Interview With Jan Kaplicky - Future Systems
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Interview With Jan Kaplicky

Future Systems

Edited By Alessandra Orlandoni - 11 January 2010

Alessandra Orlandoni – You were born in Prague in 1937 into a family of artists. After finishing at the Decorative Arts Institute, you went to the State Design Office where you showed an extraordinary talent for making a technical drawing into a work of art. After that, you attended the School for Applied Arts and Architecture, leaving with the title of Academic Architect to start exercising your profession in a country that offered little freedom of expression.
On September 12, 1968, you moved to London, the symbol of creative freedom. In what way did these two very different environments influence your professional career?
Jan Kaplicky – There were good reasons to escape my Russian dominated country as empowerment was very limited there. After the war, the Communists took over, imposing a dictatorship and making it impossible to achieve anything that was even slightly out of the ordinary. You had the feeling that everything had already been done. But I didn’t have the time to sit around just waiting. Had I waited, I would have made nothing of my life. Nor could I teach, produce brainy things or even organise a small exhibition. Nothing.

A.O. – In fact you weren’t allowed to attend University because you came from a middle-class family.
J.K. – Exactly. The first time round, I was not admitted and had to go to the State Design Office. And so it went on. I couldn’t  travel, buy books; it was really difficult  to get informed. That droved me mad.

A.O. – You were very much influenced by LIFE, the American magazine...
J.K. – Yes, LIFE was a very powerful magazine. Nothing of the kind exists any longer today. They had the best photographers and the best images. But as soon as the Communists took over, they stopped LIFE entering the country, and I started feeling as if I was in a prison. Occasionally my godfather sent me books from the United States, but it wasn’t enough. The situation was truly critical.

A.O. – The American architect Lebbeus Woods said “Experimental architecture is not for everyone. It is for people whose lives have been transformed by an experience”. Do you agree?
J.K. – I don’t necessarily agree. It is a statement of a person who has always lived a comfortable life. When under pressure you may perhaps achieve excellence because you don’t expect success or money. I arrived in London with 100 dollars and nothing else. I felt independent, somehow far from my roots, but I had to work for other people and continually start over and over again. And I didn’t feel respected because nobody even knew where Prague was. Moreover, I was not used to feeling free to do what I wanted, and that didn’t help me become conscious of my own skills. So it was tough leaving my country, although I don’t think it necessarily led to my doing experimental architecture.  

A.O. – You have said “It’s not a sign of creativity to have 65 ideas for one problem, it’s just a waste of energy”
J.K. – I think that to improve something it would be more productive to try to do it better and better instead of  thinking of doing it totally differently. Usually, one or a couple of brains at one moment  find it difficult to do two things at the same time. Whether you are designing a motorcar, a FIAT or a Ferrari, I think it is better to concentrate on that one thing and try and improve on it. Particularly with racing cars: you can’t run two “Formula 1” cars at one time, that’s impossible! And I think that applies to architecture as well.

A.O. – Architecture is still considered a technical subject based on  rules. I think that projects develop from an intellectual process based on insights and on knowledge of technologies. Your two books “For Inspiration Only” part.1 and 2, clearly show that suggestions are everywhere...
J.K. - Architecture should be art, first of all. But usually, art is not enough. If there is a lack of art, it is simply a building, not architecture. New technologies allow you to draw wonderful projects, but you mustn’t overdo it. I think there is a line after which it becomes total abstraction -  and this is not good either. You need to be real, to know how to make your visions real. Some architects can do it, some others can’t. There are masters who built artistic architecture like Oscar Niemeyer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Giovanni Michelucci with the Florence railway station that is so beautiful down to every detail. One of the weakest points in architecture is colour, which I consider very important: only very rarely do architects do something colourful. That’s important when making decisions. In our project for Alexanderplatz in Berlin we used two colours never used before. If your work is only a pragmatic solution you are pushed all the time because of money, because millions of stupid people who run buildings don’t understand you have to create something.
You see that? It’s a sampler of the Birmingham Selfridges’ skin. It’s cheap and at least it’s cheaper than any other buildings around! We didn’t have a large sum of money to do that project. Without this solution we wouldn’t have been able to build it.

A.O. – I think that’s one of most innovative projects ever build. Did you have to convince the client or was Vittorio Radice already looking for a visionary project?
J.K. – It was Vittorio who had a vision. He understands design and trusts it. If I needed his help I could go to him and express my doubts. The main decision about the colour was taken in 5 minutes! He never talked about toilets or functional aspects: he asked me “Are you happy?” I said “Yes” and that was important for him.

A.O. – What led you to choose this particular kind of skin?
J.K. – It didn’t start with money. We were trying to cover up a three - dimensional object which was a complicated issue. If you use things that touch each other it is more expensive and more difficult. We had to invent a system to cover any object and any curve with relatively simple elements so as to avoid tolerance problems. It took some time to work it out but it developed into something very attractive. The revolution came with the colour we put first behind the special discs. The discs are durable, easy to repair and replace, and even if the distance between them changes a little bit, it doesn’t matter. The general effect remains the same. It looks like a simple solution, but it wasn’t.

A.O. - And that has to do with the control of the scale and the capability to develop projects using a fluent language which leads from one thing to another one. You do small things, interior design, bridges and skyscrapers. Future Systems shows a straight and clear vision: all projects are defined by the same sign and the same quality.
J.K. – It’s very interesting you say that  because very few people see it that way. I’ve a deep interest in big things as well as in small objects: they both need deep attention. We did some small flower pins for ladies for an Italian manufacturer - the smallest object we ever designed. We are doing a lot for Alessi - glasses, cutlery and chinaware, and then houses, buildings, a motorcar of which you can see the model. Sometimes it is more difficult to work on something small: I am almost scared by chairs, for example. I’ve never even tried to design a chair.
Otherwise we have just finished a project for the new Maserati car museum, a very limited competition, an amazing task and again, very different from anything else. Each time it’s a new challenge which involves new questions and new answers. The change of scale interests me enormously, from small to big and back again. I don’t see any difference: it’s all the same; it’s all architecture. Only very few architects can work on different dimensions maintaining the same quality. Many architects used to working on big architecture are incredibly bad at small solutions.

A.O. – Future Systems work has been called “organic modernism”.
Do you agree?
J.K. – Yes. Actually very few people use that expression. A friend of mine almost invented that for us. Otherwise we were called “high tech” and people don’t understand because we are not “boxes”. We’re inspired by the human body and are interested in every little problem and in small solutions. We are doing a bikini, for example, and we consider it a structural project not just an effect. It’s an amazing exercise, it’s a challenge that mixes structural problems with the organic, with the body.

A.O. – Anish Kapoor asked for Future Systems to partner him in the Naples Cumana Station project.
J.K. – We are glad about that project in Naples. It is something unusual for Italy. It is amazing to bring in something from abroad, and we hope it will be appreciated. In England that never happens. Hopefully architecture is not what it used to be: it is all one with art. We’ve already worked with Anish on a project on the South Bank which has an entirely sculptural effect.
Anish is a sculptor as well as an architect, in a way: you need three-dimensional thinking to do those sculptures and it requires the ability to understand what space is and how to build things in it. On the other hand, maybe we are artists as well. Everything you see here has a sort of sculptural aspect. It is only a question of names.

A.O. – Regarding town planning, design and cities, it doesn’t seem you have a vision in that sense. You seem to concentrate more on things which can be taken under control, projects which can be accomplished according to your own idea. Do you agree ?
J.K. - A lot of urbanism is talk, and that bores me a lot. Of course, were we given a whole urban project, that would be different, but I’ve never had that opportunity. I’m interested in greenery and parks in cities. In big cities like Milan, New York or London, the situation is absolutely critical. We can’t continue to cover pieces of countryside with little houses; we must go upwards. There are now cities of 30 million people and we can’t just cover more and more ground.  

A.O. – What is your opinion of contemporary Italian architecture?
J.K. -  Italy is very good at products and interior design . There are wonderful factories like Alessi, Ferrari, Maserati, for instance. But contemporary Italian architecture doesn’t express the same quality of design. I think that Carlo Scarpa was a wonderful architect, a free architect. I was invited to give a lecture at the Architecture Faculty of Ferrara University. Students really enjoyed it, but two professors attacked Future Systems’ work and me as a person!
They behaved in a totally unacceptable way at a public conference, that might be the problem with italian architecture; too much intellectualism: look at the latest issue of Domus. Architecture is a global issue, and even if you don’t like somebody else’s work, you should be able to consider its value, to respect it. Italy has an important historical background; it’s a wonderful country and maybe projects which fit into places without an identity wouldn’t suit an Italian city. You can’t build everything everywhere, of course, but you can’t refuse to look for new solutions even if you are working in an historical context.

Alessandra Orlandoni

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