Future SystemsArchitectural Design (1979-)
Future Systems is an influential architectural practice that has moved from what might be described as “turbo-charged high-tech”, building on the precedents established by Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, toward a more organic, voluptuous, formally inventive architecture, most flamboyantly expressed by the Selfridges department store in Birmingham, completed in 2003.
The Selfridges store was a rare example of a convincing iconic structure, instantly recognisable with its free form outline and its floating metal disc skin, that immediately became synonymous with Birmingham’s ambitious campaign of urban renewal. The project forms part of an utterly conventional shopping centre, which Selfridge’s visionary chief executive at the time, Vittorio Radice, agreed to take space in upon the condition that the store appointed its own architect.
Selfridges is grafted onto unsympathetic neighbours, reached from the internal mall that snakes around the development. It forms the background to an existing 19th century gothic church keeping a respectful distance away, in order to create a public space. It is both an object building, but also part of an urban context, linked-in to a network of walkways and connected to a neighbouring parking structure with a bridge, that plunges into the store through a dramatically delineated mouth. The interiors, inevitably for a department store, take second place to the merchandise, but a spectacular stack of escalators reaching up to a glass roof provide an impressive centrepiece.
Future Systems was established by Jan Kaplicky, born in Czechoslovakia, 1937, with David Nixon in 1979, in London. Amanda Levete, born in London in 1955, became a partner in 1989, by which time Nixon had left for America.
This formed the background to Kaplicky’s development. Equally important though was his fascination for the West, glimpsed when he was young through the occasional copy of Vogue, and an early visit to New York, where Buckminster Fuller was a particular inspiration.
When he came to London, he was part of the team at Piano and Rogers that won the competition to build the Pompidou Centre, and later he spent some years working with Norman Foster. Levete worked for Richard Rogers before joining Kaplicky.
In its early years, Future System was driven by Kaplicky’s passion for developing a new technology-based approach to architecture, which he expressed through an extraordinary series of images that mixed dramatic photomontages with ink drawings of remarkable mechanical precision. Without building anything, Kaplicky created a powerful image of what architecture might be, inspired by the technology of the aerospace industry, as well as the work of Jean Prouvé and Luigi Colani. It was a spectacular calling card which, coupled with the ambitious name that Kaplicky had chosen for the practice, were to drive them into adopting a resolutely experimental approach. Future Systems poured out a heady stream of speculative propositions for ultra high-rise buildings, for emergency structures that could be helicoptered into position. Some were rooted in existing technologies. Others, such as a proposal for a robot-built space structure, or even Kaplicky’s scheme for a helicopter pilot’s house (a cube like structure sitting on lunar module legs, with a rooftop-landing pad) were more provocative. After a domestic interior designed for the architecture critic, Deyan Sudjic, and work for the Harrods Way In boutique in conjunction with Eva Jiricna, Future Systems built a couple of small houses in London, and then came second in a competition to design the new French National library in Paris. President Mitterrand chose Dominique Perrault ahead of Future System’s proposal for a kind of glass mountain on the banks of the Seine.
Future Systems began to build on a substantial scale when they were commissioned to design a new press centre at the Lords cricket ground, for which they won the Stirling Prize in 1999. It was a chance to realise Kaplicky’s interest in adopting technologies from outside the building industry to realise architecture. The disc shaped structure that they designed was fabricated by a contractor specialising in ship construction. Perched over the spectators’ stands like a floating flying saucer, it was a dramatic sign of a new approach to architecture. Where high-tech believed in expressing structure, in working with the imagery of the machine, the Lords project was something different: an organic, fluid geometry that pointed toward the new direction that Future Systems intended to take. This direction was also related to the work of Zaha Hadid, and others who were beginning to use increasing computing power to design free form, blob-like structures.
With the success of the Lords project, Future Systems were in demand for a series of fashion interiors, notably for Comme des Garcons’ stores in Paris, New York and Tokyo, for New Look in London, and for Marni in London and Milan. They were also collaborating with artists to a degree unusual for architects, including Brian Clarke, who specialises in stained glass, Anthony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. They have even built a partially-underground house in Wales.
Future Systems have gone on to win the competition to design the Czech National Library overlooking Prague in 2007, the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari, and in partnership with the artist Anish Kapoor, a subway station for the Naples Metro system.
At the same time, Future Systems has worked on a number of industrial design projects. Kaplicky has designed a variety of domestic objects with Alessi, including cutlery and glassware, while Levete has been commissioned by Established & Sons to design furniture. These have adopted a fluid formal language that reflects the practice’s architectural work and have retained their trademark rejection of tradition.
Jan Kaplický died in January 2009. At this time Amanda Levete left Future Systems to set up her own practice;
© Design Museum
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