Architecture: Triumph of the pod people

In the autumn, Future Systems' 'techno-organic' media centre goes up at Lord's cricket ground. Before then, you can see their curious work at the ICA.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN, SEVEN YEARS AGO, Future Systems was given its own monograph exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects, the beer ran out on press night. Beck's, the show's sponsors, generously sent out for more; and then - rather wearily - for yet more when that, too, ran out. One critic likened the vinous mood that night to the storming of the Tuileries. It felt, he said, as though "the battering-ram of the future had been dragged up to the gates of the city".

Revolutionary zeal is, of course, only one possible explanation for a roomful of drunken journalists, and I would like to propose another: fear. If Future Systems' work is marked by a single characteristic, it is by its espousal of a style that has come to be known as "techno-organic": that is to say, many of the partnership's buildings look as though they might, if provoked, turn round and eat you. Among the menagerie of creatures to which their zoomorphs have been likened over the years are: a water- boatman (the Docklands pontoon bridge, 1996); a bird of prey (the gate to Chiswick Business Park, 1991); a spider (an emergency shelter, 1989); a king crab (the Gallery for the 21st Century, designed as an alternative to the Tate Gallery's Bankside); a giant fly (the so-called Earth Centre, near Doncaster); and a moth (the practice's entry for the Tres Grand Bibliotheque competition, 1990). You can see how such things, even in model form, might drive a sensitive journalist to drink.

That this reaction has not been more widespread is easy to explain. Of all the Future Systems projects listed above, only the first two - the smallest - have been built. The bridge and gate apart, Future Systems' finished works amount to the Hauer-King House, a small but exquisite glass villa in Islington, and, in the last few weeks, a Notting Hill flower shop. Consider that near-misses have included President Mitterand's Very Big Library - Future Systems' moth came second in an open competition to the upside-down table of Dominique Perrault - and a touch of world- weariness seems forgiveable. "It's strange," says Jan Kaplicky, one half - with his wife, Amanda Levete - of the partnership. "In art, if you go further to the left or right than anyone else, people love it. In architecture, if you start saying 'Why do things have to look as they have always looked?', people get terrified."

If you would like to experience something of this terror for yourself, then go along to the ICA in London. Given Kaplicky's views, the fact that it was an art gallery rather than an architectural space that offered to house Future Systems' new show may strike you as significant. Certainly, the partnership's attitude to the ICA's own architecture is less than flattering: "We had to reinvent what was really an incredibly banal space to show our plans and models," says Levete. To this end, the pair have used partitions to give the ICA's conventionally rectangular show space a new, footprint-shaped footprint. The floor being no more to their liking than the walls, Levete and Kaplicky have had it recovered in carpet dyed a specially-commissioned pink.

And if you can't make it to the ICA, this year will see the completion of Future Systems' first major public commission, a media centre for the eponymous cricket club. It may seem bizarre that Lord's has ended up being the greatest patron of avant-garde architecture in Britain, but that is arguably the case. Come autumn, Future Systems' media centre will peer over the shoulders of Michael Hopkins's Mound Stand like a panoptic Cyclops. If the move from bug to humanoid marks some kind of evolution in Future Systems' work, the change from unbuilt to built certainly does.

But are evolution and revolution the same thing? To compare the potential impact of Future Systems' work with that of Mies van der Rohe (as did the Beck's-drinking critic of the RIBA show) may be well-meaning, but it is also silly. The power of Mies's corporate skyscrapers lie in their universality. However beautiful Future Systems' Lord's building - and it is genuinely lovely - the chances of its fathering an international dynasty are slight. In the nicest possible way, the Lord's project is a freak. Its form is the answer to a specific question, namely the televising of cricket matches; Kaplicky describes the building as "a camera, a lens", Levete describes it as "a media product". Its construction, too, is freakish: an aluminium monococque - like an aeroplane or a car - welded together in a Falmouth boatyard. "The building industry could never have handled it," muses Kaplicky, with an air of gentle satisfaction. "It breaks every taboo in the book."

You may be wondering whether there isn't something the smallest bit perverse in all this. To be cheered by the unbuildability of your buildings - to refuse, even, to call them buildings - might go some way towards explaining why so few of them get built. Take Future Systems' late-1980s plan for a Trafalgar Square office building, to be known as the "Blob". This project was baptised thus not by a foam-lipped Prince of Wales, but by Kaplicky himself. Everything about the Blob - the fact that it looked like something from The Flintstones, that it was designed for the most sensitive site in London, its name - was calculated to annoy. Here was a building that broke all the rules in the architectural book in order to follow one of its own: environmental sustainability. (The Blob would have been 60 per cent more efficient to run than the average office block.) The reason - the only reason - that the Blob looked as it did was that blobbishness produced optimum energy savings. And in case anyone said that it couldn't be done, the Future Systems design bore the imprimatur of the world's foremost structural engineers, Ove Arup, to say that it could.

Had Future Systems given the project a more anodyne name, designed it for another site or made it less boulder-like, they might have found a client for it. That, though, would have ruined everything. The fact is that revolutions - even quiet ones - need martyrs. And Kaplicky and Levete's dedication to this task has been little short of heroic. For all its fame, Future Systems' studio is one dingy room in Paddington - Levete left a job with Richard Rogers to be there. Lord's will be Kaplinsky's first major public work after nearly 40 years in practice.

There will be those who claim that even this small triumph suggests a sell-out. Levete laughs. "Compromise? Of course we do, but we try to keep it to five per cent of our work. Building one thing in 20 is just about right."

Future Systems: ICA, SW1 (0171 930 3647), Wed to 24 May.

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