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David Chipperfield's tale of work and city limits

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

It is rare for an architect to own up, as David Chipperfield did - even in the context of a lecture hosted by the LSE's Cities programme - to the fact that the city, as such, is 'not where I ever think of starting'. Although stated without apparent fear of creating the wrong impression, it was quickly qualified, however, by an explanation that 'if the 'city' means both the fabric and a collective idea of city, then I am very comfortable with it'.

It must be said that Chipperfield is refreshingly frank about the limitations imposed on his practice by the nature of his work historically (a situation he seems to have moved away from today), and critical, as he always has been, about the nature of architectural patronage and the conditions of practice in general in this country.

He argues that although any architectural project must mean 'something more than the isolated individual act. . . everything conspires to separate us from that context'. Contemporary architects, 'even more than our historical counterparts', find that their 'responsibilities and roles are reduced to being aesthetic builders, [and] the potential to engage in a larger discussion is increasingly limited in the contemporary city.'

The limits placed on any project are 'very proscribed', and the potential 'to make public space in the conventional manner is less and less feasible'.

Chipperfield points to a project such as the British Museum's Great Court - for which he avoided expressing either direct criticism or praise - as an example of an initiative taken within the context of an essentially private project to create a new form of public space. An approach which he suggests must be the way forward in the future, in the absence of other opportunities, and provides the cue for much of his own current work, among which museums have become significant patrons.

Chipperfield is used to being constrained within the limits of private projects in any case - a situation he has railed against in the past, and for which he once again voiced outspoken criticism with a snipe at the Lottery commissioners for favouring only the best-established architects; but also a situation he has made the most of and turned to his advantage.

The 'small projects' of the past forced his practice 'to make serious endeavours out of small problems' and 'very much influenced our thinking', he says. They also acted as a catalyst to 'finding ideas in the social and cultural context', a process which has affected 'a whole generation of architects' working beyond the limits of a Modern Movement ideology which produced 'buildings. . .

not of their place'. Chipperfield's ongoing work on the Berlin museum island, and the new museum for Davenport, Iowa - the lynchpin in the regeneration of a moribund downtown - encapsulates ideas of 'locating a project' which fundamentally acknowledge the anthropological city as the cultural framework for architectural projects.

David Chipperfield was presenting his lecture in the LSE/ Royal Academy of Arts series at the LSE

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