David Chipperfield - Conversation taken from TTA7 - SS 2014


Interview   John Dine
Photos   Benjamin McMahon


Sir David Chipperfield has traveled constantly for more than twenty-five years and has designed some of the world’s most awarded buildings, yet he still enjoys a more low-key profile than many of his superstar contemporaries. It’s no coincidence. The signatures of a Chipperfield building are less showy, and by his own admission the English sixty-year-old has lost commissions over the years by refusing to propose grand, pretentious statements. His elemental approach is concerned with individual projects more than the architect as individual, relying instead on thoughtfulness and the subtlest material: taste.


Your first project in the 1980s was for an Issey Miyake store in London, which led to new building projects in Japan. Do you remember your first impressions of working there?

Well, I knew nothing about the culture so it came as a great shock to me, but Japan was also very exciting. Issey invited me and we were mostly working on a lot of little in-store shops, so it perhaps wasn’t the greatest professional experience of my life. But it did turn out to be very formative. I think in design and everyday life, the Japanese have an incredible ability to turn the normal into something special. As an architect or designer, one has a great sympathy for the Japanese strategy of ritualizing very straightforward things and elaborating them. It seems to me there’s still a great lesson in that, especially in our culture where we tend to look for extravagance and luxury, complexity, newness, novelty … theirs is a culture with an enormous respect for history, as well as for the normal, which is very appealing to me.

Around that time you designed a house for the photographer Nick Knight, which was opposed by his neighbors. Was that your first taste of British animosity towards new architecture?

Perhaps yes, but I think England has changed now. Twenty years ago there was great skepticism toward modern architecture, and modern things in general. Now in England there’s a younger generation which has travelled, seen more, and is more open-minded. Of course, there still exists a general suspicion of architecture, but I think that’s universal. Because what happens in our cities is not always very appealing, and the way our cities get developed isn’t always for the better. It’s not just architecture’s fault but we are part of that monstrous machine, so we’re in some way guilty of the good and the bad. In that sense, I think it’s right that there should be skepticism. But on the other hand, it’s a shame the dialogue between the public and our profession can be tense, to the point of cliché…

Would you say those experiences encouraged you to look for projects overseas?

England isn’t an easy place to work. We’re a very commercial society, therefore opportunities are generally either shops and interiors, or large office buildings, with not much in between. On top of that, the competition system in Britain doesn’t work very well, unlike in Europe. So it wasn’t that I necessarily went looking for work abroad, it was more the case that unless you were very well connected in society, if young architects wanted to find a small public library, or even a museum, it wasn’t easy in England, especially in those years.

What do you look for when you’re building in different countries, in terms of local materials, natural resources and so on?

I think we’re always scratching around for reasons why we create one building and not another, but it depends. If you’re designing an office building in the suburbs of London, it’s not so easy to find that bit of grit you need to start. Other times, if you’re building a museum in Mexico City and you realize the climate there is unique, never below twenty-something and never above thirty-something degrees Celsius, you can consider inside and outside in a very different way. That was actually the case at the Museo Jumex, where we put the café under a roof but it’s outside; it doesn’t need to be behind glass. When you’re looking at what to build with, some places have a certain material history. Right now, for example, we’re doing a building in Sudan, where we’re literally making concrete out of stone we’re picking up from the desert. But material isn’t always so easy. It’s very unusual to build with a material from an actual place now.

Because of globalization?

Totally. There are no indigenous materials anymore. You can find yourself in Italy being offered Indian marble because it’s cheaper, and that’s … it’s just very confusing. Or else the marble is Italian, but it’s being sent to India to be cut, and then shipped back to Italy. It means that unless you’re up in the Swiss mountains, or in the Cotswolds in England, where there are pre-described architectural languages that you should clearly respect, it’s a conceptual rather than practical issue. I do think it’s the case that because of industrialization and globalization everything is gradually starting to look the same, and the question is how can you stop buildings looking like each other. We just made a small office building by the railway lines at King’s Cross in London, where they’ve recently dismantled the cast iron gasometers. I was inspired by all that Victorian architecture, which led to us making the columns from cast iron, which is actually a fantastic material. So in one sense, it’s a predictable and arbitrary connection to history, which is not necessarily right or wrong, but it’s a clue as to why you make a building different to others.

When you’re abroad, does your foreignness influence your designs?

I think so. You always end up in another city where you have to confess your naivety and your ignorance, and you have to try to use that naivety as something positive. If you’re going to build in Mexico, what’s the opportunity of building there— – what can Mexico offer which is different to London or Tokyo? It can be a weakness or astrength. There are moments when it’s good to be from outside, where you’re clearly not contaminated by the system. Maybe in some ways, as an outsider you can analyze opportunities more objectively, with a bit more distance. Say if I work in Italy, it’s much easier for me to say I don’t have any affiliations. I’m a freer spirit, if you like. On our big project, the Neues Museum in Berlin, I definitely think it was an advantage to be from outside.

I just moved to Berlin, and it seems you have to re-evaluate what might be called beautiful when you come here …

[Laughs] No, it’s not a pretty city. It’s not Paris. But I think it’s going through a great moment, and its ugliness, or its fragmented quality, is both negative and positive. It’s much more open than Paris or London for that very reason.

After working so much in Germany, what defines home for you now?

It’s always been where my family is. I have four children who all grew up in London. They’re now a little more independent, so home is more fluid. I have a house in Berlin now, and for twenty-two years we’ve also been going to a little village in Galicia in the north of Spain. We’re very attached to that one little place on the Atlantic coast, which I suppose is our refuge. I’d have to admit that London is where I was born and is probably my home, but it’s also a great privilege to be able to travel so much, and spend time in Berlin where I have a lot of friends.

How do you prefer to travel?

Train over plane at any opportunity. You can work, and it’s so much more comfortable. I don’t think I’ve flown to Paris for at least ten years. Taking a train to Korea isn’t really an option though, so it’s British Airways I guess … [Laughs]

You’ve spoken about the oppressive aura in law courts that makes visitors feel immediately guilty. It got me thinking about airports, where the security process has changed their dynamic in a similar way.

Absolutely. It’s horrible. When I go to Berlin now, I never take liquids with me because thankfully I have a home at both ends. So sometimes I’ll just get on a plane with a book, without any luggage at all, which really does change the experience. It helps. But I totally agree: the tyranny of airports is just awful.

How do you approach those transitory spaces such as airports, in a different way from more “static” spaces, where people spend more time?

Well people actually spend a lot of time in airports … [Laughs] Though I always see space as being fairly static. It’s true we haven’t designed many transportation buildings, but museums are also about movement through different spaces. Personally, one thing I would say we need is the definition of rooms. I’m not a big fan of endless space, or the museum as a sort of corridor. I don’t think that’s conducive to looking at things, or even being in a building. To me, too much of life is about moving; I think architecture can actually be used to help you enjoy where you are.

Your BBC building in Glasgow, where the studios are all joined by a staggered communal space, seems like a good example.

Well that’s also about creating social space. What you’re always looking for in a building is the collective gesture. That’s very important in all our projects I think, whether it’s a courtyard, an atrium like at the headquarters for BBC Scotland, or the balconies on the America’s Cup building in Valencia. Most clients describe buildings in terms of the areas they need; it’s always very functional. But the moments we remember in life are those odd times sitting on a park bench, or in a café, as opposed to a meeting room or private desk. So when we’re designing, we spend a lot of effort on those “less useful” spaces.


Is that something you look for in a hotel?

Absolutely. I like generosity in a hotel. Not only in your room but in all those useless and anonymous spaces. You wander around an old hotel and there’s a lounge, and then there’s another small room, and then another place … it has the atmosphere of nearly being a public building. You can think of certain old hotels where the corridors are ten feet wide. I think that’s fabulous. A hotel where you’ve got a ten-foot wide corridor is just another thing … if it was up to me, all hotels would be like that.

There’s something cinematic about it.

Yes, and these big staircases … you’re staying on the fourth floor but you use the staircase because it’s this big generous offer. I think that’s something which has been written out of modern hotels. Now when people make hotels, every square meter has to produce income, so they reduce the public space and circulation space down to nothing. What you have is a tiny lobby, some elevators, a fire escape stair, and then you walk along a small corridor where you find your room. That seems to me a great loss. In old hotels, you wallow around in space that is clearly wasteful, but it’s part of the offer. It’s part of the luxury of staying in a hotel. Once you take that generosity away, hotels take on a certain meanness.

You said once that if you spent much time in hotel lobbies, you would never want to see marble again.

Oh, did I?

[Laughs] Perhaps you disagree …

Well, it’s not the material itself but how you use it. Any material can be beautiful— – plastic, aluminum, marble, anything. If you go to see marble being cut out of a mountain, there is nothing more beautiful in the world. On the other hand, if you go to certain hotels in the Middle East, where marble has been used as a sort of cynical, brash blandishment that’s meant to look luxurious, it could really put you off. When materials are used just for their pretentions, I think that’s an issue.

My first experience of high-rise architecture was on package holidays in Spain. The beach front hotels looked like the most modern, utopian things on earth. Why do they have such a bad reputation now?

Those hotels on the Mediterranean coast were fairly cynical offers, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with tall hotel buildings. I mean the Hilton is a high-rise, and you pay lots of money to stay there. Recently I was flown by helicopter over Benidorm, and it’s a city now. And I thought from the air it looked like a perfectly nice city. Now I have to admit that from the ground, I would probably be very depressed by drunken English tourists eating pizzas and curries … but I could also imagine that in twenty years’ time, that might be different. We can be snooty about those package developments but I think it’s more a cultural issue than an architectural one.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s often said luxury hotels exist in a kind of international nowhere-zone of their own. Is that something you’re conscious of when you design one?

Completely. It’s very disappointing to check into a hotel and you can’t remember which city you’re in. I think it’s a shame the big chain hotels, which have become this great machine, don’t have the patience to understand what a Four Seasons in London should be, or what a Four Seasons in Paris or Seoul should be; they’re all roughly the same. Of course, those chains are successful because they become reliable products; they know what they’re doing and they’re reluctant to modify it, and I have to admit as a business traveler, there are advantages to that. On the other hand, you have boutique hotels, which can be charming and very much tailored to a place, but it’s difficult to find anything between the boutique hotel and the slightly faceless chain hotel. There’s not much middle ground. When we did the Café Royal in London, which has this great history but wasn’t a hotel before, just dining rooms, I was very concerned with making sure that you felt you were in London, in a London hotel bedroom, not looking at Piccadilly from a minimal white room decorated in the normal five-star way. I wanted to bring the architecture into the room, and on that project I was very happy with what we achieved.

Are you also thinking about the fact that someone will decorate the space?

Oh, I think you just have to assume they might do anything with it. So the question is: Can you make spaces that will survive? Think about the Georgian house, which has survived all sorts of iterations and modifications, and we still enjoy the proportions, the essential architectural qualities …. I don’t think you’ve got to design the furniture or what goes on the wall. It’s very tempting; you get pulled into helping people choose, and of course you then start getting attached to those decisions. It’s a little different in the case of designing a hotel, because it’s a sort of simulated environment. The guest isn’t going to decorate his own room; someone has to put life in there first. So life has to be pre-simulated, in a way.

In museums and galleries, how does architecture influence your experience of artworks?

I suppose I’m sensitive to bad spaces for art, probably more than most because I have to deliver them. The cliché is that architects don’t know how to design museums for art. David Sylvester, the great critic, once said the artist has no greater enemy than the architect. He meant that architects follow their own concerns and ambitions and try to show off, which was certainly true of most modern museum architecture twenty years ago. Now we’re in a different era and there are now some very good museum spaces, such as Renzo Piano’s over the past two decades. It’s about delivering spaces that artists like to show their work in, and I’m quite proud of the way that’s been established. On the other hand, the white cube, just this anonymous white box, is also a bit boring. So it’s not a solution that the architecture disappears. It has to play a role in how one is introduced into rooms, how the light works … there needs to be personality in a museum, you can’t sidestep that. But I also think that personality shouldn’t be at the expense of how one looks at art.

Is it true you once restricted photography inside the Des Moines Public Library?

[Laughs] This is such a joke, I can’t believe it. This just shows you the complete laziness of journalists.

[Laughs nervously] Right …

You know what happened? It would be great if you published this. Seven years ago, someone taking photos was told off by a librarian, who probably used my name. That went onto a blog or into an article, and it’s been continuously repeated ever since. There’s not an element of truth in it, and yet if you look up Des Moines Library, which I’m very proud of— – we built it for 180 dollars a square foot and it’s a very popular building— – there’s only one story, which is “David Chipperfield didn’t allow photographs.” [Laughs] Why would I, and anyway how could I stop people taking photographs? I mean it’s harmless, it doesn’t worry me too much, but it does show you how journalism works. It’s quite shocking that you can’t get rid of a story.

But people do seem to assign themselves a task, almost, when they visit museums. Instead of looking at the work, they spend the day documenting everything with their video camera …

… or with their iPhone. One is always torn about to what degree you should photograph things and to what degree you should just look at them. There is a great danger that once you start photographing things you stop looking, and I actually sometimes regret I haven’t taken more photographs. On the other hand, drawing is another thing completely. When you draw, it’s the one time where you actually look at something a lot.

Did you study drawing at Kingston?

Yes, I’ve been drawing since I was a schoolboy. Then I went to art school, and I’ve always drawn since. I don’t ever have enough time to, but I do enjoy it. Not that I’m great …



Which artists are you interested in at the moment?

Oh lots, but it depends on the context. Within history I would say that Turner is probably the greatest British artist, and I’ve been looking at his work a lot especially recently, because of our work at the Turner Contemporary museum in Margate. The same goes for Barbara Hepworth in relation to the Hepworth Wakefield gallery. But there are also a lot of contemporary artists whom I’m fortunate to know, like Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, who are great friends. I like a lot of German art, Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, whom I would say is one of the great artists.

Struth was one of the artists and architects you chose to show work at the Venice Biennale exhibition, which you curated in 2012, entitled “Common Ground.” What was the thinking behind that?

The idea was to talk about the commonalities between different architects and about our position in societies. It was an appeal, a cry for help in a way, about the fact there seems to be too much emphasis on the difference between architects, in a competitive manner, too much conflict between the way that architects operate, and the expectations of society about the architect’s role. So Common Ground was an attempt to find the continuities, both professional and societal, within architecture. With Thomas Struth— – he’s someone who has very seriously photographed cities and streets in a more “normal” manner. When you ask architects to show their work, they’re clearly showing special buildings. But our cities are made of normal buildings as well. I wanted Thomas to be the voice of the normal urban world that we develop a fondness for, because I’m interested in how, as citizens, we’re both discouraged from being involved in architecture, but at the same time we start developing familiarities, memories and fondnesses for the places we spend our lives in. And some of those familiarities and empathies are with strange buildings— – not even nice buildings. But you’re sort of attached to them, and I think that’s something one struggles to find very comfortable ways of talking about. Architecture is only spoken of in terms of the achievements of Zaha Hadid or Norman Foster or whoever, and I think it’s becoming a sort of special activity as opposed to a normal activity.

I’m interested to know which “normal” buildings you have a fondness for.

Oh gosh, there are lots … well, let’s take Heathrow Terminal 5 for example. Now that’s not necessarily my favorite piece of architecture. It’s obviously not a building that sets out to befriend you, because it’s a transportation hub. But despite that, you find yourself developing a sort of familiarity. You end up going through airports a lot; these places become part of our lives and you develop a relationship with a building. It’s the same just walking through the city. You walk the same street every day and you know the sidewalks and you know the place, so that becomes part of our experience and memory and relationship to the city. And I think that’s something we underestimate.


For more information on David Chipperfield's architecture and projects click here.


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