Jan Kaplický Czech architect whose free-form designs revolutionised British building
Deyan Sudjic The Guardian,
Friday 16 January 2009
A model of Future System's controversial design for the Prague's national library. Photograph: Volfik Rene/AP
Jan Kaplický, who has died aged 71, was the Czech architect responsible for some of the most remarkable buildings that Britain has ever seen. Hovering low over the stands at Lord's cricket ground is the press box he built with his former partner, Amanda Levete. It is an otherworldly, entirely unboxy, glossy white disc that seems to have no connection with this earth, or the mundane, muddy preoccupations of everyday building.
And, indeed, it has none. It was made by boatbuilders, and is a small monument to the unshakeable optimism that every real architect must feel, in the face of endless practical difficulties that face them, from cost overruns to cricket correspondents under the impression that by entering something that looked like a flying saucer, they were becoming the victims of an alien abduction. It was their first major project, and it took Kaplický and Levete to the brink of bankruptcy. They were rescued only by becoming, in 1999, the most deserving winners in the entire history of the Stirling prize.
Kaplický designed the Selfridges department store in Birmingham (2003), in the shape of a sensuous free-form iceberg, finished in Yves Klein blue, and studded with silver discs that gave the completed building something of the character of a Courrèges metal dress from the 1960s. It is pierced only by a scattering of windows that gather at pavement level like swooping teardrops. There can be no sharper division between two worlds that utterly fail to meet than the gulf between the dreaming vision of Selfridges, and the gimcrack banality of the rest of the shopping centre around it. They are two worlds that physically touch, but utterly fail to acknowledge each other.
Even more remarkable are all the buildings that Kaplický designed, but which the world will never see - to say nothing of the stream of ideas for solar-powered vehicles, electric cars, jewellery, bikinis and double-decker buses. He came within a handshake of getting to build the French national library in Paris with a design that took the form of a glass canyon bisected by a pedestrian bridge across the Seine. President François Mitterrand took the final decision, and made up his mind that the most conspicuous cultural landmark in Paris should be built by a French architect.
Probably not even Kaplický expected that his house for a helicopter pilot, with legs like a lunar module, and a rooftop landing pad protected by a retractable umbrella, was ever going to get built. Or that his plan for a high rise twice the size of the World Trade Centre in unmistakably phallic form, and finished in pink, was going to get a commercial backer. His designs were part of a constant commentary that he kept up on the short-sightedness of a world that he sometimes saw as conspiring inexplicably to stop him from sharing his altruistic vision of a weightless, effortless, luxurious, solar-fuelled, one-piece, neoprene-lined rocket ride to the future.
His experiences at first hand with the Soviet Union left him wary of political utopias. He wanted to invent a new world, but one in which there would still be room for champagne served in the coolers that he designed for the Ivy, and for gossip in glossy restaurants. He had a languid elegance that utterly contradicted the gloomy pessimism that is an essential part of the Czech national identity. He was particularly fond of the Caprice, for whose former owners he had built a house.
Kaplický's life was fractured by war and totalitarianism. He was born in Prague, the only child of a sculptor and a botanical illustrator. He remembered the German occupation, and the communist takeover, wiping out a vigorous and inventive Czech version of modernism. He was starting to make his way as an independent architect when Soviet tanks bulldozed the Prague spring in 1968. He came to London as a refugee, to find himself in the midst of the glossy world of the King's Road that he had previously only glimpsed through the keyhole of the occasional smuggled copy of Vogue.
He got a job at Denys Lasdun's office, but, given Lasdun's obsession with concrete, there was nowhere less suited to Kaplický's passionate love affair with weightless architecture. He moved to the more congenial setting of Richard Rogers's studio, and he was on the Piano and Rogers team that won the Pompidou competition. He worked with another Czech emigre architect, Eva Jiricná.
Later, he went on to work for Norman Foster. But throughout his time there, Kaplický had another life. He started something that he called Future Systems. It had the kind of ambitious title that suggested Nasa consultancies, and lavishly funded thinktanks, but that at first existed mainly in the minds of Kaplický and his first collaborator, David Nixon. Mainly, but not entirely. Kaplický embarked on an astonishing series of architectural drawings, and montages that mapped out an architecture quite unlike anything else the world had seen. There were projects for robot-built structures in earth orbit, weekend houses like survival capsules that could be helicoptered into position, and malleable interiors. Initially, his drawings suggested a kind of turbo-charged hi-tech that left his former employers, Rogers and Foster, looking earthbound and heavy. But while Kaplický loved machines - everything from pre-war Tatra limousines from Czechoslovakia to lunar landers, and geodesic domes, he was also fascinated by the natural world, by organic form, and the human body.
It was the direction that he took with his submission for the competition for Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square in the 1980s. The winning design proposed a reconstruction of a dim Edwardian facade. Kaplický, in sharp contrast, suggested a a free-form monocoque structure, its skin penetrated by portholes. Twenty years before the construction of an egg-shaped City Hall for London, he had pointed the way to another kind of architecture.
What turned Future Systems from a brilliant think tank about the world, and allowed it to build the Lord's media centre, and Selfridges, was Kaplický's marriage to Levete. Together they started to turn Kaplický's genius into built form. It was a marriage whose break-up in 2006 placed considerable stress on the practice.
Kaplický was beginning to spend more time in the Czech republic, where he had won a 2007 competition for a new national library in Prague that has yet to be realised, and was working on a concert hall in Brno. He had remarried, in 2007, to the film producer Eliška Fuchsová, and died within hours of the birth of his second child, a daughter.
He is also survived by Josef, the son of his first marriage.
• Jan Kaplický, architect, born 18 April 1937; died 14 January
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