David Chipperfield has quietly built up a highly exportable architectural practice, with competition wins all over the world. Now, the UK portfolio is belatedly taking shape – if clients can stop project-managing for long enough

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David Chipperfield

Getting hold of David Chipperfield isn’t easy. The first time he cancels this interview it’s to fly to the USA at short notice. The second time, a new client has come to the office. His PA, Louise, is terribly sweet about it: “I really am very sorry; it’s so difficult at the moment. David’s just so busy.”

Indeed. Since Christmas the office has been shortlisted for a £100m university in America; is in discussions about an art galley also in the USA; and property developer Argent St George has called up to discuss ideas. Serious enquiries are running at about four a week, and the practice is having to be increasingly selective about new work.

Based in a self-designed building in Camden Town, north London, and a Berlin office, David Chipperfield Architects employs 120 people and has grown steadily over the past three years to a turnover of £4.5m plus. In a recent survey of the world’s biggest practices, the firm was one of the highest-ranking “non-commercial” (more of this later) UK firms. With projects from Korea to Camden, Chipperfield is truly at the height of his profession.

Yet, when we do finally meet in his sparely elegant London office, the quietly spoken, thoughtful 51-year-old says that he almost didn’t go into architecture at all. Brought up on a farm in Devon, he wanted to be a vet but, so he says, wasn’t academic enough. An art teacher at boarding school spotted his talent for drawing and encouraged him to be an architect (the careers master thought an estate agent was as good as he was going to get). But he made it to Kingston University, followed by the Architectural Association.

It was the heady mid-70s: Ronan Point had collapsed and with it the unquestioned supremacy of modernism. Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Leon Krier were fellow students, and the AA was a hotbed of experimentation. In this climate of non-conformism, Chipperfield moved in the opposite direction.

“I became a bit conservative,” he says.

While others of his generation – Hadid, Koolhaas, Will Alsop et al – have moved in the direction of the spectacular, designing flamboyantly eye-catching buildings, Chipperfield’s path has been a quieter one, although he doesn’t like to be described as a minimalist. “I am not quite sure that it means anything in architecture any more, other than white walls and everything tucked into cupboards,” he says. His work, he argues, is about “restraint”, and buildings having one or two really good ideas that are very well executed: “I am put off by architecture that has fantastic ambitions that are not well fulfilled. I’m not part of the wacky brigade.

I prefer to set my ambitions a bit lower and then fulfil them. That way you can gradually set your visions higher and higher.”

I must have had 150 meetings for the BBC and they are miserable. We project-manage to death in this country

It is difficult to capture the essence of Chipperfield’s architecture in pictures: it’s an architecture that has to be felt. The sensation of the door handle as you grasp it; the way the light falls across a room; the echoing sound of footsteps across a floor: his is an experiential architecture, rather than visual. Not that his buildings aren’t beautiful, and they are very striking. But Chipperfield’s concern, he says, is to “elevate normality”, improving everyday life rather than hunting down glamour.

But you’d be hard pushed if you want to go and see any of his buildings just yet. For much of the late 1980s and most of the 1990s he built comparatively little: apart from the 1997 Henley Rowing Museum, his output was a few boutiques, some high-end domestic work and some interesting buildings in Japan, where he was one of the first British architects to work.

Critical acclaim was never short but big projects were. Doggedly, the office plugged on with competition after competition, and gradually started winning them. The results show this year with a record number of big projects completing. These include four major buildings: the £20m Figge Art Museum in Davenport and the £14m Des Moines public library, both in Iowa; a £4.2m social housing scheme in Madrid; and a £5m literature museum in Marbach, south Germany.

Today, 90% of jobs are still won through competition. As well as the four projects mentioned above, a new cemetery in Venice, the £159m restoration of Berlin’s Neues Museum, the £130m law courts in Barcelona, the £15m Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield (a rarity in being British) to name but a few were all the result of competition successes.

When critics suggest that one reason he doesn’t get more UK work is because he is “uncommercial”, Chipperfield fumes. “This is a studio, not a commercial practice. Each design project is seen as a potential experiment with the possibility for research and development, whereas a commercial practice offers a standard product. But it’s a myth that an office like this is not good at keeping costs down. We work on public projects throughout Europe and the States where there isn’t a spare euro or dollar.”

It’s certainly true that David Chipperfield Architects has been more successful outside Britain than at home. Its biggest project here, the BBC’s £72m Glasgow headquarters, has been a troubled one and the firm has been dropped in favour of the contractor’s architect, Keppie Design. The problem, Chipperfield says, is not so much money as the British tendency to downplay the role of the architect and to overdo project management. “The law courts in Barcelona is a 5 million ft2 project. I’ve had six or seven client meetings and we are on site [with a local executive architect]. I must have had 150 meetings for the BBC, and they are miserable. We project-manage to death in this country.” But progress at Wakefield has been good, and he is pleased that the London Borough of Camden recently described his housing scheme near Hampstead Heath as “exemplary”. The work here will come, he says.

In the meantime, Chipperfield’s a frequent flyer. He spends two days a week in the Berlin office, overseeing the high-profile restoration of the Neues Museum, and other German schemes. He takes off and lands most often in the three main markets of Spain, Italy and the USA. The firm has been in China for three years, and is now looking at Korea.

No wonder it’s hard to pin him down.

New departures

This year David Chipperfield Architects completes four major international buildings, two of which are in the American state of Iowa. One of the Iowan city of Davenport’s stated goals (www.cityofdavenportiowa.com), is to make “downtown the place to be”. Like so many American cities, Davenport suffers from suburban sprawl and inner-city decline. The £20m Figge (pronounced “figgy”) Art Museum is part of a larger scheme to reverse that decline. Set in the heart of the city, on the Mississippi banks, the museum is a bid to lure visitors back to the city’s waterfront. The building’s monolithic proportions refer back to the old city grid but each facade is different, creating a variety of approaches – city plaza, street entrance and riverside terrace.

Chipperfield has developed a reputation in Iowa. Besides the Figge, it has also designed the £14m public library in the state capital, Des Moines. The idea is that, when it opens at the end of this year, it will create a link between the city centre and the Western Gateway Park. With different arms pulling in each direction, it’s something of a departure: a low-level, fluid structure instead of the normally tightly controlled box.

The office has other US projects – notably the Anchorage Museum of History & Art – but Spain and Italy are its biggest markets. Next month, its social housing in Verona, a new district to the south of Madrid, opens. Chipperfield says it is “one of our best buildings. Now the mayor is coming to open it they are regretting that they built it in such a terrible place”.

But it is with Germany that the office has had its longest foreign relationship. It opened a branch in Berlin after winning the Neues Museum contest in 1997. The office now does all of the German and some of the Chinese work. Its Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar, Germany, a series of pavilion-like exhibition spaces next to the existing National Schiller Museum, will open at the end of the year in time for the 200th anniversary of the German dramatist’s death.