Architecture: Poetry thrives at the cutting edge: Peter Dormer on a partnership that uses hi-tech engineering solutions to create bold and radical designs

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The Independent Culture
DO THE designs created by Future Systems show us the way to tomorrow's architecture? This week Phaidon publishes a book of the architectural company's designs. Written by Martin Pawley, Future Systems: The Story of Tomorrow bristles with anti-nostalgia and tacitly ridicules conservative architecture.

Future Systems is two people: Jan Kaplicky, its founder, and Amanda Levete. Their designs exploit the creativity of the engineer; they look beyond the conventional solutions of the building trade and treat technology as one large menu of opportunities. Many of their buildings use solutions pioneered in the car and aerospace industries. Last week they won the Bovis Award for Architecture with their design for the Stonehenge reception centre, currently on display at the Royal Academy's Summer Show.

Mr Kaplicky was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 and is a graduate of Prague's School of Applied Arts and Architecture. He emigrated to Britain in 1968. He has worked in the offices of three British architectural knights: Denys Lasdun, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, and on designs for Nasa's earth orbiting space station.

Mr Kaplicky's early designs were highly inventive but wore their 'experimental' status on their sleeves; his ideas included schemes for temporary one or two-person 'cabins' that look like space vehicles and were shown set in wild, natural surroundings. The most frequently cited of Mr Kaplicky's monastic cabin concepts he describes as 'dynamic architecture'.

Peanut, as he calls it, is a two-person 'dwelling capsule'. It sits on top of a large, long, articulated hydraulic arm and it can duck and dive and twist and turn so that the human occupants become the sentient tip of a mechanical probe. This and other temporary mechanical dwellings are clever but disturbing. They parody and take to an extreme the alienating aspect of the motor car - the mobile tourist capsule that encourages us to whizz through and look at, but not engage with or settle in, the world. Capsule architecture is clever but introverted.

However, in Future Systems' recent designs for major urban projects and entries for international competitions, the Kaplicky-Levete partnership has invented poetic, useful and outward-looking architecture.

One example is the highly publicised Green Building proposal they produced in 1990: a large, transparent, asymmetrical egg on a tripod. It is 12 storeys high and has a double-skinned glass shell. It is designed to make use of a passive heating and ventilating system known as the 'stack effect' and has been shaped to maximise natural ventilation. It is a radical and potentially ecologically sound building that uses, for the most part, known and tested technology. It has not been constructed, but other architects are raiding this concept for ideas to use in their own projects.

In 1989 Mr Kaplicky and Ms Levete, in partnership with Ove Arup, Britain's internationally renowned structural engineering and design company, came second in the competition to design the new pounds 500m national library of France, the largest library in Europe. The Future Systems design has a geomorphic form described as being like a wind-sculpted rock formation bisected by a vast, glazed central valley. Apart from its visual excitement, the plan shows it to be a realistic, utilitarian design; more useful, perhaps, than the four improbable glass towers that President Mitterrand finally chose.

There were mutterings of 'foul' when Future Systems' proposal for the Greek Ministry of Culture competition for the New Museum of the Acropolis did not get on the short list.

Mr Kaplicky and Ms Levete called their Acropolis proposal 'A Museum Without Walls' and it again demonstrated their sense of the poetic possibilities of technology. Theirs was a building that was almost invisible. It had a low, single-span shell, a two-layered geodesic structure, in an organic shape. It offered clear views of the Acropolis while itself hugging, and almost hiding in, the wooded north slope of the hill overlooking the Acropolis.

Future Systems says its projects are feasible and that the partnership usually adopts technology already used in other industries. Moreover, where they have worked along with engineers such as Ove Arup, Mr Kaplicky and Ms Levete have taken advantage of computer modelling techniques.

The alliance with Ove Arup has been fruitful and Mr Kaplicky and Ms Levete stress their indebtedness to the company. Yet they also wring their hands at the lack of money for research into new architecture. They are running Future Systems as a frugal architectural laboratory, but it is not enough.

We ought not, Ms Levete and Mr Kaplicky say, to be creating buildings that are, technologically speaking, their own prototypes. They have a point. There is growing criticism that the so-called 'super functionalist' buildings of the 1980s - most notably the hi-tech Lloyd's of London development designed by Sir Richard Rogers - throw up unexpected difficulties during their use. Some reports say Lloyd's is costing around 50 per cent per square foot more to maintain than less sophisticated buildings.

'The reason you get better and better products out of the car industry, aerospace and racing yacht design,' Mr Kaplicky once said, 'is because they are all businesses that depend on performance to succeed. In architecture, success doesn't depend on performance but on value. To get better performance you need a lot of research and development; to get value you only need scarcity.'

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

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