Eva Jiricna: taming steel, glass and stone to create lightness and space

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If you want to give someone a really stylish Christmas present that gives you a taste of the very best of Czech design, then I think I have just the thing for you. A richly illustrated new book has just come out, presenting the work of one of the best contemporary Czech architects.

Eva Jiricna has lived for the last 30 years in London. In that time she has established a huge international reputation, and although she says she feels most at home in boots on a building site, she epitomizes style and elegance. Her favourite materials are steel, glass and stone, which she uses with great delicacy to create light and transparent designs. You'll come across her interiors in New York, London and Paris, for retailers like Harrods, Hugo Boss and Joseph. And if you want to find an example of her work here in Prague, you need go no further than the Hotel Josef tucked into a back street in the Old Town: simple, elegant, precisely detailed and uncompromisingly modern.

You'll find much of Eva Jiricna's work in the new book, called IN/EXTERIOR. It features 39 executed projects and designs, with over 250 photographs, an essay on her work and an interview with the architect herself. A few days ago Eva came into our studio, and surprised me by saying that she had had nothing to do with the making of the book. She began our conversation by explaining why.

"I've got this absolutely impossible part of my character, that I hate everything that I have done, and I find it extremely difficult to look at pictures of work already completed because I want to change it. So when they decided to make a publication, they had absolutely no collaboration from my side, which I'm terribly ashamed of. But I couldn't help myself, because I kept putting the slides on a pile and excluding them, because I said, 'We can't publish this, we can't publish that...'

"Eventually we made an agreement that they would go ahead, with the help of my very faithful secretary and my colleagues, and they'd put the material together. And then I went to the printers and said, 'They have to reprint it because it looks absolutely terrible.' And then I left again, and I haven't seen it yet but I'm extremely grateful that they've put it together because it's a nice thing to have after all and I'm very grateful, even if I behaved so badly."

You say you don't like your work, but you've won so many awards, you've won so much acclaim worldwide. Why is it that you're never happy? Is it just that you always feel there is one thing that you could have done a little bit differently?

"Absolutely. Unfortunately, or fortunately, design is a continuous process, and you have to stop at one point when the building is to be built, when the foundations have to be laid, and the money has to be spent. You have to stop and you know that if you had the chance to carry on for two more weeks, two more months, two more years, you would actually produce a better product. So you always feel guilty that you could have done better - or at least I do because I'm a perfectionist and I think that is something in your genes that you can't get rid of. I know I could have done better, and God knows why I haven't."

Do you have a building that you really would feel proud of, where you'd say, 'This was designed by me and I'm proud of it,' and you would stand in front of it and say, 'This is my work'?

"I have to say I'm very very happy if somebody tells me that they feel comfortable and happy in a building, in an interior or a shop that we have created, or if people like it, because architecture is just such a difficult discipline. You may like it, you may hate it, but you still have to do what your conscience tells you that you can do, and you don't really do what people want."

And people still have to live in it as well...

"... and people still have to live in it, and I feel extremely responsible. From that point of view I feel extremely guilty if someone complains that the corner of the table is too sharp and the children hit the door handle because it's wrongly positioned and the light is not sufficient for reading. All those things happen and it is all the architect's fault in the end."

You were educated in a very rich architectural tradition. Your professor was Jaroslav Fragner who was one of the great Functionalist architects of the inter-war period. Then you moved, pretty much against your will with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, to a completely different context in London, with a different tradition, where there was quite a strong degree of suspicion of Modernism and Functionalism? How did you manage to cope in that new environment?

"I don't know. It's a very logical question to ask, a very hard question to give an answer to. I do what I can do and I try to do it as well as I can. I keep saying to my students that I can't teach them what to do but how to learn. And I would have sworn that people who participated in my education, starting with my father or my professors who came from that period, they taught me how to think.

"So the process, I think, was very useful when I came to England, because of course the culture is different, the people are different, the education is different, the language is different. I have no idea how people had the courage to give me a job when I first came to England and put me in charge, because I find it so difficult to delegate. I think that is something about the English: they do know how to delegate and they give you the trust. I dearly value it, and I don't think it would have been so easy for me to do the same here. So on the one hand there is a distrust, because you are a foreigner, you are a woman and you don't speak the language. On the other hand I think that once you've given them a chance to assess you, they pay back by giving you the trust."

And another thing is the fact that you have a lot of technical knowledge, which is something that really gives you an advantage. I should imagine it would make people respect you more in the profession.

"I don't know about respect, but I think it gives me an advantage because I know what all those people are talking about. And that it is probably due to the Czech education, which was extremely technical. But also I think that I have to say I love science generally, and I always wanted to study chemistry and I'm interested in biology. I'm interested in science because it fascinates me as the logic of the process, and it is applicable to architecture. Therefore, if the engineer tells me that we have to do for example something that I consider too big, I know the way how to make it small, not by reducing the structural performance, but by working with the forces, because I can imagine how those forces are distributed. So it helps, but it's also an affection on my side, which I think is part of the issue."

You were producing some pretty amazing hi-tech interiors in the 1980s at a time when in Britain there was a very strong conservative backlash. It was the time when Prince Charles was talking about "monstrous carbuncles". I wonder how you managed it and how long it was before people cottoned on that your work really had its own aesthetic quality, its own beauty, that wasn't necessarily incompatible with a love of the old.

"It is just as much a surprise to me as to you. I love technology and I try to use it, but I also realized, when working with people like Richard Rogers and watching the work of Norman Foster, that theirs is a technology that is foreign to me because it is overpowering, because they stress the amount of materials rather than trying to minimize the materials and trying to understand how the individual components work. I call it a process of civilizing technology.

"When the technology is born it's very crude, but you have to teach it how to behave, and funnily enough people responded to it. How it happened, I've no idea. I just did what I could and people eventually liked it, but we had clients who told me, 'We don't want you to do the interiors, because we don't like glass, we don't like hard materials, we don't want stone floors.' We eventually finished up with just that - a glass staircase, a metal structure, metal cladding on the doors, and they love it."

Since the fall of communism you've managed to work back here in Prague and there is one highly praised building, the Hotel Josef which you built, which is just what you talk about - it's very modern, it's full of steel and glass and stone, and it's not a traditional building by any stretch of the imagination. Did you find it easier, in the context of Central Europe, where you were educated, where you grew up, to persuade people to accept this really quite radical, very modern, even minimalist building?

"I have travelled a lot and I just tried to build a hotel as a response to my experience of staying in millions of hotels, which are crowded with bedspreads and cushions and millions of different timbers and wallpapers and curtains and drapes and so on - no lighting and no comfort, and for me it always smells. The client said to me at one point, 'Eva, to have a modern building in the centre of Prague with modern interiors, that is suicide.' I was absolutely terrified. I just did what I felt was best, and I haven't slept in that hotel for ages, because they never have a room for me. Somehow I think that is the response of a certain type of person. They travel like me, they like reading a book in bed, doing some work in the hotel room and seeing as much daylight as they possibly can."

It is very refreshing going into that hotel because it is so bright and so simple, and you go out into the Baroque excess of Prague. Another interesting thing about that building, I think, is the way that you managed to respond so much to the context. It's a very modern building, yet it fits into a very sensitive historic context very well. There is a tradition of that in Prague. It's only just round the corner from the Cubist House at the Black Mother of God, which is a very famous example of a modern, steel-framed building [from the early 20th century] that fitted into a historic context. Where you in a way responding to that historical legacy as well?

"Absolutely. It was an urban question to start with, because there is a police station on the corner which is 19th century, a heavily decorated building which dominates the space. We called our building the "tail" of this police station, because we just thought that if we do something which is neutral, which is almost a grid of windows - with little canopies that protect the rooms from excessive light - then you almost don't notice it. But we also had permission to build only a three-storey building, but I somehow persuaded the planners to accept the fact that if the building is the same height as the police station, if it really looks like an integral part of that building, then it will irritate people less than a lower building that will expose the side walls of the police station.

"You asked me at the beginning whether I have got a favourite building. I can't say it's a favourite building, but I think that conceptually, the question of finishing the square and making it almost unnoticeable by adding it to a domineering building of that kind, is probably not a bad answer."