Obituary: AA Files, Peter Cook

Warren Chalk 1927-1987

Even the smoothest creative ride needs those special barbs to ensure some topography in the action. Similarly, when such a ride is forecast through the medium of a late-night conversation, it needs the uncomfortable nudge and the deliberate parry: wherever he was, Warren Chalk ensured that the blandness was taken out of the situation. That is why he disturbed the self-satisfied.

He spent the last twenty=five years of his life surrounded by people who gave the impression of always thrusting forward (or maybe sideways) in the pursuit of impressive curricula vitae – part of the mechanism for our nether world of architecture as academe. The more intelligent of them soon recognized that he was not competing with them at all for the tabulations of achievement, yet still seemed ahead of them in understanding the game.

At certain times his criticism seemed to suggest the luxuriant objectivity of the non-combatant. How could he not realize that this would be such an interesting elevation … useful friend … satisfying job … intelligent programme … efficient team? So all his friends would scuttle about their business with their eminently sensible manoeuvres, and then remember, months later, that odd questioning remark of Warren’s, which had related their decision to something beyond – often the question ‘Is this what it’s about?’, or ‘Is it what you really want?’

I suppose that some of us, whilst recognizing this ability of the seer in him, were also keen that it should be harnessed to The Task. He too. This was probably the reason for his consistent loyalty to the idea of Archigram, and his relative tolerance for those who made up its Group. As the eldest of the bunch, he once remarked that he had chosen quite deliberately to associate with these younger people, and that their energy and naïveté was an attraction, compared to the gentlemanly Mies-Corb dilemma of the Hampstead types. So The Task was identified, and for some years that aspect of his personality which enjoyed intelligent rummaging led to such things as the space-comix pages of Archigram 4 – the fruits of months of research and collecting. His own work, meanwhile, was metamorphosing into more and more daring capsules and machines.

He recognized within himself the need to use figuration, drawing, designing and (ideally) building as the substance of The Task. Designing was not as fluid a process for him as it was for some of his companions, even if the results belie this. But in harness with Ron Herron the process could become magic – there is no doubt that between them lay one of those ideal partnerships of trajectory and sensitivity, which is not as simple as that of on doing the drawings and the other being the critic. They shared a very full set of experiences, and together came into the centre of London architectural discussion from its darker corners as talented but unqualified assistants at London County Council. A succession of prizes in competitions attracted attention from such LCC colleagues as Robert Maxwell and Sam Stevens, and Warren probably honed his critical abilities in conversations with them, just as he honed his graphic abilities on Ron’s velvet pen. The LCC became his academy.

When he reached a more fertile community of fellow-searchers, he was able to develop his antennae. If one looks back, once again, to the essential creativeness of his remarks concerning ‘what it is about’, one remembers his willingness – no, even his delight -= to throw into the discussion an unfashionable reference, a chance notion, the name of a disliked person. As fellow teachers we would often disagree about our students. The more I favoured the active, the ‘graphicate’, the noisy, the more he perversely supported the languid, the sensitive, the arrogant. This was, sometimes, I know, a tease. How he could play upon one’s pompousness and priggish insistence on performance!

He was always fascinated by the edges of an architectural situation – an English thing to do, especially in America. The combination of his isolation and his fascination with that often witless country was probably essential to him as he reached his middle forties. I particularly remember a pithy description of his arrival at Syracuse, New York, and his seeing, within its desolation, the faint glimmer of its Holiday Inn bar as a kind of rear-view mirror that could summon up the essential mid-twentieth-century paradox: Europe and the United States as a pair of cultures which both need and resent each other. In parallel, he could recognize the edges of an architectural composition – the warts suggesting to him the markers towards a different, better scheme, if only you had the mental stamina to pursue it to the level of his expectations. In this he shared an essential quality of those two or three people who any minute ‘might come through the door’ (Banham and Rowe for the English-speaking, Eirmann and Ungers for the Germans, or Utzon and Fehn for the Scandinavians) and inspire near terror of not being able to parry the question ‘Why that?’ – or, even more worrying, ‘Why not that?’ A true architectural culture is built upon these sudden appearances.

People as edges of his own discussion with himself became an increasing fascination. Not exactly a gossip, he none the less used his friends and, even more, those who were inescapable acquaintances (deans of schools, petty officials, fellow jurors, students, people at the dark corners of a friend’s office) as the playthings of his often caustic wit. Some of them he loved and protected. Though undeniably ‘straight’ himself, he particularly enjoyed the characteristic edginess of several bisexual friends – a paradigm perhaps of his ultimate love of architecture whilst enjoying the notion of painting perhaps more. He once told me that he had secretly attended painting classes at Manchester Art College (though he’d enrolled for architecture) but had eventually been exposed by a relative. Yet, when in later life he could perhaps have taken up painting, he was already too caught up in the battle of architecture against the feeble and the philistine.

There will now be attempts to research his texts and his drawings. Undoubtedly this should be done – his work is so condensed, accurate and to the point. Yet the culture they represent is a difficult one to recall: something that came out of Britain in the 1950s, which led to satirical comedy, pop art, mixed-media events, Bowell’s, Archigram – that video-as-rabbit-as-bicycle-as-poem-as-cathedral world which is probably unthinkable right now because of its apparent anarchy or apparent unconsequentiality. It stemmed as much from the world of the art school as it did from the Partisan Coffee Bar in Soho or from Cambridge. Warren was undoubtedly part of the first-named circuit. All along, architecture was learning as much from this as it was from Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller. So lateral thinking was inherent and not just acquired – especially from someone so intelligent coming out of this funny corner of European revival. Read some back copies of the Royal college of Art journal Ark (he’d be reading them now, if he were given the task of clueing in to himself). His membership of the Royal Interplanetary Society was no hollow gesture.

As we begin the task – so empty without his contribution – of self-consciously discussing his work, we can only imagine the way in which he would delight in scattering thorns of interference in our otherwise too comfortable conclusions. A necessary irritant has gone out of our lives.

Peter Cook
AA Files, 15, pp. 54-59