Amazing Archigram!

December 2, 2013

In the following conversation, Clara Olóriz and Koldo Lus Arana talk with Peter Cook about comics, his use of narrative, the role of humor and cartooning in architecture’s storytelling, and why the heck there’s a lot of Jack Kirby but no Dan Dare in Warren Chalk’s “Space Probe.”


When, in May 1964, the fourth issue of Archigram, (also known as “Amazing Archigram / Zoom”) came out, it signalled the final boost of Archigram magazine. Thanks to the intervention of both Peters (Banham and Blake), the “Zoom” issue propped Archigram into an international context, helping create the public perception of Archigram not only as a magazine, but also as an architectural team with a certain conceptual and aesthetic agenda. With its bold use of comic book and general science fiction imagery, it also became an inevitable presence in any recount of the occasionally close encounters of architecture and the graphic narrative, as well as a stimulus for the use of the latter in the 1960s and 70s visionary architectural scene. Additionally, it marked the beginning of Archigram’s (especially Peter Cook’s) romance with the mechanics of sequential imaging, which would be used to present subsequent projects.

In the following conversation, we talk with Peter Cook about comics, his use of narrative, the role of humor and cartooning in architecture’s storytelling, and why the heck there’s a lot of Jack Kirby but no Dan Dare in Warren Chalk’s “Space Probe.”1

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Sir Peter Cook in conversation with Clara Olóriz and Koldo Lus Arana. © Koldo Lus Arana.

I. Amazing Archigram (…Zoom!)

KLA: Hi, Peter, thanks for having us. First of all, we’d like to ask you to talk a little bit about the way in which the issue came to be. Up to that point, you had done a four-page leaflet with Mike Webb and David Greene; by the second issue, Ron Herron, Warren Chalk, and Dennis Crompton joined the team; and the third one was a themed one, “Expendability.” “Amazing Archigram / Zoom” seemed, however, much more ambitious, with its complex conjunction of topics, techniques and hands at work.

PC: From my memory, the first Archigram was really done by myself, David, and Mike, and then we got to know the other slightly older group: Warren, Crompton, and so on, who were in the second one. By the third one, “Expendability,” we more or less all came together. The fourth one was the first one that really hit the international market. Suddenly, from selling two hundred copies, [the magazine] went up to selling more than a thousand copies almost instantly, and we had people from Milan, Florence, and other cities, knowing about it. It happened that Reyner Banham saw the third one, and he took [Archigram] 4 with him to America. It went to Philip Johnson and others. I must have given him a pile of them, and he wrote about it in articles. It was a key one for taking up. It was also an elaborated one, because of the pop-up book!

CO: Where did the concept come from? Was it a gathering of ideas that the different members shared, or did it spring from one person? You always seem to be the driving force in the magazine, but that notwithstanding, the issue seems to revolve around the issue of comics, with Warren Chalk’s “Space Probe!” at the center.

PC: I probably chatter more [laughs]. It might also have to do with the AA training as well. I think people from the AA are trained to talk. They are allowed, mandated to talk. I was always born to be an organiser, doer, get around that… some people are.

I would say it was broken into two or three conditions: one, we could say was the fun part with the comic papers, and that’s drawing attention to the fact that even some of the specific drawings in the comics were like German drawings from some of the Frülicht people—one person in particular, Carl Krayl. If you look at Carl Krayl’s [drawings] they are almost identical with the Chicago comics. He was always a secondary figure, but nonetheless the actual mannerism of his drawings are so, so close, it is almost as if the guy who is siting in America somewhere drawing these things was familiar with it, or they were brought up with a certain way of drawing.

Warren Chalk and I, by this time, were all working for Ted Woodrow. We spent a lot of office time actually producing the magazine. He and I would go out at lunchtime to those various market stools around King’s Cross, Euston… looking to see if there was any of this stuff. He knew a bit more than I did about what to look for. It was mostly from one company that did these comics, but there were others. Largely his initiative, he gathered all these comics together. He zipped through them, and he and Ron Herron did some collages. I really handled the rest of the magazine, including the pop-up and whatever else is in there, and that included the first thing we had “Plug-in City” in, and so on and so forth.

KLA: So, how was everything put together? Did Warren produce the collage on his own, and then brought it to the office?

PC: No, I think he did it in the office actually.

CO: Was Warren the member most interested in comics?

PC: He was, probably. Ron Herron also, to one extent. Ron and Warren were very into Americana. They used to buy Ivy League type suits and smoke American cigarettes… before they went to America. Then, when they went to America, they reverted it to drinking beer, wearing denim, and smoking French cigarettes.

KLA: Yes, one thing that struck me was the notorious absence of English comic books in the magazine. Sci-fi had a great development in British comics in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, at some point I spent a nice amount of time tracking down the comics Warren used in his collage and all come from American pulps, such as Mystery in Space or Out of This World. People such as Norman Foster and Stephen Hawking have mentioned how much Dan Dare and The Eagle helped shape their interests—Arthur C. Clarke even worked as an assistant for the strip. However, there’s no Dan Dare inside the “Zoom” issue.

PC: I know, I know, that was probably partly why. I never read Dan Dare much, not at all actually. I was not interested in it. I’ve never been interested in science fiction. I don’t believe in science fiction. I just thought that the projects that we did were possible. You may think that’s naïve, but I always saw them as connected to the world I knew. I never thought of them as utopian, we thought of them as an extension of the known territory.

KLA: Speculative, but not fantastic.

PC: Hmmm…! Yeah, you could say that.

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Amazing Archigram 4: Zoom Issue. Cover by Warren Chalk, May 1964. (Diagram extracted from “Futuropolis: Comics and the Transmediatic Construction of the City of the Future”, by Koldo Lus).

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Cover of Mystery in Space #86 (DC Comics, September 1963), drawn by Carmine Infantino. (Diagram extracted from “Futuropolis: Comics and the Transmediatic Construction of the City of the Future”, by Koldo Lus).

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First page of Warren Chalk’s “Space Probe!” (Diagram extracted from “Futuropolis: Comics and the Transmediatic Construction of the City of the Future”, by Koldo Lus).

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Page 5 of Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 AD #4 (Gold Key, November 1963), by Russ Manning. (Diagram extracted from “Futuropolis: Comics and the Transmediatic Construction of the City of the Future”, by Koldo Lus).

II. (Zoom…)

KLA: There’s also a privileged presence of Jack Kirby, who drew some of the most impressive pulps in those years, and, if we speak of “cross-pollination,” using Warren’s claim, one could see some transplantation of Kirby’s mechanical details in the graphic construction of Herron’s “Walking City.” I would say—speaking of mannerisms—that the machinery that appeared in these comic books looks a little bit like the graphic clichés.

PC: I think Ron would have been looking at them as well. Ron and Warren had been working together for a long time before I came for the London County Council LCC. They had spent a lot of time on projects together and probably they talked about [Kirby’s drawings]. But this one was done by Warren, and then Ron came in to do some of the collages and drawings. Ron was a more fluent drawer. C: And then, you christened the “Walking City.” Ah, it might be, because it was called “Cities Moving” and for me, that is an easier concept. It is always me who has to end up writing, talking… I write very easily, like a journalist.

KLA: So it is not casual that you included lots of American referents. Actually, you already used some of these characters in the “Living City” exhibition. You had Superman… who also shows up in page 8—an image, mind you, that can be found in a crossword called “Supergram” from 1955.2 Serendipity…

PC: Hah, that is interesting! We liked Americana… it went with the movies. We were into Americana even though at that point none of us had been to America.

CO: Dennis Crompton has been very vocal about the fact that the issue was about architecture and science fiction, not specifically about comics. However, both your editorial and Chalk’s collage seem to strongly advocate the interest of the medium. Both your texts have this manifesto-like feel.

PC: They always had the manifesto thing. Ron, Warren, and I in particular were very conscious of things like the magazines of the 1920s, of Taut’s Frülicht, and the various manifestos that came out around at that time. There was always a statement; you were always saying, “This is what is going to happen and what this should look like.” We called it the “Zoom” issue because it was about the comic paper relationship and the towers, and that then carried the other things that we had in there. I don’t think it was just divided into science fiction.

CO: And then, there’s always the shock value of comics as a provocation tool…

PC: I think there is a certain wing of English thinking, English creative art, whatever you may call it, which enjoys being naughty. It gave us great pleasure that the borrowing from comics would upset the normal architect. “You should be correct, you should be politically correct in a certain way, you should draw in a certain way.” We found that stultifying! And we used to say very often, “This will upset them!”

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Archigram, The True Story Told by Peter Cook. Image courtesy of Peter Cook.

III. Going International

PC: [Archigram] involved more than one person doing the research and more than one person doing the cutting. I remember we used a whole office to cut popups… cut, and cut, and cut, and cut, and cut, and cut… like our designs. Dennis Crompton was the person who knew how to do silk print, so that is when we introduced color from the silk print. I think it was the first one that used the resources of quite a lot of people. [It] was a whole lot of bother, but we knew that it was the special one, even at that time. I think we printed a thousand [copies of the first issue] but we had difficulty in selling more than a hundred, and that was mostly to friends. We managed to get a bookshop to have it, and then we sold a few more. The second one maybe sold three hundred and the third one—people started to know about it—maybe sold four hundred. But it was really the “Zoom” issue that could have sold many more than what we printed.

I think that a few months before the release of the “Zoom” issue, “Plug-in City” was published in The Sunday Times color supplement; that was also another very key breakthrough. Even though The Sunday Times only reaches the British public, it was read by a minimum of probably three million people—the paper was selling a million copies—who got to see the actual pictures, which is a lot of people for that sort of material. I know by the time I started teaching at the AA in 1964, the students had all seen this project. I remember talking to Nick Grimshaw, who was one of my students at that time, afterwards, and he told me, “We all saw this thing in the paper and we thought ‘What the hell is this lunatic teaching us?’” He said, “Some of us came around to it and started doing that sort of thing ourselves.”

CO: “Amazing Archigram / Zoom” became, in a way, the birth of Archigram as a group.

PC: It was a sort of watershed point within the history of Archigram. Before that, Archigram was a formation of two sub-groups getting together to talk to each other. We had done the Living City exhibition the year before, which was really the first manifestation, and the “Zoom” issue must have come a matter of months after. We had built up a certain head of esteem, so the difference between the third issue and the fourth is the difference between us wanting anybody out there and knowing that people had taken an interest. So you might say it has the confidence of self. We were self-aware in a different way.

At that point we also started illustrating our own projects. Taylor Woodrow had this little internal competition for the tower. Because I won the competition, that was the one that led the more elaborate model and drawings. The popup one included Ron Herron’s tower and Woodrow’s tower, and there must have been a fourth one. As one did in that moment, you put together everything you were doing and then turn it into this.

KLA: It always seemed to me, however, that none of these designs were intended as sci-fi architecture, but serious architectural research that happened to need to be conducted in another medium.

PC: It’s very funny that I liked rockets and those sort of things, but if you take the Montreal tower, it was not a science fiction thing. It was a way of arranging domes and tubes. It had maybe borrowed iconography, but the proposition is totally architectural, totally organizational.

KLA: Funny it ended up becoming a cargo spaceship in Douglas Trumbull’s film “Silent Running,” via Kikutake’s Osaka Tower.3 Changing the topic, you yourself have used the mechanics of graphic narrative in some of your projects, such as “Addox Strip” or “The Metamorphosis of an English Town.”

PC: Yes, and in recent times, I have been using cartoons to describe what I was trying to do with the project. In fact, we just completed Bond University’s new School of Architecture building in Queensland where I included these cartoons in the original presentation. The building is an architectural school, and I ran architectural schools for a very long time, so I was drawing these cartoons from anecdotes of architectural school life. We’ve just done another competition from which we have not heard the result of yet, but I have taken cartoon characters to describe certain features of the project. We completed another building, which is also a competition we won in Austria, where I just began with a series of cartoons in the presentation to describe what I thought a university ought to be. At a very early stage, during the competition stage, I introduced cartoons of people doing things in the internal spaces, and then, in the Australian project, I did many more cartoons. There are even some spaces that were in the cartoons.

CO: Yesterday we were chatting with Brett Steele about how important the storytelling behind the projects have become.

PC: Almost too much I would say. I think sometimes you can have a very boring project that has a wonderful story, and you see the drawing and you go, “Hmm…” And you can have a wonderful project, in which the person who has done it is relatively inarticulate. I think of myself in a sort of middle ground; I like to develop the story while the project is developing.

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“The Metamorphosis of an English Town… It Happened Cheek-By-Jowl,” 1970. © Peter Cook.

IV. Beyond Archigram

CO: It’s also interesting to observe how Archigram, as epitomized by Archigram 4, has permeated the architectural status quo, and how it gets recovered/updated today, even by yourselves.

PC: That is a difficult one, isn’t it? It becomes a little bit of a game. I mean, it obviously has had an effect, but the effect is felt in funny places. Sometimes I see the styling of packaging, for example, and I am like, “My God that’s an Archigram!—round at the corners and so on… did it come from that period?” Other times you feel bored by certain things you went through many years ago. I think that is a very long and tricky territory. I don’t think one can wrap it up. I went enthusiastically, and continue to go enthusiastically to Japan, because I think it is the most “Archigramic” place: it’s hard and slim with its technology and the jokey things.

KLA: There are many places where you can find Archigram, even today. Of course, images migrate and it is impossible to establish what influenced what, or arrived at the same conclusion through a different path. Would you say that the Graz building relates to that spirit?

PC: Well, everybody says it does, because I think that is the easy thing to say. I am very cynical about my public reputation. I was famous when I was young, and I think some of the most interesting work I’ve done it’s been done in that period. But then, suddenly Graz happens just about the time you are going to become a footnote in history. The funky aspect of it, the naughty nose that looks at the castle… that’s sort of Archigram. There are few tricks that one learnt earlier. What it did prove to me at the end is: if we could have built Graz ten years ago, then we could have built quite a lot of the other bits of Archigram. I remember having a conversation with Rem [Koolhaas] on this subject, to what extent those things were abstract. It is in the interest of those philistines to keep you off the game. I get annoyed about utopianism—that way they put you in a nice sort of box saying “utopic.” But then you build something down the street, and what do you say then?

When the Westminster archive was finished, there was an event. Lots of people came, and they asked me to give a speech. I said, “If Archigram was happening now, if its equivalent was happening now, I wonder how many people in this room would actually like it.” I don’t think they would. Now it’s history. That’s why Graz was shocking, because it was there, and it’s big, and it works. If you are pushed into a historical box, it is safe; you are not going to threaten the real world. Once you come out of the box and start to do stuff… maybe it doesn’t do it as outrageously as the upstream point of Archigram, but…

KLA: I think there is a tendency to say, “Okay, Peter’s ‘Walking City.’”

PC: But I didn’t even do “Walking City”!

KLA: I know, but I think people tend to look at it as a modern rehash of this architectural imagery. I would say that there are recurrent themes that link it to Archigram, but also to your metamorphosis drawings and all the work in the middle. I wouldn’t say it is directly imported from that era.

PC: I notice it, and I’ve drawn attention to this—there is a feature which is common to the Graz building, the Vienna building, and to the Australian building that has a sort of nose that pops up in the front. Now I see it done, and I do this as a maneuver that in a funny way comes from Archigram, and now I do self-consciously introduce it in the project.

KLA: It has become a motif.

PC: It has become a motif! Maybe that’s dangerous. I am conscious of the nose motif.

KLA: I think you can perfectly afford it.

PC: [laughter]

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

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Project Cartoon. © Peter Cook.

1 “Space Probe!” in Archigram 4 “Amazing Archigram / Zoom” (1964): 1-4.
2 “Supergram: The Superman Puzzle Game,” Action Comics 203 (1955). The drawing was a stat DC used for different purposes, so Chalk might have cropped it from a different comic book. The coincidence is rather funny, though.
3 See Peter Blake, “Expo70: Images of the Future,” Architectural Forum 39 (1970).