home and away
What does London mean for David Chipperfield? 'Heathrow, family, friends. . .' he replies. What it does not mean is work - Chipperfield cannot name a single project in London on which his office is currently engaged. As we speak, he is gathering his things to rush off to the airport, en route for Barcelona, where he is Mies van der Rohe visiting professor. In Berlin, he has an office with nearly 20 staff. He is building in Spain, Germany, Holland, Italy and the US.
Yet in all Britain, let alone London, there is not a single active commission. This may change - Chipperfield is on a shortlist of two for the Glasgow headquarters of the BBC - but it remains a singular fact, since Chipperfield is, internationally, one of the best known and most respected of British practitioners.
The Architectural Association-trained Chipperfield (born in 1953 in London) established his practice in 1984, after periods spent working for Lord Rogers and Lord Foster - significantly, perhaps, he was a key member of the team for Foster and Partners' unbuilt BBC project. His early independent projects were mainly shops but, like Nigel Coates, he prospered in Japan - a country which has always influenced his approach to design - and was an active teacher at the Royal College of Art (RCA). The combination of teaching, interiors and work abroad helped cement Chipperfield's modish reputation - he was a leading light in that key '80s institution the 9H Gallery - but may have damaged his chances of larger commissions in this country. Famously, he came second in the Tate Modern competition and lost out to Coates in the Sheffield Pop Museum competition and to Nicholas Grimshaw in that for Bath Spa. 'We did lots of Lottery competitions, ' Chipperfield recalls. The recent RCA competition was also lost to Grimshaw.Now the competitions he enters tend to be abroad - six this year so far.
David Chipperfield is too busy to spend time lamenting lost jobs, but he does find it depressing that in Britain major talents - Future Systems, for example - 'have to spend years out in the cold before being given a chance to build. The relative neglect of an outstanding designer like Tony Fretton is appalling.' In Britain, Chipperfield argues, 'architecture is seen as sexy, newsy, a lifestyle issue, but architects are basically viewed as professional people who do a practical job, with maybe a touch ofculture on the side.' In Spain and Italy, in contrast, the creative role of the architect is taken seriously. 'In this country, competitions seem to hinge on a mistrust of the architect - project managers and various 'consultants' seem to call the tune. The issue that dominates the competition scene is delivery - Nick Grimshaw, an excellent architect, is very good at reassuring clients on this matter. But, for me, issues of schedule and budget are just part of a professional package - they shouldn't dominate the discussion. There are other things to talk about. I'm simply not willing to speak to someone else's script.'
Chipperfield's roots are in what used to be called High-Tech and he has a lot of admiration for Lord Rogers and Lord Foster: 'Their intensity, sense of purpose, scorn of the arbitrary, fanatical pursuit of the practical brief, as seen in Willis Faber or Lloyd's, is amazing.' But Chipperfield's exploration of Modern Movement roots and more exotic sources, such as Japan, has taken him away from this approach to design. He is happy to see his work as 'essentially European'. He has never pursued a recognizable house-style and believes that every scheme must be a response to physical and cultural context. He has thrived in recent years on museum work. The reconstruction of Berlin's Neues Museum is his largest job, scheduled to go on site within the year, then there is a new museum of archaeology in Milan, a natural history museum being carved out of an old barracks in Verona - on a remarkable site, close to the Castelvecchio - and a museum extension in Davenport, Iowa. Not that Chipperfield's practice is dominated by cultural projects.
There are office schemes in Barcelona, Germany (Leipzig and Dusseldorf ) and the Netherlands, and housing close to Berlin's Potsdamer Platz. The new law courts in Salerno, Sicily, featured in Chipperfield's presentation at the 2000 Venice Biennale, where he was exhibited with Coates, Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop ('someone I admire for his refusal to compromise, which has now paid off '). There are hotels in Miami and New York, and new houses in Portofino (for Messrs Dolce and Gabbana) and Manhattan. Perhaps most extraordinary of of all, there is the extension to the Venetian island cemetery of San Michele. All in all, it is a staggering range of work. And the office still finds time to pursue an active line in product design.
For all his strictures on certain aspects of British practice, Chipperfield professes himself 'a real British pragmatist - oddly, the Europeans seem to warm to it. Our work is essentially practical and we love getting things built.' He leaves theory to Rem Koolhaas: 'His celebration of freedom, even chaos, seems to be everywhere.' But out of this comes a freshness on the architectural scene, a willingness to dispense with predictable images, even those generated by esteemed masters, which Chipperfield welcomes. He is currently on a high, and is hugely optimistic about the future of his practice (which operates from a curious backland between King's Cross and Camden Town): 'People are going to be pretty surprised by what we do in the next few years, when some of these projects are completed.' It is hard, indeed, to envisage a 'typical' Chipperfield building, except to assume that it will be beautifully detailed and well crafted. And so Chipperfield grabs his bag and heads for Heathrow - as he departs, he reflects that 'we would never have got anywhere by staying at home'.