Jan Kaplicky - a Czech architect turning "future systems" into reality

Jan Kaplicky, photo: www.czech-tv.cz

Today we meet Jan Kaplicky, who is regarded by many as the greatest Czech architect of his generation. Readers in the UK will surely know his amazing Selfridges building in Birmingham. But although Jan Kaplicky has won world renown for the work of his London-based company Future Systems, he has found himself somewhat at odds with the establishment here in the Czech Republic. Mr Kaplicky was born in Prague in 1937, and when we met recently he first told me something about his family background.

"My father was a sculptor and painter, and he did a few small pieces of architecture, like our garden and some other things. My mother illustrated some books on plants to the last day of her life; many, many were published in different languages, in English, and they were distributed around the world.

"So there was a lot of that - she'd done some pieces of fashion when she was very young and things like that. So there was always this. My father used to write articles, so these things were all around.

"Then of course the catastrophe of the war came and then, after a break of about two years, the forty years of Communism, or I should say Stalinism, started, and you couldn't do anything. It was literally impossible to exhibit, to design or whatever.

"Everything was strictly controlled and you were basically living in the small environment of your home. If you were lucky, if you were not - like many of my friends - their families were expelled from Prague, and things like that; you were very lucky if you could stay even in your own house."

If we can now go forward in time to 1968 - you decided to leave, I understand, as soon as the Russian tanks rolled in.

Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete,  photo: www.future-systems.com
"I realised that the time has come, you can't stay here, because there's absolutely no hope, in your lifetime. Maybe later - luckily we are sitting here and the Czech Republic is part of NATO and Europe, which is incredible, incredible.

"But at that time I thought I can't waste time sitting and waiting to see if some politburo will make some decision or not. That is not how you can live your life, that is an impossibility."

You went to London. Why London? Was it your first choice?

"In a way yes, because I could speak a bit. And I didn't want to stay in the German world of Germany and Austria. Also I sensed maybe something would happen architecturally there, which wasn't yet the case. But it was beginning to simmer somewhere in a corner and I was right. Then Britain started to be an architectural superpower, which it certainly wasn't in 1968."

You were 31 when you left here. How long did it take you to get established in the UK?

"Many years, many years. I would say ten years, maybe more, maybe more. Particularly if you are doing things which are not automatically accepted, or whatever. Or you don't want to follow a hundred percent commercial line, which maybe would be easier.

"You must realise you don't have any capital whatsoever. I escaped with a hundred dollars borrowed from my client. And you can't write a letter to your mother and say send me another hundred."

In 1979 you set up Future Systems. That's an extremely ambitious name, it seems to me. What was the thinking behind Future Systems?

"The one idea, which now sounds more normal, was to have a name which does not represent the name of the people. And luckily we did it, because the people have changed. And I think architecture is not the activity of one man or woman, it is the activity of many."

In recent years you have had a few acclaimed buildings realised in Britain, the Lord's cricket ground media centre and the remarkable futuristic Selfridges building in Birmingham...

"It's not futuristic, because it's here. Now it's on posters around Birmingham, it's on bank cards. I'm sure postcards are coming very soon and maybe even postage stamps. If it is a symbol of the town...the Sydney Opera House is the symbol of Sydney, that's fine.

"They are very grateful. The city fathers or planners were very impressed. They love it, because it brings some attention to Birmingham. Some people like it, maybe somebody on the corner doesn't like it but that's fine, that's a democratic state.

"I'm sure the Parthenon was hated by a few characters, and so was the cathedral in Canterbury. The Empire State Building wasn't loved, and now it is popular culture."

If we can come back to this country, how do you think the authorities in Prague especially have treated architecture, and modern architecture?

"Well, the authorities sometimes, I think, don't treat anything after 1900 with great respect. They are worried about a little cornice on a very average apartment building, of which there are millions here and in Budapest and Vienna, and God knows where else. If one of them goes the world goes on turning, very happily.

"But some unique buildings from the 30s or even the late 20s were destroyed. They let them be destroyed commercially and otherwise. I would cry sometimes at what has happened. How is it possible legally? I don't know."

Do you think that the decades of Communism perhaps distorted or destroyed people's aesthetic sense in this country?

"They certainly did. You must also add six years of Fascism. I think people who were maximum teenagers in '89, who hadn't even started architecture school, they probably have chances, and I am sure they will develop into very successful people, not just commercially but mentally."

How has Czech design caught up with the West, so to speak, in the last 15 years?

"That's the most difficult of all your questions...well, I still feel they somehow are a little bit isolated, or they were. Some people built their reputation on isolation. That happened after '89 as well; some people base their careers on being famous under total isolation.

"Now it is Europe. I can't believe that some of the very high officials - we shouldn't mention the highest one - can be anti-European. It's almost criminal to think like that.

"They are little bit scared about producing something unusual. Or they are obsessed about being Czech or something. Well, that doesn't exist. Have you heard of Lithuanian architecture? It doesn't exist - it's new European architecture."

Do you get young Czech architects applying for internships or jobs at Future Systems?

"No, no, and don't ask me why. I don't know. Maybe they tell them not to - I don't know."

The most controversial building here in recent years was the Dancing Building by the Vltava by Vlado Milunic and Frank Gehry. What's your opinion of that building? I know people are divided about it.

"They are, and the building which makes so much fuss here, and quite rightly, is actually designed by somebody from outside. So is the Jean Nouvel centre in Smichov. That's not without interest.

"And the clients in both cases are foreign firms. Why a Czech company is not inviting - and they are sort of landmark buildings, particularly with the Gehry building - more of that, more of that. Why this worry about being unusual? It will come here, and I'm sure somebody will build something extraordinary on Wenceslas Square, or wherever."

For more information on Future Systems go to www.future-systems.com.