Straight LinesWish Magazine (The Australian)Luke Slattery8.4.2017General

An article by Luke Slattery based on an interview with David Chipperfield was published in the April 2017 issue of Wish Magazine, a monthly supplement in The Australian newspaper. 

Straight Lines

“Immaculately progressive”, is how British art critic Waldemar Januszczak describes the architecture of his compatriot, Sir David Chipperfield. But it strikes me, after two hours in Chipperfield’s company, that it is largely by virtue of an aesthetic conservatism – an emphasis on harmony, nobility and material quality – that he remains a progressive force in global architecture. By staying relatively still, and keeping things simple, he has kept ahead of the game.

Chipperfield founded his self-titled practice in 1985, at a low point for the modernist movement that had set his wheels spinning, first at art school, then studying architecture. More than 30 years later, having done much to revive the prestige of modernism by opening it to considerations of history, place and cultural context, he has embarked on the most commercially ambitious phase of his career. These days he employs 300 staff in Berlin, London, Milan and Shanghai. The architect best known for his refined low-rise domestic and cultural buildings – his signature project is the celebrated Neues Museum restoration on Berlin’s Museum Island – now has a commercial tower on the go in Seoul and a 30-storey residential tower under construction in Manhattan.

WISH meets him in Sydney, where he has come to present his proposal for the 250m-high Circular Quay Tower (eventually won by Foster & Partners). This shift towards larger-scale commercial buildings and the robust growth of his practice have not diluted the modesty and dignity of Chipperfield’s work: his Circular Quay proposal and his New York tower, the Bryant, still look manifestly like his towers. They are physical, rhythmical, restrained.
 Entire Emirati skylines are dominated by extroverted sculptural towers encased in glass skins and poised hypodermic needles piercing the desert skies, their extreme elevation driven not by land constraints – as were the first Manhattan towers – but branding imperatives. Chipperfield, in contrast, likes to push the structural elements of building to the exterior, to integrate frame and façade. His architecture can seem a little subdued – like a square guy in a hip crowd. But that’s by design. “Architecture at a certain scale has repetition in it, so as an architect you can be frightened by that and spend all your time trying to hide it with asymmetry,” he says. “Or you say, ‘Repetition’s not bad. It happens in nature. We’re not afraid of being boring’.”

When we meet in Sydney he has been in the country just a few hours, though long enough to have met with his father Alan and journalist brother Mark, both of whom emigrated to Australia when David, aged 17, was starting art school. He has just flown in from an inspection of work on his practice’s new Amorepacific headquarters in Seoul, a rather squat cuboid office tower oriented around a courtyard with large rectangular perforations on three sides framing views. The following day he is due to fly to Stockholm, where designs for his waterfront Nobel Centre are evolving. It’s all go.

The focus of his 26 hours in Sydney is a presentation to the Lendlease project jury. Asked if the Circular Quay tower represents a new typology for the practice, Chipperfield nods in agreement. “Well, we’re not really tower people,” he says without hesitation.

The projects that best showcase his architectural imagination are culturally and historically resonant, highly contextual. Berlin’s Neues Museum, a bombed-out shell by the close of World War II, was a rather surreal Piranesian ruin when restoration began under Chipperfield and conservation architect Julian Harrap in 1998. It was restored and repaired in such a way as to allow the original mid-19th-century building’s own narrative of near-ruination to be read through the minimalist contemporary interventions. The award-winning restoration is a work of contemporary architecture that is also an essay in time lost and regained. All these elements are beautifully judged. There is no hammy quotation of the past. History is given space to speak for itself.
This palimpsest approach represented a shift in thinking about heritage in post-war Berlin, where the (bad) past and the (better) new were in clear contrast. In the Neues Museum past and presented are connected rather than contrasted, integrated not segregated.
Along a similar vein Chipperfield has built, or is in the process of building, a portfolio of cultural institutions that includes the Mogul museum of Agra near the Taj Mahal in northern India; the James Simon Galerie on Berlin’s Museum Island opposite the Neues Museum, coupled with the contemporary fine arts “Am Kupfergraben 10” gallery across the Spree Canal, and a conversion in the Forum Museumsinsel complex, a cluster of eight historic buildings on the other side of the River Spree. This site includes one of the few untouched 19th-century Berlin breweries, the Bötzow, an industrial Prussian monument. Then there is Mexico City’s Museo Jumex, a large private collection of contemporary Latin American art designed with a jaunty, jagged roofline; a restrained yet muscular modernist museum in Zurich; an expansion to the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri; and the Turner contemporary gallery at Margate on the British southeast coast. A project close to his modernist heart is an eight-year restoration of the famous Mies (“Less is More”) Van Der Rohe’s New National Gallery in the old West Berlin, due to reopen in 2020.
Modernism, Chipperfield is fond of saying, killed the column for architecture. Without falling into a nostalgic neo-classicalism, he has restored the column to its rightful place. “If you try to go back to how a building is built and give nobility to the idea of support and framing, you end up with something quite classical,” he says. “It just tends to fall out that way. Columns tend to want to be somewhat equally spaced, for instance. You can disguise that or you can just say that tends to be what the building wants to do, so let’s follow.”
This approach is clearly expressed in Chipperfield’s beautiful temple-like Museum of Modern Literature, in the German town of Marbach perched above the Neckar River, with its strong sense of horizontal rhythm. And it would have found expression on a much larger scale in his proposed Circular Quay Tower, which announced itself at street level with a cluster of two-storey-high columns shorn of ornamentation.
The decision to pitch for the Sydney project was influenced by the presence of so many young architects in his 150-stong Berlin office, one of whom, partner and design specialist Christoph Felger, has accompanied him to Sydney. At David Chipperfield Architects there is a definite sense of a gearshift.
“I’ve always worked out of a studio atmosphere as opposed to a commercial office,” Chipperfield explains. “The studio is slightly irresponsible, from a commercial perspective. It is motivated by real passion for architecture and then tries to make a business out of it; the commercial practice makes a business first and then sees how much architecture it can put in there. It’s very difficult to find something in the middle. But we spend our time trying to do just that, trying to be commercially successful while maintaining a studio mentality.”
He is keen to dispel any suggestion that the private sector is the tougher architectural school of the two. “If there’s a budget in the public sector you can’t move it. At least in the private sector the client can decide to leverage the project a bit more, depending on how the market is going, and spend a bit more money. The idea that one is easier than the other I don’t think is true.”
He decries the “cynicism” of architecture that has lost its moorings in considered aesthetics and good design, and is suspicious of unfettered market power. The London arm of the practice employs 100 staff and when working in the City he looks out the window and sees “so many bad buildings designed purely for profit, not for architecture. We have to believe we can do better!”
At the same time he is snooty about architecture asserting its green credentials through urban forestation. “A gimmick,” he says with a slightly impish smile (his Circular Quay Tower would have had a thin swathe of exterior lawn). “It will last another six months. I mean the idea of planting organic material on building surfaces to absorb heat and water is an interesting one and there is merit in it. But to put it into a building’s DNA as if it were an energy saver? There are some serious issues raised by the greening of buildings but I don’t think they’re resolved by covering them in trees.”
On the day I meet Chipperfield he is preparing for a sold-out lecture on his latest work at the Eternity Playhouse theatre in Darlinghurst. Dressed in a dark blue jacket cut fashionably short, black T-shirt and white jeans over brown shoes, the silver-haired architect is a youthful 62 (he has since turned 63), even if travel has left him a little red-eyed and weary. Is it Sir David? “It’s just David,” he returns in a melodious voice formed by a Devon and Somerset childhood.
He is revered across Europe, where two-thirds of his staff is based: 150 in Berlin and 50 in Milan. And the feeling is mutual. “I feel profoundly European,” he says with the force of conviction. In fact, it was only after his success in Berlin that his birthplace embraced him. Married to the Argentinian-born German academic Evelyn Stern, he has four children and divides his time between homes in Berlin and London, when not summering at a house in Galicia, Spain. It is the Spanish, he believes, who have perfected the art of life. “Spanish society is very coherent. It has great structural, social integrity. The Spanish value the family.” And they have, in his view, something to teach the Anglo-Saxon-Teutonic world: “We have to start changing from all other measurements of economic progress to a simple measurement of quality of life.”
Chipperfield studied at the Kingston School of Art before taking a degree in architecture from the Architectural Association in London, whereupon he promptly began working with Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and the like. In 1979 he co-founded, and ran from the basement of his West End office, an architecture gallery and magazine named, after the most flinty of lead pencils, 9H. In those years he aimed to de-provincialise British architecture by championing Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza and Jacques Herzog. His first substantial project, in 1983, was a fitout for an Issey Miyake store on Sloan Street, London, and the contact with Miyake drew him to Japan.
It was in Japan that Chipperfield’s first three buildings, including a mixed-use Toyota Auto car showroom in Kyoto, were completed. He was – and in a sense still is – under the influence of Tadao Ando, whose office helped with the Kyoto project. “I was fascinated by how Ando had adapted the spacial ideas of traditional Japanese architecture to modernism, in turn revitalising modernism through an interest in Japanese history and through the physical presence of architecture,” Chipperfield recalls. “These early projects I took as an opportunity to explore material and space, light and composition, inside and outside, and other Japanese references.” He was able to do so, just as importantly, beyond the piercing gaze of the British public.

As Chipperfield describes it, the planning guidelines in Japan regarding density, building use and height are strict; aesthetic constraints much less so. “This couldn’t have been in greater contrast to the situation in Britain at the same time; a country obsessed with what architecture should look like and how it should fit in, combined with a popular dislike of modernism justified by the poor modernist architecture of the 60s and 70s.”
By the time his first British building got under way in 1989 – the oak-clad River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire – he was able to bring a sophisticated design sensibility forged by European and Japanese modernism to “little” England. This was the moment he devised a response to the limitations of post-war modernism that would become a template for his practice as it evolved. “It became clear to me that modernism, in its desire to set its own program and ideology, had isolated itself from the public.” His decision to finish the rowing museum with a pitched, somewhat vernacular roof and a rustic materiality was, he says, “a hand held out to the public”.
This experience was formative. It established the tone for Chipperfield’s young practice, which would from that moment work to develop architecture attuned to place and memory and shared meaning. “The rowing museum tried to find a way to be modern while referring to tradition,” he says. It was also, he adds parenthetically, an homage to the Marie Short two-roofed house of Glen Murcutt, whom he had met on a 1979 visit to Australia.
Looking back on his three-decade career – the second half of it spent deeply engaged with the evolution of reunified Berlin – Chipperfield is clear about the qualities that set his practice apart from the commercial mainstream. “We’re very concerned to know how we might build something. It’s much easier to have a plastic attitude towards form if the way you build is not particularly worrying to you. If shape and form is the most important thing, then what you do is say, ‘How is the best way to build it?’ The shape is decided and then options of construction – aluminum cladding, panelling etcetera – are considered.
“Allied to this is our commitment to minimalism: a stripped-back idea of trying to reduce architecture to fairly essential components. When architecture tries to overemphasise a certain shape or certain compositional ideas it becomes quite personal and pushes you to design buildings that are about signature and autobiography. But we rather appreciate the more anonymous architecture of industrial production.”
I’m struck by the combination in Chipperfield of a strong moral intelligence and an equally pronounced mildness of manner. He is as decorous in person as his well-mannered buildings are in public. Dangle the bait of a few starchitects before him and he declines the invitation to bite. “Richard Rogers told me when I was young to save my venom for cynical architecture,” he says. “Why criticise your colleagues just because you don’t like what they do, unless you don’t, in addition, like how or why they do it? It can become quite vicious and I find it depressing, that attitude where you’ve got to kill everyone else to make your own work more important.” In 2012 Chipperfield gave these ecumenical and collaborative instincts a sharp focus when asked to direct the Venice Biennale of Architecture, which he titled “Common Ground”.
“When you do a competition and find yourself in a bar in Vienna with Jacques Herzog a and a few others, sharing a few whiskies, you compare notes and realise you’re all struggling with the same thing. It’s just that you’re doing red buildings and he’s doing green buildings. Someone else is doing blobby buildings and you’re doing squarey buildings.”
The diplomatic manner instantly falls away, however, when he is asked his view of Brexit. “I’m embarrassed. I’m shocked. I’m irritated,” he fulminates. “It’s a total mess that takes us back to the Middle Ages. You know, I don’t even think it will be delivered. I don’t think it can be delivered.”
I wait as the crowd of mainly young architects streams in for the Sydney lecture. He projects a panorama of the Doha skyline, an example of a global architecture in which “rather ridiculous differences are used by architects in order to distinguish their tower from somebody else’s tower”.
This he contrasts with an image of Giambattista Nolli’s mid-18th-century plan of Rome’s urban fabric, a celebration both of buildings and of public space. “It talks of the city that belongs to us as citizens, emphasising its complex, organic nature. And it records what we love about cities: not only buildings but the spaces between them, the overlapping and the near insufferable density only made acceptable by the great beauty of the city and the aspirations that such a city inspires. Rome was not made by anyone. It was made by human ingenuity. It is the ultimate record of our stability and common purpose.”
The Nolli map reminds Chipperfield’s professional audience that the context of most architecture is urbanism, which, broadly conceived, is about the structures that bind people and shape lives. And that modernism and humanism, in the right hands, can be joined in common purpose: find common ground.