Best known for his sensitive and yet daring reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin, Sir David Chipperfield CBE RA RDI RIBA BDA (to give him his full title) has built a career on designing monuments. And yet in recent years, he’s become much less interested in architecture per se. What drives him now are the societal concerns of architecture, the question of how we should shape our cities, and the issues of public and pseudo-public spaces.
That’s not to say that he’s taking a hands-off approach to his practice. David Chipperfield Architects, which he established in 1985, currently employs more than 250 people in offices in London, Berlin, Milan, and Shanghai. Today, Chipperfield remains involved with ongoing projects including the Nobel Centre in Stockholm, a new concert hall in Edinburgh, and the renovation of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He’s a man whose body clock must be on its own special time zone, zipping as he does across the world on such a regular basis.
I’m here in London (on boring old British Summer Time), to meet him and Simon Kretz after their year of mentorship, which began in June 2016.
“One thing I should say firstly, the mentor/mentee programme is not a student/teacher relationship,” reveals Chipperfield. We’re sitting in the airy white space of his studio in Waterloo, with his protégé Kretz by his side. I say “protégé”, but as it quickly becomes clear, the pair have long abandoned the mentor/protégé titles.
“The concept is two professionals at different stages of their career in some sort of dialogue; sharing different experiences and different perspectives,” says Chipperfield. “The learning goes both ways. It’s an opportunity for an older generation to be more in touch with the younger generation, and I think that’s the spirit in which most people enter this.”
“This”, of course, is the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. A philanthropic programme set up in 2002, the idea is to match gifted younger artists from around the world with masters of their disciplines for a year of one-on-one mentorship. Architecture is the newest strand of the programme (having been introduced in 2012), and this partnership between Chipperfield and Kretz is the third time Rolex is running it.
Architecture falls into that strange limbo of practical art – after all, even the most committed philistine would concede that we have a need for buildings. What makes it even more of an anomaly within the programme is the time scale required.
“In architecture, one year doesn’t actually represent very much,” Chipperfield notes. “Even doing an extension on the back of your house takes three years. So the question for this discipline was, how do you find moments that are meaningful within the 12 months? Architecture, insofar that we’re not a performance-based activity, doesn’t tend to have the same moments of intensity as theatre, or dance, or even film.”
Having rejected the idea of simply asking Kretz to come into the office and sit in on a few meetings, or walking him around a building site (“The most boring thing in the world – I mean, you’ve seen paint dry”), Chipperfield decided the best way to approach this gift of time was to suspend actual practice and to take a more theoretical position. So they chose a plot in London that’s currently being redeveloped but which neither of them are involved with, and used that as a springboard for their discussions. Over the course of the year, the duo explored the role of architects in urbanism within the context of this real site.
“We tried to apply a Swiss planning procedure to this development, to find out what the core differences are between the approaches of the two countries,” says Kretz. The results were illuminating. Where the English system has the planning parameters defined by the ownership boundaries, the Swiss system sets the planning parameters in relation to the whole city and the adjacent neighbourhoods.
“In England we’ve eroded the proactive potential of planning that used to be in place,” says Chipperfield, who chose Kretz precisely for his interest and experience in enhancing the urban environment. “It seemed very interesting, [to work with] someone from Switzerland, where there’s still this strong notion of proactive planning, of civic society, and the idea of regulating the planning process, in comparison to London where we have a very relaxed, free-market attitude, which says that regulation is anti-enterprise so we’ve softened regulation.”
Deregulation is a subject close to Chipperfield’s heart. At the annual RIBA International Conference in July, he claimed that Brexit is an attempt to get out of European regulation and that the Grenfell Tower disaster in West London is “what happens if you don’t have red tape”.
If it sounds like Chipperfield is getting on his soapbox, that’s because he is – and thank God. Because we need somebody of his profile to take on these issues, to question the system, and to challenge the investors. In London, as the skyline fluctuates and developers slap nicknames such as the Gherkin/Walkie-Talkie/Cheesegrater on their buildings to make them seem familiar, Londoners have started to feel that the city’s evolution is something that’s happening to them. That they have no say. And this isn’t just about London; it’s a global issue. What is good, responsible urban design and how do we hold investors accountable to these ideas?
Well, there are no simple answers, but Chipperfield and Kretz will try to address these issues at the Rolex event in Berlin early next year. “At that moment, we will present the work in a much more formal way,” explains Chipperfield. “We will exhibit the work and there will be a publication to try and conclude this. We’re having a discussion at the moment about how we can make this both a serious piece of research, but at the same time accessible in its principle concepts.”
Because, as Chipperfield points out with a grin, “architects have a tendency to make what they do seem complicated.” And as I pack away my voice recorder – showing 108 minutes of audio – I wonder what the complicated version of this would be.