British architect David Chipperfield has been designing buildings for cultural and commercial purposes for 30 years. He has been active in Germany for over a decade, particularly in Berlin. His redesign of the Neues Museum, which reopened in 2009, has garnered admiration and awards. In 2015 he starts work on the redevelopment of the city’s Mies van der Rohe-designed Neue Nationalgalerie. He spoke with Handelsblatt about the role of the architect, how his career developed and how European and Asian cities differ.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Chipperfield, culture or commercial projects, which do you like better?
David Chipperfield: Clearly it’s easier to work on cultural projects than on commercial projects. But I don’t think it’s acceptable for architects to only work on some parts of cities and not others. If all architects abandoned commercial work, such as offices and retail, then architects would be designing museums and somebody else would be designing office buildings.
It’s a sense of responsibility.
Yes. But I’m an architect, so when someone asks me to design an office building the impulse to reject it has to be checked. The question has to be, why not?
When you have a retail project, how do you motivate yourself?
It’s funny, retail is where I began; I got my first opportunity with Issey Miyake. Now, 30 years later, I know quite a lot about retail and all that experience allows me to make a contribution. Should I make a contribution about how to hang frogs in a shop? I know it’s strange, but that’s what I find myself doing.
Did you expect your career to turn out like this?
No, I didn’t even expect to have a career. When I graduated from college in 1979 there was a deep recession, and no work, so I didn’t expect anything. Back then architects in England had very low expectations.
Are you a fan of the European way of life?
If you spend a lot of time in a European city you have to consider the concerns of a European city. It would be very easy to forget these concerns if you live in Buenos Aires or New York. On the other hand I think European cities influenced architecture for a long time but now there are cities like Qatar or Shanghai, other types of cities to consider too.
Is that a challenge?
It is because instinctively my heart is in the traditional qualities of a European city, though that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy other cities. I just came back from Seoul which has none of the qualities of a European city, though you don’t miss them.
Do you love cities?
Yes, though each year I spend two months in a village in northern Spain where shopping means going to buy the bread from the baker’s wife. I have been doing that for 22 years now. I’m from the countryside and I’m quite romantic and old fashioned in many ways.
Do you think we can go back to those times?
No, but there are plenty of things that haven’t changed much even though we keep hearing about how much things will change. And things don’t always change that much, like when I attend a dinner, and sit in a room eating a three course meal and listening to speeches. We have been doing that for the last 300 years.
Do you think cities are important to people, that they don’t need protecting?
The problem isn’t people but the larger corporate accumulation of interest, the forces of investments. The machinery we have invented has changed a lot. I think capitalism will be agile and will reinvent itself, and retail is also agile as its nature is that you sell things people like. But when it comes to investments, in cities and development and retail, things that started out agile become a lot less agile.
Where is this happening, is it the same everywhere?
In Berlin, investments are lower and rents are lower and if there’s less at stake, you can be more flexible. The problem in London is that you can’t do much without a million pounds.
How do you feel about Germany?
It’s a very special relationship. It’s interesting how the Neues Museum has been so well received, and we have big responsibilities like restoring the New National Gallery, we’re doing the Haus der Künste in Munich. I think sometimes you can enjoy another culture more than the people do who come from there. For the last 12 years I have found the environment in Germany very stimulating to work in. I always enjoy being here.
Simon Book is based in Berlin and writes about politics and cultural affairs for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com