Remembering Jan Kaplický

Jan Kaplický

The world of Czech culture is in mourning following the death of the renowned architect Jan Kaplický, who passed away on the evening of Wednesday 14th January. The loss is not just a major one for the Czech Republic, but a deep personal one for his family – Mr Kaplický aged 71 died from sudden heart failure, on what his family described as one of the greatest days in his life – he was just three hours into celebrating the birth of his daughter Johanka - his wife still in hospital. The sudden loss has thrown the full spectrum of Kaplický’s life, achievements and disappointments into the Czech limelight. For this architect had spent much of his life in London, and his most recent and noted professional experience with the Czech Republic had been both painful and disappointing – the failure of his award-winning National Library design, nicknamed “the blob” to gain approval by the Czech authorities.

Jan Kaplický,  photo: CTK
I spoke with Eva Jiřičná, a fellow London-based Czech architect and long-time close friend of Mr Kaplický. I began by asking her to describe the kind of man Jan Kaplický had been.

“He was an absolutely extraordinary person. He was a highly unusual and extremely talented architect and he was also an extraordinary and unusual man. There are very few people who you can meet in your life, who can compare with him. It is very rare to come across those kinds of people, and I feel that anybody who has met him is grateful for just having had anything to do with him.”

Jan Kaplický was born in Prague in 1937. His father was a painter and sculptor and his mother was a sketch artist. Kaplický studied at the College of Applied Arts and Architecture in Prague from 1956-62 and immigrated to Britain shortly after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In 2004, Radio Prague caught up with Jan Kaplický, and my colleague Ian Willoughby asked him about the decision to leave Czechoslovakia:

“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.”

Eva Jiřičná explains what the pair found in London:

“In 1968, the situation was extremely unusual. I left the country before the invasion, and he left afterwards. We both very shortly found out that we wouldn’t be able to go back for a considerable amount of time. In the meantime, London was the most exciting place to be. It was the period of flower-power, the Beatles, miniskirts, hot-pants and architecture.”

According to Eva Jiřičná, Kaplický used his skills to climb, albeit slowly, the architectural ladder in his new home:

“Jan was extremely well equipped to realize who the people were he wanted to work with. He worked with all the famous architects of that period: Denys Lasdun and Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Of course, we were ‘nobodys’ and we were employed at the lowest possible positions and it took a long time before he had a chance even to hit the drawing board and start doing his fantastic drawings and occupy himself with his own projects. But I think that it wasn’t until the 1980s that he started having an impact with his abilities to build and become a part of the world league.”

Zdeněk Lukeš is an expert on architecture and was a friend of Jan Kaplický. He noted how the architect had developed a futuristic style early on in his career:

“If you look at his sketches from the 70s and 80s, it is very contemporary architecture and I think that he started with so-called ‘blob’ constructions in that era, but it wasn’t possible to build those types of buildings in those times. But today, we do have the abilities to build this type of architecture.”

Mr Lukeš also recalled Mr Kaplický’s interest in military hardware and even spaceships:

“He designed some spaceships for NASA in the 70s and 80s and he admired atomic submarines and spaceships and everything of that kind.”

In 1979, Jan Kaplický set up Future Systems seeking to further develop his futuristic style. But as the architect recalled in 2004, acceptance was not always easy to find:

“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 1994, Kaplický scored his first major success, winning a competition to design a futuristic media centre at the Lord’s cricket ground. The design underscored a style that was to become quintessential Kaplický and the completed project ended up winning him the prestigious Stirling Prize. Several years later, Jan Kaplický was awarded a commission to build a Selfridges building in Birmingham. The resulting design – a personal favourite of Kaplický’s, was also praised by fellow professionals. Several other Kaplický works are being constructed around the world, including a subway station in Naples and the Maserati Museum in Modena, Italy. Yet it was the desire and wish to create a work built inside his native Czech Republic that most strongly motivated Kaplický in later life. In 2007, he won a commission to build a National Library building in Prague, but the design proved too controversial for the Prague authorities, and it was eventually cancelled.

This controversy appeared to underscore a long held resistance to working in the Czech Republic. As Zdeněk Lukeš explains:

“When I asked him about the possibility of taking part in any competition to build something in the Czech Republic or to work on any project here, his answer was ‘No, it isn’t possible, because people here have ignored me and I have no real chance to build something here in Prague because I am like an enemy in this country.’”

Enemy, because the architect had apparently been too outspoken in his criticism of some of his contemporaries. Why not stay in London then? – was the reaction of some, recalls Zdeněk Lukeš. And then, when the recent National Library project fell apart, the old hostilities appeared to have resurfaced:

“I remember that my friend mentioned that only six of our architects fought for his design. Only six, and we have about three thousand architects here in Prague.”

But as Eva Jiřičná reveals, Jan Kaplický never gave up hope:

“In my last conversation with him, which was Sunday last week, he was so hopeful that he was going to be able to build that building. He was telling me about the foundation which was established to start collecting money to help him realize his dream. He was full of expectations that in the next year or so, that building was going to be built on the site that it was designed for. So he died with a full belief that he was going to build that building and leave a mark in the Czech Republic.”

However that battle turns out, it appears that Kaplický’s wish may come true in another quarter of the Czech Republic. A design for a proposed two billion crown Congress and Concert Hall Centre in the city of České Budějovice was approved shortly before the architect’s death. Following the architect’s passing, the city authorities say they remain determined to find the money and finally build a Kaplický building in his native Czech Republic.