Peter Cook and Colin Fournier's newly completed Kunsthaus in Graz is the result of a 30-year creative partnership, in the tradition of Archigram and Cedric Price
It was on the Monte Carlo project, where Archigram came closest to realising a building, that Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, whose Kunsthaus in Graz has just opened, first forged a working relationship. 'Colin was a clever and prominent student and we already knew him, ' Cook says, casting his mind back to 1969.After helping on the competition he stayed, becoming, with Cook, 'the consistent bit of the team'. Over more than three decades that relationship has followed an elliptical trajectory, sometimes bringing them close; at others, notably during Fournier's 'periods of disappearing', taking them far apart. But since 1996, when Cook persuaded Fournier 'to get involved with things in London', they have been working together. Fournier summarises their role at the Bartlett, where both are professors: 'I'm chairman of the MArch committee, which Peter runs, and Peter chairs the urban design MSc committee, which I run.'
Both remembered their 'nice working relationship' on Monte Carlo with affection, and when the opportunity to do a competition in Graz came up they seized it. In that round the brief was to convert tunnels within the Schlossberg, built as wartime air raid shelters, into the Kunsthaus, and their proposal for a membrane that lined the walls, carried the services and eventually protruded like a dragon's tongue from a cave, was unplaced. They had powerful supporters, though, and when that proposal collapsed found themselves in a strong position in a new competition 'with a cheerful jury' (Cook) on the 'best possible site that could have been chosen' (Fournier), and were confirmed as winners in April 2000.
These two comments say much about the division of labour within their partnership.
Cook exudes an optimistic air and enjoys contact with other people: 'I regard myself as a collaborator, ' he says, 'even though I'm identified as an iconic creature.' But such collaboration only works with certain types of people. 'The only sorts of people I can work with are those who work quickly and are chirpyWe sit on either side of a table and say, 'You could have a thing going down the side there.' Someone else says, 'You could have something going up there, ' and it rolls like that. Fournier has those qualities It's difficult to know which bits are mine and which are Colin's.'
Fournier studied planning as well as architecture and knows Graz well enough to consider himself 'almost a native'. He reads both the abstract and particular aspects of the city with great insight. Located close to a bridge over the 'deep cleavage' of the River Mur, it symbolically joins the poor side of the river 'with the red light district and railway station' to the 'traditionally bourgeois part of town with fancy restaurants, boutiques, town hall and university'. And building a contemporary art museum also makes sense when the aim is urban regeneration. 'They're relatively cheap to build and maintain - cheaper and less elitist than opera houses - and make maximum media impact.'
But the key to their successful relationship is that both have sufficient understanding of the other's particular insights and enthusiasms to keep ideas moving. Cook had been to Graz with student groups and knew the area of the site as a place 'to wander around at night looking for bars which were still open', and revels in the effect the Kunsthaus has on local wine bars now. And Fournier, he says, 'shouldn't be disregarded as a designer', especially as he brings what he himself calls a 'schizophrenic interest' in 'longing to work at a strategic level when working on something small' or 'designing details when building cities'. He really has, as Cook admiringly reports, 'built a city for 200,000 people'. During one of the periods when he disappeared from Cook's radar, Fournier spent 'seven years with a budget of $2 billion a year' building an oil port in Saudi Arabia. It brought meetings with ministers, the use of 10 secretaries and a Learjet, but in turning him from a designer into a manager intensified his interest in the small scale, something that makes him highly receptive to Cook, who, in his own words, 'can't underestimate how good it is to turn and tweak' design details.
Cook's approach to Fournier came as he was 'interested in going back into academe' as a way of uniting his interests between detail and strategy. Initially in running a diploma design unit and latterly combining that with the MSc course, which brings students with diverse first degrees into the mix, that interest has evolved into studies for sustainable cities. Graz is to some degree a template for his thinking. 'It is a city you can comprehend socially and ideologically, ' he says, yet it has a strong intellectual culture teeming with students and whose scientists have won 15 Nobel Prizes in the past 20 years. There is also a thriving avant-garde, manifested in architecture through the Grazer Schule, but with counterparts in literature and philosophy. To this he brings, when thinking about physical interventions, the influence of Cedric Price, whose opinions he finds 'very precious'. A proposal Fournier made some years ago for extending the city's pedestrianised central area and weaving it together with tramlines could almost be Price himself - especially as the brief had called for a monument!
Poignantly, Cook and Fournier had asked Price to come to the opening of the Kunsthaus last weekend, though in the event Wolfgang Prix and Nigel Coates were appropriate acolytes. However, in its ability to combine an iconic exterior with a well-serviced 'machine for showing art' on the inside, and its ability to 'reconcile scales of operation' between being physically small and conceptually big, one suspects Price would not have been disappointed.