"Architects of style.
If you've been anywhere near England's second city recently, you
can't fail to have noticed their work. Future Systems are the
architects behind Birmingham's extraordinary new Selfridges store, as
well as numerous iconic works around the world. Liz Brown spoke to
Future Systems co-founder Amanda Levete about the building that's so
distinctive it needs no street signs (so there aren't any!).
The silver and Yves Klein Blue pleasuredome, all 250,000 square feet
of it, was designed by the Notting Hill-based architects whose
extraordinary creation stands 37 metres high from floor to fourth-
floor ceiling. The curvaceous exterior extends outwards from the
ground, then inwards to its 'waist' and then outwards again before
closing in around the glazed atrium roof - so shoppers using
the 'cat's cradle' of escalators underneath have a view of the sky
above their heads.
Future Systems was set up by Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete in 1979.
The office's other major works to date include shop designs for Comme
des Garçons in New York, Paris and Tokyo, and the Media Centre at
Lord's Cricket Ground, which won the 1999 RIBA Stirling Prize, one of
the highest honours in UK architecture.
The inspiration and aim for such structures extends beyond four walls
and a roof: "For me the prime motivation is to design something that
is beautiful and uplifting," Amanda Levete explains. "Not just for
the people who live nearby and work inside, but for people passing by
and people who see it from a distance. It's about presenting
something that makes them think twice about what buildings are -
about being in a space that they couldn't have imagined before, that
makes them smile and that makes them feel happy."
Something old, something new...
The inspiration for the design, which was commissioned in November
1999, came from a number of sources, both contemporary and not so
modern. "We went to a number of department stores throughout Europe
and looked at what was good and particularly at what was bad," Levete
continues. "We also looked at historical examples like Baroque
churches and other massive buildings, and how you begin to break down
that scale. In classical buildings the idea was to find a small motif
on a human scale and then repeat it and that's what we tried to do
with the disks." The 15,000 60cm-wide aluminium disks cover the
entire structure and reflect the sunlight, giving the building
There are few professions that enable those within it to literally
make their mark on the world, and architecture is one of them.
Winston Churchill once observed that "We shape our buildings, and
afterwards they shape us." Amanda agrees: "It's a great privilege to
be an architect. You have the opportunity to touch a lot of people -
a building lasts for a long time."
Inner-city redevelopments and examples of inspiring modern
architecture like this are happily becoming a more familiar sight in
the UK, which is good news for the profession and anyone wanting to
from (with pics):
"Top of the blobs.
The astonishing new £40m Selfridges building in Birmingham is the
shape of things to come, says Jonathan Glancey. Monday September 1,
2003. The Guardian.
Brent Cross shopping centre in north London - all 1m sq ft of it -
opened in March 1976. It was, as a number of commentators noted at
the time, a new type of cathedral for a retail renaissance, an age in
which shopping would be king, while parish churches that had served
local communities faithfully for 1,000 years would pass into the care
of the Redundant Churches Fund, formed that same year. Brent Cross
was shopping's Canterbury or Chartres. Its massive floor plan
featured what appeared to be a nave and aisles and, where the altar
might be, a wine bar.
Birmingham's 26-acre Bull Ring opens this week. It is, says its
developer, the Birmingham Alliance, "Europe's largest retail-led
regeneration project, representing an investment of over £1bn,
providing 110,000 sq m of new retail accommodation over three trading
levels". The Bull Ring is home to 146 shops, 57 of them new to the
city. These are, in retail-speak, "anchored" by two titanic new
branches of Selfridges and Debenhams, just as Brent Cross was
anchored to its mooring alongside London Underground's Northern Line
by two other great vessels of British retailing, John Lewis and
Fenwicks, a quarter of a century ago.
The new Selfridges store in Birmingham, although firmly anchored to
the new-look Birmingham Bull Ring, proves to be not so much
architecture-as-ocean-liner berthed alongside Moor Street station,
but a vast cliff of a building, a computer-age geological outcrop, as
distinctive and eye-catching as the white cliffs of Dover. Its high,
billowing form might have been moulded by some smooth yet insistent
sea over the four years it has taken to build. Yet the only sea here
is one of constant traffic, dominated by deregulated buses painted
colours brighter and more lurid than anything found beside or beneath
the ocean. Seagulls, on the day of my visit last week, wheeled
noisily above the store, adding to the coastal feel of this
Four storeys high, and wrapped in a sinuous, seamless outer skin
decorated with 15,000 spun aluminium discs painted blue, like some
XXXL dress by Paco Rabanne, Selfridges is a truly audacious
achievement. Designed by Future Systems, architects of the Space Age-
style press pavilion at Lord's cricket ground in St John's Wood, it
has about it, from the outside at least, not just something of a Pop
era frock, but something of the sea and even the ocean depths -
something, too, of outer space exploration. All this, believe it or
not, is to its credit. Seen from almost any nook and corner viewpoint
in central Birmingham, this unexpected building - unclassifiable in
neat, art-historical terms - is all but guaranteed to raise a smile.
An ersatz urban cliff, a giant sea anenome, a friendly, blob-like
alien, the mother of all magic mushrooms, this is the department
store as unalloyed architectural entertainment. Some people will find
it over the top. Others will see it as part of the trend for
architects to design ever more outlandishly wobbly buildings as they
rush to get away from the strictures of the T-square, the straight
line and the grid. Shoppers might well look upon it as Catholics do
Gaudí's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a design that adds fantasia to
the architectural experience of their religion.
The interior of the £40m shop, grouped around two voluptuous
escalator wells, is the stuff of Vincent Korda's 1936 film Things to
Come brought up to date. As you peer over the vertiginous white
escalator wells at the criss-crossing moving stairs and skewed
geometry of the building's structure, it is not hard to imagine light
aircraft or a small alien spaceship whizzing by. Here is a dreamy,
sci-fi style interior for modern shoppers to wander through in a
filmic, quasi-religious haze. Each floor has been shaped by a
different team of designers - Cibic and Partners, Stanton Williams,
Eldridge Smerin and Future Systems - adding a touch of near-gravity
here, whimsy there and pure theatre elsewhere. The chic cafe and
restaurant overlook the Bull Ring itself and its seemingly infinite
horizon of shiny new shops. None of these can hold a candle to
Selfridges in terms of design. In fact, the general standard of new
architecture here is, sadly, abysmal. It looks as if someone, in a
great hurry, has crammed details of the most banal US shopping mall
design of the late 1980s and more recent Chinese design into a laptop
in their student bedsit, pressed the "print" button and then,
unbelievably, convinced someone, in an equal hurry, to build them.
Selfridges is the only worthwhile new building here. It is so very
distinctive that it has no street signs to tell you what it is;
everyone in Birmingham has known its identity for the past four years.
In financial terms, the Bull Ring is guaranteed to be a huge success.
This is, after all, what 99% of an insatiable population wants so
very badly: lots of thumping new, rap-filled shops. It is what city
planners want, too: massive, profitable US/Chinese-style urban
redevelopment, with a dash of public art for cultural credibility.
Everyone will say the Bull Ring is a lot better than what went
before - a 1960s development from hell - and most will like the
positive media attention that Future Systems will surely generate for
the city. It seems churlish to be critical when so many people, for
whom Brent Cross must seem as ancient as Canterbury cathedral, will
say this is the best place they have ever been. Until, that is, they
can afford to fly to China or the US and experience the air-
conditioned malls there.
In the meantime, the principal gateway to Birmingham, assuming
private operators can be bothered to run trains, is the almost
comically grim New Street station. Perhaps this ought to have been
rebuilt before the Bull Ring, but who cares about boring
old "infrastructure"? Curiously, though delightfully, Moor Street
station, a 1909 Great Western design immediately across the street
from Selfridges, is being restored to its 1930s condition by the
architects Simons Designs for Chiltern Railways, which runs trains
from here to London for those who cannot face the horrors of New
Selfridges and Moor Street are two unexpected and brave anchors of
architectural imagination in the overwhelming new retail port of
central Birmingham. A third is the restored church of St Martin's,
which broods alongside the shouty new retail shrines. Trying to keep
up with the new age, St Martin's advertises a shop and cafe of its
own, and holds a "shoppers' service" every Saturday afternoon.
This, though, however well intentioned, can only ever be a sideshow
to the thronging services held early until late, seven days a week,
in the shiny Bull Ring shrines - chief among them Selfridges, which
at least has an architecture to match its pageantry and commercial
"The ambition of this scheme is great. Selfridges require a state of
the art department store. They also wish to have a building that will
provide an architectural landmark for Birmingham. It is this ambition
that has driven our design. Enabling the building to become a genuine
catalyst for urban regeneration. The ambition for the interior is to
meet the expectation of the exterior, balancing the curiosity created
by the unique façade. The fluidity of the form of the building is
matched inside with an organically shaped atrium stretching across
the floor plan. Like an urban canyon, the atrium creates shafts of
natural light penetrating deep inside the space. We have re-
interpreted the notion of a department store, not just in its form
and appearance. We have also analysed the social function such a
building now plays in our society. The form of the building is soft
and curvaceous in response to the natural curve of the site, sweeping
around the corner and wrapping over the top to form the roof. This
building expresses what it is in a way that is aesthetically
innovative but also clearly signifies its function as a department
store without the need for signage."
from official FS site (with pics): http://www.future-systems.com/
"Blue blob in Birmingham: Birmingham continues its worship of the
slightly outdated with its latest big building - Outrage. The
Architectural Review. Oct, 2003.
Birmingham's shoppers get a grotesquely high fashion addition to
Poor old Birmingham never seems to get it right. For instance, its
plans for reorganization to cope with motor traffic were held up by
the Second World War and so its inner ringroad was almost out of date
before it was opened in the '60s. It was occasionally used for motor
racing: a more bizarre conjunction of urbanity and sport can scarcely
be imagined--but then the city was one of the great motor
manufacturing centres of the world. Its railway station is quite the
nastiest in England (which is saying a lot). The Bull Ring, the
city's big central square, was pedestrianized (apparently by civil
engineers) at a time when pedestrianization was going through a very
bad patch and it is surrounded by some of the dullest post-war
buildings in the country.
Now, in an attempt to inject new life into the Bull Ring, the great
department store Self-ridges asked Future Systems to build its
Birmingham outpost. The result is sadly like a blue blancmange with
chicken-pox. As a contribution to the cityscape, it is scaleless,
uninviting and completely out of sympathy with its surroundings
(though admittedly they are difficult to sympathize with).
Some 16 000 aluminium discs have been attached to the exterior of the
blue rendered insulation of the main carapace by a process not unakin
to sticking in drawing-pins. They are entirely decorative, and from
certain angles, give the impression of reptilian skin. Doubtless they
will work extremely well, though their use is most daring in terms of
construction, cleaning and maintenance. But what are they for? They
scarcely modulate the scale of the bulging monster they cover, and in
many ways serve to emphasize its grossness.
At a time when the fashion for blob architecture seems to be becoming
passe in most architectural circles, both professional and academic,
it is typical of Birmingham's cultural history over the last hundred
years for the city to have latched onto Blobismus, the most self-
indulgent and un-urban fad of the last half century. While Future
Systems have tried to some extent to give their blancmange an urban
presence, its form negates what little dignity the urban space tries
It is difficult to imagine that the building will ever be loved by
future generations. But there is possibly a chance. It could perhaps
become liked in the same way that certain grotesque breeds of dog
have an attraction--partly because we are sorry for them."
some responses from AR readers about this article:
"Urban Icon. from Domus 863 October 2003.
Future Systems' new building for Selfridges in Birmingham puts new
life into the department store, a 19th century institution that has
been in decline for decades. Text by Deyan Sudjic.
To judge by Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete of Future Systems'
Selfridges in Birmingham, the department store - which has been
having something of a hard time of late, like other 19th-century
architectural inventions such as the railway station and the stock
exchange - may be on the edge of a revival. Paris's original Bon
Marché, created by Aristide Boucicault after 1850 and designed by
Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel and Louis Boileau, was where the theatrical
form of modern consumerism celebrated in Emile Zola's Au Bonheur des
dames was born. This was the first of the great department stores,
where the emerging bourgeois class could learn how to furnish a home
tastefully, find what polite society considered fashionable and, with
written prices displayed for the first time, be liberated from the
vulgar necessity of bargaining for goods.
From the start, the department store was much more of a social
experience than a place to buy the functional necessities. Selfridges
has enjoyed a notable financial turnaround in the last five years
under the leadership of Vittorio Radice, a gifted Italian retailer
who revitalized Selfridges by going back to the origins of the
department store. Selfridges has rediscovered a theatrical sense of
spectacle in which architecture is an essential ingredient.
Macy's was once ready to clear out an entire floor to stage an indoor
golf tournament. But since the 1960s, Western department stores have
been in decline, running out of the ideas and showmanship that made
them popular in the first place. Only in Japan in the bubble years
did the department store continue to flourish, offering van Gogh
exhibitions and British butlers in tailcoats serving cucumber
The hollowing out of European and American cities from the 1960s
onward left the department store vulnerable. The retailer's move to
the mall has undermined the basis of the architectural grandiloquence
of Daniel Burnham's palatial 1908 store for Gordon Selfridge in
London, Henry Hobson Richardson's reworking of the arcades of the
Pitti Palace for Marshall Field's in Chicago or Louis Sullivan's
design for Carson Pirie Scott. Most of the survivors have suffered
years of neglect that has left them looking threadbare and out of
date. At the same time, the rise of the designer label has tended to
shift the balance of power and prestige away from the department
store. It is now Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein or Armani
that make the big architectural statements, while the department
store has shrivelled into generic anonymity. Many have closed
altogether, to be carved up as shopping malls, while some have shrunk
into faded, threadbare shadows of the spectacular places they once
were. And the more that department stores look like any other kind of
shop, the more their market share has dropped and the more they have
spiralled into decline.
Radice set out to make Selfridges nothing like anywhere else. The
window displays featured designs by Ron Arad. There were Japanese
weeks and gigantic art projects that involved hundreds of volunteers
stripping naked. It was corny, but it worked. So much so that
Selfridges has begun to expand outside London. There's an outpost in
Manchester, and Toyo Ito is working on the design of a new store in
Glasgow. But it is the newly completed store in Birmingham, designed
by Future Systems, that is the most impressive.
Birmingham is England's second city, a shapeless product of the
industrial revolution. Ever since the country lost interest in
manufacturing, it has seemed to be locked in the same downward spiral
of decline as the department store. Perhaps the worst moment came at
the end of the 1960s, as Birmingham attempted a wholesale
modernization, demolishing large swathes of its centre to make way
for urban expressways and crude new buildings. It was a misguided
policy, which the city is only now beginning to put right by pulling
down many of the troublesome teenage buildings of the recent past, re-
establishing the urban fabric and doing all it can to dispel the
bleak identity of an industrial city gone to seed.
The new Selfridges forms part of an aimless new shopping mall close
to the city's main railway station and next to its street market.
Next door is a florid Victorian church and an isolated Pop-style
tower block. But in reality, there is next to no architectural
context. What attracted Radice's interest when the developers came to
offer space in what was still a project on the drawing board was the
chance it offered to follow in the footsteps of the company's
founder, Gordon Selfridge, who had brought Daniel Burnham to England
and commissioned an architectural landmark.
Selected after an informal competition, Future Systems' design looks
as if it belongs to a different universe from the mall to which it is
attached. It sits on the southern end of the site, tightly hemmed in
by roads on the edge of high ground that rapidly falls away, leaving
it highly visible. At the top of the hill is the conventional pastel-
coloured neo-postmodernism of an utterly conventional shopping
centre. Selfridges erupts from one end to create an instantly
To a remarkable extent, Selfridges is the realization of a 20-year-
old montage by Jan Kaplicky, Future Systems' founding partner.
Kaplicky delights in exploring the possibilities of a world beyond
the mundane restrictions of the present. Working within the
parameters of the shopping centre, onto which the Selfridges store
opens on two levels, Future Systems has built a giant blue bubble
studded with hundreds of aluminium discs that make it look like one
of Courrèges' metal dresses from the 1960s or a giant enlargement of
a fly's eye.
Future Systems is normally discussed in terms of turbo-charged high
technology, but it is clear that what really characterizes them is a
passion for making arresting shapes exploiting imagery that is
unfamiliar in an architectural context. The store belongs to a family
of objects that has ideas in common with the work of Claes Oldenburg
or Anish Kapoor, the latter of whom has in fact collaborated with
Selfridges, however, is more than a sculptural object. It skilfully
exploits changes of level and nuances of light and shade as they fall
on the twisting contours of its surface. Its wraparound curves
certainly create an unforgettable impression, but the expectations
aroused by the exterior are fulfilled by the interior, which is just
as much of a departure from the norms of retailing. In addition to
Future Systems, which also designed the food hall on the lower level,
Selfridges has worked with Aldo Cibic, Stanton Williams and Eldridge
Department stores do not, by and large, make extensive use of
windows, which tend to get in the way of their efforts to seduce
customers. But Selfridges' interior is planned around two big atriums
that bring sunlight deep into the interior. Furthermore, there are
gouges cut into the skin at street level to create windows for
passers-by, higher up to allow access to the car park across the road
by way of a Future Systems-designed bridge and also to create a
terrace for the restaurant.
Selfridges' discs have become shorthand for the store and for the new
Birmingham, in a way that is instantly understood throughout the
city. It is a powerful example of the way that architecture can be
used to create a sense of identity."
from (with pics):
Selfridges & Co. official website:
more about Kaplicky/Levete's Selfridges:
"New purposes must give birth to new methods of construction, and by
this reasoning also to new forms. -Otto Wagner.
Future-Systems, a London based architecture and design practice
headed by Amanda Levete and Jan Kaplicky, creates visionary designs
through the blending of nature and high technology. In their hands
these classically opposed realms are integrated into a radical
aesthetic that is not only visually brilliant and spatially dynamic,
but also environmentally sensitive and efficient. Founded in 1983,
Future Systems has been recognized for a diverse array of work such
as The Nat West Media Centre, Lord's cricket ground, London and
Selfridges' flagship store, which is currently under construction in
Birmingham, United Kingdom. Through their interweaving of aeronautics
technologies and sustainable design they are able to strike a balance
between aesthetics and ethics.
Amanda Levete was born in Bridgend, United Kingdom in 1955, and Jan
Kaplicky in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1937. Levete studied at the
Architectural Association in London graduating in 1982, while
Kaplicky graduated in 1962 from the College of Applied Arts and
Architecture in Prague. They each pursued a similar path in their
career. Both having experience in their own architecture practices
and working for two of Britain's greatest modern architects, Levete
working for Richard Rogers and Kaplicky for both Rogers and Sir
Norman Foster. Kaplicky, after considerable experience in independent
practice and in the offices of prodigious architecture offices
formulate a new design initiative with Future Systems in 1983. While
Levete having lead a successful independent practice joined Future
Systems as partner in 1989.
Future Systems' began creating intelligent designs for a variety of
commissions producing a streamlined aesthetic, which brought Levete
and Kaplicky many accolades. In 1989 they produced a Space Station
Wardroom table that received a NASA Certificate of Recognition.
Followed by the award winning MOMI Tent in 1992 and the West India
Quay Floating Bridge in 1998 that both received the British
Construction Industry Awards for innovation in construction. Their
extensive research into ecology and sustainability were investigated
in competitions and then manifested into practice through economy of
means and sustainable technologies. Future Systems work is both
poetic and functional. The Comme des Garçons tunnel in New York is an
artistic and minimal aluminium form where the skin is the structure.
This technique was exploited further in the Media Centre for Lord's
Cricket Ground. The building is the first all aluminum 'semi-
monococque' building in the world; constructed at a shipyard
utilizing advanced shipbuilding techniques. Pre-assembled offsite,
the aluminum capsule was then dismantled and erected 15 meters into
the air over the sport facility. The elliptical aerodynamic form
surveys the grounds through a wide aperture of glass to view sporting
events. It was awarded numerous honors including the Strling Prize
and the Aluminum Imagination Award in 1999.
Future Systems is currently completing the radical Selfridges
department store in Birmingham, United Kingdom. The form of the
building is soft and curvaceous in response to the natural curve of
the site, and is clad by a unique skin of spun aluminium discs. Two
spacious atriums provide shafts of natural light which penetrate deep
inside the space. Work in progress also includes a wide range of
projects in size and function including tableware for Alessi,
schools, trams, car stands, shops, a bridge and an inflatable cinema
"Given the tempting sceneries projected by Future Systems it can be
expected to meet here an optimistic, innovative and exploratory
design practice. Future Systems is a London-based office headed by
two partners, Jan Kaplicky (Prague 1937) and Amanda Levete (Bridgend
1955), which work challenges the traditional preconceptions of space
Base for this architecture which 'embraces the precision of the
armaments industry; the lightness, structural rigidity and strength-
through-shape of aircraft constructions' is Kaplicky's vision of a
technological architecture. Kaplicky grew up in Czechoslovakia
surrounded by the legendary Czech Functionalism of the twenties and
thirties; a revolutionary architecture embedded in the radicalism of
the 20th century Czechoslovak industrial history. Besides this,
Kaplicky got influenced by the images of American culture and design
that reached him through copies of Life magazine and two brief but
significant visits to the USA in the mid-sixties. These influences
inspired him to work on a future architecture with an impressive
imaginative power. The Soviet invasion into Czechoslovakia (20th of
August 1968) brought Kaplicky to London, where he later on
established Future Systems.
A concern for environmental issues is an important force in much of
the work. Future Systems has been involved in two extensive research
programmes on environmental issues, one collaboration with Ove Arup &
Partners and the second a joint project with the Martin Centre at
The designs and prototypes of Future Systems (a.o. research proposals
for NASA and many designs for a high-tech wilderness retreat) have
often reached beyond the courage of their possible clients, but
recently some large and complex, imaginative designs, are
definitively to be constructed. One of these projects is The Ark, an
enormous lightweight enclosure for the Earth Centre, to be completed
at the end of the year 2001."
"Future Systems p1. by Matthew Parr & Kev Edgington.
The architects Future Systems are Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete.
Kaplicky first formed Future Systems in 1979 along with David Nixon.
In 1989 he joined forces with his partner Amanda Levete. In 1996 Jan
Kaplicky produced a book of images called 'For Inspiration Only'. The
following quotes are also taken from the book.
Quotes . "For Inspiration Only' is my own selection of one hundred
images from a large collection I have assembled over more than twenty
years. Every image here is one that told me something the moment I
saw it. Every one touched a nerve and triggered my thoughts into
crystallisation, a revelation of a shape or a function that will stay
in my mind, and my slide collection, until time creates an
opportunity to use it. With images we see exciting things happening
everywhere... not just on the drawing board. When I see a trailer in
America, a seashell, a perfectly fried egg, a particular image of a
sheet of plywood, a Victorian greenhouse, a spacecraft or a
wheelbarrow being used as a chair I see things that provide
inspiration. Inspiration can be a butterfly, a submarine, an
aeroplane, a castle, a plant, a fashion magazine - the choice is
endless. Perhaps more people should notice their surroundings and try
to relate to them. Blue sky, sand, wind, sun, shadows, beautiful
bodies - I wish I could create buildings as wonderful as that.
Perhaps more people should explore why images are fascinating. I envy
first year students - they have everything in front of them. I always
told my students, learn to look around you. Get on a double decker
bus and look down. Notice the detailing of a van's sliding door, the
colour on the advertising hoardings, look at all you can see and
imagine how you can bring it to beautify architecture."
Themes . As a practice Future Systems have a number of discernible
themes which run through their work. There is a nostalgic and
optimistic fascination with technology. A childlike nostalgia
intrigued with the forms of 50's sputnik-era technology that comes
across in the shapes and colours of the buildings. There is also an
optimism... that science and technology can provide us with the means
of creating a better tomorrow for us all. There is also a strong and
interwoven awareness of nature and the world around us. This feeds
into their work in 2 ways. Firstly there is the use of nature to
provide inspiration in many ways - in terms of form, many of their
buildings have organic shapes that have been directly inspired by
nature,... in terms of function, and in terms of inspiration for
materials. But perhaps more importantly for architects of our
generation there are the issues of the environment and
sustainability. Future Systems are deeply aware of green issues in
architecture, and have pioneered low energy and zero emission designs
with the European Commission. Future Systems mix of aesthetically
visionary buildings, with the use of the most advanced technology, to
provide solutions to environmental and social problems, gives us one
model for the future of building design.
Practice . For the first ten years as a practice, Future Systems
spent much of their time producing an extraordinary range of
futuristic and visionary proposals, for everything from crane lowered
pod dwellings, to blob shaped office blocks. Little of their work
from this period was built. They also produced some particularly nice
plasticene models, and some particularly poor quality card models
which should give us all hope! From 1989 to 1996 they have steadily
increased their portfolio with a number of well placed exotic (or
should I say erotic!) competition entries and a few small scale
"The great adventure of the century is the conquest of space. And the
audacity and technological prowess displayed by these giant leaps
beyond the earth's magnetic pull have certainly had their effects on
the minds of architects. The utopianism that has inspired architects
attentive to technological progress has found in such leaps an
unparalleled stimulus. At the start of the 1970s, a crop of
transparent pods and soap bubbles bloomed in the pages of magazines
and manifestos: Banham & Dallegret, Haus-Rucker-Co., Coop Himmelblau
and others were inventing autonomous habitats that offered the last
word in technology and communications. In a half-enclosed universe,
freed from work and devoted to the cult of the self, man and woman
could rediscover the pleasures of the senses and transcendental
meditation. The cosmonaut meets Barbarella. This seam of quaintly
hedonistic science-fiction dreams was quickly exhausted.
Future Systems was founded at the end of this decade. Unlike their
predecessors, Jan Kaplicky and David Nixon were deadly serious. The
basis of their work was not the imagery of space adventure, but the
application of space technology to construction. To the figures
traditionally venerated by architects, such as Isambard Brunel,
Joseph Paxton, Buckminster Fuller and Jean Prouvé, Kaplicky and Nixon
added David O'Neill, the engineer who NASA had employed for
feasibility studies on space colonies. Kaplicky himself became
absorbed in developing ideas for capsular habitats. Concrete results
were rare. Coming back down to earth, Jan Kaplicky worked for a while
in the offices of Norman Foster, who finally had the bright idea of
letting him go.
Working today with Amanda Levete, Kaplicky still inveighs against the
archaic methods of the construction industry and never lets anyone
forget that it is now a quarter of a century since man first walked
on the moon. But he has matured; he is now better able to measure the
impact on himself of such images of the world as his early education
in Eastern Europe denied him. He has kept intact his concern for
ecology and energy-saving. And he is as much inspired by 'hi-' as
by 'soft-tech'; in his references Stealth bombers combine with
sardine tins, and the half-shell structures of modern aeroplanes with
those of underwater flora. He has also become more pragmatic and has
been exploring the potential of aluminium, that Raphael Soriano first
applied to construction in the Sixties."
"A Czech List for Future Designs. By Matt Jones. April 1997.
1992. You're sitting in a pitch-dark lecture hall. A tall, soft-
spoken Czech emigré is caught in the light of the projection beam.
Falling across his face and the screen is a stunning photograph of a
delicate, exquisitely colored jellyfish. He whispers, "Maybe all
buildings will look like this one day." And although this speaker has
realized very few of his architectural visions, you believe him.
1996. The tall man - Jan Kaplicky - and his partner Amanda Levete
have taken their visions from the lecture hall and the drawing board
to the building site. With their award-winning Glass House in
Islington, North London, and other projects such as a UK-based
millennial Earth Center and the royal family's cricket grounds in the
works, Kaplicky and Levete - as the groundbreaking architectural
practice Future Systems - are making good on their promises.
Their book, For Inspiration Only, succeeds in capturing on paper the
mind-bombing that is Future Systems. The small, Day-Glo volume is a
collection of the visual references that Kaplicky, Levete, and
erstwhile collaborator David Nixon have collected over the last 30
years, each accompanied by the thought-provoking sound bites of the
The eclectic images - yachts, spacecraft, egg yolks, snail shells
next to aircraft body-structures, slum kids of India sheltering in
surplus sewer pipes - are used by the architects as jumping-off
points for their designs. The powerful juxtapositions displayed in
the book describe simply a number of very complex ideas: the
relationship of the organic to the technological, the value of design
at all levels of detail, the establishment of real need and real
opportunity for projects, and other tenets of the Tao of Future
Anyone involved in the design and making of things should carry this
slim volume like a Maoist would carry the "little red book."
"Kaplicky Brings His Vision Of The Future To Detroit.
Some believe a futurist seeks fulfillment in the years ahead rather
than the present. During a Mar. 16, 2000, lecture at the Detroit
Institute of Arts, Prague born Jan Kaplicky provided ample examples
of his visionary architecture, including structures that seemed to
bring the pages of science fiction novels alive.
With partner Amanda Levete in the United Kingdom, Kaplicky heads a
London based architectural and design practice called Future Systems.
His talk was part of a series organized by the University of Detroit-
Mercy with sponsorship provided by the Great Lakes Fabricators &
Kaplicky's work has been described as "organic modernism." Indeed,
using two images projected side by side on the lecture hall's screen,
he displayed examples of plant and animal life on the left that
inspired Future System designs shown on the right. His firm was
founded in 1983 and has become recognized for such diverse facilities
as a media center for Lord's Cricket Ground, a Millenial exhibition
hall, an earth sheltered home on a cliff overlooking the sea, and a
special pedestrian bridge.
He punctuated his lecture with observations about banal adaptations
of 18th and 19th century architectural styles in modern English
buildings, the dire impact of pollution within the world, and the
need for more conservation. All the while, he also displayed a number
of textures and colors drawn from nature, to "put the beauty against
the ugliness of the world," along with a sense of streamlining drawn
A modernistic home wedged between two 19th century London residences
was displayed. Kaplicky said it was constructed on a site that went
fairly deep but was only 20 ft. wide. With sloped faces, the homeÌs
design makes extensive use of insulated glass and glass block, giving
it somewhat of a modernistic greenhouse appearance. Aluminum framing
and a prefabricated bathroom helped to speed its construction.
On an isolated cliff on the coast of Wales, Future Systems designed
an earth sheltered home with a wall of glass facing the sea. Even the
roof of the structure is covered by a three inch layer of soil,
topped with sod. The home, Kaplicky said, "is designed to disappear
into the vegetation" with only the glass wall visible. A system of
portholes mounted in the wall assist in ventilation.
For his design of a 100,000 sq. ft. exhibition hall in Duncastle,
Kaplicky made use of a cable supported roof. The use of solar cells
in the roof help augment the building's electrical supply and the
roof's skylights and interior design allow natural light to penetrate
into the hall's three exhibit levels.
Perhaps Kaplicky's most interesting design was the cricket ground's
media center. Although it can hold nearly 200 reporters, announcers,
and technicians, from a distance the rounded structure vaguely
resembles a white, oblong alarm clock with a flat face. Aluminum was
a major building component for the center. Much of its structure and
skin was pre-assembled off site, dismantled, then shipped in sections
for re-assembly at the sports facility.
Besides electronic and print news media areas, the media center
includes a small restaurant, a camera platform, and elevators. It
projects over the cricket stadium's stands like a space age pod,
painted a dazzling white.
In addition to architecture, Kaplicky also displayed slides of a
number of furniture items he'd designed. The most interesting was a
rounded, lifeboat shaped couch/conversation pit nicknamed "the dingy"
that found dual use -- as with many couches -- for sleeping.
In describing his interest in the designs of nature, Kaplicky said
beauty was its principle motivator, but he could not discount some of
its more practical aspects. Nature recycles. Nature conserves. Nature
does not pollute. And Nature is an abundant source of design ideas
that have withstood the ravages of time.
The problem with the practice of architecture is that no room is
provided for experimentation, Kaplicky observed. "Testing doesn't
exist in the building of good architecture," he stated. "That's the
biggest thing, the biggest problem you face in architecture -- you
have to risk."
What has helped him to at least partially reduce the risks he takes
in his designs have been "natural forms that are absolutely
fantastic." According to Kaplicky, architects will find an endless
supply of these design forms if only they can train themselves to
properly look into Nature and capture the richness of the
architecture contained within it.
Perhaps if more architects were to seek such inspiration there would
be more permanence in today's designs, he continued. He contrasted
images of such classical architectural examples as the Great Pyramids
of Egypt, Roman coliseums and theaters that incorporated features of
their site's topography in their designs, and ancient domed churches
and mosques, with such grotesque items as Hitler's plans for Nazi
Berlin, public buildings constructed by the Soviet Union, and
contemporary retail structures. In Kaplicky's view, buildings that
are quickly put up then pulled down in 30 to 60 years may not be
enduring simply because of owners who are misguided. Such uninformed
owners encourage a pseudo-traditional approach to architectural
design that results in buildings that are static. Boring. Too quickly
Money can be spent wisely. At least, in theory, if not too often in
Ironically, rather than slow development this approach has sped up
architectural styles to a nearly frantic pace over the last sixty
years, Kaplicky said. Architects find themselves scrambling to come
up with something "new" to appease fickle, difficult to educate
Trends come and go, too rapidly. Modernism used for be promoted
within the United Kingdom, he said, but within his own lifetime he
has seen the British flee from it. Such critics as Prince Charles
have been promoting a more "traditional" style -- a return to
classicism -- complaining that modernism has generated buildings that
are too often inhumane and downright oppressive.
The prince has a point.
Kaplicky's approach to modernism, however, is an attempt to infuse
natural forms that enhance life experiences while taking advantage of
renewable resources. He works hard to develop "living" buildings
that "breathe" rather than suffocate.
He displayed designs of unbuilt "green" structures that not only
incorporated solar panels but wind generator turbines as well. One
design of a proposed 100 story office tower featured graceful curves
that brought the pistil of a tulip to mind. He also advocated greater
allocation of parks and green spaces within urban settings, to bring
Nature back to the city.
As with all architects who stretch design boundaries, Kaplicky's
personal style -- as well as those of his associates at Future
Systems -- will occasionally spark controversy. To the students and
design professionals who gathered at the Detroit Institute of Arts,
however, he provided an evening stimulating and thought provoking
"Morgante's day in Future Systems. by Andrea Morgante.
Saturday is a working day, us architect think, here at Future Systems
office in London. I'm living within walking distance from the
bureaus, yet I do not love waking up early, especially Saturday
mornings. The hard part is not be working extra time, rather making
it through the compact, solid mass flow of people, directed to
Portobello Road, that with regularly floods Notting Hill street
while I'm crossing it. I pick up many homely accents flying by:
Milan, Venice, Rome, and Naples. It's deeply, naively reassuring,
having left my home country 2 years ago to work here.
Opening my office doors, I enjoy silence within its walls. Inside, I
find only an American colleague and Jan Kaplicky, Future Systems'
founder in 1979. He waves his hand briefly, then he goes back to work
on his tools-of-the-trade covered desk. The office's ambiences appear
enormous, when no presence animates it, yet preserving its origin as
an industrial-size warehouse in what is used to be a Jamaican ghetto.
I take off my shoes in a black moquette area, as per office manual,
to walk through its imaginary Chromatic Entrance, into a red carpeted
floor, where all functional areas lie: the production, meeting,
models workshop, and kitchen. No walls to create isolation here;
Everyone can cross his colleagues' sight in a global panorama. You
really feel spoiled to have had the chance of such a rare working
My almost-Italian black coffee's perfume reaches Jan, who joins me,
at his time, for a quick break. He's been already in for a couple
hours thinking, imagining, and designing. Today just like many other
days. While I am telling him the events of my previous evening, he
fatherly inquires if "I behaved...", then goes back to work to his
desk. I often work alongside of him, a precious, rare, unique
experience to me. He's one of the few surviving Masters of
Architecture, yet he's capable of listening to his employees' daily
stories. His presence's a structural part of the office, and his
desk, continuously filled with ideas and sketches, every day,
even Saturdays, a reassuring sight.
I will work up to lunchtime, as I have to check and modify some
drawings for a joint Ferrari-Maserati stand upcoming in Frankfurt
Exhibition. These will be sent Monday to our Italian contractor,
who'll run the final check-up before construction. Meantime my
American partner Jeff makes up his mind, and puts on some Jazz music,
quietly, creating an atmosphere. Jan raises his thumb in approval,
and our Saturday work overtime turns even mellower. Then Soren comes
in, a Danish colleague on the 30s: he has to update some final
drawings for the new Selfridges Store in Birmingham. Only a few
months away from the grand opening, he's been working more than two
years on it. He's tired and he will not probably agree with my
relaxed and chilled out view of the Saturdays; his time is running
out, too many details to finalize, I could bet these months look like
days under a countdown to him.
The specialized Press and Public comments on Selfridges are already
exciting and encouraging, keeping the spirits high in the team, as
well as in our office. We even receive congratulations from people
outside our professional environment, to share their awe for our
That's more than words can explain. In between CD tracks, Jeff does
his part: he's working on two different projects, about to be built:
a prefabricated school in Richmond, green suburbia south of London
town, and a new fashion store in crowded Oxford Street. The latter
isn't a hard challenge for our teams, having "broadened their
shoulders", experience-wise, with Marni's mall network. Richmond's
school is rather similar to the Media Center, both structurally and
in its building process. A shipyard contractor will build it, and new
classrooms will be strengthened with Fiberglas monocoque structure,
decorated on their outside surface by a giant sketch drawn by a
schoolboy, one of its future inhabitants.
It's almost lunchtime, pasta with bacon awaits me, and now I hurry up
finishing my drawings, some of which are following me in Alessi Italy
on Monday. We're almost ready to start producing a new tea and coffee
cup set, and the final prototypes have being shown in Milano's
Triennale. A totally exciting work, made by an endless number of
sketches, 3D models and foam models. The sole data volume collected
for this project is comparable to those used to design a normal
building. Absolutely stunning.
My computer screen blackened now. I wave again to Jan while I put my
chair back against the desk, and I promise him not to be late at the
airport on schedule for Monday's flight. He answers back
ironically: "I would not be so sure if I was you!". Bacon aside, I'm
always an Italian running late."
"Future Systems. Ferrara, Aula Magna faf. 13 June 2003.
It doesn't matter much that one of the partners and principal moving
spirit of Future Systems, Jan Kaplicky, was born and grew up in
Praga. The architecture of this group is definitely English. Indeed
I'd say that it couldn't even be conceived outside the Architectural
Association climate of London, the Archigram teaching, pop culture,
the revolution of the trends of the Sixties and of High Tech. To the
High Tech current belongs the love for technological research, for
ultramodern forms, for artificial materials and for the machine myth.
Jan Kaplicky, besides, worked, with responsible positions, for Foster
and Rogers. But don't look for in his production neither for the
classicism often algid of the first neither for the machinist
brutalism of the second. His architecture isn't tranquillizing and
institutional, nor aggressive or full of technological furor. In case
there is in the spirit of Jan Kaplicky and company a playful
component that makes you think at Alsop. Maybe an Alsop less bratty,
more serious, stylistically more sober. If the first, in fact,
recalls the Rolling Stones, Future Systems can only bring in mind the
Beatles. Besides, if the hypothesis isn't deprived of any
historiographical purchase, I would like to think that Yellow
Submarine was written right to illustrate Kaplicky's architectures.
Future then as style, as a pleasant projection of a world that enjoys
its progress, that is not afraid of the dark side of technology. That
transforms the rhetoric of the future in a game of possibilities.
More integrated than apocalyptic, to recall an historic definition by
Umberto Eco, if it wasn't for a constant attention to quality that
ignores any hypertechnological satisfaction.
Corollary: the attention to the ecological dimension, the body
pleasure, the research of a tactile component, the rediscover of
amazement, and, as we were saying, of a certain nostalgia for the
pleasant years of the beat generation, seen as a promise -though
incompleted - of a better world.
The conference of Future Systems, impersonified by its founder Jan
Kaplicky, illustrates from the beginning a unique bond with Italy:
Jan is for the first time in our country and he decided to present
his own personal tribute to a crowded Aula Magna faf, showing in
parallel two ironic symbols; a F1 Ferrari and a fashion show image of
the stylist Marni.
Kaplicky, after only a few seconds, is able to describe not only his
passion for the Italian image but at the same time he illustrates the
ontological mainpoints of his work, coherent and that didn't change
in the last thirty years, presenting also some of his last Italian
After this tricolour ouverture, Jan Kaplicky started to show a fast
and ironic but also quite alarming series of contemporary european
architectures, criticizing, accomplice the content and the approval
of his public, the wide absence of aesthetic and cultural referrals.
The architectural scenario that in a few minutes comes out is
disturbing, agonizing and in an easing change of rhythm and speed
it's Kaplicky himself that gives us the intellectual remedy. Now on
the screen pleasant images fluctuate, belonging to a surprising
photographical repertoire, that doesn't have nothing in common with
built architecture. Jan, now, points to the public the beauty of a
jellyfish that glows in the ocean's deepness, or the sensuality of a
female body or again the indisputable beauty of a desert beach with
the silence of sand and the blue colour sea. Jan continues to
indicate us, with this repertoire of slides the path to take, or
maybe he also indicates us the path that he himself took back in 1979
in London. Also in showing the pure and winding lines of a Rutan
airplane, Kaplicky doesn't hide his love for the reconciliation
between tecnology and the sensuality offered by nature. It's in this
reconciliation that Future Systems goes beyond and apart, in a
certain way, from the high-tech robotic culture promoted by his
previous colleagues Rogers and Foster.
During the presentation of many projects, from the Media Center,
through the House in Wales, the Alessi tea and coffee set, itinerant
stands for Ferrari and also the Selfridges store-department, Jan
continues silently to indicate how technology is only the belonging
and the testimony to the contemporary and of how our immagination
tries to poetically reach the future. This, as Kaplicky explains, is
the meaning of Future Systems.
In this fascinating and inspired series of images of built, being
built and that are still not built projects, there is also space for
a serious, conscious warning regarding the relation with environment.
Otherwise it couldn't be inside the technological - naturalistic view
described till now by the czechoslovakian architect. A warning for
the new generations, to be more sensible to the environmental
problematics as much to the new technologies of alternative energy
offered nowadays. And also in this section, futuristic projects
overlap, in a rapid succession, designed at the beginning of the
80's, when the environmental problematic was still a minor aspect.
Again the armonic and poetically sparkling meeting between the
machine and nature, between man and technology, between skin and
After an engaging and almost histrionical presentation of the work of
Future Systems, Jan leaves his public.
On the screen, again showed in parallel, are now projected towards
the public two red and soft lips, as to give a kiss and he himself
timidly closes the lecture saying: "I kiss you, goodbye"."
"A View on the Exhibition of Jan Kaplicky's Work.
Kaplicky as a Presentation of Exclusivity. by Martin Sedlak.
I read two interviews with architect Jan Kaplicky. These interviews,
in my opinion lead by strikingly uninterested reporters, inspired me
to supplement my knowledge of the architect. I found out that he
mentions those architects, which I think of in association with his
work (among others, Le Corbusieur, Wright in his organic work,
Archigram, Prouvé and even the somewhat forgotten Niemeyer). Because
I like all of these architects, it is no wonder that I find various
pleasures in the Kaplicky's production. Discussions accompanying his
projects are for me based on something that is excessively exclusive
and I would like to express my view about his work in relation to
this exclusivity. At the same time, it is necessary to point out that
this characteristic cannot be attributed solely to Kaplicky. It is a
trait common to many types of architecture, which from an external
point of view could be seen perhaps as antagonistic. This
characteristic is a trait of our entire era. Kaplicky does not
mention the expression of his work in the interviews I have read.
Maybe he feels that it is not necessary to speak of it and considers
it to be a determined, developing technology, ecological
understanding, etc. Let us take a look at the anthropomorphic
elements evident in his structures, which would pose a difficult
problem for any organic architecture. I am speaking of elements with
sexual symbolism, which are a part of the organic character of
The use of sexual symbolism is nothing unthinkable or new in art.
Kaplicky is convinced of the superiority of contemporary (and all?)
British culture above other European cultures. Let us look at the
painter Berdsley as a comparison. We can recognize in Berdsley's work
that sexuality was never presented in and of itself, but always in
connection with other human conditions or characteristics (for
example, old age, pride, jealousy...). Berdsley's eros was acceptable
not only for European culture, but I am convinced for any other
culture as well. Known sexual manifestations from Indian temples are
related to religious epos and are by no means a primitive symbol of
The mentioned connection of eros so difficult for architecture (there
are also very few known cases of anthropomorphic architecture) is
lacking in Kaplicky's work. An insufficiency of transcendent
intention, though also of a lightening humor or irony (in Archigram's
work it was by far less emphasized) poses a situation in which an
earlier shame "bravely" escapes through the window but something else
comes in through the door. That something is not far from Puritanism,
which represents an absolute irrevocable truth for the author - in
our case it is that ecology or technological development - the
We could speak similarly of space or other regions of architectural
production - a relationship to the city or landscape, social
questions, construction, etc. I feel that in this regard Kaplicky's
work does not achieve sufficient complexity at all times and is
actually a presentation of exclusivity (perhaps its organic or
technicistic focus is not problematic in and of itself). But I would
say we are still only looking at the tip of the iceberg. I would be
interested in Kaplicky's view of the rise of monumental architecture.
Maybe we would agree immediately, he as the keeper of the truly new
and I as the keeper of the truly timeless. We would agree that two
issues are at hand. We would not agree on what is preferential. But I
would consider even that to be a success in today's spiteful era.
But let us return to architecture itself. What I would find the least
reproachful is the fact that these projects are seldom realized.
These structure alone have a consistency and certainly exceed in
quality what we generally see around us, in other words, the average.
They belong to the less-preferred elite architecture, which sweetens
the flood of relatively horrible phenomena. This architecture has
often still not lost its romantic attraction (the author himself
speaks of them in his project descriptions as "views from the
underground to the sea," or "a structure in the form of a butterfly,
from which colored light romantically shines at night").
But the main source of its enlightenment is the trait of "social
fantasy," developed for our generation by Archigram in the 1960's and
already freed, as opposed to constructivistic attempts, after a
connection with the Marxist ideology of the time and the illuminating
Czech architectural scene, which in reaction to the historical past
matured in the 1990's to a reduction of history and more or less to a
hidden admiration for anything technicist.
Though in the past there was a strong line of something, which I
call "intimate architecture," present here (I would give it form -
without irony - as "a discovered transcendence in monotonic elegant
masses and furniture-less plywood spaces"), Kaplicky always shined
brightly and I believe will continue to shine for some time. I feel
that Czech society is moving, as opposed to its surroundings, in an
unbelievable manner and through extreme conditions but it still has
not arrived at a greater pluralized span and that is the case for the
thinking of the people as well. I am strongly reminded of a political
comparison - "with the market or without it, no other method exists."
I was pleased by the declared relationship of Kaplicky to disciplines
such as urban planning. Unfortunately, I do not know the practical
implications of this relationship."
Official Future Systems site:
FS list of works:
more about FS:
Future Systems say...:
"I started reading about architecture at art school," Levete
says. "It was not something that I had ever thought of before, but I
saw it as a perfect fusion between art and the external discipline
that I was seeking. I did an art foundation course and found it very
lacking in discipline: there were no parameters - you'd have to make
and define your own. I'm somebody who's always worked much better
when there's something to hit against and to challenge."
Mapping out your path...
Successful careers, like buildings, need a good plan right from the
start. "Picking the right school is absolutely vital," Levete
says. "Schools have very different emphases - some are very
technical, some commercial, some artistic, some are experimental,
some are theoretical, so you really need to do your research."
Other elements can occasionally come in to play too, however. Amanda
found her most influential teacher almost by accident: "David Greene
was one of the Archigram architects. He is fantastic, a very lateral
thinker, very conceptual. The AA [Architectural Association School of
Architecture, where Levete studied] had a system where you could
choose your tutors. David Greene was the best looking."
Like most creative professions, architecture is a lifestyle
choice. "If you want to be an architect it has to be a passion, not
just a job," Levete says. "It's incredibly competitive. You need to
be tough and you need to believe in yourself and you need to work
very hard. And you need to love it. All those crits that you go
through are good preparation for reality. They are really scary, but
you learn to stand your ground and the value of being able to
Crits - constructive criticism of students' work by their tutors -
are a regular part of the seven-year training and education process.
This comprises a three-year architecture degree ('RIBA Part 1'); then
a further two years of academic work ('RIBA Part 2') is normally
sandwiched between two years spent working in an architectural
practice, before the final Part 3 exam. "We get an enormous amount of
people applying to work here," Levete comments. "And it's easy to
spot the people who have written a thousand letters and the people
who know and admire what you've done."
Getting to know the industry early on is essential. Architects have
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