to be expanded, escaping the mundanity that so often marks out mainstream British practice. And, from his Swiss Cottage Tower of 2010 onwards, there is a more concrete exploration of the potential of vegetation as architecture. Environments are grown not built, with plants engulfing facades and communication networks, leaving only jags of glass and metal structure visible. Recent works also employ a bold colour palette, enlivening Richard Saltoun’s exhibition spaces, in concert with a dramatic exploded drawing installed at the entrance, slightly impenetrable digital and VR offerings, and a likable if unexplained orange-and-black sculpture, Snake, winding across the floor.
Cook positions all these intriguing, beautiful fragments as part of a "visual discussion" about the nature, and future, of cities, offering a series of provocations, questions, and proposals. Sometimes it is uncertain, for the viewer, and perhaps for Cook himself, where that discussion takes us. The first Archigram monograph in 1972 included contributions from Peter Blake, Hans Hollein, and Arata Isozaki. Similarly in Speculations, the book preceding this show, Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and Toyo Ito are invited to ponder Cook’s legacy. This emphasis on encomiums suggests an insecurity on Cook’s part about perceptions, and outcomes, of his drawing practice. He has always stated that these images are, to some degree, realisable, yet opportunities to build have been few. The last two decades have seen a late flourish—a social housing project in Madrid, as well as academic buildings in Queensland, Vienna and Bournemouth, where Cook studied in the mid-1950s. Most eye-catching is Kunsthaus Graz, a spiky, illuminated, acclaimed blue amoeba designed with Colin Fourner. Completed in 2003, when he was 66, this was Cook’s first major building.
Regrets at this lack of architectural commissions may have contributed to Cook’s questionable decision to join a team working on The Line, part of the Neom development in Saudi Arabia. But for many his legacy is already secure, without involvement in such a contentious project. He has flourished as an educator, at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, London’s Bartlett School of Architecture and elsewhere, nurturing creativity and experimentation in student work. And, for Toyo Ito, Cook’s image-making plays an important role today, just as it did in the 1960s: "By making the 'unbuilt world' his stage he continues to project visions for the future and shed light on the problems faced by contemporary architects in reality." To some degree, exploring these visions at Cities upholds this intelligent appraisal of Cook’s impact. But Frank Gehry’s breezier list of his achievements feels more immediately pertinent amidst their colour and life, getting "people asking why cities couldn’t look as exciting as those he imagines in his drawings" but also "reminding us that serious enquiry need not look the part to have a tremendous impact”.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)