Peter Cook

As a book celebrating the work of the radical architectural collective Archigram is released, one of its founder members speaks to Magali Robathan about shaking things up and making architecture fun

Read on turning pages | Download PDF | sign up to CLAD

When the members of the avant garde art and architecture collective Archigram met almost 60 years ago, the future seemed up for grabs. The ‘Archigram boys’ were a group of six architects, ranging in age from their early twenties to their early thirties, united by a desire to shake things up and bring fun, freedom and creativity back to what they saw as a staid, unimaginative architectural scene.

“We were utterly bored with the stuff that was going on in the offices that we had to work for,” says Peter Cook, one of the founding members of the group. “It was so predictable – either very commercial or very polite.”

You couldn’t accuse Archigram of being predictable, polite or commercial, and they certainly succeeded in shaking things up. While their bold, fantastical, futuristic designs were never built, they provoked debate and encouraged architects around the world to question the status quo.

Their exuberant, highly detailed drawings for projects such as Plug-In City, Walking City and Instant City inspired the likes of Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop, and their influence can clearly be seen in later buildings – most famously in Richard Rogers’ and Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre in Paris. The group were awarded a RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2002, and Cook received a knighthood from the Queen in 2007 for his services to architecture and teaching.

“We were excited by things,” says Cook. “We were interested in the space race, the American beat poets, robots, how the pop art scene had exploded painting. We felt architecture should be part of all that.”

The six members were Peter Cook, David Greene, Mike Webb, Ron Herron, Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton. Cook, Greene and Webb were the younger members of the group – more or less fresh from architectural college when they all met – while the other three were older and more experienced. Chalk and Herron died too early – Chalk died in 1988, and Herron in 1994 – but they left behind a legacy of thought-provoking projects, art and ideas.
The four surviving members are still friends and collaborated on the recently published Archigram: The Book. Designed and edited by Dennis Crompton, it’s an entertaining and enlightening journey through the 14 years of Archigram, and starts with a touching dedication to Herron and Chalk.

I meet up with Peter Cook in Amsterdam, and then again a couple of months later at the north London office of CRAB Studio – the architectural studio he co founded with Gavin Robotham in 2006.

Cook brims with fun, energy and a kind of endearing British eccentricity. His comments about how boring he finds contemporary architecture are often reported in the design press, but I find him much more interested in talking about what excites him – biomorphic structures, robotics, his work with CRAB Studio, young architects, his interest in new materials and his dream of creating a building with a skin that morphs seamlessly from a wall into a window.

First though, back to the 1960s, when it all began.

The seeds for Archigram were sown in 1960 and 1961, when a loose group of people started meeting around the Swiss Cottage/Hampstead areas of London to talk about art and architecture. “We wrote letters to newspapers, talked about stirring things up, entering some competitions. Things like that,” says Cook.

Cook, Greene and Webb formed a sub group in order to focus on entering competitions, and Greene and Cook created the first issue of Archigram magazine – two sheets of paper stapled together, setting out their thoughts on what they thought the future of architecture should look like and featuring Greene’s poetry and projects by Webb. Four hundred copies were published, at a price of six pence, to a “rather turgid response,” according to Cook.

Cook, Greene and Webb’s informal group widened to include Herron, Chalk and Crompton, who were working for the London County Council. The six later came together in their day jobs when they were all employed by Theo Crosby’s Taylor Woodrow Design Group, and they started to work on Archigram magazine in their spare time.

The magazine slowly began to attract worldwide attention thanks to the architecture critic Reyner Banham, who was a big supporter. “He started taking copies to America and showing it to famous people,” says Cook. “And he wrote about us a lot. Added to which he happened to live across the street from me, so he’d invite my wife and I over to his house for these Friday evenings soirees.”

At these soirees, the young Cook found himself mingling with the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Buckminster Fuller, Manfredo Tafuri and Cedric Price. “It was a bit daunting. I was about the youngest person there, and I was meeting all these famous people,” he says. “I remember going in quite trepidatiously the first few times.” By now, a real buzz was developing about Archigram magazine; orders started coming in from around the world and copies sold out in a matter of weeks.

In 1964, Cook and Archigram published the drawings for Plug-In City, showing a constantly changing fantasy city where modular residential units plugged into a central machine and could be rearranged as desired. It was one of several designs by Archigram that explored impermanence in urbanism and suggested a radical alternative to the traditional way of living. It also helped to bring the group’s ideas to the mainstream.

“There was an article on Plug-In City in The Sunday Times colour supplement,” says Cook. “That was a big breakthrough in England, because a million people bought that paper. Suddenly everyone knew who we were.”

It sounds like a wild time. “This was a typical funny thing that happened back then,” says Cook. “There was this bloke from Folkestone who was an accountant. He’d read about Plug-In City and wrote us a letter saying he thought it was amazing and we should exhibit in this arts centre in Folkestone. We just rolled our eyes and thought, yeah, sure, great. This bloke was really enthusiastic though; he turned up at the Architectural Association (AA) where by that time we were all teaching, and tried to persuade us.

“Somehow it actually happened – we printed some leaflets and distributed them around. We got some free polystyrene and ending pasting these giant drawings onto it. I never thought much would happen. Bloody hell, 300 people went down there from London, and another 300 crossed the channel from Europe just to see our exhibition. Some cycled from Sweden, another 30 came from the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Versailles in Paris, there were all these bizarre stories about how people got there. There were people camped out on the cliffs, girls in miniskirts, balloons, journalists.

“Somehow we’d caught the imagination of people.”

Other notable projects by the group include Ron Herron’s Walking City, which proposed a nomadic city made up of intelligent buildings on giant telescopic legs that could roam the globe; Living Pod, a miniature capsule home; and Instant City, a travelling metropolis created using cranes, robots, airships, tents, balloons and other mobile units, which temporarily infiltrates an existing community.

These designs explored extreme alternatives to city design and challenged the accepted wisdom that buildings needed to be static. The group were interested in the potential of technology to transform architecture, and while most of their designs could never have been built – certainly not at the time – their influence can be seen in a range of completed buildings, including Will Alsop’s bright, bold Peckham Library in London and in the exposed ducts, metal superstructure and flexible nature of Renzo and Piano’s Pompidou Centre.

The final Archigram magazine was published in 1970, and the group disbanded in 1974, with its members going on to pursue individual careers. For many years, Cook’s career focused primarily on teaching and lecturing; his appointments have included director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and chair of architecture of the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. He has also published several books on architecture and has curated exhibitions around the world.

In the early 2000s, Cook was able to bring his radical architectural visions to life for the first time, when he teamed up with fellow Bartlett professor Colin Fournier to design the Kunsthaus Graz art museum in Austria. Dubbed the ‘friendly alien,’ this gleaming, blob-like building stands in stark contrast to Graz’s historical architecture. Its provocative, sexy design got people talking, and the completion of his first major built work marked a turning point for Cook.

“From an autobiographical point of view, the Kunsthaus Graz was a key breakthrough for me,” says Cook. “I was somebody in his fifties who’d go down as a footnote in history; who’d done a few books and talked a lot, but hadn’t really been considered a player. Then, with Colin Fournier, we ran this project and managed to do it virtually on time and on budget, and suddenly everyone said, ‘Oh, this guy’s an architect after all.’

In 2006, after curating the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale together two years earlier, Cook and former Bartlett student Gavin Robotham formed the Cook Robotham Architectural Bureau (CRAB).

Since setting up the practice, Cook, Robotham and the team have completed a range of projects including a vibrant blue Drawing Studio at Arts University Bournemouth, UK; an apartment block in Madrid, Spain; an open, airy, colourful faculty building for the Abedian School of Architecture in Queensland, Australia; and two new buildings at the Vienna University School of Economics and Business in Austria. Ongoing projects include an Innovation Centre for emerging businesses at Arts University Bournemouth, several housing projects in China, and an intriguing sounding leisure project in India.

“It’s mostly Gavin [Robotham’s] project that one,” says Cook, explaining that the core of the building’s central area runs through two floors and is surrounded on both floors by a series of lounge-lobby ‘vessels’. The periphery has a range of activity zones: gymnasia, soccer pitch, field sports, children’s area, adventure area, jogging track, spa, pool deck and cinema.

Cook now divides his time between his work with the practice and his lectures, which take him all over the world. He draws whenever he can, for pleasure and as a way of trying out ideas. At 82, he is nowhere near ready to retire, and why would he, when he’s clearly still having so much fun?

I finish by asking Cook how he would like to be remembered. His answer is simple. “As somebody who cheered architecture up,” he says.

The Kunsthaus Graz opened in southern Austria in 2003. Its distinctive skin is made from blue-tinted acrylic panels

Designed by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier and won in an open international competition, the Kunsthaus Graz houses a range of major art installations.

Its much-discussed form and layered skin was developed together with Professor Klaus Bollinger and a full size section of the building featured at the Venice Biennale of 1998. Despite its unconventional form and materiality it was completed within 2 per cent of the standard cost of a foursquare public building of similar volume.

The plan form follows a simple fluid occupancy of the available plot; from the busiest corner there runs a thin travelator up into the unknown spaces above. The principal exhibition spaces are therefore treated as a ‘secret’ to be revealed as you glide up into them.

The entrance lies under the Eisernes Haus, the earliest cast-iron structure in southern Austria. The skin of the building is generally opaque but with occasional slivers of translucency. At night the 920 small light rings can illuminate across 100 grades of intensity and animate the outer (acrylic) skin with programmes of every kind.

Within the ‘bubble’ shape lie two floors of gallery space, free of columns and interruptions. Above these ‘secret’ spaces there is a long sliver of exposed room that cantilevers out from the bubble and aligns to the River Mur, below. This reveals the City of Graz, the foothills of the Alps and the varied nature of Graz’ architecture.



Book: Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age

Films: Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show

Piece of music: Sibelius’ The Dryad

Favourite building: Clorindo Testa’s Bank of London and South America in Buenos Aires

Places: My favourite places tend to be urban places of a very particular type. I have two favourites outside London. The first is the part of Santa Monica between the centre and Montana Avenue. The other is the street in Toyko with the famous book store by Klein Dytham [Daiykanyama T-Site]

Cook at the CRAB offices in North London. He runs the practice with partner and co founder Gavin Robotham
Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: Dornbracht GmbH
Dornbracht is turning the bathroom into a LifeSpa: Dornbracht’s LifeSpa vision has taken the idea of health-oriented bathroom design to a new level.
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
The award-winning mixed use Santana Row project in San Jose, California
Scott Lee became president of SB Architects in 2000. Tracy Lee founded TLee Spas in 2015
"We design to connect the guest to the place, positioning people at the centre of the design"

Architect Scott Lee and spa consultant Tracey Lee on marrying the worlds of design and wellness in a series of interesting projects

Health & Fitness: Working it
"We’ve designed the space so that the atmosphere is intimate"

Les Mills’ new studio spaces at its iconic Auckland City Gym showcase a trend away from masculine ‘grunty’ gyms to something altogether different

The exterior of the museum features a glass veil suspended by red columns, angled out over the street
Stephen Barrett (left) 
and John McElgunn (right) were both made partners at RSHP in 2016
"Leisure space – public space – is at the very root of democracy, and architecture is about democracy"

As RSHP completes its latest cultural project, we speak to two of its partners about why Richard Rogers isn’t leaving his succession to chance

The design of the Da Sistina restaurant was inspired by traditional Roman trattoria
Olga Polizzi is director of design for Rocco Forte Hotels and also owns two of her own hotels
"On Via Sistina, everything breathes history. At the same time I wanted to reflect the modern hunger for the fantastical - Tommaso Ziffer"

Following the highly anticipated launch of Rome’s Hotel de la Ville, Rocco Forte’s director of design reflects on a fascinating project

The interiors are by Hong Kong-based practice CCD with input from Jochman
Martin Jochman founded JADE+QA in 2013. He formerly worked for Atkins
"We didn’t want to put in any gimmicks. We wanted to create a building that’s inherently sustainable through passive sustainability"

When Martin Jochman set out to transform an old quarry into a luxury hotel, he faced some serious challenges

The lecture auditorium
Alexander Schwarz
"Our aim was to create a place celebrating public space and accessibility"

The opening of the James-Simon- Galerie on Berlin’s Museum Island completes two decades of work for David Chipperfield Architects. The lead designer talks us through the building

Fu has a masters in architecture from Cambridge University
"I wanted to go deeper than the stereotypical concept of lanterns, junks and temples"

Drawing on his childhood memories for the St Regis Hong Kong

The bedrooms feature cushioned window seats and bright colours
"We tried to take over in a friendly way"

The Standard’s first London hotel is bold, fun and full of surprising touches

cladkit product news
Tino Seubert x Theodora Alfredsdottir lighting collection inspired by mid-century furniture making traditions
The Corrugation Lights were inspired by midcentury and post-war furniture making techniques
London-based designers Tino Seubert and Theodora Alfredsdottir have teamed up to create Corrugation Lights, a lighting collection inspired by midcentury ...
Arlon Graphics debuts architectural collection
Arlon's architectural range is aimed at interior designers looking for innovative and affordable renovation solutions
Lauren Heath-Jones
Arlon Graphics, a plastic and vinyl manufacturer based in The Netherlands, has launched a range of architectural graphic vinyl films ...
Space Popular creates video installation for the Gwangmyeongmun Gate in South Korea
Gate of Bright Lights was designed to show visitors how screens and digital interfaces have replaced physical objects the gateway between us and the rest of the world.
Lauren Heath-Jones
Multidisciplinary design firm Space Popular has created a video installation for the Gwangmyeongmun Gate at the Deoksugung Palace in Seoul, ...
cladkit product news
ZHD'S MEW Coffee Table explores relationship between surface and structure
The MEW Coffee Table is described as an investigation into the relationship between surface and structure
Lauren Heath-Jones
Zaha Hadid Design has partnered with Italian furniture design firm Sawaya & Moroni to create the Mew Coffee Table. The ...
Pelle DVN Table inspired by traditional Japanese carpentry
The DVN Table was created using Japanese joinery techniques
Lauren Heath-Jones
Jean and Oliver Pelle, the husband and wife team behind New York-based design studio Pelle, have created the DVN Table, ...
Tom Dixon Rock collection inspired by Dixon's travels to India
The Rock collection is made with green marble and was inspired by Tom Dixon's travels to India
Lauren Heath-Jones
British designer studio, Tom Dixon Studio has launched a new collection of marble sculptures inspired by his frequent trips to ...
cladkit product news
Canteen collection combines nostalgia with modern aesthetics
The Canteen collection was inspired by post-war British design techniques
Lauren Heath-Jones
Very Good & Proper (VG&P), a British furniture brand, has curated a new dining collection that combines traditional woodworking techniques ...
nea studio showcase seaweed's design potential with hand-crafted algae lamps
The seaweed lamps were inspired by Edwards Anker's ethos of incorporating local and organic materials in her designs to give them a sense of place
Lauren Heath-Jones
Nina Edwards Anker, a Brooklyn-based designer and founder of architecture and design practice nea studio, has created a new collection ...
John Pomp Studios expands Tidal collection
The Eclipse Pendant light was inspired by the lunar eclipse
Lauren Heath-Jones
John Pomp Studios, a design practice based in Philadelphia in the US, has expanded its Tidal collection to include five ...
Email this to a friend or colleague
I am happy for Leisure Media to contact me occasionally by email and understand that I can opt out at any time.
Profile: Peter Cook
'There were people camped out on cliffs, girls in miniskirts, balloons, journalists' Peter Cook on the wild world of Archigram @followCRAB