“What buildings could be like if they weren’t so horribly earthbound” – UK exhibition commemorates architect Jan Kaplický

Jan Kaplický, photo: CTK

The late Czech architect Jan Kaplický's buildings have been described as 'some of the most remarkable... that Britain has ever seen' and, by a disgruntled Prince Charles, as amongst the worst examples of 'the surrealist picnic' that is modern architecture. When Kaplický died at the beginning of 2009, British architecture lost one of its most creative, and provocative, figures. Long-time friend and head of London's Design Museum Deyan Sudjic has curated an exhibition called 'Remembering Jan Kaplický – Architect of the Future', which runs until November 1 in Kaplický's honour. On a recent visit to London, I asked him to talk me through the exhibit:

“Very sadly, Jan Kaplický died in January of this year, and I’d known him for a long time, in fact, he was a friend, and I was one of his first clients. So, for both personal and museum reasons, I thought it was important to have some sort of memory, some sort of very quick tribute, to Jan’s extraordinary output. So, what I’ve tried to do here is assemble a sort of snapshot of the work that he has built over the years, or planned, or conceived. And I’ve just assembled it as it was in his studio, where there was always a long white table full of extraordinary bits and pieces.

“So it is really a very low-key, un-curated exhibition. Except there are a few twists, you know, for example, we’ve aligned this extraordinary phallic model of a skyscraper that he did in 1990 dead on the Swiss Re, the so-called ‘Erotic Gherkin’, which is one of the new elements of London’s skyline. And this is a little memory that Jan was an influence on many architects.”

You said that you were an early client of Jan Kaplický, can I ask what you commissioned from him?

“As a young and impecunious architecture critic, I thought it was important to put my money where my mouth was. So, at that time I had bought a flat in Maida Vale, in this very humble, stucco-fronted, terraced house, of which I had one floor. It looked very normal on the outside, but Jan turned the inside into a spaceship.”

In the foreword to this exhibition here, you say that Jan was very influenced by the professions of both of his parents - his mother was a botanical illustrator and his father a sculptor – can you explain how a little bit more concretely?

“I think that what I always saw in Jan’s work early on, when he was working in other people’s offices, was this astonishingly precise delineation of lines. He was a fantastic draughtsman, doing things of great precision. And I’m sure that, in retrospect, this could be something that he learned from his mother, who of course made these exquisite drawings of plants. And I saw something of that.

“And then of course, through his career, there was a change. The earlier work was very technologically influenced. He was obsessed by space, by high technology, by Czech achievements, actually. He was always fascinated by Škoda, by the cars that they made, the Tatra, by Czech aircraft, by the fortifications built by the Czechs in the 1930s. And that was an influence, but then later in his career, he started to become more interested in the forms of the body, of sensuous form, and I think that might be something to do with his father’s work as a sculptor.”

In front of us are lots of models of things that were never built, and I think there were some things that he designed never with the intention of being built. Is it fair to say that a lot of the things that Jan Kaplický designed were purely in the realm of fantasy?

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘fantasy’ about Jan’s work. He loved to speculate, he loved to dream. These aren’t fantasies, they are the world as Jan would have liked it to have been.”

What was Future Systems doing in the very early days?

“To be an architect, you don’t necessarily need to build things. If you think about the past, Piranesi made these astonishing, fantastic, drawings of Roman ruins; he was evoking an atmosphere, a mood, and he was shaping directions. And I think that Jan’s work in the early days was very much about that. He was speculating about what buildings could be like if they weren’t so horribly pedestrian and earthbound, and he was dreaming.

“And I suppose the most astonishing, miraculous thing is that, from those beginning, Future Systems became something which did build, which made a department store in Birmingham, which made sports buildings at the Lord’s Cricket Ground, which made houses and apartments. And that was a fantastic shift, and something to do with Jan’s partnership with Amanda Levete, who he was married to. Sadly, they were divorced and they became partners in business, which did start to build, and that was an astonishing shift.”

Would you say there is a very big difference in the way that Czech people perceive Jan Kaplický’s work and British people perceive Jan Kaplický’s work?

Jan Kaplický, photo: CTK
“I went to Prague for Jan’s funeral, and it was the most astonishing, overwhelming event. I hadn’t realized, even though I knew Jan well, that he was a sort of national hero. It was like a state funeral, there was the letter from Václav Havel, there was this astonishing gothic chapel in which it took place and thousands of people. And I suppose that made me reflect upon Jan’s life and I suppose that, in some ways, he was embraced by the Czechs maybe because his career reflected a fractured country. He was born before the German invasion, he was a victim of the 1968 Russian invasion – he came to London then. He went back and made a new career, so maybe there was a sense of healing, in his person, about the modern Czech Republic. And I think that’s something that Britain didn’t really get the point of.

“But I do remember one of the first things I did with Jan was, when I was a journalist, we asked him to select a tool from an exhibition of tools at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and he picked up a Bren gun, which, of course, is an example of Czech-British collaboration - the Brno Enfield gun - which is pretty handy for killing fascists.”

Design of the National Library building in Prague
In recent years, Jan Kaplický has maybe become most synonymous in the Czech Republic with the National Library building which he designed, and which is most likely not going to be built due to strong political opposition. Do you think that the fascination with that overshadows more interesting things?

“I think that Jan’s last years were in some ways the most happy and the most fulfilled he’d had. He loved the kind of politics of the library saga, and the Czechs love to argue!”

You said in his obituary which you wrote for the Guardian that his work did not betray the ‘gloomy pessimism’ that forms part of the Czech national identity, can you qualify that statement?

“Well, my great aunt ran off with a Czech from Montenegro, so I think I have some insights into the Czech personality, and they sure do radiate gloom.”

I know that this is an exhibition of key works. Are these key works in your eyes, are they key works in Jan Kaplický’s eyes? How did you put this together?

“Well, there were some things that I felt could not be missed. So, there are only a few of his montages, but they are beautiful ones. I love those, the way that he could actually imagine a building that could pick up and disappear and go somewhere else, in any landscape. So, there’s some of those. There is, as I have mentioned, the ‘Green Bird’, which is Jan’s astonishingly phallic idea for a high-rise tower, which does prefigure Norman Foster’s ‘Erotic Gherkin’ which has now transformed the London skyline, designed 15 years later. There are some of his projects which look at the imagery of transport, of space travel, turned into ideas for things which you could live in.

“But then there are also projects which were realized, there is work on the Selfridges project, on some of his houses. There are an amazing couple of schemes, collaborations with Anish Kapoor, the sculptor – they worked on a project for London’s South Bank, which would have been an amazing part-sculpture, part-building. So we tried to cover all the bases.”