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Peter Cook: Designing for Students

By David R Shanks, on 15 December 2011

My final blog article of the semester responds to architect Sir Peter Cook’s Lunch Hour Lecture on the subject of designing for students. Despite being in the wrong city at the time, I managed to attend by watching the live stream, furiously typing notes while trying to eat lunch in the spirit of the occasion.

Before studying at UCL, I had been an ardent admirer of Sir Peter Cook’s work as part of the Archigram group, and of his subsequent drawings and writing. At the UCL Bartlett School, where he had been Chair and Professor of Architecture until 2005, an influence still loomed large, with most of the tutors having studied under his watchful eye.

This reputation was largely predicated upon his output of ‘paper architecture’ and the strength of revolutionary ideas in architectural education, rather than on built work. If the construction of the Kunsthaus in Graz (2003), a collaboration with Colin Fournier, was an exception to these more academically-orientated pursuits, the formation of CRAB studio, in partnership with Gavin Robotham, signified a commitment to testing spectacular, playful thinking in a commercially driven environment.

The Lunch Hour Lecture discusses two academic buildings by CRAB studio currently on site, demonstrating with many anecdotes and pertinent observations how forty-five years’ teaching experience has been integral to their design process. A law school at Vienna Economics University with “a jolly plan” rallies against the convention of prioritising only spaces dedicated to parts of the curriculum, acknowledging the importance of interstitial spaces and improvised seminars.

Furthering the idea that students might not be best served by a series of rectilinear boxes, the Bond University Architecture School in Australia is composed of cavernous, sculpted interiors that skilfully control the ingress of sunlight, and encourage visual intricacy to be created by its academic inhabitants.

A diversity of drawings illustrates the two projects, the emphasis being on the communication of ideas and information rather than converging on the homogeneity of a ‘house style’. Diagrams and cartoons wear the Archigram lineage on their sleeve, glossier renders attest to the wealth of hot talent employed fresh out of university and construction drawings show how much effort has been exerted in translating exuberant playfulness into more conventional notation.

At times, this makes it tough to tie the projects down stylistically, being melting pots of Pop enthusiasm, surreal object-based metaphors and smooth, digitally resolved building elements. This is by no means a bad thing, more a by-product of a vibrant young outfit that, as was evident from some final slides of the CRAB studio, is a living example of the sorts of environments it hopes to create.

Hopefully, these ideas will scale, and the good-humoured criticism of existing university facilities will prove splendidly accurate. It would indeed be characteristic for seemingly jovial ideas to carry tremendous weight, as those of Archigram did. While construction on site continues, this rare presentation by an engaging speaker can be enjoyed as a wonderfully charming peek into the future.

David Shanks is currently completing his Diploma in Architecture at the UCL Bartlett School.

Watch the full lecture here:

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