Modern London author Lukáš Novotný: Miroslav Šašek is definitely an influence

Photo: Archive of Lukáš Novotný

Lukáš Novotný’s excellent book Modern London offers intricate, colourful illustrations of and entertaining text about many of the most iconic structures built over the last century in the UK capital, his adopted home since 2014. The young Czech, who works as a graphic designer and paper engineer, is currently preparing a guide to the modernist architecture of New York.

Photo: Archive of Lukáš Novotný

Lukáš Novotný, photo: Archive of Lukáš Novotný
Did you find it hard to adjust to the pace of life in London? I lived there years ago and I much prefer Prague, because it’s simply slower. I wouldn’t have the energy for London.

“I grew up in a really tiny town with, like, 3,000 people – and I always wanted to move to a bigger town.

“So I was always moving to the next big town. I moved to Hradec Králové, which is 100,000 people, and then I moved to Prague, which is, I think, 1.2 million people.

“Honestly, my dream is to live in New York, because it’s impossible for all the immigration and legal reasons and all that.

“But the fast pace here is actually good for me.

Bow Creek Lighthouse, the only lighthouse in London, photo: Grim23, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
“It may sound like I’m going to parties and stuff like that here [laughs], but I don’t actually.

“I really enjoy working from home, but also having the chance to go to a concert or to go to galleries any time, and for free, which is a great opportunity.”

I was reading that one of the jobs you’ve had in London, in the UK, was as a lighthouse keeper. I’m intrigued.

“Yes, I still do it, actually.

“It’s the only lighthouse in London.

“Obviously, you don’t need lighthouses in London.

“This lighthouse was built by a company which used to run all the British lighthouses and they needed a place in London where they could train their lighthouse keepers.

Longplayer, photo: Cormac Heron, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
“So they built this kind of small… it’s really small – most people don’t know about it because it’s so short that it’s been overshadowed by all the other buildings.

“It’s not actually being used as a lighthouse anymore but as a space for this art installation which is called Longplayer.

“It’s a sound installation. It’s like a song which is ever-evolving and changing – and it’s going to last 1,000 years.”

I know you as the author of the fantastic book Modern London. But what is your main activity, Lukáš?

“Thank you for the kind words.

“I’m an illustrator, a graphic designer, and I do everything to be honest, to pay my rent [laughs].”

Modern London, photo: Archive of Lukáš Novotný
But you also do something called paper engineering, which I hadn’t heard of before. What is paper engineering?

“It’s a bit of a strange term. There are quite a few terms floating around: paper crafting, paper engineering.

“It’s a way, it’s kind of… see, even I struggle to describe it and I do it.

“It’s basically a technique how to make pop-up books and all those beautiful books for children which are flat and when you open them something pops up.

“It’s not easy to make it happen. There’s lots of geometry and things like that, and not many people can do it.

“Paper engineering is basically a technique how to make pop-up books and all those beautiful books for children which are flat and when you open them something pops up.”

“How I became a paper engineer is basically I came to the UK and I was trying to get myself a design job, which is very hard if you don’t know anyone.

“And I made these custom little paper-engineered cards.

“They had a little figure inside which was me and it said something like, Do you wanna go for a cuppa?

“If you pulled that figurine, my number and email would pop out, or something like that.

Modern London, photo: Archive of Lukáš Novotný
“And actually that helped me to get my first design job in London.”

The style of drawings in Modern London seems to me very specific, very precise. How do you do those drawings?

“You say it’s very precise – that’s probably because I studied architecture.

“I didn’t graduate, but I studied architecture for a couple of years.

“And in essence it’s architecture elevation – when you see a building without any perspective deformations; you’re just trying to capture everything correctly.

“What I do is to add shades and colours and try to make it more real, to make you feel the space that’s actually there. You can feel the depth and things like that.

“When you illustrate you realise that if you describe something 100 percent correctly in technical terms, it still doesn’t mean that it will look that way. Sometimes you have to cheat a bit for the human eye.”

“Because when you illustrate you soon realise that if you describe something 100 percent correctly in technical terms, it still doesn’t mean that it will look that way.

“Sometimes you have to cheat a bit for the human eye.”

Do you use the original plans or the original architect’s drawings?

“If I can, then yes. But most of the time it’s kind of hard to get to them.

“If I can I go there myself and take photos myself of the details and stuff

“Then there is this little tool where you can play with perspective in Photoshop and you can kind of put it together.”

Miroslav Šašek, photo: giveawayboy, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
One person who comes to mind for me looking at your work is Miroslav Šašek, who did these great guides to world cities, including London, I guess in the late 1950s and the 1960s. But I suppose his books were more for children, and yours aren’t.

“Yes, he is absolutely amazing and he is definitely one of my inspirations.

“Actually he studied as an architect as well – he was an architect.

“So all of his beautiful illustrations, even though they are obviously for children, are still correct.

“They have the right number of columns and windows and everything.

“Yes, he is just amazing.”

Your book covers London from the 1920s to the present day. There are so many iconic buildings in it. Have you got a favourite building, or even a favourite era of modern buildings in London?

Battersea Power Station, source: Archive of Lukáš Novotný
“Hmmm. I would say the interwar period, between the 1920s and 1930s. I would say that is my favourite period.

“After the war it became an international style and it became really similar to other European developments.

“That period between the first and second world wars was sort of unique, because in Europe – especially in Prague, in Czechoslovakia – modernism, with beautiful white buildings, was blooming.

“But people in the UK are more traditional and they started applying the ideas of modernism but they still kind of kept the visual in the more traditional way.

“So I feel that is very unique for London and the UK in general.”

In the building you cover a couple of buildings in London with Czech connections. One is the brutalist Czechoslovak Embassy in Kensington. The other is the Lord’s Media Centre. In the Czech media, that’s usually referred to as a work by Jan Kaplický, but you don’t name him. Why is that?

“I was actually thinking about naming him there.

“The fact is that what happens a lot in the Czech media is that if a Czech person is involved in some project, they make it sound like it’s his brainchild."

“But the fact is that what happens a lot in the Czech media is that if a Czech person is involved in some project, they make it sound like it’s his brainchild.

“But I wanted to show that it’s not just Kaplický – it was the whole Future Systems team.

“It wasn’t just him but also Amanda Levete, who continues to work as an architect and has lots of great clients.

Modern London, photo: Archive of Lukáš Novotný
“But basically at all the big Czech shows I’ve visited – in DOX and stuff – she’s not mentioned at all.

“It seems like he is the sole brains behind it.”

I presume doing this book must have been a real voyage for you of getting to know London better?

“Absolutely. It was a great education for me.

“It’s a bit crazy when you think about it [laughs], that you want to learn the history of a city while writing a history book about the city. It sounds a bit silly.

“But now when I’m working on a new book about New York I have piles and piles of books I’m reading.

“Because with London, I live here. I feel more entitled to write a book about London than, let’s say, about New York.

“So I’m always trying to get to the bottom of every building, to get all the information, not just from the internet but from all books and all newspapers – really to understand it.

Modern New York, source: Archive of Lukáš Novotný
“I feel like I would be judged more harshly [laughs] if there is something incorrect.

“Because it would be like, Obviously he doesn’t know, because he’s not from here.”

Is it harder to choose the buildings for New York? Or is it a similar process? Because New York seems to me to have so many iconic buildings.

“You are right. There is an incredible amount of amazing buildings.

“Part of it, as I mentioned, is that Americans, and New Yorkers especially, really like bold gestures in architecture.

“And especially in the 1920s and 1930s the buildings really tried to shout for attention.

“Sometimes that didn’t look good, but quite often you just end up with stunning pieces.”

New York, photo: Pexels, CC0
What do you make of this development in New York now where, because of technology, it’s possible to build apartment buildings that are much higher than any buildings that ever existed before, and they are doing it? There aren’t so many of them yet, but there are more and more planned and it seems to me that it’s really going to change the skyline of the city.

“Absolutely. I accept it.

“It’s New York and if this development should happen somewhere, it should happen in New York.

“I feel like if you would try to stop it in New York, you would be trying to conserve the city in a certain period.

Lukáš Novotný, photo: Archive of Lukáš Novotný
“They call them superslims or supertalls and you mentioned that they change the skyline a lot, but the other thing is that they are mostly built on quite compact sites.

“So in the end you have this super slim tower that doesn’t really make a huge shadow.

“I think it’s not going to have such a big impact as in the 1980s when you had these huge buildings – they call them landscapers.

“They’re medium tall but like a giant box.

“I feel those kinds of buildings damage the city much more than, you know, a needle in a haystack.”

I have a strong sense that London is your home now, but I was wondering if you would consider doing a book about Prague modern architecture or Czech modern architecture. Or are there enough noteworthy buildings to do such a book from here?

“To the last part of your question, definitely.

“In Czech and Prague modern architecture there are so many stunning buildings."

“In Czech and Prague modern architecture there are so many stunning buildings.

“Even now I just look up certain buildings. I haven’t seen them for years and but it just fills me with such pleasure.

“But obviously my view is a bit subjective, because I feel it as my home.

“But still, the book about Prague… I’m kind of planning it for my retirement.

Modern architecture in Prague-Pankrác, photo: Jirka.h23, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
“Also I feel I want to wait for a new generation of Czech architects to make a kind of new level.

“To be honest, I think most of the 1990s and 2000s architecture is going to be a little harder to illustrate, because it’s going to be a bit, you know…

“But I’m still hoping.

“A lot of my friends from architecture studies are amazing architects but they are still junior, so I hope that in a couple of decades they will have the ability to build something, some new layer.”

So you think a new level, a new standard, of Czech architecture can be achieved? I know many people are largely disappointed by what we’ve seen here since 1990.

“I have no doubt that Czech architecture can do it.

“Because you can look at countries like Poland or even Slovenia – their history is very similar but their architecture is already at a different level.

“And I don’t think it’s that the Czech Republic doesn’t have the architects who are able to produce it.

“It’s that if the government doesn’t see the value of good architecture, then it’s a problem.

“If they just look for the value per, if they look at the economic side, you will never end up with new masterpieces in Prague and everywhere else.”