The architect’s esoteric collection of objects plays past against present, with ancient Greek pots alongside Sex Pistols magazines. It is a theme she explores in many of her buildings, from Selfridges Birmingham (Icon’s first cover) to the new V&A courtyard
When Icon was launched in 2003, the cover image was the bulging exterior of Selfridges in Birmingham, dropped into the heart of the city by its architect Future Systems. It was a time when British architecture was riding high on a wave of optimism, economic growth and lottery cash, and Future Systems created two buildings that typified the period: Selfridges and Lord’s Media Centre. The company was feted for its technological innovation and unapologetic visual impact, combining natural forms with highly engineered structures.
Following her divorce from Future Systems’ co-partner Jan Kaplický, Levete set up her eponymous firm in 2009. Otherwise known as AL_A, it is now 55 people strong and recently relocated to a new space near Holloway prison in London. We meet at her family home, also in north London, that she shares with her husband, Ben Evans, director of London Design Festival. In a vast room at the rear of the house, bathed in natural light that streams through the skylights in the ceiling, are three bespoke brushed-steel shelves on which sits a collection of art and design that Levete has amassed over her lifetime. “The composition of the three shelves plays with the kitschy idea of the three flying ducks,” she says with a smile. “These three planes sliding past each other.”
“Over time we have bought things with a view to putting them on the shelves,” she continues. “What I like about it is that it is a way of making connections between things. I love to play the past against the present, modernity against antiquity. It’s something that we do in our work and it is played out here. I like making oblique connections between things – sometimes it is very conscious, and sometimes only when you put things side by side do you make a connection.”
The shelves are wafer thin, with a highly polished edge that glints in the light; they use the same material as the Edge Light that Levete designed for Established & Sons in 2010. On them is an intriguing mix of objects and pictures that span nearly 3,000 years of history. Levete speaks knowledgeably about each piece, enthusing equally about a Cycladic pot and a 1976 Sex Pistols magazine designed by Jamie Reid. There is a playful caricature of Levete that was published in the RIBA Journal following Future Systems’ Stirling Prize win for Lord’s. It is gesturing to a photograph of Sid Vicious flexing his arm muscles and gurning. “There is something about the interaction, the pose, the pointed elbows and the look – there is tension, a connection,” Levete says.
As we discuss the collection, certain themes or ideas recur, and Levete enthusiastically points out the aesthetic similarities between a 3rd century BC Chinese pot used for storing silk and a drawing that her friend Michael Craig Martin gave her on her birthday; or the shared iridescence of the cracked glaze on a Chinese pot and a tiny model of the Eiffel tower in blue anodised aluminium. “I love the colour of anodised aluminium, the tattiness and cheapness of that against something extraordinarily exquisite – and they both sort of glint.” The tour continues; there is a tea set by Luigi Colani for Rosenthal – “I love the cantilevered forms” – Regency salt and pepper shakers next to a pair by David Shrigley that reads “Heroin and Cocaine” – “the children are deeply embarrassed by this” – and a piece of a broken hob – “that’s a silly thing”.
Levete insists that AL_A is driven by research, and the possibility of failure animates her. “It’s a motivation historically for us. Lord’s Media Centre [completed at Future Systems] was a huge opportunity for us – the idea of transferring technologies between industries and achieving something that at first glance might seem impossible, and sometimes you fail,” she says. “Recognising that is important, because when you are really pushing the limits you are going to fail. Otherwise you are not trying hard enough.”
AL_A’s most prominent UK commission to date is for a new entrance and courtyard to the Victoria and Albert Museum on Exhibition Road in London. “The dialogue between the past and the present is there with the media centre, and when Jan and I did the competition for the museum of the Acropolis . That’s what the V&A is all about.” Levete’s portfolio may seem to have an inclination towards exploring form and materiality through technological experimentation, but the V&A presents a new challenge. The moves that the architects have made to express and abstract the new gallery’s structure across the ceramic tiling of the courtyard floor and the opening up of strategic views will, they hope, help visitors to further understand the building. “It’s a project that doesn’t have a form as such, it’s a courtyard. The start of the project was an intellectual line of enquiry,” Levete says. The proposal, which is scheduled for completion at the end of 2015, will provide an outdoor space with a new gallery below it. “The new courtyard can lock it together. We have set up deliberate views so you can understand the different parts of the museum, you can see through to the Madejski courtyard, the Hintze gallery, the sgraffito wall; before you enter the museum you gain an intuitive understanding of where things are, and that is deliberate.”
Later this year, the EDP Cultural Centre in Lisbon will go on site. Funded by the largest energy company in Portugal, the project will provide a public space on a post-industrial waterfront. The building will provide covered and exposed public areas across and beneath its roof, and will be clad in three-dimensional ceramic tiles. “It’s all about light and water,” Levete says. “It is a very natural sort of merging of public space and programme. As it is the riverfront we have more latitude to spread; on an urban site it’s more difficult. The other aspect of Lisbon that is interesting is that it is a public building with private money. That is a very interesting model, and is a fine piece of patronage.”
These two projects, which serve a very public purpose, will provide a vital chance for public encounters, says Levete. “In terms of the [economic] situation that is in Portugal and Spain, that we all find ourselves in, to provide spaces for people to meet and gather spontaneously is where chance encounters happen and ideas are exchanged. It’s only ideas that are going to get us out of this mess we are in at the moment. So it has an added resonance, I think. I don’t want to overplay that, but there was also that aspect to the V&A – that it belongs to everybody and you don’t have to make a formal decision to enter. You can experience the whole, that atmosphere and the sense of history and culture without going in.”
Levete has also worked on a smaller scale: her furniture and designs have been produced by Established & Sons and izé and a ceramic bench was produced for the London Design Festival last year. This change in scale, Levete says, is crucial to the progress her office strives for in terms of finding new techniques and technologies. “We are doing a piece of furniture at the moment for David Gill Galleries, which is the smallest project we have ever done. It is a very small piece of furniture, but is the biggest piece of research we have ever done in the office. I can’t say more that that. It’s wonderful how a very small project can really push things.”
Words: Jonathan Root