Keeping chipper

David Chipperfield was the sole British architect on the London Bankside Tate shortlist, yet his practice has completed only a handful of projects here. Clare Melhuish spoke to him about his plans for the future

SBHD: David Chipperfield was the sole British architect on the London Bankside Tate shortlist, yet his practice has completed only a handful of projects here. Clare Melhuish spoke to him about his plans for the future

When David Chipperfield made it on to the Tate’s shortlist in the recent competition to convert London’s Bankside power station into a new gallery of modern art, it seemed that it might be his big break. Chipperfield’s was the only British practice on the shortlist, alongside top world architects Tadeo Ando, Rafael Moneo, Renzo Piano and OMA, as well as the lesser-known winner Herzog & de Meuron.

And this despite the fact that Chipperfield has only built one complete new building in this country: his offices in London’s Camden Town. At the end of the year, this will be joined by the new Rowing Museum at Henley, while projects for completion next year include a new house in Berlin and an office building in Dusseldorf. But until now Chipperfield’s largescale new-build work has been confined to Japan: the

Matsumoto Headquarters (1990), Kyoto Design Store (1989), and Gotoh private museum (1987). Over the past four years the practice has had no buildings on site at all, barring interiors. But it has been shortlisted or invited to take part in a number of major international competitions apart from the Tate: the Berlin Altes Museum competition (in which it took second place), the Vienna Nordbahnhof Gelnde and, in collaboration with the Richard Rogers Partnership, the Siena Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala competition.

Chipperfield says that initially he was “a bit surprised” to make it on to the Tate’s shortlist. But there is no real reason why he should have been. Although he did not exactly have a track record in working with old buildings, his architecture is characterised by exactly the sort of spatial clarity, simplicity of detail, and subtle play of light that Tate director Nicholas Serota was after. Moreover, he was closely involved ten years earlier in establishing a forum for exhibiting such work by European architects – the 9H Gallery – along with Wilfried Wang and Richard Burdett, one of the three assessors for the Tate. In fact, it was the 9H Gallery which first exhibited the work of the rationalist Swiss practice Herzog and de Meuron in this country- as well as the work of Chipperfield himself (Four London Architects, 1988) and other like-minded British practices such as Eric Parry, Rick Mather, Stanton Williams, Pierre d’Avoine, Tony Fretton, Ken Armstrong (Chipperfield’s erstwhile partner), and Tim Ronalds, curated by Richard Burdett.

Chipperfield is candid about his disappointment at not winning the Tate, but admits that in any case he “gradually lost confidence in the quality of the [existing] building”. He is aware that so far as his development is concerned “the next few years are critical ones”, and, despite all the whispers on the grapevine that “Chipperfield’s the one to watch”, he seems less than optimistic about his chances to make a breakthrough in his own country. Indeed, he jokes rather flatly that he “will probably go bankrupt next year, give up architecture to spend more time with my children, and be much happier”.

Is the outlook really so bleak for Chipperfield, or is he bluffing? By comparison with many architects he is doing pretty well. His beautifully designed, light-filled offices house 15 staff. He has just taken on a full-time product designer, Victoria Pyke. As he points out, it would be thought a large practice by European standards. Current projects include a small hotel in Japan, a regional bank headquarters near Leipzig, a ten-year refurbishment of Leipzig’s biggest museum and housing in Berlin.

A shop for Joseph has just been completed on London’s Old Bond Street, and, in 1993, there were new entrance areas and galleries for the Natural History Museum. In addition, the practice has designed a range of aluminium, glass and leather furniture for Cassina in Japan, and a family of benches, chairs and sofas using Waterlily foam upholstered in wool and leather with silk cushions for B&B Italia. Both ranges are in production. Another range for Interlbke – a family of upholstered chairs, armchairs and sofas – is currently at prototype stage, and will be launched as part of the Interlife collection at the Cologne Furniture Fair next year.

Chipperfield says he would rather do more furniture design than get involved in rehabilitation work. He believes it is good for an architect to work on a small, detailed scale – “too many British architects don’t get close enough to things” – and it was only pressure of work that prevented him exhibiting in the recent Design Week-sponsored exhibition on the architect as product designer at RIBA Architecture Centre, Products of Desire. He sees himself following in a European tradition of architectural offices that are “much more agile” than their British counterparts in terms of their size, operation and variety of work they undertake. Nonetheless, he is clearly fed up with the lack of larger scale work after a decade of high-class shopfitting for clients such as Equipment, Issey Miyake and Kenzo, who have all come back for more.

Chipperfield was instrumental in establishing a whole new look for clothes shops at the top end of the fashion market during the Eighties. He espoused a minimal approach based on spatial simplicity, planar surfaces and a restrained palette of materials including timber, plaster and metal combined with craftsman-like attention to detail. The work was strongly influenced by his interest in Japanese aesthetics and culture, in which “the most simple things are cherished”. It is not so surprising that it led to his first large commissions in Japan, where, as he points out, his work is thought conservative. Interiors work here has not led to larger projects. Although Chipperfield agrees that this may in part be because he is perceived to be a fashionable retail designer, it is also because in England his work is considered outrageously modern and destructive of the traditional urban fabric by those responsible for planning decisions.

“The only thing the English are concerned with,” he says, “is what it looks like”, whereas his architecture is conceived in fundamentally experiential terms. He hates the “modern versus old” dichotomy, based entirely on style, which bedevils the British architectural debate. The only way of breaking the system, he says, is by opting for the hi-tech option, like Grimshaw, Rogers, and Foster, who have all managed to establish themselves as architects working in a contemporary idiom – probably because their more obviously radical approach is easier to argue than a more subtle Modernism.

But the other obstacle to getting work which Chipperfield (and others like him) faces is his resistance to the English view of architecture and design as a professional activity – “architecture not as a craft but a money market”. He hates the idea of companies. He insists on describing his office as a “studio”, in the European way, and refuses to produce a publicity brochure. Instead, he has been distributing copies of his recent book, Theoretical Practice, to potential clients.

Chipperfield is intent on establishing “a cultural position” from which to practice his architecture, even at the expense of British clients. On the other hand, he believes that “given an opportunity” he is “quite good with clients”, and points out that “one thing that’s not taught [in architectural schools] is the importance of satisfying the client … evaluating what’s appropriate”. But he resents the system by which British architectural commissions are awarded through the “construction fraternity”. There are no enlightened figures among the power-brokers. University work is “a closed shop”, and for railways or airports you must be high-tech: “You don’t get access to clients here,” he says.

At one level Chipperfield appreciates the freedom from English planning constraints which he has enjoyed, and believes it has allowed him to develop rather than modify his position as he has seen his peers do over the years. As a result he has had considerable publicity for his work, which has put him “in a position that is more credible with planners”. At another level he realises that “you need the oxygen of buildings. They bring ideas … as a full-time retail interior designer your ideas would dry up”.

You could argue that Chipperfield is another victim of the absence of a competition system here, but, in fact, he doesn’t consider that his practice has had a great deal of success in the competitions it has entered. His understated style, with its emphasis on the everyday, isn’t designed to make an impact on juries. He says he’s “not very good at surfaces”, and “hates doing perspectives”. This can make competitions and pitches to new clients problematic.

Nevertheless, Chipperfield is known by now, and, as he says, “being known is half the battle … presumably at some point it will pay off.” Frankly, it seems unlikely that he will disappear from the face of architecture without trace. He is too ambitious, and has been too successful for that already; and at just over 40 he’s still young for an architect. He needn’t despair just yet.

Latest articles