Catherine Cooke

Scholar of Soviet architecture
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The Independent Online

Catherine Anne Chichester-Cooke (Catherine Cooke), architect and architectural historian: born 2 August 1942; Lecturer in Design, Open University 1978-2004; died Cambridge 20 February 2004.

The architect and Russian scholar Catherine Cooke was one of the world's leading experts on Soviet avant-garde architecture and socialist urban planning.

She led an immensely busy life working from a home base in the back streets of her beloved Cambridge. From there she managed to combine her work as a Lecturer in Design at the Open University with that of an international peripatetic teacher, writer, editor and examiner as well as personal tutor to generations of degree students.

Her life was fully focused on her subject, and she had immense reserves of energy and an outgoing personality that made her friends everywhere she went. This week, at the exhibition "Russian Graphic Design: from Tsarism and Avant-Garde to Perestroika" at the St Bride Printing Library in London, representing part of her unique collection of Soviet and Russian memorabilia, a friend said that "she brightened every room she entered". She had a formidable presence. She could be friendly, feisty, effusive, informative and profound in equal measure; she was immensely generous with her time, money and ideas.

At the time of her death in a traffic accident, Cooke was at the height of a research and writing career that began nearly 30 years ago. In 1975 she left Clare Hall, Cambridge, having gained a PhD for a thesis on "The Town of Socialism: the origins and development of Soviet town planning". She became confidently fluent in Russian.

Earlier she had studied Architecture at New College, Cambridge, between 1961 and 1967, before commencing work as an architect and gaining experience in the office of Alvar Aalto in Finland and with Casson Conder and Partners in London. But it was her doctorate that was to provide the springboard for the growth of her interest in all aspects of Soviet architecture and town planning. These interests included art, architecture and design as well as the theatre designs, furniture and graphics of the Constructivists.

In the 1980s, when many of the Modernist Soviet buildings - particularly in Moscow - were threatened with demolition, she began to record and list them, drawing the attention of her colleagues to their state of disrepair. This passion led to her joining Docomomo, the international organisation for the Documentation and Conservation of Modern Movement Buildings, for which she served on the International Education Committee and, more recently, as Chair of Docomomo UK.

The daughter of a brigadier-general - who was also in charge of the Royal Yacht Squadron - Catherine Cooke shared her father's passion for sailing. It was reflected in many aspects of her life and many of us who were privileged to visit her house in Cambridge were convinced that she had designed it (or "them", as it was really two connected cottages) like a boat, with a minimal sleeping space and the rest laid out as her unique archival working library, art collection and private gallery - or perhaps it was her English version of a dacha?

After receiving her doctorate, she was reluctant to go back to architectural practice and began to work as an editor, engaged on a raft of publishing projects. She became an editorial consultant for Academy Books and their Architectural Design magazine, a post that gave her the freedom to publish lavishly illustrated books about Russian artists and architects, including the English version of Iakov Chernikhov's works, Chernikhov, Fantasy and Construction: Iakov Chernikhov's approach to architectural design (1984) and her now definitive Russian Avant-Garde: theories of art, architecture and the city (1995).

Together she and I worked on a special issue of the Architectural Association Quarterly in 1979 on Russian and Soviet architecture for which she brought in a formidable array of distinguished scholars including Oleg Schvidkovsky, S. Frederick Starr and Evenya Kirichenko as well her own students as contributors. More recently we worked on a book for Docomomo International, The Modern Movement in Architecture (2000), a survey of Modern Movement buildings in 32 countries.

In 2002 Cooke resigned from her position as chair of Docomomo UK in order to concentrate again on her academic work and to pursue her newer interest in Russia after perestroika. This included an investigation of the new kinds of planning that were introduced into the post-socialist marketplace. Her recent audits of the Russian scene after socialist planning led to a series of lectures in London recently, the last of which was presented at the Architectural Association a week ago.

Cooke's interests took her back many times to the Soviet Union and more recently to countries within the Russian Federation. Her goal was simple: to get the Russian people to acknowledge the enormous contribution their architects and architectural teachers had made to their own cultural life and built environment. She contributed much to a country that has seen and experienced the most fundamental changes in her own lifetime. Her untimely death will be mourned there as much as here.

Dennis Sharp