It should come as no surprise that the city hosting the first major retrospective of David Chipperfield’s work, Idea e Realita, is Padua. The mayor, Flavio Zanonato, opened the show in the Palazzo della Ragione, the architectural heart of the city, at the weekend. Models, drawings and photographs of 38 of the English architect’s chaste, thoughtful and thoroughly urban designs sit serenely under the vast roof of this Italian medieval public palace, framed by stupendous astrological and religious allegories painted, after the originals by Giotto were destroyed by fire, by Nicolo’ Miretto and Stefano da Ferrara between 1425 and 1440.

Chipperfield – though you would never know it from his work, or, in Britain, his lack of it – is a prolific architect whose love of public buildings and of working in European city centres, or in US cities wanting new centres, has blossomed into a flowering of handsome new museums, galleries, law courts, social housing and even a public cemetery. He is among the world’s best architects, although he is never exactly in fashion, nor ever quite out of it. He does not believe in style for style’s sake, yet his designs are rarely less than elegant. He has little time for wilful shapes, quirkiness or humour in architecture, but he is a powerful form-giver. More importantly, he is a designer of humane buildings intended to work within the grain of old cities, or else to create (or re-create) streets and squares and the life that goes with them, especially where these have been frittered away in favour of car-centric, shopping-mall suburbia.

Chipperfield has built in Britain, but very little, considering his international reputation. Most recently, there has been the purposeful north London studio for the sculptor Antony Gormley. He also designed the acclaimed National Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames and a house for Nick Knight, the fashion photographer. At the beginning of his solo career in the mid-1980s, he created a shop for Issey Miyake on London’s Sloane Street, which set the tone for lesser imitations during the shoulder-padded “designer boom”. This was when Chipperfield left Foster Associates and set up his own practice, in an office of his own design, in Camden. This is where we meet, after a break of two or three years.

David Chipperfield’s first substantial project was the long demolished shop designed for Issey Miyake in Sloane Street in 1983. With its veined white marble, generously proportioned timber floor boards, and an intricate palette for the supporting cast of materials it might seem a little rich for the Chipperfield of today, but it remains a sophisticated exercise in place-making, and in its intentions and ambitions is not so far from what he would be doing now. Even then Chipperfield was ready to say that it was important not to do too much. All that a shop might need would be a really beautiful floor. That introduction to Issey Miyake was to take him to Japan, where he was one of the early arrivals in the wave of Western architects sucked into the Tokyo of the Bubble Economy. He built two substantial buildings – an art gallery and an office building. It was enough to keep his office in London afloat, though he built very little in Britain at that time: a house for the photographer Nick Knight, the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, and a little office building in Camden.

The Sloan St Shop Sign Writing Brief 1983

Signwrite on glass set ‘Issey Miyake’ running vertically:  Helvetica Black in Ultramarine blue

New kit:  New pallet dippers and fresh signwriting enamel colours by Keeps of Clerkenwell. New ground sheet, top quality twill canvas.

 

Colour test – David Copperfield Architect, Issey Miyake and admin design coordinator

Set out pallet and mixed vibrant blue

Applied colour to glass – Chipperfield approved it, issye smiled ”A lovely blue”, others fawned

New dipper leaked – blue tinted turpentine cascaded onto £150.000 lime stone steps…

 

Design coordinator screamed

Issey Miyake turned whiteish

Chipperfield’s mouth hung wide open and motionless

 

Action required

Swiftly set pallet down on newspaper

Rolled canvas sheet onto area – stood on it … prayed

Pretended everything was totally cool… told the three that everything would be just fine…

They were still staring with all three now not breathing for some time… mouths open.

Thought seriously about running away very quickly (I was 22 yrs old and quite fit)

Realised I had to move at some point – so did they…

Stepped off… with faux confidence, removed the dust sheet and to my complete astonishment the stain had completely gone.

Painted the sign.

 

Never trusted new kit from that day on,

Now use large coffee jar lids taped in place on pallet.

Ground sheets

Stay cool

 

NGS