Interview - David Chipperfield

by Deyan Sudjic .

Deyan Sudjic: What sort of architect are you?

David Chipperfield: What sort of architect am I? Well, in one description one could say I'm interested in modern things, I'm certainly an architect who has an agenda and a sort of confidence about, let's say, modernity. On the other hand, I would also accept that there is a sort of heavy conservative streak that runs through my work and through the way I think about things. I think that 'conservativism' is not necessarily a conservativism in terms of style or formalism but more the idea or the respect that things should mean something, and meaning and memory related. The way that we can understand something is through previous experiences.

Deyan Sudjic: What are the major buildings that you're working on right now?

David Chipperfield: The most important project for us currently is the Neues Museum in Berlin, where we're the architects for the reconstruction and restoration in addition to the ruined monument.

Deyan Sudjic: What are the main new spaces in (Nick Knight and Charlotte Wheeler's) house (in Richmond)?

David Chipperfield: We were allowed to expand the house onto the new site, and effectively doubled the floor area of the existing building, but we weren't allowed, or we weren't able, to re-organise or re-rationalise the existing spaces, so therefore we had to add new ones. Primarily, we decided that the best way of interpreting the existing house and its shortcomings was by giving Nick and Charlotte a big loft room for themselves. It's sort of crossed between a bedroom and a living room. As well as that, we provided them with two new working spaces, so the new house in a way takes the pressure off of the existing one, it doesn't really increase any of the dimensions of the house, it increases the number of rooms and the number of activities that go on in those rooms.

Deyan Sudjic: Does it look like one house?

David Chipperfield: The planning restrictions and the procedure that we had to go through forced us to build a second house as a second house, and that's why we call it a second house I suppose, whereas really it is the extension of the original. As figures, the two houses sit side by side and I think they have a strong relationship, and then they are have a sort of linking element. I think the composition of these three things, the existing house, the new house volume and the linking element. I hope tie together as a single composition at the same time as responding to the planners concerns from the street, trying to keep the sense that they are separate volumes. I think it's achieved that. I think when you get into the house clearly one feels that it is a single house.

Deyan Sudjic: The context is rather extraordinary.

David Chipperfield: The context is a rather typical suburban street of no great distinction. I think the main advantage of the site is its prospect from the garden. The garden, although being quite small, backs on in turn to another sort of group of playing fields, and therefore the aspect from the back of the house is rather nice and open, but the general context is as I say, rather modest. More than that it's rather conservative, and when we built the original house we had an enormous resistance from the local residents who saw what was being done as a threat to them in some way. We're still unsure why, but clearly they were unnerved by the idea that a house would sit amongst them which wasn't consistent with the other ones.

Deyan Sudjic: What about the materials that you used for the house?

David Chipperfield: The very original house built by Nick's father, which was the seed on which everything else is sort of, or the rock on which everything else is agglomerated, was made in a rather ugly yellow brick and we decided that that brick should be rendered. The rest of the street is in a sort of reddish brick, or a combination of sort of red bricks and we rendered the original volume in a natural Portland sand and cement render, which gives it a very light feeling. We've continued that, we decided that that should be maintained in the second building. As well as that, we've added a number of other simple elements. The roof of the second building, or the extension, had to be a pitched roof. The planners were not going to accept on a second occasion, a flat roof, and therefore we decided to reinterpret the slate pitched roof by making it out of single panels of slate, so we did conform to the description of a conventional roof but we built it in a very different way. I think that's a little bit of the strategy of the extension that in formal and figurative terms it's not so unusual, but the composition of the openings is rather unexpected. The sort of large areas of blank walls make it seem slightly unusual, and then the elements of the construction, especially the slate roof, give another sort of abstract quality to the building.

Deyan Sudjic: Your work's changed in some ways since you first worked on this house. What's it like coming back to a building that you've been so close to?

David Chipperfield: It is very strange to add onto something which we did ten years ago when it was really one of the first buildings that I did. Clearly, one has changed in lots of ways, but at the same time, one has to take up the original building as part of the context and not deny those ideas or belittle some of the things that one might have done slightly differently nowadays. I would say if anything has changed, I think our work has become slightly calmer and slightly more concerned with maintaining a simpler notion of form and figure, and investing some of the elements of that figure with more detail, as opposed to the first house, which I think probably worked harder, and being inventive. I think probably I'm sort of slightly more casual about that requirement to invent.

Deyan Sudjic: What does a client do in the design process?

David Chipperfield: The client's involvement in a project like this is quite critical. Primarily, to be patient I suppose, through something which is not an easy thing to understand. The building industry is still very primitive. The planning process is very emotive and quite complex, so it takes a very special sort of patience and involvement from a client, and Nick and Charlotte displayed that patience and involvement once and it makes it even more surprising I suppose that they were willing to do it a second time. I'm not sure it was any easier the second time. The planning of the project and the obtaining of the permission was very complicated. To do a modern building in a suburban context is not the easiest thing. You will find that people who own houses are much more vociferous about complaining about what's going next to them than in any other context that you're likely to meet. I mean, you can build in the middle of the city much more easily than you can build in a residential street. And secondly, the technology of building itself, the things that we were doing here, the quite complicated processes of building things and not necessarily covering them up, making things out of exposed concrete and making a roof out of pieces of slate that needed to be craned onto the roof, making a window that moves up and down and weighs half a ton, all of these elements were very complicated things and were rather outside of conventional building technology has meant that we haven't been as in control of the time process as one would have liked to. We are exposed, we have been exposed to the complexities of doing such a difficult project, and in that process the clients have been completely exposed and have had to display a rather extraordinary level of patience in the process of achieving this. It's not an easy thing to do. Otherwise I guess everybody would be doing it.

Deyan Sudjic: What's the part of the house that gives you the most pleasure to be in?

David Chipperfield: The thing that I've always liked about the house and it's always pleased me I think, is that I think we were successful in making a certain atmosphere. I think that when you make a house you're making a series of rooms in which the daily ritual of life is carried out, nothing more than that. I don't believe that architecture is a series of clever formal gestures, and certainly in a house I don't think it's interesting to demonstrate how clever you are as a designer through the resolution of things. It becomes boring to look at design features. So I'm not someone that's particularly interested in making something which is full of design features, and I think this house for me, always tried to achieve the idea of it being a sort of frame in which life should be lived, and I think it is quite comfortable that way. More than anything else, I think its relationship to the garden and to light has been part of the success of the house. The atmosphere in the house is very much conveyed by the simple compositional relationship between the inside and outside, and it's quite interesting to see people come to the house. Often, you find people are standing in the house as it were, looking at the garden and enjoying the garden, and enjoying the view from the house as much as enjoying any particular design feature. I think that's something which I enjoy as a demonstration of values, because I think that's much more important, that you're creating or recreating a sort of view of the world, as opposed to a sort of clever design.

Deyan Sudjic: Does this house have lessons for any other architectural experiences in Britain?

David Chipperfield: The work that we do is very varied, from fashion shops, to museums, and it's varied in geographic context from the occasional project in England, to Germany, to Italy, to Spain, and therefore it's very important to me to find a sort of red thread that goes through. I think, while I try to find the idea for every project generated by the context, the context being physical and also even the client or the programme, a combination of those things, at the same time. I would like to believe that there is an overriding approach and a sort of philosophical approach about design which runs through all of the projects, and I think this sits very comfortably within my concerns. Those concerns are the idea that architecture is a sort of frame, essentially one's making space, and you are illuminating that space and you are giving that space perspective. As well as that, you're trying to give it a certain substance and fundament by what you make it from, the quality of the floor or the elements that go into making that composition are part of it but not the most important. So I think I would say those elements run through all of our work and I believe that they are explicit here.