January 14: Pražan Cephalopod

2016/01/14 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2009 Czech architect Jan Kaplický died.

Although it was certainly tumultuous and no doubt anxiety-laden at times, Kaplický’s  (b. 1937) life exhibited the professional drama, cultural complexity and political intrigue –not to mention the architectural success–that most architects only dream of.  Kaplický was born, studied, and practiced architecture between 1964-68 in Prague before escaping within months of the Soviet invasion.  He landed in London with little funds but lots of talent, quickly building his résumé with important people at significant times in their own careers: first Piano & Rogers (when they won the Pompidou competition) and then Foster (finishing the Sainsbury Centre & starting the Hong Kong Bank).  In 1979 he established his firm, Future Systems, which made big waves with the Lord’s Cricket Grounds Media Center (London, 1999) and a big store for Selfridge’s (Birmingham, 2007).  These buildings are two versions of Kaplický’s curvy and abstracted architecture that share an oddly retro high-tech bio-futuristic vibe.  One wonders if Kaplický would have been just as happy designing for 2010s Apple or 1960s NASA.  Or the Jetsons.

As vigorously anti-contextual and supra-personal as those buildings are, they are nothing compared to the project that was poised to become the apogee of Kaplický’s career: the National Library in Prague (above).  Kaplický won the 2007 competition, which carried more weight than your average contest for a big public building.  This was the first architectural competition in the free Czech Republic; the fact that it was staged for a national library increases its political/cultural factor by, let’s say, a zillionfold.  But after the prize was awarded, and images of the building (quickly nicknamed “the octopus”) (although Clio prefers this comparison) circulated, the trouble began.  On the one hand were its serious, adamant, passionate supporters–the kind of people who told Frank Gehry that he hadn’t gone far enough in his famous Prague project, and even the nodding allusion to representation through calling it “Fred and Ginger” was too oldey-timey for the new Prague.  On the other hand, another very vocal group was horrified that such a wildly colored, giant, amorphous blob would be built in the center of the beautiful and historic city, within view of Prague Castle.  Due to legal issues with the competition itself (welcome to free Czech), the project was cancelled in 2011 and the National Library remains in its home at the Clementium (now that’s a library), a monastery dating largely from the sixteenth century.

An architect, returning to his now-peaceful homeland, to build a library, is a wonderful and triumphant story, or could be.  His death before the building’s realization is poignant.  But even without him, the building tells a story, as buildings always do.  Kaplický designed his library, like all of his work, to possess a sense of the present moment–or perhaps more precisely, the present moment’s view of the future.  Therein lies the trouble with all adamantly forward-looking architecture which ignores all that came before it; it is an architecture of ultimate irony since it is bound to be dated and aesthetically obsolete, and probably in quick order, and shackles itself to the very timeline it snubbed.

More images, some of them moving, available at this source and this source.

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You are currently reading January 14: Pražan Cephalopod at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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