Visual Arts

Jan Kaplický: Drawings, reviewed by Jo Varney


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Drawings by the Czech architect Jan Kaplický (1937–2009) hang in the sumptuous front room at the Architectural Association  for the first time since he exhibited there as a teacher in the 1970s.

'House for a Helicopter Pilot'

‘House for a Helicopter Pilot’

The exhibition embodies Kaplický’s belief in the power of drawing as a way of problem-solving and working through ideas, and there are 23 drawings on display: playful, surreal,  space-age dwellings, drawn in ink by Kaplický on drafting film, or rendered meticulously in cut-and-glued collages. Peanut (1984) and House for a Helicopter Pilot (1979) speak of Kaplický’s vision for ‘kinetic living’ – where people can live in capsules to be elevated or lowered on hydraulic arms and then, once tired of it, can up sticks and find another wilderness location in which to site their capsule home. Doughnut House (1985) is a fantasy of subterranean living, in which the inhabitants reach their dwelling through a submarine hatch. Included in the show is perhaps Kaplický’s best-known project in London, the Media Centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Early in his career, drawing for Kaplický was essentially a speculative pursuit. While his days were spent working for other architects, at evenings and weekends he designed and drew at home. Josef, Kaplický’s son, spoke at the opening and described drawing as his father’s passion. Jan  was evangelical about it and pestered the young Josef to draw and draw. Kaplický said ‘without creativity, there is nothing, nothing at all.’

The hallmark of Kaplický and Future Systems (the company he founded in 1979) is ‘techno-organic’ work:  buildings have a zoomorphic nature, all ovoids and gentle curves, as if giving architectural form to sea creatures. But magic and fantasy also seem important elements in Kaplický’s oeuvre. The 23 framed drawings appear to levitate in the room – an effect radically enhanced by the luminous rose pink magic carpet – Kaplický loved colour and particularly pink. It turns out the team at Vorwerk & Co, the German carpet company with which Kaplický had an association and which provided the carpet for the Lords Media Centre in the exact shade of blue Kaplický requested – the colour of a 1950s Chevrolet –  came up with the carpet for this exhibition too.

Lords' Media Centre

Lords’ Media Centre

The Media Centre at Lords, Future Systems’  first major public commission, opened in 1999 in time for the Cricket World Cup and received the Sterling Prize for architecture the same year. Built to televise cricket matches, the building is described by Kaplický as a ‘lens’:  constructed as a seamless aluminium monococque or pod – like an aeroplane or a car – and welded together in a Falmouth boatyard. There are two drawings of the media centre in the exhibition – a large photomontage of the cricket pitch and stand-end shows the ovoid media centre, seven hand-painted flags fluttering above it. The second drawing is a cutaway of the building in cross section, hand drawn in ink on drafting film. The media centre was the last project that Kaplický drew entirely by hand. From then on formal drawings were done by others, on computers.

kaplicky national library

Kaplický’s design for National Library, Prague

At the opening evening, Richard Rogers spoke eloquently about his friend Kaplický and closed by arguing that Kaplický’s and Future Systems’ design for the National Library in Prague should be realized in his honour, despite the controversy the radical design had brought in its wake. Though winning international prizes and enjoying considerable popular support, Kaplický’s Eye over Prague met strong opposite from the Czech government and local administration, and the ensuing fierce battle saw Kaplický’s final years consumed  by the need to justify his project. His sudden death in 2009 brought no end to the dispute, and today a question mark still hangs over whether the library will be built to his plans.

Jan Kaplický. Drawings coincides with the publication of a monograph of his work that beautifully documents Kaplický’s legacy, both built and unbuilt, published by Circa press.


Jan Kaplický: Drawings runs at the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES, until 27th March (Monday to Friday 10-19, Saturday 10-15). Entry is free. The exhibition is supported by the Czech Centre, London.





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