Last week ArchDaily attended the 2016 World Architecture Festival in Berlin. We chatted with Sir Peter Cook and asked him about the current state of global affairs (Brexit, the US election, etc). He explained how his experience and work has influenced a career that has spanned over five decades, and reminds us of the inspiring power of architecture.
Peter Cook: You have to understand that I'm a very particular kind of animal both politically and in my general opinions. I'm what I would call a creative cynic. I'm an old person and I've seen a lot of not very good things happen. On the other hand I was privileged as a child to have free education and free college.
I don't see things in the extremely black and white. I think there are variants on the not quite right and variants on the nearly possible. And so I think even in the Archigram days my projects were actually based upon a kind of liberal tradition. Although the mechanics looked outrageous, perhaps, the actual society that I was imagining into them was what I would call an North European liberal society, such as I actually grew up in. Of this made—there's a tendency away from that. And my great belief in Europe, which I did before there was even an EU, was that one had seen all these countries fighting each other—I was a child at the war time, and I heard bombs dropping—and you saw all these countries coming together and that seemed wonderful, irrespective if there was a bureaucracy or not.
In a way, I think the architectures that I make is based upon an optimism. Optimism with a side knowing that it won't quite happen, but not saying "Oh! All is terrible!" or "Oh! All is wonderful!" It's, "Yeah, it's going to be a bit better or a bit worse." That, of course, is a very English attitude. That we're survivors. It's interesting that when sometimes there are these economic downturns, for example in Spain when there was the last economic downtown, everyone said "It's all collapsing, what are we going to do, what are we doing to do!" The English said, "Hmm it's not so good, but it'll get better." And then things are good in England and they say, "Uh, any minute it's going to go down." And it's a kind of protective tissue which is very funny for foreigners. My wife is not English and she can never understand how we have this—we're never totally optimistic and we're never totally pessimistic. We say, "Well, let's keep going and something will turn up." And you have to put my architecture in that perspective. It's what I would call liberal in a traditional sense of liberal. It's inquisitive, reasonable, it's to the left but not extreme left, it's beneficial for the underprivileged, but not in an extreme way. It uses the economic system that we have, as long as it doesn't go extremely badly. And I think this is difficult, particularly for Latin people or Mediterranean people to understand. They say, "What turns you on?"
You can use your imagination of course, and when I was doing the Archigram stuff I always thought it could be built. If you looked at it, it had handrails, it had toilets. And the toilets were the right size and the escalators were the right pitch. I always used to get irritated by people from other cultures who'd say, "This is a wonderful scheme; this is the city of the future." And you thought, "How the f*ck are you going to walk around on it! You're going to fall off the edge." So, you have the bear that in mind, and therefore I don't see any divide between what I was showing before lunch there, the blue thing [Drawing Studio at Bournemouth University], which is actually built, and what I was drawing in Archigram. That [project] looks a bit unusual in an English university, but it's only what we were doing in Archigram. And Archigram looked a bit unusual but actually it could have been built, and that was what was very interesting when I built the Graz building—that you could do that. And yet, people for years had been saying you couldn't do our kind of stuff. And then you say, "F*ck you, look there it is!" What do you do then? And I think it's… in a way a rather cynical background. You somehow can do things because the cynicism is a protective crust for what is fundamentally optimism. And there you are.