Major new book commemorates “genius designer” Jan Kaplický

Lord's Media Centre, photo: Richard Davies

The visionary world of architect Jan Kaplický is captured in the hugely impressive new coffee table book Jan Kaplický: Pro budoucnost a pro krásu (For the Future and for Beauty). The hefty monograph is the fruit of 10 years of work by his friend Ivan Margolius, himself also a Prague-born architect who made a life and career in the UK. It traces his beginnings in Czechoslovakia, the story of the highly progressive Future Systems studio and the realisation of some of Kaplický’s space-age designs, alongside interviews with many of his closest associates. I discussed the late architect’s evolution, relationship to his native country and much more with Ivan Margolius.

When did Kaplický begin to develop what became his distinctive style?

“He worked for Norman Foster and there he met his future partner David Nixon.

“Both of them at that time, which was the early or mid-1970s, were very on keen on technological, spacecraft projects.

“I mean, they were keen to bring into architecture technologies, like aircraft design, or spacecraft design or automobile design, which very rarely happened in those days, because architecture was rather blinkered.

“Only in the mid-1980s did Jan suddenly start to look at organic inspiration for his architecture.”

“So they started working on high-tech, as it’s called, principles and both were very keen on it.

“It’s obvious in those first projects, even in some of the work that Jan had done in Prague, that this was quite successful.

“Only in sort of the mid-1980s did Jan suddenly start to look at organic inspiration for his architecture.

“And his architecture became a sort of blobby architecture, as it’s called nowadays.

“That all started with the Blob Building on Trafalgar Square.

“It was a competition project that Jan didn’t enter; it was like an organic shape sitting on the corner of a building.

Photo: Albatros / Alan Záruba  (Alba Design)

“It was quite shocking, because no-one had seen a building of that form before.”

Did his style evolve as technology change?

“Well, initially, as I said, it was based on the technology aspects of inspirational trends.

“But from the mid-1980s it was organic shapes. It was sea shells, it was mushrooms, it was flowers, plants.

“So he suddenly went for inspiration in nature.

“And I think it was partly influenced by his mother. Because his mother was a very well known illustrator of plants.

“She published quite a lot of books – about 10 or 12 – where she illustrated plants of various types: cacti and flowers and orchids.

“His mother died in 1984 and I believe Jan suddenly realised the value of his mother’s work and got interested in that kind of inspiration.

“The Lord’s Media Centre looks like a spacecraft has landed in London suddenly.”

“Eva Jiřičná [Czech-born architect and romantic partner of Kaplický’s in the 1970s] told me the story that initially when they lived together in the high-tech days, when Jan was doing his high-tech architecture, she was sitting in the flat watching David Attenborough’s nature programmes.

“And Jan was saying to her, Why are you watching this? [laughs] There’s nothing interesting about that sort of programme.

“It’s quite revealing that 10 years later he does a total U-turn and starts being interested in the same sort of forms.”

What would you say was his greatest project, either realised or unrealized?

“From my point of view, I like the Lord’s Media Centre, because it’s so unique and so startling.

“It looks like a spacecraft has landed in London suddenly.

Lord's Media Centre designed by Future Systems of architect Jan Kaplický | Photo: Albatros / Alan Záruba  (Alba Design)

“It was inspired by an SLR camera, which is looking onto the cricket field and observing what’s going on.

“In a way the building design looks very much like it in the end.

“And it was made by a boatyard in Cornwall.

“The building itself is not built by conventional means – it’s an aluminum semi-monocoque shell.

“There was no normal, standard contractor in Britain who could build that building.

“Jan and Amanda Levete [business and life partner] went to a boat show in Earl’s Court or wherever it was and found a boatyard contractor who actually built the building.

“So it’s very unique in its form.”

Don’t you say also in the book that the Lord’s Media Centre was partly inspired by the Královský Letohrádek [Belvedere] in Prague?

Královský Letohrádek  (Belvedere),  photo: Kristýna Maková

“Yes, the roof of the building has got that sort of boat-like shape.

“That was one of the inspirations as well.

“The first sketch of the building was I think on a flight from London to Prague and he sketched on a little serviette.”

Was he frustrated that more of his designs weren’t realised?

“Well, of course.

“The problem with Jan was that he was never a businessman.

“He was a genius designer, but he lacked the sort of business acumen which Amanda had.

“So they perfectly complemented each other.

“She was on the sort of business side of the practice and he was the designer.

“He wanted desperately to build something in the Czech Republic.”

“If he hadn’t got together with Amanda, I don’t think any of the buildings he designed would ever have been put up.

“So she brought this sort of business experience and looking after the construction of buildings, trying to get clients who would be interested in Jan’s designs and bringing them into the practice.

“That was a great achievement on her part.

“So it was a very good partnership which they had together, which then culminated in them getting the Stirling Prize in 1999 for the Lord’s Media Centre, for example.”

Photo: Albatros / Alan Záruba  (Alba Design)

I don’t want to get too much into the story of his design for a National Library building at Letná here in Prague, which despite him winning an international competition was blocked by the authorities. But there’s one fascinating aspect in your book, and that’s the suggestion that around that time he was named “most charming Czech man of the year” in a magazine [Magazín MF Dnes] – and you say that this may have worked against him in connection with that project.

“Yes, they were difficult times then.

“As we know, Václav Klaus was the president in those days and it was very sad that even he decided that he didn’t like the project.

“The other aspect was that [then Prague mayor] Pavel Bém, who was actually on the competition jury, and had agreed that Kaplický’s Future Systems design was the best one…

“He approved that as being the chosen best design.

Jan Kaplický,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio

“But then he turned around, after being persuaded, as it is believed, by other politicians, by Václav Klaus and maybe Milan Knížák from the National Gallery.”

But do you believe that Klaus, Knížák and Bém were jealous of the fact that Kaplický was named most charming man of the year in a magazine?

“Yes, that was one of the factors.

“They were rather narcissistic personalities, especially Václav Klaus.

“It’s interesting that in 2004 Jan and I went to the Czech Embassy [in London] for a celebration and Václav Klaus was there, visiting the embassy.

“Klaus was giving away his signed photographs and Jan went up to him and had a photograph signed by him, because he wanted one for his son Josef for his collection.

“I think they chatted quite amiably at that time.

“Klaus was the president and it was very sad that even he decided that he didn’t like the National Library project.”

“Then three or four years later they became enemies.

“And I think that article probably played a big role in the sort of breakup of that relationship – if ever there was a relationship.”

Generally speaking, what was Kaplický’s relationship to the Czech Republic after 1989?

“We met quite often, at least once a month, and we discussed politics, we discussed cultural events, both in Britain and in the Czech Republic, and Jan had enormous interest obviously in his native country.

“He wanted desperately to build something there.

Photo: Albatros / Alan Záruba  (Alba Design)

“It was such a joy when the Library came along and he actually managed to achieve such a great success there.

“But as soon as we sat down together and celebrated I was warning him that it was going to be difficult – he was going to be perceived as a sort of escaped foreigner coming back to Prague.

“A lot of people were going to feel they were being upstaged and think that he took the easy route by escaping the difficulties when the Russians came and was now coming back and trying to take their work away, their projects away.

“We were discussing it for hours and I warned him that it was going to be very difficult.”

I interviewed him in about 2004. He was very polite and a very nice guy, but I had a sense that he had a kind of air of sadness about him. What was he really like at the personal level?

“Well he had that sort of pessimistic outlook, which is not surprising with all the difficulties he lived through. That was his nature.

“There are a lot of examples where Jan’s work is very inspirational for other architects, which is wonderful really.”

“As you can see in the book a lot of his friends noticed the same trait in him.

“It’s rather peculiar that he produced these very optimistic buildings, they were very much looking forward into the future, on one hand.

“And then on the other he had a personality where he was very pessimistic and down looking.

“One had to cheer him up every time one met him, to make sure that he survived the next day.”

I also got the impression from the book that he was a man who very much wanted to create his own world, or who had created his own world. He even had strong ideas about what his romantic partners should wear.

“Yes. Adolf Loos similarly worked like that – he dictated what his clients should wear, what furniture they should buy, what pictures they should have, what carpets they should have, what colour walls.

“Architects sometimes go to extremes because they see whatever they design as their own.

“And by seeing it as their own, they dictate exactly what they want to see in that building or in that house.

Photo: Albatros / Alan Záruba  (Alba Design)

“It’s very difficult for some clients, obviously, to accept that.

“I understand – it’s not fair of architects to demand these things.

“If you build a house for a client, you’re building it for the other person, not for yourself.

“But some architects are so strong with their ideas that they feel offended if suddenly the client puts frilly curtains in their windows.

“The building for example in Wales – the wonderful residential little cottage in a way, built into a hillside like an eye looking onto the sea –Jan designed like he was designing it for himself.

“The client complained to him that there were a lot of impractical things there.

“There weren’t for example any drawers in the kitchen cabinets [laughs].

“So when she was taking over the building the lady client was saying, Where do I put my cutlery and things like that?

“There was no storage in the building – putting a storage cupboard there wouldn’t look nice.

“So Jan had that very sort of stubborn idea sometimes.

“He didn’t like to listen too much to any criticism or other ideas – he had a very strong vision and that’s what he wanted to keep to all the time.”

Finally, is it possible to speak about a legacy of Jan Kaplický?

“Absolutely. He was a great favourite of every student of architecture.

“Whenever Jan had a lecture, the halls were packed.

“And a lot of people imitated his ideas.

"For example, the Gherkin in building in London designed by Ken Shuttleworth, when he worked for Fosters, is very much like the Green Bird building which Jan designed four or five years earlier.

“Or the GLC building, the new city hall by the Tower Bridge – again that’s based most probably on the Blob Building.

“There are a lot of examples where Jan’s work is very inspirational for other architects, which is wonderful really.

“So the legacy is there and it’s ongoing and it will go on.”

Jan Kaplický: Pro budoucnost a pro krásu (Jan Kaplický: For the Future and for Beauty) is out now in Czech on the Albatros imprint. There are no immediate plans to publish the book in English.