David Chipperfield talks to his former employee and co-founder of Sergison Bates, Jonathan Sergison about his methodology, working in Europe and his new exhibition at the Design Museum
Portrait by Luke Hayes
Jonathan Sergison In the late 1980s, when I was working in your office, I was in the privileged position of being able to watch you as you formulated a very forceful position as an architect. What’s your relationship now to the origins of that position?
David Chipperfield I think the architect has two responsibilities: one is to build buildings one by one. On the other hand, there is also a responsibility to build a body of work. I think architects should be measured by that double condition: the singular work and the effects of a singular work, and their ability to repeat singular works. That’s the challenge. In the early years there was a high proportion of failed competitions and projects that never developed, now we do things at a higher pace. One can be nostalgic about those days, when one spent more time in the studio.
But there are compensations: you have more experience, and you know what you want to try and do, and how to do it better.
JS I suppose this exhibition allows for a sense of reflection.
DC It’s interesting to see how projects were formative. The National Rowing Museum [Henley-on-Thames,] was a moment where I realised cultural resistance was to be seen both negatively and positively. It is not enough to ignore opposition to modernism. How come the profession and modern architecture are so disconnected from popular taste? That building was an attempt to create a dialogue between the modernist position and resistance to it.
JS The exhibition seems to prioritise your more recent work, what was the concept behind it?
DC We struggled a bit with the notion of a retrospective. The exhibition is too big to be a selection, too small to be an in-depth exposé. There is a selection of projects in the middle of the room, all of them built or in the process of being built, that are explained in more depth. I would have been happy to concentrate on those, but this is our first exhibition in England and the Design Museum is a public museum, not a specifically architectural venue.
They were keen that those selected projects should be embodied into a bigger overview of work. I think it is quite nice to have some of the other projects shown as part of a cumulative exercise. As a laboratory or as a body of work they help explain that the middle has not just come out of rarefied genius, but is the result of hard work, 25 years of failing competitions, of doing budget buildings, and it’s only now that we find ourselves beginning to get commissions.
JS I’m interested in your view of Kenneth Frampton’s discourse on the tension between localness and universality. More than any architect of your generation, yourwork is at a truly international scale and shows an interest in place, a fascination with the local.
DC Well, certainly in intention. You know as well as I do that certain places offer you more than others, and certain contexts spark something that is resonant. There are other places where you scour the earth a bit harder. Sometimes it’s very physical, sometimes it’s more cultural, at other times it’s quite programmatic. I think the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield is an interesting project because it’s a fairly adventurous solution for its context, which is not obviously inspired by the place. But it could not be anywhere else. It also conforms to a series of ideas about room-making that I’m interested in.
JS What I see in your work is an increasing interest in ‘classical architecture’. In your case, I suspect it is understood through architects like Heinrich Tessenow,Karl Friedrich Schinkel and John Soane.
DC How do you build in the shadow of Schinkel, in a situation that is so historic and so overpowering? I’ve always been interested in this notion that architecture is both familiar and strange. The Neues Museum was the first iteration of the idea. It seems familiar, and then of course not at all. My house in Galicia fits in, and yet is completely alien. I think that this has been a consistent theme: to try and find something deep in one’s memory, an intuition, something other people can participate in. I think architects play their own games too much and the narrative and the storytelling becomes too particular. If they become famous, then it doesn’t matter, because they become part of the collective story. But for most of us, the responsibility is to make buildings that allow people in.
JS You are always demanding of contractors. But you have a less obsessive interest in construction than some contemporary Swiss architects. I find your approachmore aligned to that of Alvaro Siza; you don’t consider structure and construction purely, but somewhat more ambiguously.
DC Building in Switzerland is easy. Basel’s Novartis headquarters is our most Swiss building in the way it is structured, it demonstrates all the obsessions of the Swiss. It is really a building made of details. The country is a dream to work in. You’re starting from a very high point, with everybody knowing what you want to do from the beginning. And I would say the same about Germany. Our work in Germany is much more concerned with construction. In the UK you’re starting from a much lower point.
You could not do the Neues Museum in this country. No way.
Jonathan Sergison is co-founder of Sergison Bates Architects. He was a project architect for David Chipperfield Architects from 1986-1987 and 1989-1991
David Chipperfield: Form Matters is on at the Design Museum, SE1 2YD until 31 January. Entry is £8.50.