Jan Kaplicky, who died in January, was a visionary architect whose creativity drove him to test the bounds of the possible, says his former wife and design partner
Jan was a giant on the world architectural stage. His talent towered over us in much the same way as his stature – for Jan was an architect driven not by money or by success but by creativity. For him there was nothing more vital, exhilarating or that held more meaning than the creative act: that moment when he made the mark on paper with a soft 2B lead pencil and his extensive collection of crayons.
As the mark became more resolved, he manipulated a small piece of Plasticine with a bone knife, a scalpel and his hands into a reality that could be imagined, learned from or built.
Much has been made of his frustration at building so little for one so gifted but as someone who worked alongside him for more than 20 years, I believe this has been overstated. Jan was confident of his place in architectural history. He drew and sketched every day of his life, something that touched everyone in our office. He knew that ultimately you are judged not by how many cubic metres of concrete you pour but by your original thought – by a body of work built or unbuilt that challenges, provokes and shifts the debate.
Jan crossed the line between difficult and impossible almost daily, with little regard for the impact he had on the people around him. This could be incredibly funny or profoundly exasperating but it didn’t take me long to realise that to attempt to unravel that behaviour would be to unravel Jan – it was who he was.
Some of Jan’s work was streaked with genius; not a word I use lightly. There is a wonderful sketch he made in Prague in the early sixties, before he came to London: a curvaceous 3D form, coloured in with an orange pastel, of a structure that was the precursor to Lord’s Media Centre. To look at that sketch now in the context of what was being designed at the time anywhere in the world, let alone in a city trapped by Communism, is to see Jan’s vision at its finest.
I went to Prague with Jan in the spring of 1987. He gave a clandestine lecture to hundreds of students and architects in a stiflingly hot basement. Although there was an atmosphere of high tension, I saw Jan in a different light. He was more animated, he smiled and laughed more, he seemed easier in his skin. It made me understand how special you have to be to leave your own country, and the sacrifices you make as an exile. After the lecture, which was received with ecstatic applause, we went to the house where he was born and where he lived until 1968, when he fled the country before the borders closed. In the garden created by his father, I admired a beautiful Japanese maple. He told me it was planted on the day he was born. It was the moment I fell in love with Jan and with his talent.
A couple of years later I persuaded him to give up teaching and to get a proper office so that we could begin to build. It is important to remember that some of Jan’s most seminal work, projects that were not commissioned but that came from his imagination and his desire to create, was done in his small flat in Bayswater on a wooden drawing board with a set square and parallel motion. The work was expressed in meticulously drawn isometrics and photomontages that placed the buildings in fabulously exotic locations – it was all ahead of its time but perfectly buildable.
Turning Future Systems into an office that gave clients confidence that we could build followed a very slow trajectory, but some of our happiest times were in those early days when we had no work, no employees and never went out to lunch in case we missed a phone call. The media centre, won after a competition in 1995, was our breakthrough. That structure probably more than any other expresses the ideas, the aesthetic and the technical innovations that Jan had been exploring relentlessly for more than 20 years. That was also the year our son Josef was born – without question the best work we made together.
In the end the pressures of working and living together proved too much and we began to explore independent intellectual avenues. The breakdown of our relationship was played out in the office – ours was a very public falling out – but it is a great tribute to all the people who have worked in Future Systems that we continued to produce interesting work. And there was always humour, however dysfunctional the scene.
I deeply regret I have to make my peace with Jan in death rather than life, particularly since we had both found personal happiness – and finally reached agreement about splitting the office. Once that had been done I think we would have rediscovered the mutual respect that first brought us together. But Jan left a great legacy of built and unbuilt work that will continue to inspire me and many others for years to come.
There was a poignant and beautiful symmetry to Jan’s life. Although he embodied the complete merging of a man and his work, he also lived through his children. Josef was born on Jan’s birthday and his daughter Johanka was born on the day of his death. This is somehow very Jan.
Original print headline: My tribute to Jan