Jan Kaplicky, 1937-2009

Jan Kaplicky, 1937-2009


Imaginative modernist or inventive thinker, Jan Kaplicky, the Czech-born, London-based architect who died unexpectedly on January 14, inevitably attracted epithets that invoked his irrepressible nature and visionary aspirations. Departing Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion, Kaplicky landed in London and quickly found work with the most talent-driven firms in the city, including stints with Denis Lasdun, Richard Rogers (where he worked on the Pompidou Center competition), and Norman Foster. He was still working with Foster when he founded Future Systems in 1979, and Amanda Levete joined him there a decade later. The pair received the prestigious Stirling Prize for their media center at Lord’s Cricket Ground in 1999 (pictured above). Most recently, Kaplicky was working on the controversial Prague Library project, and planning to continue the more creative projects of Future Systems, following a split with Levete last year. AN spoke to several of Kaplicky’s friends and colleagues, including the architects and critics Eva Jiricna, Deyan Sudjic, and Paul Finch, whose reminiscences follow. 

We met in 1961 when we were both students at university. It was a New Year’s Eve party at a house somewhere out in the countryside in Czechoslovakia. There was lots of singing and dancing; it was a very swinging party, and he was so very tall. We ended up on the couch—talking about architecture. That was my first encounter with Jan. We were together again in London after we had both left Czechoslovakia—I left before the ‘68 invasion, and he left after—and we lived and worked together for years.

It was amazing to watch him work. He turned every thought upside down: There was nothing normal about him, either his designing or his personality. He created his own world and moved into it, but it was not something he could describe consciously. From the outside, his design looked like the image of something organic, a purely emotional way of reflecting nature that couldn’t easily be called architecture. What it was, really, was Jan’s uncontrolled, irrational answer to the reality in front of him. For instance, when a client asked him for a fireplace, he put a hole in the ground with a flame coming out of it. And when he was first thinking about Lord’s Media Center, he sketched a TV on three legs. He was a complete character on all levels; there was nothing ordinary about him.

I used to meet with Jan over lunch to complain about the world. It was around 1983, about the time Jan had just been laid off in one of those periodic meltdowns at London architecture offices. I had just bought an apartment in Maida Vale (“Little Venice,” to friends) in one of the big hulking houses there that had been cut up into apartments. And though it had high ceilings and large windows, it was quite sad and rundown and needed a transformation.

As I was just starting out as an architecture critic, I thought I should put my money where my mouth was and so asked Jan to design what turned out to be the first job for Future Systems. He was working with Eva Jiricna then, and using builders that were on much bigger jobs so they just slipped this in between.

I didn’t interfere at all; and what he designed was a spaceship indoors. There were aluminum floors at different heights that did not meet the walls; the kitchen was a culinary station made entirely of fiberglass (you couldn’t put down anything hot without it going molten) and the doors were portholes. The difference between the tame building outside and what he did quite literally made people’s jaw drop. It was Jan at his most turbo-charged high-tech. And he did it on the budget I had, who knows how.

Unfortunately, with a toddler on all fours crawling on the aluminum floors, it didn’t really work, and I had to sell. I offered Jan the chance to buy it, but he didn’t have the cash, and I couldn’t sell it in that state; it had to be normalized. But it is well documented in photographs, and very well remembered.

Kaplicky represented a late reprise of the flux of émigré continental European architects who had made such an impact on British modernism in the 1930s, including Erich Mendelsohn, Serge Chermayeff, Berthold Lubetkin, and Erno Goldfinger. At a time when British high tech was emerging to challenge the tired architecture of the postwar period, Kaplicky arrived as a fully formed standard bearer for technology, precision drawings, and the understanding of materials and structure that had characterized Czech modernism in its heyday. The result was a meeting of mind and context that propelled his professional trajectory into the rarefied atmosphere of true iconoclasm.

I was very sad to hear the news about Jan. He and a small band of Czechs appeared on the London scene toward the end of the Sixties and had a lasting impact on our conversations. His contribution to the publication and exhibition “Czech Functionalism” at the AA in 1987 was central to this endeavor and brought a real sense of first-hand knowledge and the kind of precision for which he was well known by his friends and students.

Out of all the architects on the London advanced technology scene, Jan Kaplicky was the most fervent, the most political, and ultimately, the most poetic. His “inspiration” books proved that. As much as he applied conventional forms of modernist, even Fuller-esque, efficiencies, he equally applied an obsession with streamlined form to inert buildings, a logic based on modernism’s devilish doppelganger: beauty.