Architect Amanda Levete: ‘We have a responsibility to be radical and sensitive’

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Some years ago, James Murdoch’s wife, Kathryn Hufschmid, wanted to buy a bench, a limited-edition work by the architect and designer Amanda Levete, and although he – even he – balked at the five-figure price, the couple became interested in her work. Murdoch’s company News International then asked her to bid for the interior fit-out of new headquarters planned in the City of London. She found the brief uninspiring, declined, and went on holiday.

When she came back she found that Murdoch had phoned twice, wanting to meet and to know why she’d turned him down. Too little ambition, she said. The building for which the fit-out was required was mediocre. Why not build something more splendid and effective on the company’s Wapping compound in the former docks, scene of the 1980s disputes that broke the power of the old print unions? “That is your heritage,” she recalls saying. “So much of where you came from came from there.” A meeting was held, with Rebekah Wade (later Brooks) in attendance, after which Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) was asked to design just such an HQ in Wapping.

The story, rising in scale from furniture to a putative workplace for many thousands, encapsulates Levete’s approach to work and life. She prizes ambition. “You have to have passion,” she says. She likes not doing the thing first asked for, nor following the way easy or obvious, and using nerve, persuasion and personal contacts to get there. “She is quite a piece of work,” says someone who has observed her at close quarters. “She’s got that force of personality that big architects have – we’re just used to them being men. She gets people to agree to things often against their better judgment. She gets immense control over a project.”

In the middle of designing her new project for the Victoria and Albert Museum, I’m also told, she went back to the trustees to say that she needed more fees to do the job properly – “that sort of move is pretty brazen but very effective”.

Her methods have earned her the mistrust of some of her peers. In 2014, Architects’ Journal quoted a number of sources for whom she is a “consummate networker”, “a phenomenal salesperson” who “is like a modern politician in how tightly she controls the way her image circulates”. It noted her ability to be friends with David Miliband while also earning the public praise of Michael Gove – usually an architect-hater – in the days when he was education secretary. “I don’t think her practice has grown because she is a great architect,” said a former colleague, “though she does have a great eye for design and a talent for directing it.” At the age of 61, then, she still has something to prove.

This summer, the V&A will open its new Sainsbury Gallery, designed by her and her practice, and here, too, she has avoided the easy option. To call it a “gallery” is, in fact, an inadequate description: it will, rather, be the largest room in the whole museum, a church-high, column-free hall ceiled with a 38-metre-span techno-gothic vault, built to house exhibitions on an ascending scale of blockbusteriness – following past triumphs on Alexander McQueen and David Bowie with an opening exhibition on opera. It will also feature balletic staircases and the necessary back-of-house technical areas, toilets, cloakrooms, shop and cafe, almost all of it buried, at a total cost of £50m, beneath the considerable tonnage of the venerable, eclectically decorated, red and white masonry of Sir Aston Webb’s original museum buildings of 1899-1909. The toilets, by the way, both male and female, are all in pink.

None of this is straightforward, and Levete made it less so by deciding that the stairs had to go underneath some more of the multistorey Aston Webb-ery when it would have been easier to put it below the large courtyard through which the public will enter this part of the museum. Then she chose to take on the guardians of heritage who preside over Grade I-listed buildings such as this. Webb designed a columned screen that separates the court from Exhibition Road, whose lower portion was a solid wall with a single door. Levete wanted to remove the bits of wall between the column bases, which also required the complete removal and reassembling of the screen. No, said the heritage people. So Levete’s office did some “massive research”, found a Webb drawing that suggested he had wanted something similar, and won the argument.

Levete may like a challenge but these battles weren’t fought on a whim. The location of the stairs, she says, was “expensive, brave and daring but completely essential”. In any other position they would have compromised both the gallery and the courtyard, which Levete sees as a crucial social space, “a place for London”. She wanted the screen opened up to encourage a flow of people into the same courtyard. She also wanted to put into practice her philosophy about working with old buildings. “There’s only one thing in life that you can’t design,” she says, “and that’s heritage, but we have a responsibility to breathe new life into it, to be radical as well as sensitive to the past.”

This major space for a major institution is one of several new works that will put Levete’s name in lights. Later this month, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) will open in Lisbon (or rather reopen, since there was a first opening last autumn before it was really ready). Central Embassy, a 30-storey retail and hotel complex in Bangkok, is completing this year. The practice is designing a Maggie’s cancer centre in Southampton, some interiors for the new Goldman Sachs headquarters in London, a series of shopping centres in Moscow, an undergraduate centre and an “aspiration centre” for Wadham College, Oxford, and a renewal of the grand, old, faded Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris.

There is even progress on a railway station in Naples, a biomorphic design (to be euphemistic), more frankly speaking vaginal, conceived with Anish Kapoor more than a decade ago. It was “70-80% complete”, its huge steel portals prefabricated in Holland and ready to ship, when halted by an opaque combination of politics and contractual disputes, but now, “Oh my God”, squeals Levete, “it’s resuming.” And, if you watch Sky News, it will be brought to you from a smallish glass box inside a very big metal box based on a design by Amanda Levete Architects on a large campus in Osterley, west London.

The Wapping HQ for News International was never built and a subsequent Levete-designed masterplan for the Osterley site fell foul of the hacking scandal that engulfed the company, but the eventual outcome of Murdoch and Hufschmid’s encounter with the bench is a headquarters for 3,500 employees of Sky, plus a nearby “meeting centre” designed to accommodate a new type of creative industry, “where the traditional distinctions between creative, technical, production and corporate have been broken down. We really radicalised them,” says Levete, “by putting them together in one big shed.”

This is not a bad haul for an architect who had to “start from zero”, as she puts it, about a decade ago. She had been half of Future Systems, a practice co-founded by her then husband, Jan Kaplický, with whom she had designed the Stirling prize-winning media centre at Lord’s cricket ground and the attention-commanding Selfridges in Birmingham, summarisable as a big extraterrestrial blob clad in a metallic Paco Rabanne dress. Then they split, both maritally and professionally, and not without pain. In 2009, aged 71, Kaplický died, hours after the birth of his daughter with his new wife. Levete thinks now that she made mistakes during this time, but “when you are in the moment you don’t think. Because the moment was incredibly traumatic, you just push ahead.”

Kaplický was often called a visionary, a fluent draughtsman who dreamed up buildings inspired by spacecraft and aeroplanes, designs for a future that never arrived in the way he wanted, passionate and unworldly, his temperament and design approach allergic to getting things built. “He crossed the line,” Levete has said, “between reasonable and unreasonable on a daily basis.” He was one of several creative and charismatic individuals who have inspired her: the architects Richard Rogers and Will Alsop, for whom she worked; Zaha Hadid, a fellow student at the Architectural Association, an “incredible figure, always beautifully, beautifully dressed”, who became a friend; John Berger, whose Ways of Seeing she admired as a teenager. One of the reasons she enrolled at the AA, and became an architect, was that he was advertised as giving lectures there. He didn’t turn up.

After parting with Kaplický, she married Ben Evans, a former aide to Tony Blair, a driving force behind the Millennium Dome, and director since 2003 of the London design festival. She has described him as “very social”, someone who “would go out every night” if it were up to him, and has introduced her “to new worlds”. She apologises when I meet her at home at 4pm for being a little bleary, as she has been to “a really good party” the night before in the “beautiful” home of a leading film producer. “I think Ben is still in bed.” That evening they’re dining out with the proprietors of a legendarily expensive restaurant and the keyboard player for a famous singer.

They moved into a house in Islington where a conventional brick terrace opens up inside to a living/dining/cooking/social room, Barbarella-futurist in style, large, white, curvy and toplit, with a biomorphic fireplace and a table and kitchen of exceptional length. It both declares her design ideas and creates nests, in the existing house, for their children from their previous relationships. It is oceanic but enclosed, a place for entertaining as well as intimacy, where she likes (when she has time) to hold dinners for 20 people. In the early, struggling, years at Future Systems she had neither washing machine nor car. Now she has three dishwashers and 20 of Gio Ponti’s superleggera chairs, marvels of lightweight craft from 1957, which retail at £1,278 each.

She has lived life in the open. She is happy to tell interviewers that she was thrown out of St Paul’s Girls’ school for sunbathing naked on a roof and that a favourite way of relaxing from her stressful job is a bout of post-lunch sex. During her split from Kaplický, counselling and rows would take place in their open-plan office in Notting Hill, sometimes in front of potential clients.

For her, as she says, life and work are inseparable. Clients become friends and friends become clients. Since winning the V&A competition in 2011, she has holidayed with Sir Paul Ruddock, the recently retired chairman, and his wife, and grown close to the directors under whom she has worked, Mark Jones and Martin Roth. The new director, Tristram Hunt, was a friend before he arrived. She speaks warmly of James Murdoch – “one of the best clients we’ve ever had, so strategic, so confident, really interested in detail”.

Her practice, as she very much wants to stress, is collaborative. She makes sure that I meet her three directors, Ho-Yin Ng, Alice Dietsch and Max Arrocet, all of whom have been with her for about a decade. At Future Systems, projects would start with a sketch, usually by Kaplický; now they “start with a conversation”. She learned from Richard Rogers “the importance of creating a culture in the office, which is more difficult than the architecture”.

Her and her colleagues’ designs show an interest in new technologies and constructional ambition, like that of her mentors Rogers and Kaplický, and a love of freeform, curvaceous shapes, like that of both Kaplický and Hadid. She is keen to stress, however, that she has no fixed stylistic allegiance – “could anyone recognise an AL_A building? I hope not.” The Sky HQ is a big square, robust, not curving box. Her student work was “conceptual” – a project called Radio Dog for example, on the Isle of Dogs, east London, somehow combined a crane, “an industrial shed with no expression” and “cows in the landscape”. She remembers splitting toy cows in half so she could glue them to her model, “long before Damien Hirst”.

The thing she talks about most is the making of public sociable spaces, such as the V&A’s courtyard, closely followed by a fascination with the sensual properties of materials. At the V&A she’s excited by the complex ceramic tiles with which she is paving the court, by the theatricality of the descending and rising stairs, by the different degrees of shine and reflection she’s getting on the black staircase balustrades, by the way the light comes through the ribs of the gallery ceiling. With MAAT, which stands on a beautiful site by the river Tagus, the big idea is finding a way to reconnect Lisbon with its waterfront, from which it is currently cut off by a railway line and a multi-lane road. Levete’s design will take people across this barrier on a curving bridge, on to an artificial hard-surfaced hill that is the roof of the museum, from which you can survey the wonderful view. You then find your way down into a fold containing the entrance that is sheltered from the sun by an overhanging cantilever. It’s an exhilarating journey.

As with the work of Hadid, Rogers and Kaplický, her designs can be demanding. On a recent visit to MAAT, I saw a flustered group of workmen standing around an incomplete 3D jigsaw of chopped-up ceramic tiles, plus a wheelbarrow of broken shards, as they confronted the near impossible reality of reconciling Levete’s desire for complex curving forms with her desire for complex interlocking tiles. Inside, they were putting up rectangular plasterboard boxes to compensate for the fact that her design doesn’t offer much by way of flat, vertical, not curving surfaces on which to display art.

Her clients say she’s worth it. Ruddock says that “she is just such a talent” who has made “a lovely space” for the museum he recently chaired. “If you don’t fight hard,” he says of her working style, “your original designs get so emasculated there’s no point.” Pedro Gadanho, director of MAAT, frankly acknowledges the difficulties of his building. “It is quite a challenge,” he says, but one to which exhibiting artists can rise – “unique design leads to unique projects”.

“I saw immediately that this would produce a splash,” he adds, “a statement. It has a retro-futuristic look that is quite out of place, in a good sense, in Lisbon. I have been proved right by the fact that a lot of people wanted to come here.”

There are some at the V&A, who don’t want to be named, who have some gripes. One thinks that her designs will look dated quickly. Another is flabbergasted that she was able to design an “ugly” chair for the new development and an unconvincing plaque – “a stainless steel, laser-cut thing” – commemorating Ruddock’s chairmanship. “This is the V&A we’re talking about, the leading museum of the decorative arts… It’s evidence of Amanda’s lust for control of every part of the design and our stupid propensity to give it to her.”

But everyone seems to think that the exhibition space will be an exciting and workable place to hold shows, allowing both very large and very small exhibits. They are profoundly impressed by “her amazing design process, to which she’s fully committed; they really research their materials”. As for the suggestion that she’s more of a social networker than an architect, I’m told: “That’s unfair. All architects in her position are like that.”

The V&A’s new gallery will open in July. Amanda Levete is Kirsty Young’s castaway on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on Sunday 19 March

This article was sourced from http://allnews40.com