Architects envious of Future Systems' seemingly endless capacity to imagine and innovate used to comfort themselves with the thought that imagination and innovation didn't necessarily produce jobs.
Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete (the partners, personal as well as professional, who head up the practice) didn't need to waste time on site visits. Future Systems' last London exhibition (at the RIBA in 1991) 'showed that we existed', says Kaplicky. It included one monumental might-have-been: the project for the Bibliotheque de France, laid aside by Francois Mitterrand in 1989 in favour of Dominique Perrault but potentially another Pompidou Centre.
For years, however, Future Systems' only completed building was a portable tent, designed initially for London's South Bank and later wrecked by a freak gale in the windy canyons of Croydon.
Now Future Systems is very much on site, as its forthcoming ICA show clearly demonstrates. The spectacular Hauer-King house (completed 1994) was followed by an elegant bridge in Docklands. A remarkable house in Wales is nearly finished. The Lord's media centre is nearly there, with the far larger Ark building at the Doncaster Earth Centre lottery-funded and awaiting a final go-ahead.
Kaplicky (born Prague 1937 and sometime assistant to Rogers, Foster and, more surprisingly, Lasdun) insists that 'you don't need to build on a large scale to be an important architect - look at Charles Eames', but he is clearly thrilled by the process of building. Both he and Levete (they teamed up in 1989) are still heavily involved in every project, but there is now an office of six, with two associates, Angus Pond and David Miller. Kaplicky is adamant that 'ever y th ing we des ign is intended to be bu i lt' , but the advent of Levete (ex-Richard Rogers) introduced, perhaps, a greater element of pragmatism - though not at the expense of experiment. There have been no compromises.
Kaplicky comments that 'we seem to be very much on our own - we don't really 'belong' anywhere', yet he concedes that the mood of British and European architecture has changed, towards a greater freedom and concern for the expressive and the 'organic', so that Future Systems increasingly does 'belong'. Not that organic modern architecture is anything new - Kaplicky sees Scharoun, the 'totally undervalued' Mendelsohn, late Wright, Corbusier's Ronchamp, and Niemeyer as part of his own tradition. Future Systems' work was once prone to interpretation in terms of technological determinism, but Kaplicky has no qualms about declaring that 'we are about the art of architecture. Why shouldn't a building be beautiful as well as practical?' (Twenty years ago, he admits, he wouldn't have used the word 'beauty'. ) Levete believes that if something is beautiful, it generally works well too. 'What could be more efficient than a flower?'
Coincidentally, Future Systems has just completed a modish flower shop in Notting Hill, but the issue of flowers is important. Natural forms provide the inspiration for everything that Future Systems does. There is no conflict, for Kaplicky and Levete, between nature and technology. Nature provides the model, technology the means to emulate it. Far from being irrational or wilful, Future Systems' architecture has a certain inevitability that comes from being at one with the natural world. 'Instinctive' is the adjective that Levete tends to use. High-Tech, she says, was never an adequate description - 'we let ourselves in for it, I guess, with all that techno-language!'
What still links Future Systems with the world of High-Tech (and sets it apart from Hadid, Libeskind and others) is its total rejection of rhetoric and theory. 'We tend to explain our work in practical and technical terms, ' says Levete. There was no great theory behind the design of the jumbo jet.
Future Systems operates from an inauspicious 1950s block in Paddington, even gloomier than its previous eyrie off Charlotte Street. Once inside the office door, however, you are in a different world and it's hard to feel, here as in the couple's Kensington house - a radical and colourful remodelling, in the mould of Rogers' Royal Avenue at a fraction of the cost - anything but exhilarated and cheered. For years, Future Systems seemed to be obstinately individual, heroic outsiders determined to go down in history as legendary non-builders (like Archigram).
But Future Systems' determination to 'tell it how it is' has paid off. There have been setbacks, like the apparent collapse of the brilliant, low-cost scheme for extending Lasdun's 1950s Hallfield School, but nobody these days dismisses Future Systems as impractical. They still like to excite and even shock - goading the heritage lobby with an organic tower on the site of Battersea Power Station, for instance - but they are pragmatic visionaries with a clear role in the future of world architecture.
See Future Systems special, pages 29-36
future systems at the ICA The Future Systems exhibition - in a space designed by the practice itself - will be held from 1 April - 24 May 1998 in the Lower Gallery at the ICA. It will then go on tour to Manchester, Paris, Prague and Glasgow.