Interview by Katie Gerfen
At 79, British architect and Archigram legend Peter Cook has completed his first building in the U.K.: a freestanding drawing studio at his alma mater, Arts University Bournemouth. It’s a product of his current firm, Cook Robotham Architectural Bureau, which he formed with Gavin Robotham in 2006. Here Cook discusses the long transition from theory to building, and how drawing remains central to his practice.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get the commission for the Drawing Studio?
Peter Cook: The vice chancellor wrote me and said: “You’re well known as a person who does drawings and you’re an alumnus. Would you design this building that celebrates drawing?” And, of course, I said yes.
At the ribbon cutting, it was noted that this is the first free-standing drawing studio in the United Kingdom in over 100 years. Did that tradition influence your design?
My mind went straight to the tradition of the artist’s studio. We established a tilted north light. It’s like the light you’d get in a factory, rather than that found in artists’ studios 100 years ago, which often had a large vertical window. But this structure is bigger, so we brought in another north light—we have a clerestory that bounces light off the back wall. I also wanted to have another source of light trickling in under the bench which runs along one side. I’m very much playing with natural light.
How did the form develop?
I made a very large model in balsa so that one could get one’s hand inside and push and pull pieces off it very much in a way I remember seeing Frank Gehry do in his studio. We stuck it on the computer and brought in our engineers, AKT II, and the belly of the profile arched itself more for structural reasons.
Fairly early on, somebody hit on the idea that instead of making this out of a basic timber construction with metal sheeting, why not make it entirely out of metal? And from there, working with a team out of Holland, came the idea of a monocoque structure. It’s a series of very large sheets of steel with flanges that can be welded together. It’s put together like a ship, and it’s really self-structuring. Detailing is kept to the minimum—there aren’t lots of things sticking out. One of my pet hates is the British predilection for using lots of different materials. We kept it very simple, which is sometimes difficult to do.
And this is your first built work in the United Kingdom?
I don’t report that with any relish, it’s just a statement of fact. I worked for other people in the early days on buildings in England, but this is the first one that carries my name. I thought I would go to my grave with no buildings in England. But then again, a few years ago, I thought I’d never build any buildings at all.
What spurred that change? From drawing to the actual building of buildings?
It coincided with the trailing off of my full-time teaching, but the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria was done while I was still in full flow, and I’m still doing bits of teaching even now. It was a question of balance.
I think, in retrospect, I ought to have started doing buildings a bit earlier, because why not? I had a conversation about 10 years ago with Rem Koolhaas and we started talking about people we remembered at the Architectural Association, where we first studied and taught. Thirty years ago, all of us were treated as artistes. We were addicted to drawings and crazy schemes. But when Rem and I spoke, everybody who had been dismissed as a sort of artiste had actually started building. It was very convenient for them to put us in the bracket of artistes, because we were noncombatants. But now we are combatants.
I say to some of my younger colleagues who are still mostly teaching, “Don’t assume you won’t build.” It happened to me. And the question, an unanswerable one, of course, is whether it happens at the right moment. If you’re frustrated by not building for so many years, it’s important that you don’t put absolutely every idea you’ve ever had into the first building.
Does the fact that you have started building change your view of the work you did before?
I think that if Graz was built, probably about 75 percent of the projects could have been. From Archigram times, I’ve always considered myself to be designing buildings, not a theoretical person. If I look at the Plug-In University drawing, it has handrails, it has toilets, the escalators are at the required pitch—it wasn’t so crazy. It makes it all a bit irritating.
The difference between Archigram’s work and that of some of the experimental people in France and Italy was that we made things to scale and out of bits. That’s a cultural issue. If you look at the experimental periods of British architecture, they’re less concerned with philosophy and have more to do with doing funny things with bits. I think that’s a national characteristic.
How important still is drawing to your work?
Totally. Everybody around me is banging away on the computer, but I immediately go to scribbling—I’m even doing a doodle as I’m talking to you. Actually, you know, it looks like something I could build.
Project: Drawing Studio, Poole, England
Client: Arts University Bournemouth
Architect: Cook Robotham Architectural Bureau, London . Peter Cook, Gavin Robotham, Jenna Al-Ali
Structural Engineers: AKT II
Service Engineers: P3r Engineers
Cost Consultant: PT Projects
Landscape Architects: HED
Contractor: Morgan Sindall
Size: 170 square meters (1,830 square feet)
This project appeared in the April 2016 issue of ARCHITECT.