Romance never dies

The Architecture Association’s exhibition of Jan Kaplicky’s drawings is an exercise in beauty and nostalgia

More wilderness yearning for the ultimate retreat.
More wilderness yearning for the ultimate retreat. · Credit: Credit Kaplicky Centre.

It was like entering a roomful of old friends. I’m not referring to the fact that the launch party for ‘Jan Kaplicky Drawings’ at the Architectural Association was stuffed with the great and good of architecture – Richard Rogers, Michael Wilford, Eva Jiricna and John Pawson among them, along with early clients Deyan Sudjic (now director of the Design Museum) and Sarah Miller, plus of course Kaplicky’s former partner in Future Systems, Amanda Levete, who designed the show complete with characteristic pink carpet. No, I mean the drawings themselves, lining the walls of the AA’s upstairs exhibition room next to the bar. They reminded me just how influential the unbuilt Kaplicky was, how these painstakingly hand-drawn and collaged images of a vividly-imaged techno-future just became part of architecture’s great tradition.

But also – how damned romantic they are. Jan was in the business of Utopias, whether that was a small rural house inspired by NASA’s Lunar Excursion Module, complete with helipad on the roof, or his still-extraordinary 1984 design for the ‘Coexistence’ cable-braced super-skyscraper, engineering courtesy of Arup, complete with vast skygardens, capable of being jacked up from the ground one huge module at a time.  Each module, please note, was reminiscent of a hugely enlarged Apollo capsule in its final form as it returned to earth. Kaplicky was always open about his sources of inspiration; indeed he published a very successful pair of books on just that subject. And as so often with science fiction, it merged with fact: with his partner David Nixon, Future Systems got to do real design work for NASA on what was to become the International Space Station. 

The Trafalgar Square Grand Buildings Competition
The Trafalgar Square Grand Buildings Competition

I have a particular affection for Coexistence as it helped my own career: one of my first national newspaper articles, at that time in the ‘Observer’, was devoted to this extraordinary project. It was a pretty poor piece, not helped by the fact that the paper’s art department rejected Kaplicky’s exquisite drawing and produced a terrible artist’s impression instead.  Still, seeing the original drawing again at the AA – tracked down to a private collection by the exhibition’s curator David Jenkins – brought on a wave of nostalgia.

He died aged 71 in 2009, having worked for Lasdun, Louis de Soissons, Rogers (not least on the Pompidou Centre), Spence & Webster, Foster and Grimshaw. It is certain that his influence on these practices – especially the high-tech set – was considerable. And of course, eventually Future Systems changed from being a theoretical firm to one that actually built things, thanks in no small part to the energy and determination of Levete. Kaplicky’s drawing for their breakout project, the Stirling Prize winning Lord’s Media Centre, is in this little show.

  • A module of the Coexistence tower - gardens above, accommodation in central shaft and below.
    A module of the Coexistence tower - gardens above, accommodation in central shaft and below. · Credit: Credit Kaplicky Centre
  • And one that got built - the 1999 Stirling Prize winning Media Centre at Lords.
    And one that got built - the 1999 Stirling Prize winning Media Centre at Lords. · Credit: Credit Kaplicky Centre
  • Helipad House - the techno-rural idyll.
    Helipad House - the techno-rural idyll. · Credit: Credit Kaplicky Centre
  • Clear Lunar Excursion Module influence in what is close to a technical drawing.
    Clear Lunar Excursion Module influence in what is close to a technical drawing. · Credit: Credit Kaplicky Centre

Let’s not forget that the time when Kaplicky was most creative and futuristic was also the time of post modern stylistic retrenchment and the maximum influence of Prince Charles. His ‘Blob’ monococque design for Trafalgar Square’s 1985 Grand Buildings competition appeared to have been beamed in from another planet: especially given that the eventual winner in that contest was a replica facade rebuild of the existing building. Looking back on it now, this charade was a notable low point for the confidence of the UK architectural profession. Luckily, few remember it, while Kaplicky’s entry is famous.

The exhibition is curated by David Jenkins, for whom ‘Jan Kaplicky Drawings’ is also the first title of his new publishing venture, Circa Press. It’s a beautifully produced and – at £95 – necessarily pricey book that looks set to become an instant classic. Rogers (co-author with Ivan Margolius, a fellow UK-based Czech and friend of Kaplicky) writes in it: ‘Jan was not just a visionary architect, he was a draughtsman of genius. His spirited drawings were at the same time intricate and incredibly economical, able to communicate his space-age visions with just a few strokes of the pen.’

'Jan Kaplicky Drawings' is at the Architecture Association, Bedford Square, London, until 27 March