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Chipperfield on his RIBA Gold Medal, his career and the profession

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Richard Waite talks to David Chipperfield who joins an architectural elite, which includes Le Corbusier, Edwin Lutyens and Mies van der Rohe, when he picks up his RIBA Gold Medal later today

At 57, Chipperfield is among the youngest architects to win the award in recognition of his life’s work.

In recent weeks his practice has moved from the ‘backwoods, disconnected’ office in Camden to a new home in Elizabeth House block in Waterloo – a building which Chipperfield is looking to demolish and replace as part of wider proposals that are backed by London & Regional Properties and Chelsfield Partners.

The medal is the latest in a string of accolades picked up by Chipperfield, who has already been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize six times and was knighted last year.

Why does the Gold Medal matter to you?

After 30 years of hard work it’s quite flattering and reassuring. I’m joining an amazing list of people – one has to be honoured. Also, I suppose the award makes me feel more like I’m in the centre of things. I’ve always enjoyed standing on the outside, complaining from afar.

That’s a bit overstated. I have nothing to complain about personally; I’m complaining on behalf of the profession. In this country, the architect is inevitably placed in a position of confrontation. We are not naturally handed the protection or conditions that architects really need, which are given, to some degree, in some other European countries. Young architects need to be better protected.

What is the current state of the profession?

When you have government ministers saying we don’t need architects to design schools, because they are ‘creaming off’ fees, you’ve found yourself as low as you can go in the esteem of the forces that should be valuing your profession.

Have we contributed to that sense of uselessness? Maybe.

If architecture does not serve the public good, or is not seen to serve the public good, then we are working from a low level of expectation and a low level of responsibility.

We all know architects, famous or not famous, that work really hard, maybe misguidedly, motivated by the belief that their work means something and contributes something. It is very disappointing we have not been able to communicate that properly to a larger public and to the political forces that need to support us.

Is it up to the RIBA to change this perception?

The RIBA has struggled over the last 20 years in trying to work out how it should sell architecture. At times, it has tried to reassure the public that we are friendly and we are good value for money, which is absolutely correct.

On the other hand, it hasn’t been quite arrogant enough. It is not just that we add value in clear financial terms. Isn’t that aiming a bit low – don’t we add value to society?

In that sense the RIBA has on occasion been too apologetic on our behalf.

It was also a mistake to abandon the recommended fee scales, and the RIBA’s soft attitude towards competitions has not helped architectural culture in this country.

I think there were five open, design contests in the UK last year. There were 200 in Germany and 1,600 in France. That’s shocking.

You’ve been through it all, what advice would you give to those just setting up practice?

Some things have got much better in the last 30 years. The general public’s openness and attitude towards modern architecture and design is a million miles ahead of where it was 30 years ago.

There has been a lot of good architecture, and the general quality of architecture has improved in the last 15 years.

But what hasn’t improved is how small practices move on from smaller to bigger commissions. So the competition system needs to be friendly to small, young practices.

Not every architect can get on a plane [and get work in Europe]. If the RIBA doesn’t believe in competitions, then they are not going to happen.

Why do you think you’ve been awarded the Gold Medal now?

The Neues Museum and its success has certainly lifted me up a notch. All these years, I’ve maintained the position and ambition that you can be a critical practitioner. In other words, the clichéd market view of an architect is that either you are a reliable and commercially-minded practice, or you are a flaky dreamer.

With the latter, [developers] think ‘It would be nice to work with that kind of practice but when it comes to big projects we are not going to risk it.’

We build buildings, we build them on time and in budget

We have proven in the last 20 years, that we build buildings, we build them on time and in budget – but that is not our marketing slogan. I just take that for granted. We have work because we perform to those professional levels we are expected to.

I may not be the most interesting architect, but I’m still out there and have maintained some position of integrity.

It is about building a body of work, and in a consistent manner. How do we maintain our standards over 30 or 40 projects? There is no answer – that is the challenge. And that’s what being an architect is about.

I like to believe that after we have finished a project, that everyone walks away thinking it was a challenging and interesting process, professionally handled, and that the outcome was more than expected. If that’s what my award is for, that’s how I’d like
to receive it.

What will Localism mean for the profession?

With Localism, architects have an enormous amount to offer. But am I optimistic about the general concept? Not particularly.

Localism in England means a certain protection of vested interests rather than the bigger view of things. Architecture doesn’t happen accidentally, it needs money and will and co-ordination and a certain amount of authority.

Architects will learn to be more nimble. Architecture isn’t only about building a large glossy building, it’s about re-use and how culture might operate.

We should be building more libraries, not shutting them down

As for the question of libraries, it sends shivers down my spine when I hear about plans to close them. We should be building more libraries, not shutting them down. If footfall is down, we have to come up with ideas to make them more like cultural centres to give them more vitality. Getting rid of them is nothing short of a crime.

That’s where architects can offer ideas, instead of provincial politicians pointing to visitor numbers. I have much more confidence in a local architect thinking about what can be done with a library.

The library goes to the heart of the English problem. We don’t hold culture as an ambition of society – it is a luxury you have if you can afford it – but it should be fundamental.

You’ve done a range of projects in your career, but what would you like to do next?

I’d love to be involved in the South Bank, it is a great treasure and people are becoming more and more convinced that it’s not a concrete bunker.

As an architect, doing single, clean ‘solitaire’ buildings is always attractive, but the great experience of Berlin was working with a city. It was most contentious, most fulfilling and most meaningful. 

Former AJ editor Isabel Allen:

Try as you might, it’s tough to fault Chipperfield

When I became editor of the AJ, one of my predecessors, Stephen Greenfield, offered a piece of advice: ‘Look for the project they’re trying to keep quiet – every architect has something they’re embarrassed about lurking in the back of a drawer’.

It became something of an obsession: identifying that pesky faux pas that never made it to the Monograph. I was especially determined to identify David Chipperfield’s fatal flaw. I had a score to settle. My first encounter with Chipperfield had left me crushed.

I was a third year architecture student. He was my external examiner. Having been assigned the last slot of the day, I figured he’d be tired. It seemed polite – clever, even – to pare my presentation down to bare essentials: I ditched the site plan on the basis that every student was showing pretty much the same thing and he’d have got the general idea. Chipperfield took one look and said, simply, ‘You haven’t shown a site plan. It’s disrespectful to the context and the city. Never do that again.’ 

My quest to prove that he, too, was capable of an error of judgment was doomed from the start. I thought I’d got him once. Looking at the elevational drawings for his studio for the sculptor Antony Gormley phrases like ‘cardboard cut-out’, ‘child-like’ and even ‘mid-life crisis’ started to swirl around my head. But the building is a triumph; playful yes, but, executed with the polish, poetry and perfection – and, crucially, respect towards the context and the city – that are the Chipperfield stock-in-trade. Gormley’s studio swiftly made it to my top 10 buildings of all time. And yes, the other nine are by Chipperfield as well.

I was overwhelmed with civic pride when Wakefield, my home town, selected Chipperfield to design the Hepworth Museum. (And believe me, coming from Wakefield, moments of civic pride are few and far between).  And I felt a surge of proper patriotism when the RIBA finally awarded him the Gold Medal.

I’ve heard whispers that, at a precocious 57, he’s claimed the honour with an unseemly haste. But this is a talent that appeared fully formed. There are no awkward youthful projects. Trust me, I’ve looked. The big Gold Medal question is not ‘So soon?’ but ‘What took so long?’.

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