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Kaplický: Visionary Draughtsman

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The late Czech architect Jan Kaplický’s drawings were astonishing in their ability to communicate and inspire, writes David Jenkins

It is axiomatic that all architects draw. For most, drawing is simply a way of conveying information – to assistants or contractors. There may be beauty in the drawing but it remains essentially a tool. Then there are the exceptions. The Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia was one. His drawings for the Città Nuova (1912-14) symbolise the power of technological progress and the speed of urban advancement. Similarly, in the 1960s, Archigram in London and Superstudio in Florence evoked improbable urban futures through a series of speculative drawings. It is to this group of architectural visionaries and dissidents that Jan Kaplický belongs.

Jan Kaplický (1937-2009) was a visionary with a passion for drawing. For him, drawing was an abstract pursuit – a way of summoning new structural forms and evoking new worlds. In the early 1970s, at a time when he was working for other architects, he drew at home at weekends and late into the evenings. His imagination knew no bounds. His only restrictions were the borders of the sheet of paper and the graphic limitations of ink on Mylar or the pasted-paper collage. The drawings of this period – and the decade that followed under the banner of Future Systems – are astonishing in their ability to communicate and inspire. That, in essence, was the starting point for the book, Jan Kaplický Drawings, and the exhibition of the same name currently on show at the Architectural Association.

Jan Kaplicky

I first met Jan and his partner Amanda Levete at the 1991 Venice Biennale, when I was commissioning editor for Phaidon. Architecture critic Martin Pawley introduced us and said ‘you should do a book together’. Future Systems: The Story of Tomorrow became the first title in Phaidon’s then brand-new architecture list. Jan designed the book himself, poring over the layout of every page. At that time, Future Systems had completed just two buildings: a demountable ‘tent’ on the South Bank for MOMI (Museum of the Moving Image) and a house for Andy Sedgwick. Then, as now, in the absence of photography it was Jan’s drawings that captivated the reader. The only frustration was that they were reproduced so small.

Jan Kaplický Drawings is a celebration of drawing in its purest form – within the realm of ideas. It brings together the most memorable of Jan’s sketches, cutaways and photomontages for projects that range from wilderness retreats to megastructures and city towers. Throughout, the drawings are given space to breathe and to reveal themselves in detail. Images that you might think familiar reveal hidden depths.

Jan Kaplicky

We selected drawings first and projects second. Naturally, however, the most interesting projects had the most developed drawings, so there was no inherent contradiction. As we worked our way through the archive, the impression that emerged most strongly was one of intellectual consistency through a diverse range of building types. This has nothing to do with style or form. Rather, it reflects a concern for how people live, how things are made and the way we marshal natural resources.

Some projects, such as the design studies Kaplický and David Nixon undertook for NASA, are at the leading edge of technological possibility. Others, such as Coexistence (1984) anticipate dawning urban realities. Underlying all of this work is a profound environmental awareness – something that was manifested in Future Systems’ work long before the term ‘green’ had gained traction.

Jan feels that computers take away from the creative process

Prompted by a United Nations prediction that by the year 2000 half the world’s population would be living in cities, Coexistence envisages a mixed-use high-rise future community, capable of virtual self-sufficiency. Not only is Coexistence a landmark project – the world’s first green skyscraper – Jan’s isometric drawing must rate as one of the finest ink drawings ever produced. It is the undoubted star of the book and the exhibition.

Incredibly, the drawing almost never made it. We assumed that it would be with the others in the Kaplický Centre in Prague, but they had no record of it, other than a small photographic negative – far too small to work from. That led to months of detective work, and eventually a trail that led us to a private collection in Zurich. Fortunately the owner was willing to loan the drawing and we had it scanned – in the nick of time, just days before we were due to go to press.

From the mid-1990s, as Future Systems began to build, Kaplický drew less – not because of a loss of passion, but due to an evolving professional discipline. The Media Centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London (1994-99), for which Future Systems was awarded the Stirling Prize, was the final project that he drew entirely by hand.

It was part way through Lord’s that computers were introduced to the office. Jan had an instinctive dislike of the computer. He could barely tolerate a mobile phone. He believed computer drawings had none of the qualities of ink on film, in which every line has variation and meaning. Amanda Levete observed at the time: ‘Jan feels that computers take away from the creative process; he feels it’s a great threat that you’re not thinking with a pencil, that you are thinking in a different way.’ Although he continued to sketch profusely, assistants mostly undertook formal drawings. These computer renderings are not included in either the book or the exhibition.

Jan Kaplický was one of the world’s last great architect-poet-draughtsmen, upholding a heritage that has its roots in the early Renaissance and has since all but vanished with the advent of computer-aided design. If the book and the exhibition contain a central message for architects, it is that drawing as an art and a discipline should not be forgotten.

Jan Kaplický Drawings, by Richard Rogers and Ivan Margolius, is published by Circa Press. The exhibition runs at the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London, until 27 March.

Richard Rogers and Amanda Levete will be in conversation at Waterstones Piccadilly, London, on 24 March, 7pm. To reserve a place email piccadilly@waterstones.com

  • David Jenkins is publisher at Circa Press
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