As several of Amanda Levete’s projects approach completion, will her solo design credentials match her impeccable business skills?
More from: Amanda Levete: the social networker
Amanda Levete is in her element. Immaculately dressed as always, she was last week playing hostess at the launch of Tincan, her new pop-up restaurant in Soho, which sells nothing but saltwater beer, wine and beautifully designed tins of fish, which line the walls of the venue.
Outside, Levete’s husband Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival (LDF), steps into a chauffeur-driven limo that escorts him to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where his wife will join him later for the festival’s high-profile annual bash, attended this year by the likes of shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt and jewellery heiress Nadja Swarovski.
It’s a packed itinerary for one night but that’s unlikely to faze Levete, who is deeply ensconced in the air kissing world of London’s design glitterati. ‘She’s the consummate networker,’ says one well-known architect. ‘She always looks the part; she’s charming, camera-ready and exceptionally skilled at promoting herself and her work.’
She’s the consummate networker
Such comments will resonate with those who remember Levete as the commercial force behind Future Systems, which she co-directed alongside her first husband, the late Czech architect Jan Kaplický. She is credited with lifting Kaplický’s visionary, space-age designs off the drawing board and into construction through an intuitive understanding of clients’ needs and ‘extraordinary’ powers of persuasion. Among the studio’s projects are the Media Centre at Lord’s cricket ground, which won the 1999 Stirling Prize, and Selfridge’s Birmingham.
Nevertheless, as an architect Levete remained in Kaplický’s shadow until his death in 2009. Says one former Future Systems employee: ‘I never saw Amanda as a designer. She was a salesperson and a phenomenal spokeswoman who helped push Jan’s designs into the commercial realm.’
Levete has since achieved great success with her eponymous practice. She is delivering the V&A’s new courtyard, Sky’s media campus near Heathrow, a cultural centre in Lisbon and a huge mixed-use scheme in Bangkok on the former site of the British Embassy. She is in high public demand, making regular TV and radio appearances and until recently writing columns for the New Statesman.
Still, some question whether her 55-strong practice deserves such prominence given that relatively little has been built, particularly in the UK. She has also faced an uphill struggle to bring several of her proposals to fruition. Levete’s design for a subway entrance in Naples – a collaboration with artist Anish Kapoor – was panned by critics, and the station remains unconnected to the city’s underground network. She was dropped from News International’s Wapping HQ project when the company sold the site, and from Londonewcastle’s scheme to redevelop the Huntingdon Estate in Shoreditch after it faced public opposition.
All but one of her appearances at the LDF – including the striking Timber Wave and Corian Beach installations at the V&A in 2011 and 2012 respectively – have come since her marriage to Evans. Says one commentator: ‘She’s done very well. That would never have happened if Jan had lived and they’d stayed together. Jan was good for her career when she was relatively unknown at Richard Rogers; Ben gave her an entree into a whole new world.’
One of her ex-colleagues at Future Systems adds: ‘I don’t think her practice has grown because she is a great architect – though she does have a great eye for design and a talent for directing it.’
Amanda demonstrates a broader spectrum of creativity than Jan ever did
Don Gray, head of architecture at the University of Kent, who taught at the Architectural Association while Levete was a student there in the 1970s, disagrees. ‘Amanda demonstrates a broader spectrum of creativity than Jan ever did,’ he says. ‘Her furniture is terrific. She has no time for the architecture of mediocrity.’ At the AA, Levete was ‘insatiably curious’, with a hunger for getting things built that set her apart from other students. Kaplický would have been little without her, he says. ‘She changed his life. And she is perfectly capable of doing things on her own.’
Levete is leading a stable business whose profit before tax rose from £129,000 to £137,000 in the period to June 2013, whereas Future Systems became increasingly dysfunctional following the breakdown of her and Kaplický’s marriage (former staff recall public rows and therapy sessions in the office). Levete is also savvy in PR terms. She hires personal trainers, make-up artists and a voice coach. Much of her carefully crafted public image hinges on her as the artist rebel, for example, the quirky ‘no shoes in the office’ rule and her own revelation that she was ‘expelled from school for sunbathing naked’. At the same time, many details of her education and family – for example, that her late father helped launch LBC radio and her dancer mother devised the highly popular SHAPE dance scheme – are absent from public record.
Jonathan Derbyshire, Levete’s former editor at the New Statesman, says Levete is ‘like a modern politician in how tightly she controls the way her image circulates’. She writes ‘exceptionally well’, he adds, ‘in a way that many practitioners do not’. Levete is on friendly terms with David Miliband, whom she met through Evans – who worked for the 1992 and 1997 Labour election campaigns – and has strong views on built environment policy. Miliband is not the first politician she’s been on good terms with: in 2010, then education secretary Michael Gove described Levete as ‘Britain’s best architect’ at a time when he was slamming so-called ‘starchitects’.
That she is a powerful advocate for her practice and industry should not be criticised as it is a skill many architects lack, says Dominic Harris, ex-Future Systems and founder of Cinimod Studio – one of a handful of former employees, including Angus Pond of Angus Pond Architects and Lida Charsouli of Superfusion Lab, who describe Amanda as a valuable mentor.
Although she won the Stirling Prize as part of Future Systems, Levete’s work in her own name has yet to be fully judged, and no architecture critic at any national newspaper wished to comment on her design output. But with major schemes such as the Bangkok Central Embassy and the Lisbon cultural centre nearing completion this year, the proof will be in the pudding.
Born Bridgend, Wales, 1955
Education St Paul’s Girls School; Hammersmith School of Art; Architectural Association
Career highlights Trainee at Will Alsop; architect at Richard Rogers Partnership; co-founder Powis & Levete; partner Future Systems; principal Amanda Levete Architects, trustee of Arts Foundation and Young Foundation
Favourite book Museum Without Walls, by Jonathan Meades
Favourite buildings Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp
Role model Richard Rogers
In her own words
‘I was rebellious at school - I like having boundaries to challenge. Architecture is a bit like that. I work best with something to hit against.’
‘I’d be quite happy to come back as me [in another life], having learned from my mistakes.’
‘There’s a general presumption against tall buildings in the capital but it’s a position that’s at odds with the innovative, energetic spirit that is London. I understand the emotional issues raised by large developments. But the evolution of a city is bigger than us all.’
‘I switch off by having sex.’
‘Architecture holds ideas. It’s symbolic; it defines our cities. It’s not just a mark on a piece of paper.’
‘Casa Malaparte on Capri…provokes in me a desire for intellectual and emotional ecstasy.’