As an outspoken critic of the state of British architecture, David Chipperfield rarely misses an opportunity to advocate a better way of doing things
In the press build-up to his award of the 2011 RIBA Royal Gold Medal, most interviews focused on Chipperfield’s self-declared status as an outsider among his British peers and on his well-known frustration about the lack of sophistication he feels pervades Britain’s current architectural culture. Taken together, these articles paint a gloomy picture and tend to portray Chipperfield, inaccurately, as a weary and pessimistic character. When the AR met him in his London home on the eve of the Gold Medal presentation ceremony last month, it sought a more positive conversation, in which the architect would unpick what, if anything, he cherishes about British architecture.
Chipperfield’s peripheral relationship to mainstream British practice goes back to the time of his graduation from the Architectural Association in 1977. When he was asked about his divergence from the predominant pursuit of British high-tech that gripped many of those, who like him spent extended periods in the offices of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, Chipperfield began by recounting the period’s turbulent mood.
‘There was a distinct moment when everyone was once again looking at the 19th century at a very different set of heroes,’ he remembers. ‘Instead of Mies and Corb, allof a sudden, Asplund, Leverentz and Lutyens became much more significant to us.’
He was referring to the period punctuated by the AA’s Beaux Arts Week, a conference held in May 1978, when a series of lectures and discussions gave a clear and final execution to something dying in the public opinion and intellectual circles: modernism. ‘We saw that the modern movement had run out of steam, emotionally, socially, intellectually.’
This led on to the 1980s, dominated by postmodernism on one side and high-tech on the other. ‘It was a confusing time and there was a big vacuum,’ Chipperfield recalls. ‘I remember going to Amsterdam to give a lecture just when I started the office. There were 10 British architects invited. John Pawson, John Outram, Nick Grimshaw and others all went before me, and as the last to arrive, they said, “what the hell is going on over there? Every week another guy turns up with a completely different idea.” At that time England seemed very eccentric, with everyone fighting their own battle, trying to work out what they thought architecture was.’
Somewhere beyond the central postmodern/high-tech battleground lay the quieter territory occupied by Chipperfield and his allies. ‘Tony Fretton and even John Pawson of my generation, Caruso St John and Sergison Bates who are younger - we all share some things in common, which is a certain take on modernism; a postmodernist take in a way,’ he says. This ‘other take’ was influenced by experience gained from the 9H Gallery in Marylebone that Chipperfield established in collaboration with Wilfried Wang and Ricky Burdett and refined through exposure to the work of Álvaro Siza, Rafael Moneo, Luigi Snozzi and Mario Botta - architects who, as Chipperfield explains, few people in this country had considered before.
‘Suddenly you saw that it didn’t have to be in one camp or the other, but that there was a way of modern architecture dealing with place and history and materiality; the things that modern architects seemed to have lost,’ he reflects.
These influences continued to steer Chipperfield’s trajectory. After finishing three small buildings in Japan, he returned to London to set up his practice. His first major completed British project, the River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames, powerfully illustrated ‘the other take’, with a building that for the first time since the Smithsons’ Architecture Faculty at the University of Bath, showed that it was acceptable for a modern architect in Britain to produce a contemporary public building with a pitched roof.
This building was clearly different to the output of Foster and Rogers and when asked if time spent in their offices was at odds with the formation of his own architectural preoccupations, Chipperfield was quick to assert their significance. Then, he somewhat surprisingly went on to identify another architect that few people would naturally place on Chipperfield’s radar - Piers Gough, the witty and observant founder of CZWG.
‘We must remember that Norman Foster and Richard Rogers had extreme ideologies and ambitions. The Centre Pompidou for me remains one of the most radical buildings of the 21st century. Not as famous as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao perhaps, but you can’t say Bilbao was radical - amazing, extraordinary and spectacular, yes, but not radical,’ he elaborates. ‘Pompidou went for the jugular, a hippy project full of ideology. The Willis-Faber and Dumas building, by Foster, is a radical structure, taking the existing expectations of an office and giving back something different. That was clever stuff.’
When asked about the significance of character in his architecture and whether or not strong characteristics endure better than subtle ones, Chipperfield agrees, saying, ‘Yes, I think that is frighteningly true, but there is a real danger in that. A lot of modernism doesn’t have character and if [an architect] is too self-conscious or too cautious, the danger is that character is bought in at the expense of quality, in a gesture that is quite thin.’ ‘Thick’ gestures, on the other hand, are more interesting, and having rediscovered one of its projects in London’s Docklands, Chipperfield has come to appreciate the ‘thicker’, more authentic gestures of CZWG. ‘I looked at it and thought it stood up in a funny way, and in 20 years, you’ll say, “that’s nice” without knowing where it is from. Piers Gough will become a rediscovered hero at some point.’
He is using his Gold Medal lecture to talk about the New Entrance Building on Berlin’s Museum Island. In focusing on this project, he hopes to advocate greater public engagement in architecture, a dimension that he feels is well established in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Uncharacteristically steering clear of criticising the British condition, he draws on Spain to illustrate frustrating times, saying how much he struggled when working on the City of Justice in Barcelona, not only due to its scale, but also because of its political aspects.
‘We are old-fashioned architects more used to working for a person on a building that is less than five storeys tall, and in that sort of dialogue you can’t go that wrong,’ he says. ‘But as soon as you get into a more complex political situation, the discussion gets complicated. Barcelona was faceless and, if I am quite honest, I don’t know who we built it for. I quite like the projects we have done in America because they were thoroughly mediated with the general public. The Anchorage Museum and Des Moines Library have become a key part of the community infrastructure in a very powerful way. Forget architecture for a minute, but simply as a tool in the city fabric.’
He concludes by revealing some reservations about the English condition. ‘I think it’s a missing dimension here. In places like Zurich or Berlin the processes are so procedural that mediation is guaranteed. In America, it’s the opposite, there is no public structure, but there is accountability, so everyone is trying to demonstrate to trustees that all the money is being spent properly,’ he explains.
‘In England we neither have one nor the other, so you find for something like Wakefield, it will be finished, but will anyone in Wakefield know much about it beforehand? No probably not, and it will probably be a little bit of a shock for them. But, hopefully the heart transplant will not be rejected.’
Many eyes will also be focused on Waterloo, where Chipperfield is working for Chelsfield and London & Regional Properties on a major redevelopment of the Elizabeth House site, which will include a significant new public space between Waterloo Station and the South Bank.
As for the future? ‘Well, at the beginning of your career you’re trying to get one or two good buildings built, and that’s the most important thing. Then after a few years your concern is to get better at doing it. And then you start working towards something that requires a different type of thought process, and you have to find the way to grow as an office that is capable of maintaining a continuous output of work,’ he says.
‘For our office, this is the challenge we face. I would like to prove that it is not a choice between [leading] a charming, highly talented but disorganised practice or a commercial smooth machine.’ Like his architecture then, it’s not a case of being one thing or another, modern or postmodern. It seems he very much prefers being both.