Issue Number: 99
It’s shoes off for lunch at a Japanese restaurant, as David Chipperfield RA tells Sarah Greenberg why Britain gets the architecture it deserves.
David Chipperfield RA in Sake No Hana restaurant. Photograph by Julian Anderson
David Chipperfield RA, like most architects I have invited to lunch for this column, chooses a Japanese restaurant. Why is this? Do architects have a special feeling for the balance and proportion of Japanese food, with its artful arrangements of pure ingredients? ‘Perhaps,’ laughs Chipperfield, a new RA, who worked in Japan for years and adores its cuisine. But he has chosen Sake No Hana because it is near the Academy in one of his favourite buildings in London – Economist Plaza in St James’s – and because of its temple-like design by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who is giving the RA’s annual architecture lecture this summer.
‘It also has the best Japanese food in town, because it’s authentic, not fusion,’ he says of London’s first Kyoto-style Kaiseki restaurant. Kaiseki dining is based on the concept of a journey from the sea to the mountains and back again. It involves a succession of small dishes, like Japanese tapas, which start with light seafood and vegetables – king crab with cucumber vinaigrette, seared aubergine with bonito flakes, barely grilled scallops and a seabass sashimi drizzled in a tangy ponzu sauce. Then we move on to heavier grills – the
signature miso-marinated seabass in houba leaves and yellowtail teriyaki. Sushi rolls arranged like flowers follow at the end of the meal because the rice makes them more substantial.
As we sit on cushions at low tables, shoes off, in the zen-like calm of the upstairs dining room – rare for London – food arrives in ceramic vessels that look as though they’ve come out of a Morandi still life. The downstairs sushi bar, with windows facing the street, has more of a buzz. ‘At night, when you’re watching the traffic on St James’s through the window, you could be in Tokyo,’ says the architect.
Both the restaurant and its location are uncompromisingly modern, yet understated enough to fit into an historical context – hallmarks of Chipperfield’s own designs. The architect won the Stirling Prize last year for his Marbach Literature Museum in Germany that looks like a modernist Parthenon, and he is known for exquisitely minimal buildings that have cultural depth and respond to the local environment. His highest profile project is on Berlin’s Museum Island where, for the past decade, he has been rebuilding the war-damaged Neues Museum and designing a new reception building to welcome visitors to the complex. This German national monument is one of the largest cultural projects in the world, due for completion in 2009.
Chipperfield has built in Britain – notably the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, Antony Gormley RA’s studio in King’s Cross – and is now at work on the new Hepworth gallery in Wakefield and the Turner Contemporary in Margate, but the vast majority of his work is abroad. So why is he always on a plane? Why is Britain home to the world’s top architects, who are so often forced to work abroad? Chipperfield famously criticised the architectural culture here in his Stirling Prize speech, saying ‘Britain gets the architecture it deserves’. Why is the architectural climate here so different to that on the Continent?
‘We’re a commercial culture, so we’re good at making things happen but not at debating what they should be, as happens on the Continent. There is a strength to the Anglo-Saxon ability to organise and be clear. But we don’t seem to be able to include criteria that are not measurable. Quantifiable things – time and money – dominate. As an architect you are constantly trying to balance this triangle: time, money, quality. The process puts huge emphasis on time and money and quality seems to come with a cost that can’t be sustained.’
But Chipperfield thinks things are looking up here: ‘Fifteen years ago, there was a distrust of anything modern. Now decision-makers are forty-somethings; they have travelled more and are more excited about modern things. When I started in the 1980s, you had to be surreptitious about designing anything modern and somehow apologise for it.’
Chipperfield’s buildings are defined more by a philosophy than a recognisable style. He believes that architecture – however radical – must fit into the world, not stand apart from it. ‘Our responsibility as architects is to make buildings that contribute to acollective idea of culture, not one based on individual genius.’
So was this the guiding principle behind his designs for the Museum Island in Berlin, where he needed to restore the Neues Museum to its pre-war glory, without making it look like a kitsch copy? ‘The Neues Museum has been restored as a ruin, so that the war damage is still visible on the façade. You see the scars. We keep every fragment but at the same time, we try to complete the rooms and make them of our time. They have to have air conditioning, lighting, not let the rain in. But we never copy anything that is missing, we never fake.’ It hasn’t been easy: ‘A lot of people there say what I’m doing is wrong, that the museums should be restored as copies of what they were. It’s a valid opinion; it simply isn’t mine.’
Having designed buildings for photographer Nick Knight and Antony Gormley RA, and several houses for collectors, does he think artists and collectors make good clients? ‘They have a creative ear and are willing to listen to new things. This is true of a lot of people but many are also motivated by their anxieties – will it impress my friends, is it too strong, will it be comfortable? Artists can discuss these concerns without letting them cloud the
overall vision. So much of one’s time as an architect is spent trying to placate people’s anxieties, like a therapist. It’s nice when you have a dialogue with people who look at the bigger picture.’