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Hommage to Peter Brook

Andrew Todd writes :

Peter Brook -who died at the age of 97 on July 2nd 2022- was a fundamental influence on the priorities, structure and philosophy of our studio.

I was invited to meet him in 1996 shortly after the publication in Spazio e Società of a cover article of mine concerning his work as a progenitor of theatre spaces in quarries, disused industrial buildings, streets, villages, deserts and ruined theatres. I had a loose brief at Space and Society, mostly acting as a kind of youth correspondent, prodding my elderly mentors Giancarlo de Carlo, Sverre Fehn, Balkrishna Doshi, Hermann Hertzberger, Lucien Kroll and Frei Otto with the blunt, naïve and fresh questioning typical of a 27 year-old. Brook’s work -a non-architect creating socially effective and materially profound spaces- struck a chord for them, and Peter was delighted to be discussed in this context, having always been a creator of original spaces, whether permanent or improvised.

My dialogue with Peter had started -from my side- several years earlier, when (as a literature student at Cambridge) I acted in The Marat/Sade (as the Herald, the mad emcee role created by Michael Williams). I had -a few months previously- been acting (as Claudio, in Measure for Measure) in the European Theatre Group’s touring show, which moved nightly between vast Austrian theatres, barns, ovens and tiny studios, affording a rushed education in what qualities of space were conducive to the success of an act of theatre.

I discovered Peter’s prose simultaneously in the introduction to the Marat/Sade script, and was blown away by its muscularity and freshness ; this led naturally to The Empty Space, and then that led to a change of direction in life, rekindling my early teenage interest in fashioning space (I had -as a weird hobby- been designing festival stages, underground housing, Hadid-esque caverns in wet sand, and revelling in the projected geometry exercises set by my father).

Peter’s summons therefore had an air of inevitability, and I entered the Bouffes du Nord bar trembling like a leaf, knowing things would thereby change. He led me along the rickety outdoor stair accessing his office -a kind of hermitage or nest clamped on the side of the building, high above the Gare du Nord railway tracks. Perfectly sensing my nerves, he sat framed by the setting sun behind his desk, and said ‘if you don’t mind, I’d like to sit in silence for a few minutes.’ He thereby set the tone for a relationship of central importance for my personal and creative development.

My architectural education -with Ivan Illich, Joseph Rykwert, David Leatherbarrow and Guillaume Jullien della Fuente- was a marinade of Corbusian mysticism, hardcore phenomenology, politics of materiality and conviviality, and deep, precise readings of history. Brook had the peculiar effect of disarming any certainties thereby built up, and simultaneously adding branches of validity to this preparation, through his own scientific rigour as a student of humanity and matter. If I had somehow been preparing to meet him, I would emerge from this encounter utterly transformed, but in a perfectly natural manner. Everything from that point was both clearer and untrammelled, and the development of curiosity had become my overriding priority. Like many who had the immense benefit of encountering him, I became productively displaced outside of any standard categories, attuned to greater systems of connection than those afforded by conventional career-paths.

The book we subsequently produced -The Open Circle- was polyvocal, centred around my, Peter’s and Jean-Guy Lecat’s voices, and folding in the thoughts of all Peter’s core collaborators, who were sometimes at odds with each other (and productively so). The text stands alone as a story and inspiration, and I will not attempt to summarise it here. I continued to follow his work from that point on: the book ended with The Tragedy of Hamlet, therefore missing the great Beckett fragments, The Suit, Battlefield, A Magic Flute, Tierno Bakar and Why?, all superb, and moving his experiment along in successive ratchets of distillation.

He kept an eye on what I was up to -at the Young Vic, where a team from our studio, busily at work on the Old Vic CQS Space down the road, were urgently deputised to recuperate a clumsy paint job in the auditorium when he was due to perform the Beckett fragments- and generously (with his wife, Natasha Parry), introduced me to their daughter Irina, with whom we concocted a sort of existenz minimum theatre hanging over the Seine, powered by wind and water, proudly minimising need for energy and money. Peter, Natasha, Bridget and I spent a memorable day at the British Embassy on the Queen’s last State Visit in 2014, having a good laugh and examining the model of the Hardelot theatre, a bigger and more decidedly english cousin of the project developed with Irina for Thierry Mandon.

With a generation-length hindsight on the initial inspiration he gave me, it’s tempting to say that Peter was preparing us -quietly and indirectly- for the massive ecological crisis of our world which we now face. We -stupidly- did not sense in the mid 1990s that our whole thinking would all too soon be occluded and conditioned by this self-made crisis. Peter had visited the possible ending of worlds in his work -in particular in The Mahabharata. He had also trod the whole world, encountering -with an accepting and open mind- the people of the Americas, Africa (from top to bottom), Australia, the Middle East (especially Iran) and -further east- India and Japan, eternal founts of energy and tradition for him. He was universal, but never reductively so ; his feet were always on the ground, often a literally earthy ground on the stage, and this ground -whilst accepting currents from afar- was always in the here-and-now.

‘Man cannot exist without a background,’ he once told me, which was -on one level- a purely pragmatic question for a stage artist who recognised the need to delimit and control acoustically and visually in order to communicate with maximum effect. But, as Brook’s backgrounds were so often alive, dynamic, etched by external forces, materially specific but temporally indeterminate, his stages were always places rather than spaces, anchored, related and relatable as part of a concrete continuum, never isolated frames artificially cut off from a broader context. In this manner one of his great lessons for me has been to attempt to produce architecture which helps us to feel grounded, bounded, belonging and co-responsible for the world which we have altered and must now care for with such urgency. And I am certain that his inspiration will continue to deepen and inform this as we continue to age.


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