Alessandra Orlandoni - Your first experience was with Alsop & Lyall, then with Richard Rogers & Partners and ultimately Future Systems, which you are still co-directing with Jan Kaplicky. For both of you the concrete expression of years of theory and experiment until in due course you came to the decision to give your individual personalities more breathing space.
How far did the previous experiences contribute to your understanding the right course; I mean, how did they help you decide what to do and what not to do?
Amanda Levete - Will Alsop was my tutor when I was a student at A.A.
I worked for him on my year out. I was still “wet behind the ears” and I can’t say I was all that influenced by a work association that was necessary for me in order to finish a study cycle. Working for Richard was another kettle of fish. That was my first real job after university.
I think he’s the most extraordinary man one can possibly work with: a mentor, a Renaissance man with bags of talent. Which makes him able to spot talent in a co-worker, get them to express it and give them his support. Working in his firm meant drinking in the stuff you needed to grow, breathing a really heady atmosphere day by day. I learnt a lot from his personality as an architect and a man, his special way of influencing a colleague from the depth of his knowledge and vision, blending different personalities yet also encouraging individuality to blossom. If Foster is a bit rigid and prescribes the way of working, Richard is a free spirit. I worked with him on major projects and learnt a lot from a technology angle.
A.O. - Which of his buildings do you think particularly significant?
A.L. - I still think the Centre Pompidou is a fundamental building for the twentieth century, from a conceptual and aesthetic, and of course technological, point of view. It’s a seminal building, epoch-making.
It embodies what contemporary architecture can and must be, as well as tips for taking it on from there. It’s one of those rare buildings that really mark a breakthrough in how we think of architecture.
Then there’s the Lloyds building, which Richard had just finished when I joined the firm. It’s definitely the most sophisticated, detailed, even extreme development of a certain way of conceiving and using that particular architectural language.
A.O. - After that experience you embarked on the Future Systems adventure with Jan Kaplicky.
A.L. - Yes, that was 1989. Future Systems very much fitted Jan’s personality. It wasn’t a firm as such, but a logo defining a line of research he was conducting. We began by going in for the Biblioteque de France competition, and were selected. But we didn’t have any work. Launching out on such a new experience was a risky step compared to the security and job satisfaction of a major studio like Richard’s.
I wanted to build something of my own, and the decision paid off with time though the start was dead slow. For a long time Future Systems was just me and Jan. We never went out to lunch in case the phone rang in the meantime! We did everything ourselves, from cleaning to office book-keeping. Jan had quite a reputation and was something of a cult with the young especially, though his work was still mainly conceptual, locked up in his plans and not expressed in actual buildings. To him the creative act is all in the first sketch, the instant the pen touches the page. His whole idea is concentrated in that creative act. And that’s enough for him, he’s not interested in working it out. Personally, I’m interested in going beyond: to me architecture is not the same if it doesn’t have a concrete outcome.
A.O. - So for you the final outcome is the important thing, I mean what the building becomes in passing from an idea to a material existence?
A.L. - In a sense it is. I have enormous respect for the conceptual bit and the thinking behind the project, of course. Looking back, Archigram and their experimental work definitely formed a watershed; in many respects they were more important than Foster who, unlike them, built a hell of a lot. The question is not how much one builds: the real challenge in architecture is to have a powerful idea, stick to it but also watch it change unexpectedly at the point when it comes up against reality. That’s what I’d like to go on doing, that’s what my role at Future Systems is all about. I’ve been pushing towards reality, I’ve speeded up the transition from drawing board to actual building. Over the years, and it’s taken many years, our language has changed and come on. It’s been widely copied. The challenge now is to be one jump ahead. You can only do that by constantly questioning and pushing yourself as well as by bringing in young people to explore new avenues.
A.O. - In July 2004 the Guardian included your name in a list of 101 British female personalities who had made their mark for their professional determination, commitment, originality and communication. What cultural areas get you fired and come through in your work?
A.L. - The most important things for me are architecture, art, design, love and the family - and whatever bears on and enriches them. I recently got deeper into music thanks to my second husband who is extremely knowledgeable about it. What moves me most, and runs right through my work, is the visual dimension to things, whatever the subject. It may be architecture, a work of art, a design object or simply walking through a city or in a park. They get me to see things from another angle and plough back the insight into what I’m designing. Visiting Rome has been a fantastic experience. I was bowled over by the sophistication of the marble work, the detail of Baroque. I can’t wait to get back to the office and view things again in the light of this new experience, designing with this sort of Baroque-classical inspiration. The tension between various epochs and their aesthetic features, and also between technology and craftsmanship, is extremely interesting - that’s an important side to my work at the moment, in both architecture and design. I like communicating and dialoguing with people who might not share my particular passions. I’m as keen on writing as on designing. I write for a magazine regularly, and go on television and radio broadcasts. Meeting the media is a constant intellectual challenge which teaches me a lot since I often agree to offer an opinion on subjects I don’t know properly. It makes me do research, find out, extend my knowledge. In design work I’m interested in the crossover between the various scales. A tiny idea may contribute to a great idea. Boning up on the geometry of a design object - say, the Drift bench - may develop into a plan for a building, and vice versa.
A.O. - Nowadays many design objects are more like sculptures than objects designed for a purpose. The art-design market is booming. Your design doesn’t altogether lose the functional side, but suggests a different way of using the object. The Chester sofa, for example, is an invitation to take up unusual positions. Do you think the way people use objects and relate to them has changed because conventions have changed and hence there’s a need for objects complying with these new codes of behaviour, or is design an important means of influencing people to use their bodies in a different way?
A.L. - I think design can change the way people relate to themselves and the surrounding environment. I’d like to make one point that matters to me a lot in the debate about art and design being interchangeable. My position is quite clear: one single word divides the two areas, and that is function. I’m not interested in designing something unless it has a function, even though that may be approached differently in objects of daily life than for a more restricted market. The intent changes, the value of the object changes and hence the degree of function. But what is important to me is that the function should be evident: whether it’s a divan, a table or a bookcase, you’ve got to know what it is. I think large 3-D objects have great impact in a room space. A piece of modern design in a Georgian drawing-room galvanizes the space in a highly interesting way. One of the reasons why design is becoming a collector’s area is that the objects furnishing the space we move in, be it in commerce, the workplace or the home, say a lot about us, just as a work of art says a lot about us, our tastes, interests, aesthetic preferences.
A.O. - To devise a niche design object, much like designing an icon building, is clearly a privilege. Probably design keeps a closer connection with the initial idea than architecture does.
A.L. - Whether design or architecture, a project expresses the risks one is prepared to run. There are objects that take years and years of analysing and experimenting on materials, they have a long history behind them, cost a lot and hence become collectors’ items. I don’t find it a problem. I enjoy designing objects that entail a complex process to set them up and where execution takes time precisely because one is working without restraints. One can relate a world in an object. What fascinates me about designing buildings, on the other hand, is the chapter of restraints that have to be turned into opportunities and not compromises. Designing a building doesn’t mean having a vision, putting everything needed into it, and building it in strict fidelity to the first intuition. That is an artistic approach. In architecture the context where you work is complex, often conflictual. It involves lots of people, lots of variables, planning permission and so on, which all has to be channelled in a positive way. You have to be strong enough to change direction. If you blindly go ahead with what you have in mind without changing perspective, you may well carry through a project that is not fully feasible, which doesn’t interest me at all. It’s important to use lateral thinking to find unexpected solutions.
A.O. - You’ve worked with three great artists, as different as could be: Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Matthew Barney. How have their insights affected the final project?
A.L. - The artist I have got on best with is Anish Kapoor. We’ve worked together on a number of projects and are doing one at the moment, the Naples tube station. His language is closer to mine than the other two and strangely that has made collaboration more stimulating. Our world views are parallel: the target is to fuse them. With Anthony Gormely things were very different. I wanted a bridge that didn’t look like a bridge and we came to the conclusion it should have a liquid appearance. At one point he back-tracked, realising the course we were on was more mine than his. We chewed it over at some length and he was very generous and cooperative in allowing us to go ahead down that road. With Matthew Barney the experience was similar, though it was less demanding as teamwork since the structure was a temporary one. The problem was to persuade him that the design was a complementary insight to his own Cremaster series. Joint ventures between artists and architects are about managing to blend ideas. To me the artist’s critical role is interesting. Authorship of the work is a key issue which one can fall out over, since it’s only natural you’ll both want to decide one way or another. That hasn’t happened with Anish: the storm passes and we both come out pleased. We architects are used to teamwork and many characters bear on our work. Artists are one of them.
British School at Rome, during the exhibition “Future Systems - Working with Artists” curated by Marina Engel, 19th November 2007