David Chipperfield

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photo: Mark Guthrie photo: Pete Moss

words Kieran Long

David Chipperfield is decidedly animated over the name of our magazine. "I think that there are two ways of judging architecture: one is what it looks like; the other is what its ambitions are," he says.

"And I think that the sort of new icon architecture, to use your name, has a certain danger that everything has to look spectacular, everything has to look like it's changing the world, even if it's really not doing that much."

You could say that David Chipperfield has made his name by not doing that much. His career, which began with minimal shop fit-outs for fashion labels like Issey Miyake and Joseph in the Eighties, has developed a position in British architecture that is uniquely interested in the possibilities of established architectural forms and typologies to provide ways forward. He says that his practice is built on a prudence verging on the conservative: "There has always been a certain element of good will and luck, and always a certain element of not doing anything too wrong," he says, but this belies the practice's increasing pre-eminence.

Some of the most prestigious commissions in European architecture will be completed by the practice in the next few years, including the rebuilding of the Neues Museum and masterplanning of the Museumsinsel in Berlin; the Palace of Justice in Salerno, Italy; the extension to the San Michele Cemetery in Venice; Ansaldo City of Cultures in Milan; as well as the Figge Arts Center in Davenport, Iowa and an extension to the Anchorage Museum in Alaska.

As everyone always points out, Chipperfield, who has always based himself in London, has routinely failed to win major commissions in his native land. But there is no lack of confidence here, and he is now well aware that he is part of the global architectural elite. Of all the names that he finds himself on competition shortlists with, his work is some of the most self-effacing, but while Chipperfield is modest about his work, he is certainly not averse to spelling out exactly where British architecture is getting it wrong.

Assuredly articulate, Chipperfield is far from the whispering, serious figure that he is sometimes perceived as. So is his work being quiet just to be quiet? Or does his technique merely avoid form in favour of trotting out typological quotations? "I'm not purposely avoiding making an icon. An icon just happens. If you think about three-dimensional objects in product design or furniture, there were objects in the 20th century that became icons that you wouldn't classify as icons using the current meaning. Clients now say that they are looking for an icon, and I know that means it has got to look blobby, actually. Now, I think you could say that Mies' Barcelona chair is an icon, but in some ways it is quite self-effacing. Design objects of the 20th century, whether it's Mario Bellini's typewriters [for Olivetti] or Michele De Lucchi's lamp or whatever, became icons because of how beautiful they were or how successful they were. Now we have to have an instant icon. It has to say it's an icon at the very point of delivery."

Chipperfield is a frequent invitee to major shortlists these days, and is well-placed to see the Guggenheim effect in full force. "Now every project you're up for, every public project, the word icon comes up," he says. "Colchester is looking for an icon, Wakefield is looking for an icon. It's a Bilbao effect. That doesn't necessarily make a good museum, but they don't give a stuff about that."

A couple of weeks after this interview it was announced that Chipperfield had won the competition to design the Wakefield Waterfront Gallery, beating icon-mongers Zaha Hadid and Kengo Kuma among others. Perhaps people are beginning to listen.

One of the most interesting parts of Chipperfield's work, and an area in which he blazed a trail in the Nineties, was rescuing ideas of architectural history and typology from modernist functionalism and from appliqué postmodernism. His work avoids gratuitous shape-making, and has been characterised by a tendency to use abstracted vernacular forms, such as the pitched roof of the Henley River & Rowing Museum or the courtyards of his building for Toyota in Kyoto, Japan. This makes him ideal for a city like Berlin, which he describes in his recent monograph as a city "staggering under a greater burden of past experience than it seems possible for any community to support". He has led a masterplanning team in the creation of an "archaeological promenade" around Museumsinsel (Museum Island), which accommodates Schinkel's masterpiece the Altes Museum, the cathedral (the Dom), Stüler's Alte Nationalgalerie, the Neues Museum and the Pergamon Museum, currently being reworked by OM Ungers. Chipperfield is working most closely on the Neues Museum, which is undergoing a reworking of its war-damaged interior.

For Chipperfield, the neo-classicism of Schinkel and Stüler offers an alternative to the craving for headline buildings that has infected contemporary architecture, and speaks of his desire for an architecture that can carry meaning for those people who use it and look at it. "Schinkel was representing a set of values, absolutely. The Altes Museum was referring back to the glory of ancient Greece, which for the Prussian empire seemed to be something they should compare themselves to. Athens was a model Schinkel took. He was saying, 'I think this is what civilised, humane architecture should represent,' and stimulating the connection between one culture and another. I don't think he was saying, 'Well, I'll do a big row of columns, because people will be really knocked out by that.' If anything, the Altes Museum is a pretty modest building in terms of its scale."

If there is an instinctive historical bent to Chipperfield's work, then this goes hand in hand with a left-wing view of government patronage of the arts that has been forged in the real world of dealing with cultural buildings in this country and abroad. In particular, his experience of being on the shortlist for the masterplanning of the South Bank in London has left Chipperfield rabidly on the side of state funding for major arts complexes: "When I went to the interview, I showed them how we did the masterplanning in Berlin, and the criticism was, 'Oh well, Germany is different to us, we have to account for things, this is a strong commercial climate.' Right, then you've got to make up your mind. I fully understand that there has to be financial viability in things, and there's nothing wrong with bookshops and cafés, but you've got to put these things in order. There's a certain commercial fundamentalism here that says South Bank should be full of shops. It just doesn't work. You can't build enough Sock Shops to justify the development of the South Bank, and at that point the state must move in and say, 'this is an important cultural project and we will pick up the tab.'"

He also has a rather old-fashioned desire to see the architect used as the prime mover in terms of cultural leadership of the project. "In my opinion, your role as an architect is not just someone who deals with the other consultants and brings the project in on time and to budget. That's like asking a writer whether he can spell - it's part of your professional responsibilities. But in this country it is seen that if you have any other agenda, then you're clearly not going to be able to do all that very well. Whereas if you take somewhere like Berlin, there's an expectation of cultural leadership - that you will stand up and say what needs to be done. It's the same in Anchorage, the same in Iowa. But it's very difficult to find a client here who would see it that way. They would say, 'you're making too much of an issue of this, we won't get planning permission.' I think it's part of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism. In Germany, there's still an ideological view - if you say, 'This is an idea,' they say, 'Ooh, fantastic, an idea, yeah.' Whereas here it's more like: 'It's gonna cost you.' "

The two latest David Chipperfield projects to complete are probably the last you will see from the office for a while on this scale. His own holiday house in a small fishing village in Galicia, Spain and a new studio space for the British sculptor Antony Gormley near the Chipperfield office in Camden, North London are part of a body of work that will come to be seen as issuing from the first dozen years of his office. The Latin cultures have been particularly fertile ground for the practice, and big competition wins in Italy and Spain brought Chipperfield into the global league. It is no surprise, then, that he chose to build his own family house on the beautiful Galician coast, in the sleepy fishing village of Corrubedo. It could be his spiritual home. The legendary Spanish architect Alejandro de la Sota, a key influence on Chipperfield's work, used to holiday here.

The house occupies a site on the main street, looking over a natural harbour to the sea beyond. It forms part of a wall of houses that, although of inconsistent height and types, becomes a coherent façade to the town when viewed from the sea. Chipperfield's elevation plays with this inconsistency, stepping between the two adjoining houses while also referencing the irregular openings of the other buildings. The house is generated from the form of its neighbours, a fact most obvious on the street façade, where the geometries of the neighbours are extended into the form of the new house. Materially, though, the house is emphatically something new, with glass and white render sitting on a concrete and stone base. He says: "There is a feeling of 'there are no rules but strangely there are rules' about this picturesque composition. As soon as I sat down to design, I either had to reject those completely, or see if there was a way I could show what's happened beforehand that makes me part of it, but apart from it. And that's what my motto would be - written on my tombstone."

The plan of the building is a free interpretation of a family house, allowing just bunk beds for his children, and a relatively small living space. This is offset by the spectacular views out, especially from the Corbusian roof terrace with its curved concrete balustrade.

The recently completed studio for Antony Gormley is also clearly defined by its context - a ramshackle collection of industrial sheds near King's Cross station in North London. However, although the silhouette is recognisable as an abstraction of these sheds, the building also takes the smaller, more domestic space of an artist's studio as a model. So, the interior gets the benefit of even north light from rooflights and large-scale, factory-like spaces, along with more domestic-scale rooms intended for sleeping, living and working. This is much more than an art factory. The project is described as a collaboration between artist and architect (see page 62), and the white render façade could be seen as an architectural interpretation of Gormley's work, which consists of casts and other representations of the human body. The Gormley studio is a representation of the archetypal warehouse, with abstract openings and two galvanised staircases suggesting that through abstraction, typology can reach other, more profound, meanings.

Chipperfield is somewhere near the height of his powers, and is well-placed to defend a civic and historically motivated architecture from the growing influence of computer-generated diagrams masquerading as formal experimentations. He says: "Those of us who are not so fluid in our experimentation with form suffer from the accusation that we are scared of making new form. But I think that architecture is by definition something that responds much more slowly; it's not a throwaway thing, not something that should be following the latest thinking that quickly. There should be some drag in architecture. It should go kicking and screaming to the altar and have a sense of resistance about it. You could say that's a negative characteristic, but I think it's a positive one in terms of continuity and meaning. Things have to mean something. I don't care what anything looks like, but it has to mean something. Not just an intellectual meaning; it's not just a text that some kind of smart-arsed architect writes about why he did what he did, but a method by which a piece of work can mean something beyond the architectural community."

David Chipperfield - Architectural Works 1990-2002, Ediciones Poligrafa, £59

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