The Last of the Draughtsmen

Jan Kaplický represents the quintessence of the increasing technological optimism of the 1970s. It was that moment in time when architects regarded the relevant contemporaneous advancements as the crucial catalyst for a necessary change in architectural design. His drawings illustrate complex structural systems and spatial forms which are mostly attached to the environment via a few footholds, just like rockets that just landed on the moon. By browsing through the pages of Jan Kaplický Drawings, the recently published large-format book including over 250 of his sketches and photomontages, one could just as easily frame Kaplický both in the artistic field and in aeronautical engineering. In his drawings, the delicacy and elegance of his style contrasts starkly with the technological essence of their content. Within two decades of incessant production, he paradoxically imagined the next step in architecture using techniques that were gradually coming to an end. Kaplický did not believe in computers and CAD software, but in the thinking process that occurs while tracing forms on a piece of paper.

”Being difficult was part of his life” recalled his wife, Amanda Levete, who worked with him on the design of the iconic Lord’s Media Center (completed in 1999). A group of old friends who congregated for the presentation of the book in late March seemed to concur. Neither Kaplický himself nor his ideas for a new architecture could be called ‘easy’. Richard Rogers went even further:“You had to give him a lot of space”. He was one of Kaplický’s first employers after his arrival in London in the late 1960s. David Nixon, who collaborated with Kaplický on a series of projects and competitions during the 1970s and 1980s, resorted to anecdotes and memories in order to sketch the particular personality of his partner in Future Systems. Even more importantly, though, he stressed that Kaplický’s production has to be understood in the special terms of a legacy of architectural draughtsmanship.

It is Kaplický's investigation of biomorphological form that most clearly sets him apart from his contemporaries. The freedom of his hand drawing acted as an ally for the infinite possibilities of the curve. From his early projects in Prague to his last ink-drawings of the mid-1990s, Kaplický focused his draughtsmanship on the exploration of the future of spatial form as that could be anticipated in his present. He would in turn employ his technological knowledge to materialise these complex geometries hitherto only possible in paper architecture. With Kaplický’s sources of inspiration ranging from aerospace equipment to the sinuous shape of the female body, it is no wonder that his close friend and artist, Brian Clarke, called him an ‘Organic Modernist’. In collaboration with Arup’s structural engineers, Kaplický used to turn a few traces on sketching paper into impressive architectural artefacts. Proud of the consistent resemblance of the final outcome to his first drawings, he displayed his creations in beautiful collages where the–often idyllic, albeit rather isolated–background, devoid of any other living presence, seems to be the only element subject to change.

But the story of Kaplický is also the story of a man who had to leave his country after the Russian invasion of 1968. Although he never returned, he always remained a ‘man of his nation’, as Rogers was quick to note. He was mostly influenced by his parents, Joseph (an acclaimed painter, graphic artist and sculptor) and Jirina (whose extraordinary botanical watercolours had surely made a huge impression on the young man). In London he found the perfect technological counterpoint to his cultivated instinct for the organic. It seems that Cedric Price’s famous quote “technology is the answer, but what was the question?” finds a fitting response in Kaplický’s mindset. The book Jan Kaplicky Drawings is by itself indicative of this unique dichotomy.

Image courtesy of Morley von Sternberg. Collages and drawings courtesy of the Jan Kaplický Centre, Prague. Jan Kaplicky Drawings is edited by David Jenkins and published by Circa Press (212pp, £95).