Jan Kaplicky's Escapism

I've been wanting to write about this book for a long time now; Jan Kaplicky Drawings, edited by David Jenkins and with texts by Ivan Margolius and Richard Rogers, published by Circa Press last year. It is both a biography of, and a collection of drawings by the late Jan Kaplicky, the man behind Future Systems.

It is a big and beautiful book, filled with amazing artwork spanning the whole of Kaplicky's career, from somewhere in the mid-'70's up until the early 2000's. Elaborate plans, elevations, sections, and most importantly, isometric cutaways open up to the now-lost world of futuristic architecture. It reminds us that, not so long ago, architects dared to dream of a different world; a world where light-weight living modules would populate our deserts, forests, and rocky coast lines; a world where we would abandon the ground in preference of the sky; a world where aerospace technology would dissolve social boundaries.


What I love the most about Kaplicky's work (even besides its utopian quality and graphic marvel), is its blatant escapism; a quality I find all too often looked down on. Many of the projects are stand-alone, isolated shelters, literally pushing themselves of the ground by high-tech means. It's as if Le Corbusiers Cabanon was rebuilt inside a helicopter; the Modernist ideal of pure air and light made possible in aluminium shell framing. Robotic refuges are without exception collaged into unspoilt landscapes, often in spectacular scenographic set-ups (the most notable being "Peanut", that features a hydraulic arm bringing the living room in suspension above a lake). Even in urban settings the projects seem detached from their context, becoming exceptional (or exemplary?) Fremdkörper.

But one can hardly say the goal is to escape the reality of life. On the contrary, many of the designs experiment with new forms of socialibility; flexible living units, houses with add-on rooms, neighbourhood frameworks with plugable apartments, and so fort. Even the interiors, with the typical space-age lying sofa's and micro-kitchens, seem to question what life requirements are, and how these can be shared by groups of people living together. Here, the exceptional level of detail in the ink drawings very much helps to make these interpretational leaps; what would otherwise be very technical documents, now transcend to suggestions for a new society.

Maybe one can even distinguish a form of meta-escapism here. The biography is dotted with references to Kaplicky's almost obsessive love for hand-drawing; as is to his gathering of visual references, his (unfortunate) disdain for production drawings, and his (even more unfortunate) distrust for the computer. Maybe the creative act of drawing was his escape (or his rebellion?) against reality; the reality of being an exile in London after the Russan occupation of Czechoslowakia, of working long and not always fullfilling years in others' offices (Lasdun, Rogers, and Foster), of dealing with conservative architecture juries during his whole career (he became close second in the Très Grande Bibliotheque competition, even before OMA).

It's only an interpretation, of course, but in a sense it's also a very escapist one; it's the kind of interpretation where you temporarily turn your back on the facts in order to make sense of them.