2016-10-04 15:16:15
A British Architect Finds Her Solo Voice

LONDON — Amanda Levete’s architecture studio is lodged in an old transport depot on a street neighboring Pentonville Prison here. One is tempted to step in through sliding glass windows, but an overlaid pattern of Ben-Day dots spells out “This Is Not a Door” and directs visitors instead to a portal lacquered in neon orange, set centrally on a graphite gray wall. Theatrical but not grandiose, with an edge of humor, it’s a cannily judged introduction to the work of Ms. Levete and her practice, AL_A.

On Oct. 5, AL_A will unveil its Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology building in Lisbon, the first in a number of major projects to be realized by the studio in coming years. Among the more notable are a new wing for the Victoria and Albert Museum here and a fundamental redesign of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris.

From above, the Lisbon museum, known as MAAT, resembles a germinating seed: a plump ovoid structure with a tendril-like bridge connecting the site to the city center, with a walkway along the Tagus river forming its root. The building is low and its roof functions as a plaza. “I think in our society now, public spaces — places where people can meet, exchange, socialize and gather — are so significant,” said Ms. Levete, looking over a model of the site in her studio recently. “People go to galleries because that’s where like-minded people will be.”

Now 60, Ms. Levete said she first pursued architecture as a means to satisfy her own obstinacy. She left high school at 16 to go to the Hammersmith School of Art (now part of Chelsea School of Art), but eventually graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture, after deciding that the discipline “has built in resistance: regulatory, historical, budgetary, technical,” she recalled. “I thought: It’s perfect — that’s for me!”

She rose to prominence as a co-director of the innovative London architectural practice Future Systems. Founded by the radical Czech architect Jan Kaplicky, who was also Ms. Levete’s husband, Future Systems occupied a realm of ideas, and Ms. Levete is widely crediting with nudging it into the world of bricks and mortar. In 1999 Future Systems won the Stirling Prize and prominent commissions followed.

The couple divorced in 2006 but continued working together. When Mr. Kaplicky died in 2009, Ms. Levete decided to close their joint venture.

She carried her team and ongoing projects with her into AL_A, and assumed her reputation would follow. “I seriously underestimated how difficult it would be to make the transition,” she said. “It’s just a different name, but it was much more traumatic and difficult than that — I had to prove myself. Being a woman in a very male industry, I’ve never found an issue. The only time I’ve really felt it was after Jan’s death. The press was verging on misogynistic,” she added, referring, in particular, to the tone of a profile that appeared in the architectural press.

Winning the international competition for the new wing of the V&A in 2011 was a breakthrough for AL_A, and the commission for MAAT followed closely behind. Both projects are notable for their focus on public space within a museum campus, as well as for their use of ceramics. The V&A will have the world’s first porcelain-tiled courtyard when the new development opens in the fall of 2017. The facade of MAAT, meanwhile, is covered in off-white three-dimensional tiles made with ilmenite, a refractive mineral that makes the building sparkle.

“It picks up reflections from the river,” Ms. Levete said. “At sunset it looks as if the whole river is on fire. We wanted the tiles to be a foil for the light conditions,” she added, explaining that the facade will change color during the day.

A few years ago, an “obsession with ceramics” led AL_A to experiment with creating a simple, slim-legged ceramic table. A succession of prototypes buckled and split in the kiln, but driven by what Ms. Levete laughingly refers to as “naïve ambition,” the more problems the project threw out, the harder she pushed.

“We got so challenged by our own illogic that we had to find a way of making it viable,” she said. The path led, eventually, to experiments with high-tech ceramics of the type used by the space industry. AL_A approached Boostec, a firm that made a ceramic mirror for the Herschel Space Observatory. An explosion in the kiln destroyed the final, perfect table, but as a mark of admiration for the project, the ceramics historian Edmund de Waal exhibited its curved-legged younger sibling in a 2015 exhibition at the Royal Academy here.

The project may sound like a folly, but as Ms. Levete corrects: “We know exactly how to work with high-tech ceramic now. Technology is incredibly exciting, but also craftsmanship.” Shattered early prototypes of the table are proudly displayed in the studio alongside research materials, among them thick slabs of aluminum drilled with decorative holes for the gates of the V&A, ribbed and glazed porcelain for its tiled piazza and custom rollers for bending strips of Corian.

Ms. Levete is a bona-fide engineering nerd: photos of the V&A’s exhibition galleries under construction show the entire excavation site supported on three vast props. Just feet from the site, the museum remains open for business, its delicate collection still in position.

The emphasis placed on public and recreational spaces at the MAAT and V&A are mirrored in AL_A’s plans for the labyrinthine Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris. As museums become sites for leisure and socialization, so retailers have become new temples to the arts.

“Our brief is to create the department store of the 21st century,” Ms. Levete said. “It’s not just about shopping: it’s about an experience, it’s about being with people, and the theater of being a great store like that. There’s a big crossover of culture and retail.” She said she could not disclose details of the project, though Galeries Lafayette will also open a cultural foundation (designed by Rem Koolhaas) next fall, suggesting a long-term engagement with the arts.

AL_A developed another theatrical project in 2014, which Ms. Levete initiated in 2014 to energize her team. “We’d had a bad year of losing lots of competitions,” she said. In response she conceived of a restaurant with no kitchen serving only world-class canned seafood of the caliber she had encountered in Lisbon. Tincan was a black-lined box that popped up in the Soho district for three months, and used the graphics on cans of fish from around the world racked against the walls as décor.

“We had more publicity for Tincan than we have ever had for a building,” she said. “It captured people’s imagination.”

Two years later, the sparkling white building on the river marks a fresh start for Ms. Levete, and MAAT’s seed shape seems felicitous. “I think this next nine months is going to be really critical for the practice,” she said.