Can you live in an inverted pyramid? Can a vegetable be a loudspeaker? Legendary architect Sir Peter Cook on the many possibilities of architect
“When I was introduced to Archigram’s work in the ’80s, it felt like I was reading George Orwell’s 1984. Their work was a discourse on multiple streams, including art, theatre, even journalism. With Peter you don’t talk only about architecture. He brings to the table a dialogue that isn’t about an ‘ism’ and that’s when architecture begins to talk to the outside,” says Akshat Bhatt, principal, at Architecture Discipline studio.
“It is convenient for mainstream to dismiss certain architects as artists or as academics. But what happens when the dreamers start building, when they build on time and on budget? For us, me, Rem Koohlaas or Zaha Hadid (Koohlaas’s student), it is important, and it is the same business. We have to build toilets and houses, and we are interested in keeping the water out. But the conversations are more elaborate. It’s about extending the vocabulary of architecture,” says Cook.
Cook’s paintings come from understanding the city and its environment. While drawing his tower series, he usually visits a city multiple times until he evolves a tectonic and cultural response to the place. “My parents were in the army and we moved around a lot when I was a child. I lived in many houses, and that’s why I grew interested in urbanism. As a child, when you arrive in a town, you have to know where the chip shop is, where the bus stop is, and how to get home. Then you begin to notice, especially in a north European town, that the rich live on the west and the poor on the east, because that’s how the wind blows. Then if there is a lake or river crossing, there will be a railway line close by, and slowly, you begin to sniff your way around the town. It’s the same vim or approach to drawing. You get interested in the way different psychologies affect cultures. One can’t just do a painting without knowing that. In Oslo, for instance, there are certain colours preferred by modernist artists. That’s because those are the dyes you get in certain plantations on the plateau, so then the reality of the place affects colour, and a colour is used by a certain architect in his buildings. Then, weather too reflects in choice of colour. Vienna sees a lot of cold, grey days. So in the Law University, Gavin and I thought we should cheer it up a bit and bring in colour. Today, it’s a building that students love,” says Cook.
During a talk at Gallery Espace, Delhi-based architect Romi Khosla, Cook’s student at the Architectural Association, London, introduced his teacher as “the only one globally, in the last 50 years, who has focussed on conjectural architecture. I learnt from him that you can invent futures and believe in them.” Cook’s Veg House series (1996) is a case in point, where “vegetation creeps in insidiously towards living spaces”. “I wanted to show the idea of metamorphoses. How can I mix technology and nature? It wasn’t about growing grapes or cabbage but can you get a kitchen appliance under a leaf? We are getting closer to morphing. Nowadays, we are morphing body parts, babies, and sheep, so why can’t a vegetable be a loudspeaker?” he says.
It is that suspension of disbelief and faith in things not yet seen that makes Cook the agent provocateur he is. “Art is endangered in architecture and architecture in urbanism. My argument for urbanism is that you have to think a new thought. Sadly, master planning hasn’t moved beyond the 19th century. People are still laying out cycle paths and basement parking, tennis courts and swimming pools. But Delhi, as a town of trees, has huge potential. Imagine having buildings under trees,” he says.