Architectural Association president Eva Jiricna may not be the most political of speakers, but she has plenty to say on the profession as her V&A talk draws near
On 2 June, Eva Jiricna will be speaking at the V&A to celebrate 'new architecture and design from the newly enlarged Europe? and how the changes in Europe have influenced her design choices'. I visited her compact offices off Tottenham Court Road to see what she was going to say. In time-honoured tradition, she will be reinterpreting the brief.
As president of the Architectural Association (AA), she is currently caught up with the time-consuming problem of finding the new chairman. Before that can happen, she has to help appoint the members of the interim management group - which has to be found by the end of this week - and then to elect a 'search group' to find likely candidates for chair, which, she says ominously, might take up to a year.
So as a busy architect, with the added pressure of extramural activities, she says she was happy to agree to do this talk for the V&A - for whom she is currently working on a masterplan - but seemed edgy that the event is being organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with its obvious political ulterior motives.
Firstly, Jiricna is not a political animal in the conventional sense and will not be providing a polemical talk about the changing face of European regulation, the impact of immigration policy on employment, or even the Common Agricultural Policy. Secondly, she modestly admits to not being qualified to talk about the architectural possibilities to emerge from the accession countries to the EU.While she recognises these interesting developments, she says she does not have the information to expand on them in any depth. So, rather than pontificating about what might happen, Jiricna will stick to what has happened. She then launches into a spontaneous romp through 700 years of Czech history while I struggle to keep up.
She refutes my suggestion that she has a romantic attachment to the Czech and Slovak republics, but rather she retains her links there (she has an office in Prague) because she wants to give encouragement to aspiring architects wherever they are.Her father's generation in the inter-war years had lived in a country that was 'charging towards progress? it was a dynamic period of brilliant architectural development? helped by the fact that highly intelligent people could travel freely'. Towards the end of the Second World War, when the country turned its back on the West, this intellectual freedom was cut off. 'Idealists went to prison, ' she explains, 'and architects were disallowed from practice? Effectively two generations completely stagnated, but they lived in hope. Now we have a situation like 1918 where there is the possibility for the transmittance of ideas? The opportunity for expression needs to be encouraged.'
She is not talking about some wishy-washy, hands-across-the-sea liberalism, but a much deeper philosophical point about the nature of progress and the essence of humanity. She is a committed humanist who believes that an increasing interconnectedness among people - what she calls internationalism - is something that is not only desirable, but inevitable.
From her own experience, she says that life under Iron Curtain communism taught her discipline, a sense of proportion, and that there are 'worse things in life? my generation came through a lot'. However, there is an interesting tension between her fatalism - her belief in inevitable change - and her active intervention.
After all, if all human actions have an impact, we need to decide on what impact we want to be associated with. The dialectical relationship between causation and political effect seems to be pushed to the back of her mind as she concentrates on a general social improvement through practical, creative matters. 'The job of an architect, ' she says, 'is not to make money, or to build big important buildings - it is to contribute to society.' But this begs the question: to what end? As it happens, regardless of the contradictions, Jiricna has a clear view of what she wants to achieve and what she is fighting against. Her criticisms are cultural, but she is certainly not afraid to criticise.
She dislikes the commercialism and replicability of Daniel Libeskind's schemes - citing his new Salvador Dali Museum in Prague as exactly the same as his V&A Spiral - but accepts that 'every architect has been affected by him'. It remains a moot point as to whether this effect has been beneficial. In the same way that the accession countries are being absorbed into the European model, so their ideas are in something of a melting pot. She describes history as being 'like putting ingredients in a soup: it will taste different, but we will all benefit from the experience of eating it'.
She is very critical of 'commercial' architects;
those who say 'yes sir, no sir, I'll build what you want, sir' to clients. In this regard, she says that 'Foster has lost it? Rogers is making statements rather than buildings? and even Rem Koolhaas has begun his decline'. She jokes that she once appeared on a phone-in and said that Terry Farrell's Charing Cross Station was the worst building in London. Now she's modified that opinion and says it's his MI5 building.
Jiricna's primary concern is that it is such an effort to design a building that iconic architects are losing touch with the design process and compromising for expediency. 'Architecture is about taking risks and being courageous, ' she says, but if a big developer has money to invest, 'it will probably go to Norman [Foster]'.
This is not an arrogant diatribe. She too feels that it is difficult to do big projects and still stay fresh. 'I hold to Charles Eames' saying that he never made a compromise but he knew the constraints, ' she says.When I ask whether architects should work within restraints or challenge them, she answers that there are limitations on everything, we just have to recognise which are positive and which are negative.
'Working with constraints is a challenge. I always say that each building should be able to be built with a palette of three materials, ' she says. 'When you visit the Ukraine there are now some wonderful buildings constructed of a limited palette? You could say that the most important thing for architects to do is to accommodate people - it doesn't matter what we build. I don't have the ego to think that I can change the world, I just aim to do things better tomorrow than I did them today.'
This still leaves a big question over the word 'better', which we could discuss for hours, but Jiricna has little time and, anyway, she is interested in getting on with it, understanding what works and improving her output for the benefit of all.