A knight and his squire
If Sir David Chipperfield himself is unable to present a lecture he often sends in his place his trusted man Rik Nys. Having been involved in the practice almost since its beginnings, the Belgian architect knows both the office’s works and Sir David himself very well. David Chipperfield Architects is renowned for the design of museums; Berlin’s restored Neues Museum, which reopened in 2009 after 11 years of restoration, received the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2011, and the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach (2006) received the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2007.
During his lecture at the recent Association of Finnish architects’ event held in Lahti, Nys spoke enthusiastically about the Museo Júmex in Mexico City, which was completed at the end of last year. The video presenting the building process is a thriller: will the huge wooden door fall on the tens of construction workers who lift it and tilt it back and forth? The catharsis in the film comes when David Chipperfield opens the door to the guests with the slightest of touch of his finger.
– Please don’t ask me how much that door weighs! laughs Nys.
He is one of four directors of Chipperfield’s London office and is in charge of communications, publications and exhibitions, but he also participates in design work.
– I play several roles in the office. I’ve worked with David since 1988, so I’ve known the practice for a very long time. Hence, by default I’ve become the office historian and spokesperson.
For a while during the 1990s Nys had his own architectural practice and taught architecture and architectural theory. But even then the contact with Chipperfield was not broken because he worked for the firm as a freelancer. 25 years of collaboration is a long time.
– My discussions with David are extremely brief, as we know each other so well. In that sense we are very closely linked.
Independently operating machinery
Trusted partners are indeed needed to manage an enormous architectural firm. DCA operates in four cities: London, Berlin, Milan and Shanghai. The total number of staff is around 250. The London office was the first one and is still David Chipperfield’s home base, though it is not a headquarters. Every office has its own leadership and operates independently. The 60-year-old Chipperfield diligently travels between the offices, attends design and building site meetings and meets people.
Chipperfield participates in the design of every project. Does he himself draw the first lines of the sketch or is the design work from the very beginning a cooperation?
– It’s a collaborative effort, but in the end David has the biggest sway. Often he gets in the project from the first moment but sometimes the design teams make proposals which are then reviewed thoroughly.
The persons in charge of the offices have known Chipperfield for a long time and have been able to adopt his architectural visions.
– Years ago David said: designing a building is not that difficult, designing an office is. Architects know what to do, but at the same time there’s room for manoeuvre. If the design idea is robust enough the rest will follow, and from that point onwards the design team can work independently.
In the short film telling about Museo Júmex there is a scene where Chipperfield rolls a pen in his hand and sketches. Is this scene true to life?
– Yes, he sketches with his fountain pen – or anything he can get his hands on – all the time and everywhere! I joke that his use of technology doesn’t go much further that an iPad and iPhone.
A modernist starchitect
The forms and materials of Chipperfield’s buildings vary. For example, the façades of the pitched-roof River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames (1997) are in wood, the Central Public Library in Des Moines, Iowa (2006) in copper-toned glass, the Museum Folkwang in Essen (2010) light greenish glass, the horizontal-lined St. Louis Art Museum (2013) is in very dark concrete, and the saw-tooth roofed Museo Júmex is in light-coloured travertine. The character of all these can be described as mono-materiality.
– Actually, you could talk about formal eclecticism – not stylistically but rather because David is always happy to look for new forms and ways of doing things. Essential for both form and material is the influence of the location. Context is extremely important. Contextual thinking does not mean, however, that the building should blend in its surroundings – occasionally even creating opposition to surroundings is a valid response.
It seems as if the Mexico City museum comments that the surrounding glass skyscrapers, in their similarity, are banal and creates a strong presence in the location through difference.
– David likes the expressive character of architecture, the fact that we can express something through architecture or how we actively use space on a daily basis. He doesn’t want to design landmarks. In his opinion – and here I fully agree with him – the building should never be the protagonist. When you see a building for the first time, you can admire it, but when you live and work in it, it’s an active instrument and a part of life, not an artwork.
It seems that the title of starchitect suits Chipperfield poorly.
– The ordinariness of our daily rituals motivates us in our work. Young people who come to work at the office may want to do something more complex and crafted, but more experienced colleagues know that architecture doesn’t need to be loud to be successful. It doesn’t have to be singing and dancing, it doesn’t need to shout: “Look at me!” In fact, more often than not, restrained spaces are more enjoyable.
Chipperfield confesses that the architecture of Mies van der Rohe has inspired him, especially in the design of the Mexico City museum. However, as a young student what made a huge impression on him were neoclassicists such as John Soane and Henri Labrouste.
– David was interested in Neoclassicism not so much as a stylistic trend but in how these architects created space and expressed architecture. For example, incredibly moving spaces may be created with columns in the middle like Labrouste’s library in Paris which also has a strong articulated façade. David is also not afraid of the word “postmodernism” when it reaches beyond the stylistic.
You could imagine that the white concrete colonnade around the Marbach musuem has been inspired by Classicism. The colonnade of the Neues Museum, which was destroyed in the wartime bombings of Berlin, was reconstructed in accordance with the original. Chipperfield’s architecture, in its functionality and simplicity, is, however, mainly modernist.
– For a while we had a label of being minimalists – and to a certain extent it was a wrong label. Well, it is true that we usually strive to pair things down to the minimum in details, but not in the sense that the result must be restrictively devoid of human traces.
Chipperfield has been in Finland and visited some of Alvar Aalto’s buildings.
– In the early days of our office, when we were drawing on boards, we worked sitting on Aalto chairs; we still retain them for our meeting tables. Our canteen in London has Aalto stools which are fit for purpose and fit the space very well.
The scale of the everyday
David Chipperfield himself has also designed furniture and objects. For instance, in the Alessi range there is cutlery and tableware carrying his name. His industrial design products also include door handles, lamps and bathroom fittings, among others.
– David likes designing objects, but on the other hand in his opinion it is unnecessary to redesign the shape of a plate when round plates have been made for ages and proven to be efficient.
The scale of the architectural office’s projects varies from a teaspoon to an urban complex such as the Barcelona City of Justice (2009), a totality comprising nine high-rise buildings. The works also include single-family houses.
–David’s guideline for designing houses is to focus on the ordinary rituals of daily life, explored as a laboratory of architectural ideas. In a single-family house, as in all our buildings, one permanent theme is the window, and we always return to it. Through the window a connection is created to a larger context, whether in the city centre or amidst nature. A secondary function is to bring light, and modulated by the aperture and its size, whether in the façade or on the roof.
The significance of context is also manifested in the everyday – how a building affects the life of the people in its surroundings. Several of the buildings offer a sheltered outdoor terrace or the possibility of viewing the landscape. Museo Júmex is in a Corbusier-like fashion raised on pilotis, so that it would be possible to walk underneath it – and at the same time enjoy art.
– We strive to give something back to people – something for which you don’t have to buy an admission ticket. The blur between the public and private domain is a very interesting one. David often calls this ‘useless space’, which is not meant to imply that it has no value but rather that it simply does not have a specific function. As such, this ‘useless space’ is at the core of our approach rather than a by-product.
Many of DCA’s museum projects have resulted through architecture competitions – in the Neues Museum competition, for example – also participating were names such as Frank Gehry. Rik Nys has heard about the Helsinki Guggenheim debate.
– Is it like a phoenix that has again risen from the ashes? I understand the problems connected with it: funding, the effect it has on Helsinki’s other art institutes, politics etc. When we designed the Turner Contemporary gallery (2011) in Margate in England something was expected from the architecture that would spearhead the regeneration of the town. This is demanding too much from the architects, the architects cannot be held responsible for the future of the whole town. However, when the question arises to build a good museum, we are delighted.
The forthcoming architecture competition in Helsinki interests Nys. Is DCA intending to participate?
– If the funding is in order and the competition process is carried out appropriately, and if a full scheme is not required during the first stage – and if everyone else is happy with the complete organisation of the competition! – we will consider participating. In general, competitions are very expensive to do. We find it difficult to participate in open competitions, unless they are organised in clear stages.
Art had already been a part of Rik Nys’s life before getting involved with designing art museums. After having graduated as an architect, he studied architectural history and philosophy. He could have become purely a theoretician, but he felt that design was close to his heart and he didn’t want to abandon practice.
– As a historian you would love to unravel the life of Palladio. But if you were there, in his time, wouldn’t it be nice to participate personally in Palladio’s adventure? When I started with David there were only five of us, we were nobodies. Being part of that story has been very exciting.
Text: Miina Blot.
Translation into English: Gareth Griffiths.