Thin metal stems hold up a tree canopy of spacey translucent petals. They appear like dainty Victorian parasols or perhaps dandelions on the verge of being puffed, puffed away.
This is the new MPavilion. It is a hot Melbourne night when the design, by Stirling Prize-winning architect Amanda Levete, is unveiled in a black sky. As darlings of the art world mill around Queen Victoria Gardens (one sports a shiny silver jumpsuit like a slick second skin) the director of London’s V&A Museum, Martin Roth, addresses the crowd.
Levete, Roth declares, is akin to the buildings she creates. Like them she is ‘demanding, she’s elegant, she’s stylish – she’s beautiful. Very beautiful,’ he asserts mischievously. ‘She’s rock solid… Don’t argue with her, she’s very strong.’
The next day I meet Levete in her hotel room, wondering how much is true.
It is nine am after a night of celebrations but the architect is up, ensconced in a giant suite at The Windsor, Australia’s only surviving ‘grand’ city hotel of the Victorian era. It has a dated, sad, scruffy quality; its lobby unkempt and bedraggled and its suites washed out.
Levete, however, is luminous. Roth is right. Curled up on a faded cream sofa, her dirty blonde hair piled up into a messy trademark fringe, she reminds me not only of the works she creates – with their English core of understated restraint – but of a cat. Intelligent, cool, reserved, stylish, effortless. Her feet are bare. A threadbare friendship bracelet is wrapped around one wrist and her white boyfriend-style shirt is worn over jeans, with top and bottom buttons undone.
Now 59 (she looks much younger), Levete made her name at her former firm Future Systems with her late ex-husband, the brilliant maverick Czech architect Jan Kaplický. Together they designed two of the most celebrated buildings in Britain: the Media Centre at Lord’s cricket ground in London and Birmingham’s Selfridges department store.
Following a personal and professional split from Kaplický, Levete founded AL_A studio in London in 2009 (he died suddenly the same year). In 2011 AL_A won one of the UK’s most significant commissions: the expansion of the iconic V&A museum.
That Levete is drawn to the big and the small, the grandiose and the whimsical, is clear. Other ongoing projects include a museum of art, architecture and technology in Lisbon, and a 1.5 million square foot hotel and shopping mall in Bangkok located in the gardens of the former British Embassy. Last year they opened Tincan, an offbeat pop-up restaurant in London’s Soho. It served only gourmet tinned fish.
Levete left school when she was sixteen, stumbling across architecture at art college. ‘It suddenly felt the right thing that I’d been looking for,’ she recalls, stroking the beige velvet cushions she lolls on. ‘It was both a very creative discipline but one where there were a lot of boundaries. I always work best when I have a boundary to push.’
Not just boundaries but space itself proved seductive. Levete believes that the wrong use of space (a windowless meeting room, for example) cramps the mind. But the right space releases it. ‘A view is important. You feel smaller in the world, your problems feel less,’ she insists.
Research has become a cornerstone to her work. For MPavilion – the brainchild of Melbourne retail mogul Naomi Milgrom, whose mission is to further the architectural conversation – Levete collaborated with Australian yacht fabricators to create new technology of composite materials: the petals are five metres wide but just a few millimetres thick.
The V&A is more ambitious still. Following two and a half years research AL_A will design the world’s first porcelain courtyard. The £41million scheme, with a new entrance, courtyard and 1,100 square metre gallery area, is the biggest new art space in the capital since the Tate Modern. Due to open in 2017, Levete discovered upon excavation that the clay she was working on, the earth beneath her feet, was 50 million years old and was ‘completely untouched. That’s thrilling.’
Levete has sought to ‘find a narrative that comes out of the history of the building’, in this case drawing on the museum’s extensive collections of ceramics. She springs up from the sofa to gather papers, perches her glasses on her nose, and plops back down to show me the designs. Porcelain is attractive for its steely, compact, translucent beauty; Levete was drawn to ‘how hard it was, how apt it was’. Raw it is ‘almost bluish white-ish gray – it has’ – she pauses, imagining how it feels between her fingers, trying to find the right words – a ‘finesse that is simply other’.
It is the same love of skins and sheathes and glinting shell that attracts her to the Sydney Opera House with its dreamy sails created from tens of thousands of white and cream tiles.
‘When I heard there was a debate about whether to spend money or to repair the concrete, improve the sight-lines of the Opera House… I couldn’t believe it,’ she says exasperated. ‘Because this is the building that defines the identity of Australia. Its value is incomprehensible. It’s admired the world over.’
And what about Melbourne? She sighs. ‘Federation Square is just horrendous. It’s so grim. It’s so ugly. Talk about having no soul. Melbourne has such a particular climate and a very exotic and quite tropical landscape and yet there doesn’t seem to be any language, any vernacular that has developed in response to that,’ she says, gesturing to the commuters below us, bustling to work. ‘These buildings could be anywhere.’
MPavilion is Levete’s modest way of trying to add to the debate. The pavilion is, she says, a reaction to the weather, designed to amplify the sound of the winds, give shelter from the sun, a democratic canopy without walls or borders. There, of course, is one problem. Should the rain come (and this is Melbourne; it will) the pavilion holds precious little protection for the crowds visiting the free events held there until February.
The solution? Dole out raincoats.
How wonderfully, stubbornly, British.