Future Systems uncovered: ICON 001, April 2003

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Birmingham

Slowly, the scaffolding cocoon that dominates Birmingham's Bull Ring is being removed to reveal a building unlike anything that has been seen before. This is the new £60 million Selfridges department store - a project that will finally establish its designers Future Systems as a practice that builds extraordinary buildings, rather than one that merely dreams about them.

Their studio, a light-flooded former warehouse in Notting Hill, London, is hushed, comfortable and ruthlessly tidy. There's a neat row of shoes by the door; inside, staff walk barefoot on a luscious pink carpet warmed by underfloor heating. There's a lounge area with white leather sofas and an open-plan kitchen with a huge bowl of fruit. Organic, pastel-hued samples of cladding and interior fittings are dotted around like abstract sculptures. A neat row of perspex boxes house models of their extraordinary projects.

Jan Kaplicky, 65, and Amanda Levete, 47, pad over to the lounge area. Kaplicky slumps slightly into one sofa while Levete arranges herself elegantly on another, tucking her feet under herself. They were a couple for 15 years and have a son but have recently separated, and while they bicker over trivial matters during the interview, it seems that the split was amicable - they say it has strengthened their working relationship.

A bit of background: Kaplicky fled his native Prague for London in September 1968, following the crushing of the Prague Spring uprising by Soviet troops. He slowly established himself as a visionary but somewhat difficult architect, working with both Rogers and Foster and setting up Future Systems with David Nixon in 1979. The team developed a unique aesthetic influenced by both natural forms and engineered structures such as aircraft, which managed to look futuristic and curiously retro at the same time. They also developed an interest in sustainable architecture long before the term became fashionable.

Levete joined Future Systems in 1987, after which the practice began to receive attention for a number of startling, speculative projects and competition entries, beginning with its scheme for the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris in 1989, which was placed second.

This pattern of nearly landing major projects continued until 1994, when the office won the contest for the NatWest Media Centre at Lord's Cricket Ground. Completed in 1999, the small, streamlined aluminium pod won the £20,000 Stirling Prize and transformed the practice's fortunes. The Selfridges commission came soon after. With the Birmingham building due to be handed over to the client in a matter of weeks, Kaplicky and Levete spoke to icon about how far they've come and where they go from here.

The hoardings are coming off Selfridges - what does it mean to see it for the first time?
AL It's the biggest project we've ever done. It's incredibly exciting to see it emerging, not just because it's big but because it really is part of the urban fabric. It's an important part of the city.
JK You have this nightmare for three years - will this work? Will that work? You can have millions of drawings and millions of models but the reality is the only thing on which you are judged.

The building is so unusual it takes getting used to. It's not conventionally beautiful.
JK If you don't find it beautiful we have done very badly. But I guarantee you it is beautiful. I think that is a forgotten word in architecture.
AL We know it's beautiful.
JK You will not need me to tell my famous story about when I was asked whether we need a sign on the building. And I said no, definitely not.

It won't say "Selfridges" on the outside?
JK No. There will be something on the doors.But it's not needed. The colours and the form define the building. The concrete is blue, it's covered in aluminium discs, and there's a bit of yellow around the glazing. In that part of Birmingham, there's no colour. This khaki preconception of architecture is so drab. 
AL Its juxtaposition with the church works really well.
JK It's conceived to be a curtain, a backdrop to the church.
AL The church used to be the meeting place, and now the department store is the great meeting place. People don't shop because they need to any more. It's about being surrounded by these beautiful things you can select and dream about.
JK It's more than a lifestyle building; there's a social aspect to it. It poses the question: what is a public building? Ten million people pass through Selfridges every year; way more than the Tate Modern. So it's completely accessible.
AL What we're doing is matching Selfridges' vision, its quest to make things more open, more accessible. Selfridges has been a fantastic client, really extraordinary. We have been incredibly lucky. Lord's [which commissioned the NatWest Media Centre] was extraordinarily courageous as a client but Selfridges is of a different order. It has just been so open and so supportive.

How does this project compare with the NatWest Media Centre?
AL Lord's was the most complex thing we've done. The complexity of that tiny building was so out of proportion to the scale and the budget, and we learnt so much from doing that. Selfridges was so simple technically.
JK That's a fundamental difference: Selfridges is actually quite primitive. Lord's is a semi-monocoque structure - made of aluminium fabricated in a boatyard - whereas Selfridges is incredibly simple in a way and highly commercial. An absolutely extraordinary aspect of this was discovering how you cover an object with something that doesn't have a tolerance problem when you have very limited cash.
AL To find a cladding system that can turn a doubly curved corner.
JK The ambition of Selfridges goes way beyond the budget, which is a developer's budget. It is being built for the same cost per square metre as the Debenhams next door.

How did you arrive at the form?
JK This is the critical thing [he shows a photograph of a small, crude plasticine model]. Nothing changed between this [the model] and that [the building]. Models are very critical. This was done by me physically.

You make formal decisions on such a complex building based on a little sketch model?
JK You usually know roughly what it is you want. You have a very strong first idea and it's all there.

Selfridges is only your second major built project. Do you have more work now?
AL We've never been busier. We've gone from being six people to more than 20 in a very short space of time. We've never had such a diverse range of projects. They're not all purely architectural - some are more to do with transport, some are product design - but that's something we particularly enjoy. 
JK In complete contrast to Selfridges, we're expressing something new in the work we're doing for Alessi. We are doing coffee sets, cutlery and china and goodness knows what else. You can say it's less important because it's a smaller scale but you can get into great difficulties on a smaller scale. Please appreciate the revolution in this [he hands me a series of models of extraordinarily beautiful knives, coffee cups, plates and an exquisite, handle-less Pyrex milk jug that has two indentations at the back for thumb and forefinger to grip]. Small is very difficult - and it can be more important. I mean the most difficult thing in architecture is the chair - and we never tried that! A table is bad enough, but a chair is ten times worse. But a coffee cup - you can make a contribution there.

Future Systems has been consistently described as cutting-edge, avant-garde. Can you retain that credibility as you get more work?
AL I would hope we're still all those things. Yes, of course, we're a business now but the core of what we do is that we're a studio.
JK You can't say that our architecture is fashionable. We've never been that. If you look back it's extraordinary how we started to create plasticity [curvaceous, organic forms and one of Future Systems' guiding principles] some time ago, and at that time people didn't have a clue what it meant. There's the famous story of the building we designed for Trafalgar Square called The Blob [*1]. This was 17, 18 years ago now - and when I used to show it in lectures people almost laughed. Now there's a dead silence because people realise there's a deeper meaning.

People tend to compare your buildings to UFOs and space stations.
AL If you have no precedent of how to describe something, people always use an analogy because it makes people feel secure. There's no formal language to describe it.
JK The famous phrase "space station" quite frankly irritates me, because that's obviously said by people who've never seen one. Because space stations are all rectangular. People cannot understand that we're far more organic. Look, here's a photograph of a fly's eye and the façade of Selfridges - it's almost exactly the same.

Plasticity - and some of your other principles such as sustainability - were once considered radical but they've crept into many architects' work these days.
AL Of course, everybody borrows from everybody - that's the nature of creativity.

But other architects have seen these projects come to fruition whereas, until very recently, your most significant projects remained unbuilt. How do you feel about that?
AL You feel good that you got there first. But you can feel a bit jealous that somebody's gone on to realise something that you inspired.
JL And it could be commercially dangerous for us. If somebody else gets an opportunity and does it first, and we appear to be left behind.
AL To look at it another way, it's a kind of impetus to remind you that you've always got to be one step ahead. It's a very competitive environment that we work in. You've got to push yourself, you've got to be way out there in order to make new forms.

Did you ever fear becoming another Archigram - a much-fêted practice proposing pioneering forms that might never be built?
AL Historically, the really influential people are not necessarily the people who build a lot. It often takes some context to be able to look back and see that. In 1991 when we had our exhibition in the RIBA, the work was remarked on and it was applauded, but it wasn't applauded for being buildable. And now we're building it we don't have to prove it any more.
JK I attended a lecture about three months ago when Archigram received the RIBA Gold Medal, and, yes, their work is still inspirational but there is a fundamental difference that people don't understand. That everything we draw is, from the beginning, buildable.
AL We've always wanted to build our projects; that's the difference. I'm flattered by the comparison with Archigram because they're my big heroes. But they never set out with the intention of realising those things; that wasn't why they were doing it. I think we do things sometimes to provoke, to push ourselves forwards, like when we did the Green Building [*2] in 1990. It still stands as a very powerful project aesthetically, technically and environmentally, and we did it for ourselves, we didn't do it for anyone else. But it could have been built and you can see things around that aren't a million miles away from it.

You were talking about the need to stay ahead, to move on; how do you achieve that?
AL There are different ways of doing it. One of the things we have been doing in the last couple of years is collaborating with artists - and in particular with Anish Kapoor. We're working on an underground station in Naples with him. There's no separation between his role and our role, and that's a fantastically creative process. Having someone who's outside of you who's such a powerful creative force makes you reassess your methods and your ways of thinking.
JK This is absolutely critical - it's architecture and art as one.
AL Artists do have a different sensibility. It's a way of working that is much more radical; it's trying to throw out all the pragmatics. It's so easy to get trapped by the functionality, the realisability, the practical aspect of something. What he's really made us do in the projects we've collaborated on is throw that out of the window, forget what the material is, and instead just talk about form, the why, the what.

So that introduces a new way of working, but does it lead to new architecture?
AL It results in different forms. It's about pushing an aesthetic, considering forms that we have previously been quite resistant to, that have not been part of our language. I very much hope that by working with him more we'll get towards, dare I say it, using straight lines and planes in a way that we don't often in our work.

Now that your aesthetic has become a desirable commodity there must be a danger that people will come to you for trademark Future Systems blobs.
AL Now that the aesthetic has become very much part of the language of many people, it's easy for people to come to us and to say "we want a bit of that". We've never taken a very commercial view and we've always said no if we didn't want to do the project, if we didn't like the client, if we felt they just saw us as decorators.
JK It doesn't work like that.
AL We're not interested.

Your early, unbuilt work explored themes such as new housing typologies; public buildings; ethical and environmental projects. Has your recent success caused you to lose your idealism?
JK We are very ethical but there are very few activities in human life you can object to. You can't curtail yourself by saying we won't design for people above a certain income. You have to be in a certain way pragmatic - who is paying your bills? 
AL I think it's more…
JK Let me finish sometimes!
AL OK, OK! Go on! Go on!

Is this tension between you normal?
AL It's always there! But it's a creative tension; it's the cornerstone of our relationship.
JK I lost my line of thought… You have to realise that the world went incredibly commercial. In the United States, where they went through I don't know how many experiments in architecture, they have now reached a dead end and they are importing European talent. Major things in New York are now being done by Europeans. So I think that all the post-modernism and the commercialism and things like that stopped evolution. It's much worse in Asia and other places.
AL It's extraordinary, the only area of work that has generated a lot of similar enquiries is through shops that we've done. And that's the area we've been really ruthless in turning work down if we didn't want to do it. 
We did three shops for Commes des Garçons, which was an extraordinary experience - we were working with Rei Kawakubo, who is both the artist and the head of this fashion empire. Following that we did shops for Marni, which was really trying to see the shop as a landscape and to get away from the traditional rails and standard minimalist space.
But then we felt that it was really important to step back from that. We were approached by a lot of really big brands, but you can only do so many. Having said that we've recently got a commission to do a flagship store for New Look in Oxford Street, London. Now that's fantastic because that's completely the other end of the spectrum - a high-street chain. They're a volume retailer, very democratic, completely accessible. I was so delighted that they approached us. It was really refreshing. It's a big departure for them. We're doing another lovely little project in Birmingham for Radio Lollipop, the hospital radio station for children. 
JK I think there was always historically conscientiousness to architecture. In the 1930s, architects were proud to do social housing - especially in continental Europe, maybe less so here. They achieved extraordinary things. They built homes with heating and bathrooms which today sounds like nothing but they were housing people who had lived in slums. That doesn't exist today. If you talk about that you look bizarre. Instead, average office buildings are put on a pedestal. Today, nobody is interested in social housing in this country - it's unbelievable. The government is not doing anything, there is no research, nothing.

They talk about it a lot these days.
JK Oh yes, but in real terms there is absolutely nothing. Another sphere of social architecture of course is green architecture. Again, the government only discovered this existed last week [when it announced a renewed commitment to renewable energy] after several years in office.
AL What happens is the government always gets it wrong. There was recently a call for new ideas for a large number of schools - but the bureaucracy you had to wade through, the lack of trust implied in the brief! They said we want great ideas, fresh ideas, and then they put you in a straitjacket where you can't do anything. They wanted you to have an idea and hand it over to someone else. It was so constraining and so depressing we couldn't even face going in for it.
But having said that we are doing two education projects. One is the "World Classrooms" project which is a government project - it's about exploring how to create a classroom that will make children and teachers rethink the way they learn and teach. We're also doing three schools in Richmond - primary, secondary and special needs.
JK But that's not popular. You're not winners if you're doing schools.
AL And it is very difficult - of course naturally I have a concern and I want to contribute in any way that I can. Architects do have this amazing wealth of ideas and experience. I don't like talking about architects as a profession, I only rate 10% of them, but we and other people that we respect have this talent, but we're not asked. 
JK Why are people almost punished for being creative or being inventive?
AL Well, we're not - Selfridges is happening!
JK But creativity is not something that is cherished by many people.

Jan, before the interview started, you sighed and said life is hard. What did you mean?
JK [Sigh]. Some people have it easier I suppose, because they don't have any preconceptions, they don't have any style - it's easy for them. I suppose we still have to prove something all the time. Here we take certain things for granted that a lot of other practices have a huge problem with. Form-creation, beauty and plasticity - it's not happening. Sometimes I'm extremely surprised what comes out of other practices. How they absolutely struggle to create three-dimensional objects. I don't know what people think about Future Systems. On one level I don't care so much but on another I think people don't know where to put us.

You often sound very frustrated
JK No, I'm not frustrated, but I have 40 years of battles behind me, and I'm not hiding it. How do you get the message across? You hope somebody will understand.
Are you the kind of person who needs battles to fight, who thrives in adversity?
JK No, no, on the contrary. That's really bad! Some architects don't speak about certain things at all. I'm not one of them. If I see something wrong I want to speak out. I didn't have that privilege for many years. I think that's the beauty of this country and I came here because of that. I think one should use it. I'm not commenting politically, I'm commenting only on architecture.

One thing that surprised me about your book 'Confessions' [*3], is that it was really nostalgic
JK It's supposed to be nostalgic in parts. I thought if I don't write my story down I will forget it now. It was very difficult to reconstruct. It's difficult for some of the young people to understand but you are influenced by some of the extraordinary things in your life. But nobody ever made a single comment about the book.

You're two very different people. What are your roles in the practice?
AL Jan has a history and pedigree that is unrivalled. But I certainly think that if you look at the history of Future Systems since I became a partner, I think it's developed immensely.

What has your influence on the practice been?
AL I think I have an influence at all levels really. My interest is in building buildings - and that has happened. It's important to say that Future Systems is not just the Jan and Amanda show - we have a great team here. But I really do want to do bigger things and work on more public projects and push the practice forward. 
What is your ambition for the practice?
AL Just to do great work.

*1 The Blob, 1985: developed for a competition for the Grand Buildings site, Trafalgar Square
*2 The Green Building, 1990: conceptual study for a low-energy office building
*3 Confessions (Wiley-Academy), 1992: A highly personal account of Kaplicky's life, influences and views

 

Words

Marcus Fairs

 

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