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The need for upbeat-ness: it speaks volumes in both partnership and practice

Peter Cook on architectural couplings and girls on top

The usual fluttering of wings accompanied the news that Amanda Levete had won the competition to reconstruct the western flank of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. It is a few years now since Daniel Libeskind, having won his V&A flank, was still assuring us, egged on by the formidable Nina Libeskind, that it actually would happen. But despite the skilful tactics of the Libeskinds, insidious British conservatism defeated them.

So as we observe the progress of a less rhetorical, but by no means conservative project, we can ponder the curiosities of couple-power from another perspective. If Nina is the non-architect wife with a background in political studies and a foreground in contractual street-fighting, and Daniel is a polyglot genius (music-maths-philosophy-drawing-architecture), the combination is formidable.

So how about Levete? The non-locals will be asking, where did she come from? But wait a minute. Levete had been the other, apparently quieter, less depressive, less brilliant half of Future Systems, which she ran with husband Jan Kaplický, until it all ended up in smoke. Their divorce was sadly followed by his early demise, after the angst surrounding the never-to-be-built Czech National Library and a too-late realisation that Kaplický had been a designer of rare talent and consistent nerve.

Yet the snippets of Levete office work suggest that she was an intelligent and perceptive partner. Remembering her as a student at the Architectural Association, she was ballsy and quick-witted, and surely able to fashion this same wit around the thought processes of her difficult but original spouse.

Another pair comes to mind, with certain parallels. For it is now 10 years since the untimely death of Enric Miralles and its aftermath, where the majority of the chattering Spanish were openly suggesting that widow Benedetta Tagliabue (an Italian to boot) could never hold on to the exquisiteness of the office’s product, with the chattering Scots carrying on a campaign in which they predicted her rapid disappearance from the Scottish Parliament maelstrom. There was the additional slight to the Catalans, who championed the wronged former wife, Carmé Pinos, as one of their own.

As a student, Benedetta had already displayed considerable wit and sophistication, and in her dealings with the Spanish, Scots, Catalans and pretty much anyone else she came into contact with, went on to reveal a tough and resourceful persona beneath the natural charm.

Just to emphasise the point, we only have to look at the recent work of Odile Decq, which has put paid to those chauvinist assumptions that the deceased partner (Benôit Cornette) was the real architect and the lady a mere appendage.

As a long-time teacher I can assure you that talent is wonderful, but not enough, and sometimes slow to emerge. Wit and intelligent tracking of cause-effect-moment-response-hunch or fearlessness can breed a psychology of good design practice. What better seminar situation is there than the bedroom? But what better adjunct to meteoric, fragile brilliance is there than a bright upbeat partner? Upbeat-ness should be sustained. You never know when you might need it.

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