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Archigram, pop and ever further into the future: in his drawings, the British avant-garde architect Peter Cook has been thinking radically differently about cities and landscapes for decades. His “Speculations” are currently on display at the House of Architecture in Graz.

By Thomas Wagner

Speculative Landscape, 2022 © Peter Cook

For some time now, architectural theory has been passionately debating how buildings and cities need to be designed so that they can be adapted to changing conditions in terms of energy policy, climate and social aspects. There is no doubt about the necessity of this. But no matter what priorities are set, it doesn’t take long before the magic word “transformation” comes up. But what does that mean – transformation? How and to what end should existing structures be remodelled? If the root cause of the building industry is approached pragmatically, it is immediately belied by the inertia of the status quo. If thinking dares to go further, if it is even utopian, it is accused of mere fantasy and suffocated by convention. Liberated thinking may only have an indirect effect, but it can provide accurate analyses, stimulating splinters of ideas, further thought experiments and models.

Something is (still) going on…

The British architect Sir Peter Cook, who has just celebrated his 87th birthday, has never left the slightest doubt that the transformation of an architecture and urban planning ossified in traditions, anachronisms and interests must be radical. Since the early 1960s, he (as co-founder of the avant-garde group Archigram and author of the magazine of the same name) has argued in favour of an architecture that counteracts any tendency towards ossification. In an attempt to be radically contemporary, residential capsules were presented as a mobile element and utopian urban designs such as “plug-in cities” or the “walking city”. The first Archigram, according to Cook in his “Notes on the Archigram Syndrome”, “was an outcry against all the lousy stuff being built in London, against the attitude of a continuing European tradition of well-bred but pusillanimous architecture that pinned the label ‘modern’ on itself but had betrayed most of the philosophies of the earliest ‘modernism’. Nobody was interested in it. The period that followed can be summarised as ‘go on, mate’, culminating in the mad object of the Living City, which caused hilarity in West End art circles. Few realised the message it contained.”

Peter Cook, Transforming City (Skywaft City), Part 4, 1985 © Peter Cook

Questioning the “Carry on Like This”

Tomorrow has darkened in many areas since the turn of the millennium. The future is being conjured up all the more intensely. However, approaches that questioned the “carry on” approach more than half a century ago continue to be ignored. Archigram already discussed electric cars and the programmed world and asked uncomfortable questions – about consumerism and nomadism, about growth and metamorphosis, about comfort and emancipation, about hardware and software. Spiced up with an exhilarating pinch of pop art and comic aesthetics, British humour was used to fight for changes that had already become necessary at the time – but failed to materialise. Or, as Cook put it: “The pre-packaged frozen meal is more important than Palladio. Above all, it is more elementary. It is an expression of a human need and at the same time a symbol of an efficient interpretation of this need that makes optimum use of the available technology and economy. The living capsule illustrates the question and – technological – answer in a similar way. While the size and complexity are more significant, the philosophical thesis is the same.” For all that Archigram propagated, the group did not consider itself “politically overzealous”; however, the projects were characterised by “a kind of central emancipatory drive”. Where did it go? The situation was already clear at the time: “Man stands before an abyss; he has the choice of finally really utilising his potential or ceasing to exist for good.”

Thinking in Drawings

Peter Cook has never stopped fighting for change. Currently and on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Kunsthaus Graz, the “HDA – House of Architecture” (until 28 January 2024) is showing the exhibition „Speculations“ with drawings and spatial objects by the architect. The biomorphic building of the “Friendly Alien”, which Cook realised together with Colin Fournier in 2003, attracted a great deal of attention worldwide and became a new architectural landmark of the largely baroque city thanks to its unusual shape. Even in the days of Archigram, handmade drawings were the defining means of expression for Cook and the neo-futurist group. As the drawings from his publication “Speculations” show, Cook still uses colourful, imaginative depictions that explore landscapes, cities and buildings from a wide variety of perspectives to formulate alternatives to the usual average. At times, he expands the two-dimensional speculations into spatial installations in which drawings are enlarged and grouped in such a way that viewers can walk around and immerse themselves in their atmosphere.

Making the Impossible Seem Possible

The drawing makes the impossible seem possible. Such a sense of possibility enriches reality, ignores and outshines its deficits. This is why drawing is and remains Cook’s most important tool. His visual collages are also based on the conviction that only a free visual language allows the future to be explored in the best possible way, that this is the only way to free thinking from inhibiting conventions and practical restrictions and to conceive alternative cities and ways of life. Cook’s architectural work also consists largely of drawings; the number of his built projects (including the Kunsthaus Graz) is far less extensive. Cook’s drawings are many things at the same time: notes on questions of architecture, collaged ideas, methods of communication. In the often confusing, complex and colourful observations, spaces, building elements and people inhabiting organic landscapes can be discovered. Everything is reproduced precisely and true to scale. And compared to the times of Archigram, less machine-like and technology-orientated.

Filter City, 2020, © Peter Cook

Drawing and Making

At the beginning of the year, Cook wrote in the Deutsches Architektenblatt under the title “Blicke in die Zukunft – zeichnen und machen”: “I am more of a pragmatist when it comes to discussing futures that are so often the result of human stupidity and arrogance towards fundamental forces: Climate, limits of materials, slowness of institutions to respond to research, and an almost medieval construction industry.” His optimistic perspective is based on the fact that “every building or drawing should have a good percentage of new ideas, a reference to plausible materiality and – depending on taste and choice – an atmospheric content”. He refers to the latter as “theatrical sense”, as he believes that a computer can now construct a functioning shelter, but “theatre” is “about experience, nuances, stimuli – and about making more out of a situation than just saying: ‘It works’.

In Cook’s visual notations, fantastic landscapes and buildings, it is easy to recognise a productive restlessness and dissatisfaction with the conceptual and material framework of existing architectural thinking. “I hope,” says Cook, “that the architecture of the future will allow for designs that continue the traditions of experience, pleasure, place and identity. Architecture that makes the most of a situation rather than minimising it, for economic reasons or out of reverence. (The latter is the reason why I don’t like minimalism. It’s too Calvinistic.” Visionaries like him are needed today more than ever to clear people’s minds.

Another Arcadia,2023 © Peter Cook

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