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Thinking Way Out of the Box

9 minute read
Richard Lacayo/London

When you first step into the London offices of Future Systems, a converted warehouse in Notting Hill, you discover right away that this is an architectural practice that lives up to its name. All you have to do is look over the big glass display cases that line the office. They’re filled with models of projects and proposals that have the kind of silhouettes you used to see in world’s fair pavilions but just about nowhere else. Here’s their Selfridges department store in Birmingham, England, a billowing form covered with silvery disks. Here’s their upcoming museum for Maserati, the Italian car manufacturer, with its lines that any car designer would call aerodynamic. Here’s a phallic skyscraper, never built, that bends like a cattail in the wind. And here’s the most implacably futuristic model of the bunch, a proposal for a prefabricated house that would rise out of the ground on a long neck, continue for a distance underground and send up a kind of tail at its rear. If it calls to mind all kinds of things, and it does, one of them is a brontosaurus from outer space. But how often do you see a house that reminds you in a single gesture of The Flintstones and The Jetsons?

Future Systems was founded in 1979 by Jan Kaplicky, a Czech émigré to Britain who fled Czechoslovakia 10 days after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. “I didn’t have more time to live under a dictatorship,” he says. As it would turn out, he also didn’t have much interest in working under other name architects. After stints with Richard Rogers and then Norman Foster, both vanguard figures of British high tech, he decided to break out on his own. In 1989, Amanda Levete came on board as partner. Today the firm employs 30 people. In recent years it has produced new stores for Comme des Garçons in Paris, New York City and Tokyo, tableware and other design items for Alessi and Moser and a lamp for Fontana Arte. But it was that Selfridges department store, one of the most talked-about and widely published recent buildings in Britain, that put the firm seriously on the map, and even onto a British postage stamp, part of a series last year devoted to exceptional new buildings in Britain.

Shaped somewhat like a very large bean—an organic form that has turned up more than once in Future Systems designs—the store gave the jumble of downtown Birmingham a glamorous new focal point. For one thing, it’s pillowy. Not a word you typically get to use when describing a building; but Future Systems doesn’t make typical buildings. And its mostly windowless exterior is covered by 15,000 anodized aluminum disks packed in rows against a field of stucco painted “Yves Klein blue,” the dark blue patented by the French artist. Depending on how you think about it, those disks can look like sequins or coins. Either way, for a department store, that’s an apt association. But Kaplicky, a soft-spoken man with a very sober disposition, likes to cite another, very unsober inspiration, a Paco Rabanne “chain-link” dress from the 1960s. Disco fashion as the point of departure for a sizable building? Take that, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Propelled by the success of the Selfridges store, Future Systems may be approaching its warp-speed moment, meaning it’s poised for serious takeoff. It has under way two major projects in Italy, that museum for the Maserati car company in Modena and a subway station in Naples that’s a collaboration with Anish Kapoor. He’s the British artist best known in the U.S. for Cloud Mirror, the reflective steel sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park that locals call the Bean. Obviously, beans are a developing theme here.

The rising prominence of Future Systems is one more sign of the remarkable shift in architectural taste over the past decade. One of these days someone will write a revisionist history of 20th century architecture that will trace the survival of a line. I don’t mean a bloodline. I mean an actual line, a ribboning, curving one with sources in plant life and cellular forms and the swells and inlets of the human body. It was that undulating line that Modernism almost did away with when it swept into power in the middle of the 20th century, stomping its robot feet, depositing flat-topped, right-angled glass-and-steel boxes everywhere. In with the Cartesian was the general rule. Out with the organic. In with knife-edged perpendiculars. Out with just about everything else.

O.K., this somewhat simplifies architectural history. The curving line survived as a kind of subdepartment of Modernism. It flowed through the work of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, spiraled up the ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, filled the sails of the Sydney Opera House and even ballooned into the later work of Le Corbusier, the Ur-modernist himself. “It never went entirely away,” Kaplicky insists, and he’s right. But on the whole, and for a long time, it was straight lines that carried more authority. For decades contours endured a kind of underground existence. Anything too curvy risked looking kitschy. Like Jayne Mansfield.

Over the past 10 years or so, all of that has changed. The parabolic line has made its most powerful reappearance since the high-water moment of Art Nouveau at the close of the 19th century. Frank Gehry’s billowing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which opened 10 years ago, didn’t invent the new direction, but for many people it served as the announcement. There’s a whole subdepartment of architectural practice now called blob design, a term that speaks for itself. We have come to a point where the lines between architecture and ice sculpture get thinner all the time.

This is a world in which Kaplicky can feel more at home, and not just because he once actually collaborated on an ice sculpture with Kapoor or because he considers igloos a useful source of ideas for home design. But his architectural thinking is resolutely outside the box. As he once remarked, “There is nothing to say that every house has to have eight corners.” There don’t appear to be any at all in the country house in Wales that his firm designed for a Labour Member of Parliament. On its seaward-facing side, it consists of just an elliptical wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that are wedged directly into the land like the filling in a pita pocket. There are also no detectable corners in that snaking brontosaurus house, a proposal from 2005 that Kaplicky calls Villa. Although no one has opted yet to build one, Kaplicky’s firm has adapted the form for a floor lamp.

It’s also hard to find corners on people, which is why the human body may play the role it does in Future Systems designs. Of course, the body is a point of reference in anybody’s architecture. If nothing else, its scale and proportions determine the size and shape of rooms and doorways. But in the work of Future Systems, you find yourself reminded of the body in more explicit ways. At the New York City shop the firm designed for Comme des Garçons, a long, shimmering steel passageway connecting the sales floor to the plain-brick exterior looks to me very much like a birth canal. It’s an analogy that works well for the experience of passing from the fairly rundown street the shop occupies in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood into the spare but somehow luxurious precincts of the store’s interior. And as Kaplicky says, “The objects they sell—clothing—those have to go around the human body, which is not exactly rectangular.” As for the subway stop in Naples, it bears an unmistakable suggestion of a vaginal opening, although that has to do largely with the sculptural form that Kapoor has devised to wrap around the stairwell.

Future Systems’ inspirations don’t stop with the body. Kaplicky looks to everything for its potential to translate into architectural form—helicopter blades, plant life, even the compound eye of a housefly, which was another model for the spangled exterior of Selfridges. Just as new techniques of steel molding in the 1940s made it possible for auto designers to do more than dream about pontoon fenders, advances in computer-assisted design have greatly enlarged the repertory of forms that it’s genuinely possible to build as stable structures.

Actually, cars inspired the lines of the Maserati museum, which is expected to open in 2009. It consists of two parts. One is a brick farmhouse that was once the home of the auto engineer Enzio Ferrari, which will be renovated and repurposed to display the cars he raced personally. Facing it will be an entirely new building designed by Future Systems to tell the story of Maserati through its cars and other materials. That building will be contoured in such a way that it will appear to emerge in an upward swell from its site, somewhat in the manner of the Welsh seaside house. Its skin will be made from extruded aluminum paneling, a nod in itself to auto manufacture. And its dynamic curves will provide the cars with a context that grows from their own stylish lines. “Those cars are beautiful three-dimensional forms,” says Kaplicky. “So the museum is not a box, like the most ordinary garage.”

Kaplicky is also fascinated by monocoques. Those are structures, like the fuselage of a plane, in which the stresses are carried largely by the skin, not by interior frameworks. That brontosaurus villa would be one. So was Future Systems’ first large-scale project, the Lords Media Center, an elevated white aluminum press box at a London cricket ground that was completed in 1994. A kind of flying saucer on legs that projects over the stands, it was fabricated by boatbuilders accustomed to making seamless hulls.

In the early ’90s, when Kaplicky and his co-director Levete were still thought of as a pair with some rather peculiar ideas, it may have taken some courage for the Lords cricket team to take a gamble on them. Now they increasingly find that Future Systems speaks a language that the rest of the world is ready to comprehend. The completion of the projects in Italy should move them even further into the category of bankable stars, a role the firm is very ready to slip into. As anyone can tell you, the best way to build the future is to seize the day.

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