While it’s fairly well-known that Michelangelo and several other Renaissance artists also doubled up as architects, there have been considerably fewer architects who have also earned a name for themselves as artists. The distinction, certainly, is a modern-era affectation, as is the modern-day phenomenon of mainstream museums exhibiting architects’ artwork and sketches. In 2008, the Princeton University Art Museum hosted a show called Frank Gehry: On the Line, a selection of 31 drawings (and plans from recently-designed buildings) by Gehry, one of the most celebrated architects in the world. The show opened to coincide with the inauguration of a new Princeton library that Gehry had designed. This was interesting because no less an institution than Princeton was eliminating the line between art and utility (thus formulating a rejoinder to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism: “All art is quite useless”).
Sir Peter Cook’s drawings (from the 1960s to the 2000s), currently on display at Delhi’s Gallery Espace, are most certainly art, but they are also something else: like the best speculative fiction, they are quasi-scientific documents, blueprints of the future that look and feel as though a keen intellect was granted a clear but all-too-brief vision of the future.
Quite a bit of his work has interesting commentaries on the way the technological boom has affected our relationship with nature: a pencil attached to a compass grows taller and taller until it is indistinguishable from a tree’s upper branches, a group of trees emerge from the ground, all of them at exactly the same angle, the geometrical precision mimicking the way a geological formation of rocks juts out of a landmass, the various rock “outcrops” all pointing in the same direction.
Cook’s colours are unpredictable and abandon order and neatness every now and then, exploding in a trippy mix of reds and yellows and greens. Both the order and the disorder of his worldview are depicted beautifully in Archadia Composite, a 1982 work that’s probably the pick of the collection. This has a number of architectural elements that have been separately exhibited elsewhere: this is the first time that the complete painting has been displayed. “The Academy on the Hill” is the first element: these are a series of structures that look like psychedelic renditions of a nuclear reactor. The hill itself is held in place by wire grids that resemble solar power units (this is something Cook has given some thought to, as a separate painting called Solar City shows us).
As we move on down the hill and onto the valley below, we are greeted by “Crevice City”, which looks exactly the way it sounds. A huge circular hole, fenced by vegetation from all sides, appears like a portal to an alternate universe. It reminded me, for some reason, of the infamous “moon door” from the fictional Vale of Arryn in Game of Thrones. A short segue past the “Appia House” leads us, finally, to the “Trickling Towers”, a favourite element of Cook’s, one that makes an appearance in other sketches as well. There is beauty and sleekness here, but there is also a vague hint of the military-industrial complex and that makes Archadia Composite an ominous, almost dystopian work for me.
Quite a bit of Cook’s work has interesting commentaries on the way the technological boom has affected our relationship with nature: a pencil attached to a compass grows taller and taller until it is indistinguishable from a tree’s upper branches, a group of trees emerge from the ground, all of them at exactly the same angle, the geometrical precision mimicking the way a geological formation of rocks juts out of a landmass.
In Skywaft City-Shifts, Cook imagines light, free-floating structures in the sky: vegetation hangs off them sometimes, while sometimes they are simply silent, kite-like presences in the sky. In Solar City, a colourful, motif-heavy array of solar panels covers the skies like a protective canopy, perhaps in the aftermath of a serious ecological event. Treatments like these are the purest fantasies in this collection, but Cook also employs similar thought processes to cities that he has observed closely, cities like Berlin and Frankfurt. When he was teaching in Frankfurt in the ’80s, he noticed a significant amount of undeveloped land between Frankfurt and Offenbach, the nearest city. At Gallery Espace, one can view two distinct plans of action that he visualised to connect this stretch, under the “Real City” series of paintings. Titled Double Layer and Avenue Housing, they are probably the most architecturally rigorous paintings of this exhibition. Looking at Avenue Housing, it’s difficult to believe that nearly 30 years have passed since it was made: it looks more futuristic than a lot of contemporary architecture. The clean lines and immaculate plan ensure that the drawing seems to assemble itself, Lego-style, before your eyes.
Travelling through Delhi on a sticky, humid day is not really the best way to appreciate architecture, especially when you see something like Nehru Place, astutely described by Stephen Alter as “borrowed from a Hollywood disaster movie set”. Cook’s art is the kind of thing that restores your faith in this complex but fascinating discipline.