Winner of the Jane Drew Prize 2018, a desire to push the boundaries led Levete to embark on her stellar career in architecture
‘I work best with something to push back against’, says Amanda Levete when explaining how she came to be an architect. This characteristic formed early in her life and has become a leitmotif throughout her career. It may have its origins in her family background which combined a tinge of Bohemianism with a dose of conventionality. Both her parents had creative impulses, her mother as a dance teacher, while her father wanted to be an actor – but opted for the safer career of a merchant banker.
Presented with a comparable choice as a teenager, his daughter took the alternative path. Free-spirited and enamoured with French culture, music and cigarettes, at the academic St Paul’s Girls’ School she pushed back so hard against its conventional strictures that she was asked not to return at 16. Self-motivated reading on art history led her to ‘discover architecture’, and she intuited that its ‘borders and parameters’ would provide the resistance she knew would bring out the best in her.
Al a victoria&albert museum ©hufton+crow 007
Different sets of parameters continue to emerge over time, but gender discrimination is not among them. ‘I never did find [being a woman] difficult’ she explains, ‘it never inhibited my career’. She vaguely recalls ‘living in Brighton with a boyfriend’ after leaving school and belongs to the first generation where this was permissible in polite society. But she notes that her experience is not necessarily universal. It is still ‘a big issue with 50:50 [men to women] in architectural education’, though it ‘drops dramatically’ shortly after graduation. ‘Until we get to the point where men have the same responsibility [for bringing up families] but also have the same benefits’ that will not improve, she argues. Her practice Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) sees a ‘lot more women applying’ and hovers around an equal gender balance. She aspires to create a ‘supportive and pragmatic culture in the office [being] as generous as you can be’.
And one that got built the 1999 stirling prize winning media centre at lords
At the start of her career though, getting into architecture school at all threw up particular parameters. After leaving school young and armed only with O Levels, she took a foundation course at Hammersmith College of Art and evening classes in maths at Isleworth Polytechnic. A year or so later she had a portfolio of ‘conceptual drawings rather than drawings of buildings’ and showed it, somewhat sheepishly, at an interview at the Architectural Association. Luckily this was 1973 when Alvin Boyarsky’s extraordinary tenure was beginning to take off and interviewers were less troubled by absence of maths or measured drawings than the sense of colour, space and form which they found in her work. ‘It was a heady time at the AA’, she says, ‘Zaha Hadid was in her fifth year’ and later joined the roster of teachers which include David Green, Peter Cook and Daniel Libeskind’, many of whom, she adds ‘had no intention of building’ – at least at the time.
But Levete did want to build and given the attitude of her teachers, learning how to meant pushing back at another set of parameters. Brief stints with Will Alsop and YRM, where she stepped in to run a building on site, gave her valuable experience. When ‘dropped in at the deep end you learn how to do it’, she explains, but the most significant period was at the Richard Rogers Partnership. She spent most of the ’80s there working on one project, the vast and complicated reconstruction of Billingsgate Fish Market, ultimately as project architect.
So by the end of the ’80s, Levete had become a rounded and experienced architect. She had also started a relationship with Jan Kaplicky, the hugely talented Czech exile, who since leaving his native land in 1968 had worked on seminal projects for Foster and Rogers as well as exploring polemical and increasingly well-known visions for the future through his practice Future Systems. In 1989 they decided to work together.
It was a dynamic pairing. Kaplicky had one of the most powerful architectural imaginations of his generation; Levete could both contextualise it through her experience of complicated construction and contribute to it through her own ability and their emotional bond. Working on the ‘well-rewarded’ Bibliothèque de France competition – won by Dominique Perrault – gave them some income and kickstarted their collaboration. For nearly two decades it drove some of the most significant buildings of their time, and proved that collaboration was a more powerful generator of ideas than the romantic myth of individual genius. There were a couple of small houses in Islington and Wales, a footbridge in London’s Docklands, the extraordinary Stirling Prize-winning Lord’s Media Centre and Selfridges in Birmingham, one of the most powerful and poetic demonstrations of how urban buildings can look to the future rather than mimic their context to contribute to their locality.
Selfridges building, birmingham (2012)
But the personal and professional relationship soured and they split. Both remarried to people outside architecture, Levete to London Design Festival’s director Ben Evans, Kaplicky to the film producer Eliska Fuchsová, and began to develop separate paths.
Kaplicky’s death in early 2009 makes it impossible to assess how his work would have unfolded. But for Levete, the following years have proved remarkably fruitful and several new directions have emerged. Late in 2016 the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology opened in Lisbon, winning plaudits as a museum but also for its contribution to the public space of Lisbon’s waterfront. Last year, the V&A inaugurated a new entrance, courtyard and temporary exhibition space which solves practical and curatorial problems but also, like Lisbon, forges relationships between public and gallery space.
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Selfridges may have hinted at such interests but these projects take them to new levels of sophistication. And it was Levete’s cultural projects that attracted Galeries Lafayette, rather than another department store, to invite her to reposition their landmark Paris home, precisely because they were looking for new relationships with public and locality. ‘Working on an iconic building like Galeries Lafayette is a privilege’, she says, and brought another pleasure. ‘That rand [the resurgence of Paris under] Macron have certainly reignited my love for all things French’ – though possibly excluding cigarettes.
What motivates her is ‘working with ambitious and visionary clients’ rather than having a ‘dream typology’. Her ongoing projects and wish list all have roles for visionary clients, ranging from affordable housing, a project in ‘early days’, to ‘the definitive house’ which she ‘would love to design’ but has yet to be commissioned. She would also ‘love a big infrastructure project [like] a stadium [because I am] interested in how you make these connect with the neighbourhood and community’. An ongoing project for Wadham College Oxford intrigues her because although ‘guardians of heritage they are not afraid to make radical interventions’.
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Having built a successful practice and completed several major projects in less than a decade, Levete has a number of radical interventions up her sleeve. But what makes them all the more radical, and the interventions more effective, is the sequence of ‘parameters and borders’ which she ‘has pushed back against’ to define a personal but collaborative creative space.