Conversation with Peter Cook on the State of Things

November 21, 2018 at 5:49 am / by

If I didn’t sit on a jury with a great educator like Sir Peter Cook, in USC the day before, perhaps this conversation would never materialize. Most certainly, the comments inserted during that studio review made me wanting to talk with Sir Peter Cook on the state of the architectural education and continue my own ‘slide presentation’ of distinguished educators, seeking ‘the empirical truth’ about the incredible shrinking of free thought, mainly in N. America’s great white architecture schools.
In the end, if you think I am all over the place, you might be right, I am… But, then again…

OA- Yesterday you have briefly commented on the state of architectural education via student projects. What are your thoughts, as an educator, about it? You can start from United States or Europe…

PC- I think architecture education is in a predicament, which it does not want to recognize… Many people officially in architecture education as professionals do not want to recognize this predicament–because many of them are not really so dedicated to make architecture. When I start to study architecture, people teaching were primarily architects, who also were involved in education. Most schools in North America are involved in the academics side of architecture and only secondarily interested in architecture. What I couldn’t bare, people who can teach architecture, are politically sidelined by the university types…

And, I think this is a tragedy…

I can’t see any likely reversal of it, because in a sense, those people hold the reigns of power… It’s in their interest to perpetuate a system by which you get seniority and power to decide who could come in to teach, through being ‘an architecture school person…’
Unfortunately, people like John Hejduk are not there anymore. And the majority of people running the schools are career academics who found a safe haven in the university.

OA- How do you describe teaching architecture in the American university?

PC- In America, over the years, ‘the theory’ became the central pillar of the school system. Many architects have a sense of inferiority as intellectuals and this is rather rubbed down their throats. They’re made to feel inferior, their own paranoia and frustrations as creative artists, played back to them by the intellectuals who are not architects. In a sense, this is happening all over the world. Also, some of the brightest designers are not interested in schools. They are too busy with their work. And they are also kept away from the schools, because they might inspire the students too much with their views and practical knowledge…

There seems to be a conspiracy. At least I’d like to massage the conversation with that terminology, merely to draw attention to it.

OA- Architecture schools used to be more liberal in terms of housing different ideologies and ideas. Professors and students used to argue for opposing ideals. Nowadays, they are more geared towards a safe education where only the proven ways are thought. Very specialized areas turned into departments within the school. Instead of creating buildings, people are creating departments. Even then, almost every ‘fabrication’ is similar to the next one. How has that happened?

PC- The architecture schools are not liberal at all… I think architects walked into the trap themselves by allowing this to happen. In order to feel more respectable, they have created this extra credibility road map by being attracted to the ambiance of the teaching position. I also think the nature of the schools has changed. Like in every field, people want to get complications… Like complicated Master’s courses etcetera. When I went to school, you had one objective, which was to become an architect. A minimal diploma was sufficient. Now you hear people say, I have my first degree here and second degree there, I even know these very interesting designers in London at the age of 34-35, who are doing their PhD’s. They are very good designers but in fact their architectural work slowed down in last few years. Having PhD puts them in a strong position of surviving by teaching but they are giving away the best time to do their best work. This is not atypical. Going back to what you were saying yesterday, I think you are quite right, a lot of interesting people are sidelined because they are little bit off-the-wall, suggesting different conversations frankly puts them out.

OA- What I saw being around students recently, they are very good on certain computer skills. They get this instant self-gratification from computed renderings. I saw students programming a building like shape and continuously working the ‘form’ by orbiting on the computer screen, round-and-round. Like a nervous tick and wierd obsession… Eventually, I had to ask them to stop turning the object and let’s look at it for a minute as a building design. It took a lot of effort on their part to connect the ‘piece’ to real city. There is this big reality compromise for the sake of form. I really don’t think architecture has a shortage of form, I also think it should be a very outdated way of designing buildings at this day and age. Computer generated or not, ‘form for form’ really bores me.

Do you have any comment on this area?

PC- Yes I do. On one hand, I am excited by some of digital tools, like the three-dimensionality that is made possible, but I am also bored by its instant results. It is like making an instant suit, which everybody gets an instant satisfaction. Actually, a real good suit requires some special ingredients. There is also the possibility that in five years time, everybody will suddenly get bored of these familiar forms of computer generated images. About 100 years ago plate glass became extensively used in architecture, I love plate glass but it became a main ingredient of architecture. Maybe the digital design is the plate glass of our times. I think there are some wonderfully exotic digital designs.

OA- Certainly… Like the work of Marcos Novak who was with us yesterday. I wouldn’t call his work exotic or digital, but he utilizes digital technology with substantial ideas about future. If any, I’d like to learn from him… He is one of the few with the vision beyond the ‘form’ orbiting…


Let’s talk about your work in Austria. Have you employed digital technology during early design?

PC- It didn’t start out as a digital work. It got carried through as a digital work, but it is done in the same way of doing normal piece of architecture.

OA- It has a certain mediatic feel to it. With all the information systems integrated on the skin, it makes me see it as daily updated newspaper–like building as an information source.

PC- It was not digitally generated. I had the idea and I’ve developed it. And, the means were whatever means came to hand at the time.

OA- I like the idea that the building acts as a communicative device, in a media sense. Have you taken your students there to see it?

PC- It is funny you mentioned that. The first time it was opened, I was teaching at Bartlett and I had my Masters group and they all went to visit Graz. It was the first time I was in a position to have a building built with my students observing it. That puts you in a very funny role, which I have never been before. I have taken earlier students to a small building I did in Berlin, but that was after the building had been opened for a while, so it was less dramatic. But here, a larger group, they all went to see this freshly completed building and saw it in the beginning of their academic year. Half of them tried to do buildings just like it. “Aha this is what Professor Cook does and that’s what we must do.”

I found that tiresome because I don’t want clones…

OA- That brings another issue to my mind. They have this portfolio day at a local architecture school here in Los Angeles. The students put their books on the tables, now that students can print books under their name. Self-publishing has become very common. You can publish your own book. Anyway, you look at these things and without reading; you recognize who the professor is. And while looking at those, I said to the director who was in charge of the graduate school, “What is going on here, you can recognize all the teachers but where is the student?” And she looked at me and said, “Yes that is a problem.”

PC- This has happened recently?

OA- Yes… I have no doubt it happens in a lot of schools elsewhere.
I think going back to our conversation earlier; it is very common now for schools to hire certain name brand teachers for luring new students. It became a business. I am wondering which school will be the first one to open an architecture branch in Abu Dhabi, following the steps of NYU? I would speculate the planning of it is underway.

PC- Franchising…

OA- Architecture education has become a business. By the time a student graduates from one of these well known schools, they can be up to 150K in debt if they are not financed by their families…

PC- It makes them wanting a guaranteed product… There is this smart student culture in schools who will choose certain studios, computer software, classmates, even girlfriends and boyfriends. But they don’t do anything from the gut. They do everything after certain profiling and then they go into certain unit, because it gives them good connections with certain architects or designers. And they all follow a certain path where it will eventually take them into Zaha’s office. Same thing in Bartlett, they do it to get a job at Foster’s…

AA is directed to Zaha and Bartlett directed to Foster. And these are rich students.

OA- What happens to a student who has some kind of agenda in his/her mind to criticize the system, question few things?

PC- Well, actually the most interesting studios do attract the oddballs and encourage and celebrate them. And, this puzzles some of the more organized students. Good teachers like and support oddball students because they are stimulating. Boring teachers want imitations of themselves. And, you have teachers walking around and saying, “Look I am good because I got thirty students I got in my class.”

OA- I have also noticed that the diversity of economic backgrounds in expensive top schools is out the door. You have students flying from Los Angeles to Dubai for the two weeks research part of their studio project, coming back, designing apartheid supportive condominiums. A rounded tower with expensive units on the outer core and servant quarters in the inner core, specifically designed so there is no interaction and chance meeting between ‘the master’ and ‘the servant,’ outside the master’s orders. They utilize soundproof walls to inner core and completely separated circulation systems with different entries and exits. It reminded me the awful slave ships, where the slaves kept below and separated from the deck. The students, who are designing these scenarios, and feeling zero social embarrassment.

I mean, it is good they can go to Dubai, but it would be nice to see some social consciousness in their efforts. Some of them kept saying, “Well, they are (laborers) better off making $150 per month as servants than starve in their home country.” We are talking about designing a dominant situation for somebody buying a multimillion-dollar condo and feeling no remorse of paying 150 dollars-a-month to somebody to be their full time servant on call. This is now an okay mindset for developing condos for architecture students and there is no one saying, “Wait a minute guys…”

PC- I was in Russia just around the time social and political change was taking a place, and I was expecting to deal with students from the working class. To my surprise, all the students were from the ruling class, the sons and daughters of the party elite. This is nothing new.

OA- I guess not. But, really, where do you see this leading? Is this a vicious circle of architecture as an upper-class profession, eventually subservient to the same?

PC- I think so, but the interesting thing is, architecture might takeoff quite differently. Architecture might break away from the academy. It might be from elsewhere that the interesting architecture work might come. It is quite possible in the future, the architecture might come from other sources, like commercially supported research groups, from odd corners or from funny places, you know? Or it might come from people who don’t call themselves architects… It is quite conceivable. And, academies remain academies. Similar to English departments, where the graduates become English teachers, but not to write books, necessarily… Sure, there are parallels. It is like being devil’s advocate but I do hope this happens–would rather it did happen. The academies, sort of, pull architecture into this feeble and boring condition. Architecture is more important than the schools for architecture. Schools are at this point merely service industries.

OA- I think they are a bit disconnected right now…

PC- Maybe they have to become more disconnected.

OA- Maybe completely disconnected? (laughing)

PC- Could be, but I would rather not… Most intelligent developments in architecture are happening where there is a progressive laboratory. I am not very hopeful of American scene in this respect. There is no real feeling for invention in America anymore. There is no great feel for eccentricity or random occurrence.

OA- Maybe America became one big complying society.

PC- Europe is becoming the same way… I like certain positive aspects of the EU but there is also this unbearable aspect of the sameness. There is Starbucks in Vienna. Each time I go to Vienna, there are more Starbucks you know…

So how are the things in Turkey?

OA- You mean ‘my beautiful and lonely country.’ It’s okay, summertime, tensions are high!! Have you been there?

PC- No, but I drew the plans and sections of Hagia Sophia when I was a student. I love to go there soon.

OA- I have never been in England, but when I was a student, I drew the elevation of Jim Sterling’s University of Leicester Engineering building.
Let’s meet in Istanbul and let’s meet in London and compare notes…

PC- We can meet at Starbucks in Vienna to compare the notes…


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