THIS WAS OUR UTOPIANISM!: An Interview with Peter Cook

The following interview originally appeared in Zawia#01:Utopia (published December 2013). Sir Peter Cook, one of the brilliant minds behind Archigram, sits down with the editors of Zawia to discuss his thoughts on utopia – including why he felt the work of Archigram wasn’t particularly utopian (or even revolutionary) at all.  Zawia: It is perhaps difficult to discuss our next volume’s theme—“utopia”—without […]

The following interview originally appeared in Zawia#01:Utopia (published December 2013). Sir Peter Cook, one of the brilliant minds behind , sits down with the editors of Zawia to discuss his thoughts on utopia – including why he felt the work of  wasn’t particularly utopian (or even revolutionary) at all. 

Zawia: It is perhaps difficult to discuss our next volume’s theme“utopia”without first starting with Archigram and the visions that came out of that period. How do you view the utopian visions of Archigram during that specific moment of history in relation to the current realities of our cities and the recent political and social waves of change?

Peter Cook: Actually… at the time I was probably naive enough to not regard it as utopian.

If there was a social program for most of the work done, I think it would not be very different from the day to day, what I would call "North European Wet Liberalism." When I later did a project called Arcadiam, which was in the 70’s, it was very much based upon childhood, sort of taking the circumstances of my childhood and setting the building so that it could be a little different. But some of the activities going on in them would be known. In the arcadia project, I set it to six user types. One couple were kind of tough, young malicious, New York types. Another couple were glitzy, trendy, very superficial, hedonistic types. Another couple were old retired Viennese with a lot of memories and culture. Another couple were sort of Mr. & Mrs. Typical with a mini-car at the time of the common car with two children, the correct amount of children, wearing gum boots and trainers—just regular. And there was a part for romantic, escapist, dreamy and poetic people; they lived in the marsh land and did fishing and hydroponic gardening. And yes, there was another group, very regular, playing cricket and with suburban values.

Already at the time I was very cynical about these six different types of people. I thought they had positive aspects and negative aspects. And I find that as I go on, certainly as a result I think of teaching, I find that I am more reflective upon people I know or circumstances I see that inform the architecture. Coming at it from a different angle than you expected, I am just working on a model there of a project which we have got to do in the university, which is a building for drawing, and I am again being very autobiographical, thinking of all sort of studios and buildings and students I taught since I have been in large barn like rooms and in the process of designing it, I think through social situations, now if I move the clock back to Archigram, I think we were very influenced by some of the architects of the early ‘20s particularly in Germany , particularly the people who revolved around Bruno Taut who were socialists. And I think most of us in Archigram were socialists. We were not necessary rabid socialists. We weren’t Marxists!  But we would vote Labour. We believed in social security. I mean I am a product of socialised education. That I was to end up in the AA school at THAT time. I was able to do so as a student on a county grant, just as I would have gone to the Woolwich Polytechnic. During my time I was a scholarship funded kid that happened to be in a new school, and I didn’t think anything about it.

Z: But it was revolutionary! (referring to Archigram)

PC: It was revolutionary in a sense of wanting life to be better, but not necessary having a political agenda to how better life could be… You know I still believe that architecture CAN make people’s life better. NOW, that doesn’t necessarily make it better in a REVOLUTIONARY sense or even in a UTOPIAN sense. Even sticking the bloody door in the right place is making life better. And anything upwards from sticking the door in the right place!….. Like, as an example, I have to go soon after I finish with you guys across town and have a meeting in a building which was refurbished, and I know the guys who did it about 4 years ago and the door, the handles of the doors into the toilets are irritating because you cannot pull. They have these lines on them so that they look as you revolve them but they are actually pulled. Now this is an incredibly primitive point, THAT is not making life better! That is making life worse, more uncomfortable. You want to pull the door shut so you can have a pee!  BUT it is hard work! Now, anything upwards from that, which is the lowest example I can think of, to I don’t know, housing Port Said, or beyond! How can we irrigate the desert? How can we make more use of recycled water? How can we use more economic materials, but not make it dreary and boring? I don’t think THAT is Utopian, I think it is applied common sense!

Seriously, I think architecture can make life better, not in giant percentages. I think where you have an intelligent architectural culture they do the best with it they possibly can and I think you discover that when you go to privileged countries like Finland, where there is good design, I don’t mean squeaky good design, but it JUST works!  AND they were overrun by the Russians, they’ve had their war, they have crappy climate. In Sweden it is rather interesting, this has become more of an ethos that everybody has; sort of decent sink, decent bed. AND that I think is a bit of the old socialist modernist ethic. We in Archigram, though we would not have admitted it, were children of the socialist modernist ethic, whatever that means? Bruno Taut was part of that, after he did his crazy projects for crystal architecture, he did his amazing domes and so, and so on… But then he did lots of social housing because he was a city architect. I was lucky enough to teach in Frankfurt for a while and I am very aware of the social housing that was done in Frankfurt. Some of it is doctorate but some of it is very very comforting and it does make use of allotments, gardens, choice of trees, and it then goes down to the design of how the ironing board flips out of the wall, you know It doesn’t stop at the broad social view.

I was always rather cynical, politically. I was aware that the most extreme marxists, seem to be the wealthiest people. I always said that the famed marxists had a Mercedes round the corner. I didn’t come from a wealthy background, I came from a sort of interesting, but not wealthy, not at all. I couldn’t go to college unless I had a scholarship. My dad was out of work when I started college. He was old and had a difficult time. I had a good education but never had the silver spoon. I had to earn money right from the word go. So I am cynical about the very privileged. I am quite hard on the marxist side, because I think they are pretty shrill and anything can be changed by change. If you look at it, it is not realistic. It doesn’t take in people’s psychology. People basically are indulgent, selfish and can be nice on occasion, some people more, some people less.

Back to Archigram, I think we were all people that were very interested in architecture and pushing it forward and for it to do better things and that was it. OUR Utopianism, if that’s what it was, was pushing architecture to do more. To be more acquisitive of what was around. We enjoyed enjoying that! We enjoyed saying:

“That is not just some highfalutin thing discussed in academia. Lets go out there and show what we can do!”.

I think one of the things I would criticize the historians about Archigram would be that they always tried to see it in terms of its political positions, or its position in the consumer society, or vis a vis the scene at the time and they tend to concentrate on the text and glaze over the projects, where as to my mind the projects needed to be scrutinized. I think the projects themselves contained lots of statements. Many people at the time criticized Ron Heron collages because they always contained beautiful ladies on them and I started doing a few collages with draggy old guys with dirty hats on. But really the point was: This should really be any enjoyable experience.

he other thing distinct to me now was how we were very influenced by America.

Z: I think you all travelled there…

PC: Yes we were all teaching in America at different times. In fact three of us were in Los Angles simultaneously, in 68,69 and then Mike Webb and David Greene taught there for a long time. Mike Webb still lives there. It was part of the mythology in a sense; America to do with Buckminster Fuller, machines and production. As I get older I become more consciously European. I enjoy the fact that if you go sit in a cafe somewhere in Scandinavia, that however who you think you are and your friends, that there is someone as equally smart as you if not smarter that was sitting there a hundred years before, philosophising what the hell they were doing back then!. And that is quite humbling in a way. Utopia as such…I am not sure I am able to be that abstract. I am not that good at abstract. I am very critical of recent tendencies for architecture schools who load up more and more faculty who are theory people or critical theory people.

Z:  …none of us believe in abstract Utopia, nor over-theorising architecture schools.

PC: …and what is amazing, I mean some do… I know people who do …what is amazing is how much money is spent on them. If you go inside an academy and see who has been paid what! They suck up a lot of resource while people who design things or are interested in building things, it is difficult for them to become professors now. Since I have spent so much time of my life teaching and developing a couple of schools up, to see this being threatened by the march of the abstracted, not very interested in architecture people? I am passionately interested in architecture. Been doing it since I graduated at 23 and look at me, I am in my mid 70s and still at it.

The borderline between a good scene and a not good scene, I think is narrower than we like to admit. I think we would like to say it is impossible because we don’t have the money, we have the wrong politics, we have the wrong weather, we have this problem, we can’t get wood or steel.

But the borderline between thinking like this and being positive is very small! It is possible now to go and buy a chair that works for just about £8… Possibly less. I don’t think that was so when I was a child. Same with food, you can get food that doesn’t go stale overnight, when I was a kid it was difficult… It is possible to get fantastic information now on the internet, not necessarily enough information as you would like, that is why guys like you have to do magazines. When I was a student you have to go and sit in the library. You had to know how to access the books, and then it was 20 years out of date. Now you just go tumnnn!!! and you have a conversation about the timber expert that you haven’t met yet! I think therefore, if I turn the clock back to Archigram, a lot of it was speculative at distance. A lot of if was in the tradition of architects admiring things done by other architects. My particular interest was Bruno Taut and a few that I was introduced to by reading Reyner Banham. Reyner Banham was a big influence on us. He happened to live across the street and we got to know him. That was useful. Archigram was produced by 6 different people. No two of us went to the same school. No two of us had the same taste in music, clothes or girls… we were all interested in girls but they were different kinds of girls.

Z: … but you had consensus though.

PC: Well it was a funny consensus because we very rarely sat down. We probably even here (referring to CRAB Studio) sit down more . I don’t know if we actually ever sat down and said, “Now we must do a controlled choice dwelling!” No, there was some thing cropped up in the Biennale that said do the house of the future, and two or three of us sat down and said “Lets do this! What do you reckon we do?” We knew we had certain preoccupations. A lot of if was implicit. It was implicit by books and things we have read. We would sit in a room surrounded by copies of Japan architecture ”HEY! there is a great thing here,” or “Look at what this guy has done!”. It was hardly done by sitting round a table and discussing policy! I am sure it never happened like that! It was a practical conversation, “who is going to draw it up?” It wasn’t what is our intellectual attitude…

Z: …maybe it was as simple as architecture can do good? That was the consensus and that was it?

PC: I think it was architecture can do good and it doesn’t have to be boring like it does round the corner, WOULD be a consensus. And there was a wonderful phrase which we might have read by someone, but we never said who “them” were, but we all knew who the ‘them’ were. They were the great unwashed sort of Philistines, and we would do something and say “this will upset ‘them’!”. We knew what we meant. That would vary between different people. Mike Webb would go on in the corner and would do something extraordinary. I think he was the creative genius of the group and Ron, Warren and I would talk about it more because we were the ones that read more architecture. David and Ron read more poetry and Mike taught himself the piano and he would go by himself and play the drums. He would go on and do really good oil paintings after never having touched a paint brush, he was just that sort of guy! Ron knew a lot about the history of modern architecture and discussed arcane people that did something in Czechoslovakia in1924, but there was just a grainy photograph of it, you know this kind of thing. He has a fascination in the minutia of how architecture developed in certain places.

When in Cairo, I was not interested in the pyramids at all, but I was quite interested to see how art nouveau has affected on particular parts of Cairo. Whether that rang a bell in my head? Where did they come from?  Would have they studied in France or in Italy. I am fascinated by that kind of thing. I don’t know what you’d call it? Nothing to do with Utopianism. It is to do with architecture!

Z: I have another question which you may have answered already. Do you believe in Utopia as a dream or vision, reality or a state of equilibrium?

PC: I would treat it as a dream. I don’t really think about Utopia very often. I think Utopia detaches the proposition from connection with reality. I will use an analogy which I often trotted out.

…It so happens that he has two wives. His London wife, Rem Koolhaas, lives on the top of our street. I happen to have known him for many years. I chat to him very often. Some years ago we were coming from the dry cleaners or the supermarket and bumped in the street and started chatting. We chatted about all the people we knew when we were teaching at the AA. I don’t know who started the conversation but we made a list of all the people who have been treated as ‘artistes’. That included me, him, Zaha, Peter Wilson, Nigel Coates and the list was quite long. We came up with 20 names! We were dismissed by the general London public architects that we hang around and do nice drawings. It’s all just artistic! The list was not only that, but people who have started building! Everybody on that list had actually done buildings. The conclusion was, what do those guys say now?  ‘Cause while we were treated as detached ‘artistes’, in a way it was safe. While you are detached, it doesn’t matter, but you start building, hey come on? What is the difference between what you are building and everybody else builds? OK, other criteria takes over, but you are no longer the ‘artiste’ in your ivory tower and this is why I come back to Taut, he did those crazy crystalline designs and he did social housing!

Now if I go back to the notion of Utopia, if some ideas remain in the utopian dream with no connection with reality, no links back to reality? You can say that,‘this was an interesting utopian dream,’ but what was going down actually on the ground? It is important for the trickle through. One can design a very expensive camera that very few can afford to get, but then there is the trickle through back to the Nikon cheaper than your Nikon and that happens all the way down… This happens in technology, and I think it can happen in terms of architectural ideas to. It means that if the invented camera is so perverse that its requires very expensive materials then probably it won’t trickle through. But it might be a set of constructs, a set of ideas which people haven’t normally been thinking of, in terms of the camera and it can trickle through and I think the same applies to architecture.

The sub-Utopian ideas are more interesting than Utopian ideas, now what does that mean? Do I mean compromise? No. I have just been in Japan a couple of weeks ago. They do certain things that seem outrageous architecturally at first and then you say, oh my god, why not? We talk about putting vegetation on buildings and this lady called Sugaro who took us to see one of her buildings which is a big performing arts centre and it has grass on the roof of this enormous building. I was sort of a domed building with grass all over. Looks like planet Mars or something, and there are little bushes growing on it and then she’s got plates of plantation down in the lower levels and then there is parking underneath that. The concept of a park and a building have melted together. Now people might talk about it, people might do wonderful drawings about it and say wouldn’t it be marvelous if you lived inside a park? But she’s gone and built it!!! It’s REALITY! This is not Utopian, but, it is also not business as usual? I would call it the experimental end of architecture brought to reality.

For me this is more interesting than one day living on rubber planets!!! I mean maybe, but meanwhile, what about the characters living at the end of Tokyo! Maybe I am sounding sort of like I am downplaying it. I think we were thinking, like sure, building Plug in City in London we would have to get enormous bits of legislation ALTHOUGH, if you look carefully, there is one very obscure map that I have drawn that I was taking into account bits and pieces of railway land. London is full of railway yards. So a lot of it was intended to be built on railway yard. I think that rather explains it! Maybe it is not the answer you were looking for, but here we are! That is the honest answer…

Z: Between us five, we don’t have a common consensus of what Utopia is. I think most of us think of it as not real.

PC: It is funny because you do occasionally see somebody building a dream. I think there are other things which I would attack. One thing that I find very odd is the sort of consensus you almost get between the socialist modernist and the developer’s architect which is it more comfortable to itemise known function and to work to them. The socialist modernist would say we must have better schools and better work places and bigger gardens and so on…Crudely, the developer would say we’ve got to make more money out of our offices! Do we need those gardens? We can have balconies up on the walls. And for the schools, yah we got to have some schools.

Still both of them are thinking in terms of houses, offices, gardens, schools and industrial facilities. Now back to Archigram, a lot of people now can work on their computer, you can argue Archigram have come alive, you don’t need offices. Just give them a horizontal surface and a decent view outside. They may not demand that a room is a living room. They may want to build boats in it, they may want to assemble a hi-fi in it, they may want to set cameras in it. They are doing something which is “industrial”, “office” and maybe they want to have the garden on the roof. I had experience in that in building in Madrid where my idea was to have sport facilities on the roof and have kiosks underneath it and make it more than just housing. We did get the building built, but the money ran out and the City of Madrid didn’t like people going on the top floor and playing basket ball on the roof, why? I do not know! So the roof now is just unused. There is no money around for people to open kiosks, so the kiosks aren’t developed. The whole ethos of the building was it would come alive. It was a hamburger. The bottom of the hamburger is the car park. The top is the housing. The filling is actually the people living the town life, in the kiosks and the bit of garden, kids even hanging out smoking god knows what. And then the topping would be the playgrounds. If you take the topping and the filling out, what you got is the BUN! It sort of missed the point!

Z: In 'Architecture or Revolution,' [the concluding chaper of Towards a New Architecture] Le Corbusier calls for embracing modernity and technology as a means of avoiding revolution in a time of severe change. Again the theme of high technology and the future extends into your work in the 60′s and continues to do so till now. How do you see the effect of technology on our cities today, and how related is it to the idea of revolution?

PC: I think in Corbusian times, he was right, I tend to agree with him. You can also… this is a very cynical remark, you can fascinate people out of anger. You can take a group of people who otherwise would be angry, and you can tantalise them with amusement until the point were they either forget or break. I am not a football fan but I think football in this country, and in many countries, takes a particular role of absorbing people’s built up frustration. They identify, they fight… It deals with tribalism and it deals with frustration. It is sad, but it has to be like that. You watch bored people on the tube, in every city I go to, and you see people fiddling around with their mobile phones. I was watching people in tokyo were they tend to go for bigger smart phones and play more games. You know I am very cynical about this.

Z: Do you think it is alienating people though?

PC: I think it IS alienating people. I think they retreat into strange pockets. I am not an enormous pub person. But I think the fact they are decreasing is rather sad. The pub was the great social gatherer. It was a great place for people to go and meet people they didn’t know.

I am a late parent of a 22-year-old London kid, went to a nice school and is a social character. His reportage to us of where the ‘scene’ is in London is fascinating. And how people connect! It seemed to have moved from Dulston to Peckham. There is this garage place where people appear from nowhere and the interesting thing is that the people that are behind it are very well culturally and socially connected. They are sort of ex-Cambridge kids who are sons and daughters of well known people. So as a pattern, that is interesting! So it is STILL the old elitist thing there behind what appears to be a populist movement. We can sit down and right an article about that. It is a phenomenon. What is interesting to me, is how it operates.

Z: In a world of austerity, depleting resources and expensive cutting edge technologies, how do you feel you could have formulated archigram’s ideas today? What advice can you give new archigram / think tanks out there?

PC: There are two things. There is that factor: we would be carried away with this moral wave and therefore we would not have made stuff out of metal. We would have made it from recycled boxes. We would have been fascinated by that. The other factor would have been the computer. The speed of which you can respond. Not only accessing information but also turning it back onto something. Things were much slower then. We would be making the model and somebody had to be actually drawing it! On the other hand, I think there was one characteristic of our early work which is sometimes missed, which was that most of us were interested in bits and pieces. There is a strong tradition of putting bits and pieces together like mecano sets. Making things out of two bits of bamboo, 3 tubes of glue…

I quoted that last day that I made an inflatable in my front garden because you had to, as a statement. My inflatable involved 4 sheets of Woolworth polythene, a lot of sticky tape and a vacuum cleaner! I made it as a statement of clubmanship. You went and photographed Le Corbusier’s because it was a statement of involvement. And I think people had to do statemental things. I don’t know why? You just do! Archigram was a coalition of people, we would have reacted in different ways. Those of us, who were interested in stuff would have been really wanting to probably build some kind of strange thing somewhere in London.

Z: While at Archigram, you did mention you were socialists, but in a way you also where adopting and pushing forward consumerist architecture…

PC: (Smiles) We enjoyed that.

Z: …how did that debate progress? How did you shift from being borderline socialist to riding this consumerist capitalist wave?

PC: We didn’t have a problem at the time because you felt that everybody should have this stuff. The fact that some fat cat was making money out of it, was just life. It wasn’t as shrill at that time. Other people questioned it very rapidly. Maybe I was a bit naive, I couldn’t see the problem.

Zawia is a non-periodical, English and Arabic publication on architecture, design & urbanism. Zawia is published in Egypt, and is coordinated by a team operating from Cairo, Milan, and London. Its main aim is to bridge years and layers of intellectual distancing and isolation in the Middle East, and specifically in Egypt, and to provide channels and open new possibilities for a mutual constructive dialogue between local and global communities. 

Zawia is about collaboration, the discussion of ideas, and the sharing of knowledge. Hence, Zawia provides an open platform for the collective knowledge of architectural discourse, a space for questioning, rethinking, examining, and testing, a space that is organic, hybrid and unexpected. It oscillates between research and practice as it is open to ideas, processes, encounters, experiences, musings, utopias, projects, manifestos, comics, photographs, articles and essays.

The  first volume of Zawia, titled “Change”, was published in 2012; it featured 27 different contributors, among them Saskia Sassen, Stefano Boeri, and Markus Miessen, and was read online by over 15,000 readers worldwide.  Zawia#01:Utopia (published December 2013) is now available for purchase; it features 21 contributions from 13 countries. Contributors include : Amale Andraos, Yara Saqfalhait, Rem Koolhaas, Nicolas Guiraud, Noel David Nicolaus, Daniel Fernández Pascual, Aleix Plademunt, Sir Peter Cook, Ruvimbo Moyo, Damon Kowarsky, Silvia Malcovati, Tamer El-Shayal, Zhang Xiao, Hamed Khosravi, Noémie Goudal, Luis Miguel [Koldo] Lus-Arana, Saverio Pesapane, Livia Corona and Pedro Azara.

Zawia#01:Utopia critiques rather than displays utopia. It is not a collection of utopian/dystopian views and ideals, but rather a trial to devour both. Perhaps it is within this dismissal that we can accept the diversities and complexities of life, and simply aim to make life better. Perhaps it is within this dismissal that architecture and urbanism can be sought with renewed strength, and where the discourse can claim a new position. Perhaps it is within this complete and total loss of Utopia that it can actually be found.

Zawia’s founders are:  Ahmed Gamal, Ahmed Shawky, Kareem Hammouda, Mazin Abdulkarim and Moataz Faissal Farid

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