Architect Jan Kaplický "lived for his vision", says curator of new exhibition Eva Jiřičná

Jan Kaplickýs Entwurf für den Neubau der Nationalbibliothek

The late architect Jan Kaplický has been in the news a lot recently. A new documentary was released last week about the collapse of his dream to finally see one of his designs realised in Prague: the futuristic yellow structure, nicknamed the Blob, was to have served as a new National Library building, but met opposition from politicians. Now an exhibition at the city’s Dox gallery – featuring plans, models and more – gives Czechs a chance to see some of the ultramodern designs Kaplický created at his world renowned Future Systems studio in the UK. Dox’s artistic director Jaroslav Anděl says the show has several aims.

“One of them of course is to present Jan Kaplický’s work in a retrospective show. The reason is that the Czech public has not yet really had the opportunity to get to know his work, and we hope that this exhibition will fulfill this function.”

Jan Kaplický
Do you think he has possibly become, so to speak, reduced to the story of the Blob, the National Library building that hasn’t been built?

“Well, certainly in the mirror of the Czech media I would say so [laughs], which is really unfortunate. I think we will compensate for this deficit, not only with this exhibition but also with a rich programme of complementary lectures, debates, and so on.”

What particular items can visitors see at the exhibition here?

“First of all they can see a lot of architectural models created by Jan Kaplický and his studio Future Systems. Secondly they can see a lot of images, and thirdly there are a number of screenings which are based on historical footage. These three elements together with the architectural design of the exhibition create a compelling whole.”

Would you agree that his designs are perhaps more in the realm of art than the designs of many other architects?

Selfridges department store, Birmingham
“To agree with this premise would be to chart problematic territory, the issues of borders, distinctions between individual media. I think what is typical of art for some time is that these borders, these distinctions are fluid. And what really drives contemporary art is exchange and dialogue between different media. I think that’s actually a very positive aspect of Jan Kaplický’s work.”

Architect Eva Jiřičná knew Jan Kaplický for five decades. The two left Czechoslovakia in 1968 for London, where they both gradually rose to the top of their profession. Now, however, Eva Jiřičná is back in Prague as the curator of the new exhibition JAN KAPLICKÝ: VLASTNÍ CESTOU (‘his own way’). At its opening, I asked her how her late friend’s vision had developed into the futuristic style he is known for today.

“If you look at his first sketches, which were done in the 1960s – we don’t know exactly when, it was ’62, ’63, ’64 – very shortly after he left military service, there is a little kind of egg-like structure. Whatever it was, whether it was a dwelling or something else, who knows? But in that little sketch I think you can see the roots of all his future development, of his future developments.

“So whether it was a vision he was born with or a vision he developed, who knows? You can go as far as his very first sketches, where those kind of curly lines and curved shapes occur.”

What was different about him as an architect?

“What was different about him as an architect is very hard to say – it’s what was different about him as a man. He had his own way of looking at things. When he opened a book, he saw things differently than other people. When he drew a line it was a different line than anybody else would have drawn. When he read a book he interpreted it differently.”

Sometimes he’s portrayed as a rather abstract architect who didn’t actually have many of buildings realised. Is that a fair assessment?

“Well, he definitely lived for his vision. And I think that the truth is he started building when he was joined by his professional partners, first of all David Nixon and then Amanda Levete, who became his wife, his life partner as well as professional partner.

Media Centre at Lord's Cricket Ground, London
“Because he needed somebody to…occupy himself with the mundane aspects of the architectural process: talking to the builders, talking to the investors, talking to people who are needed when it comes to the point that an image is to be built and to be realised.

“The fact is that when he found somebody who took over this kind of practical role, he was able to realise projects which were extraordinary. Architecture is a team thing and there is none of us who can do everything. So he needed somebody to take over these kind of practicalities [laughs], and when he found them his vision was built very easily and without problems.”

I suppose the last couple of years of his life were dominated by the story of the National Library building in Prague. He won the competition, but then the building wasn’t built. How did that affect him?

“He called himself an optimist. He was in a way an optimist, because he always thought that somehow things will get better. But at the same time he suffered enormously from his failures, from his unfortunate…losses in competitions, unfulfilled dreams.

Design of the National Library building, Prague
“Especially with the National Library, because it was such a dream to build a building in Prague. When he won the competition I think he was the happiest man in the world, in the universe. And when it started going wrong, which was due to an absolutely stupid political situation, which is indescribably…sad and unbelievable, he really suffered.

“He had another project, which was the project of the concert hall in České Budějovice – called Budvar or Rejnok [stingray] – and somehow it kept him going. Also he was going through a very happy relationship with his last wife Eliška. So he had positive things happening parallel to the negative side of the story of the National Library.

“But I sincerely believe that had it not happened the way it did, he would probably have been here with us today. He had a serious heart condition, which he didn’t know about which would have probably killed him at one point. But I think maybe not at that very point, when it was totally unnecessary.

“It’s a personal opinion, it might have not been right, what I’ve just said. But I think he probably would have carried on a little bit longer.”

The exhibition runs at Dox until August 2.