Jan Kaplicky, Visionary Czech Architect, Dies at 71

February 23, 2009

By David Dillon

Jan Kaplicky
Architect Jan Kaplicky.

Jan Kaplicky, the dour but visionary Czech architect, died January 14 in Prague of a heart attack, within hours of the birth of his daughter. He was 71 and had been dividing his time between London and the Czech Republic, where he had several major commissions.

After emigrating to England in 1968, Kaplicky worked with some of Europe’s best architects, including Denys Lasdun, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Renzo Piano, the last two on the breakthrough Centre Pompidou in the mid-70s. He spent several years in Foster’s office before founding his own firm, Future Systems, in 1979.

As it turned out, these high-profile, high-tech associations were calisthenics for his own adventurous designs, which owed as much to science fiction as to mainstream modernism. Compared to his peers, Kaplicky was the avant-garde incarnate, relentlessly pursuing the new new thing, refusing to settle into some predictable, and comfortable, architectural niche. 

From Future Systems—a manifesto as well as a logo—came a stream of proposals for solar powered cars, lightweight survival housing, and furniture for the international space station. While many remained paper dreams, a few were built, ranging from a sleek white disc press box at Lord’s cricket ground in London—a Star Wars touch for a Pimm’s Cup clientele—to a playful yet impeccably engineered pontoon bridge in the London Docklands that looked and moved like a gigantic water spider.

Jan Kaplicky designed the unbuilt National Library of the Czech Republic
Images courtesy Future Systems
Jan Kaplicky designed the unbuilt National Library of the Czech Republic, dubbed “the octopus” by locals.
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For Lord’s, Kaplicky received the 1999 Stirling Prize, a long overdue honor from an architectural establishment that had generally shunned him. And with the prize came larger commissions, including a Selfridges department store in Birmingham (2003), the Maserati Museum in Modena, Italy (2009), and the unbuilt National Library of the Czech Republic in Prague—a fluid organic design reminiscent of late Frank Lloyd Wright. The local press christened the library “the octopus,” prompting Czech president Vaclav Klaus to threaten to throw himself in front of the bulldozers to stop it. (Supporters now hope to rescue the project with private funds.) Last year, Kaplicky won the competition for a new concert hall in Ceske Budejovice, another sumptuous organic design that may actually be built.

Kaplicky himself was no day at the beach. He could be contentious about his work, suspicious of rivals, and uncompromising in his demands for a new and more responsive architecture for a new age. “Where is it written that buildings have to be boxes?” he told one reporter. “People aren’t boxes.”

Yet along with the crankiness came a dry wit, quiet hopefulness, and unquenchable enthusiasm for pushing design boundaries further out, to see what was on the other side. The concert hall in Ceske Budejovice, if built, could be the stunning epitaph he deserves.

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