When Amanda Levete won the commission to design the new courtyard at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), she knew almost immediately that the floor had to be porcelain. There was just one problem: no one made non-slip porcelain tiles for outdoor use. So Levete set out to invent them.
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First came months of failed trials. But eventually, Levete found a company in Stoke-on-Trent that could add aluminosilicate minerals to ceramics to give slip resistance. Then came another challenge: applying colour. The usual method of surface glazing makes tiles slippery, so Levete continued her search. Eventually she came across a 500-year-old tile-making firm from the Netherlands who could sit the glaze below the tile’s surface so it would not come into contact with the foot.
The entire process took two and a half years. But for Levete, 61, who has built a career around seeking out unlikely specialists to realise her architectural schemes, it was business as usual. “We had to share a belief that, collectively, we had the ability to solve any problems,” she says. “Even those we didn’t know existed.”
The tiled courtyard is just one element of a £33 million overhaul Levete’s practice AL_A has undertaken for the V&A – the museum’s biggest expansion for 100 years, which completes in July 2017. AL_A won the job in 2011 when it was just two years old, coming hot on the heels of her newly opened Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon. The V&A is Levete’s moment to put herself back on the map, after the traumatic circumstances seven years ago that ended her previous business.
AL_A’s Sackler courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum is due to open in 2017
For 20 years prior to AL_A, Levete was part of the well-known duo that led Future Systems. The firm had been set up by the late Jan Kaplický in 1979, and though the pair had married and divorced during the time of their joint leadership from 1989, they continued to run the practice together. It pulled off such feats as Selfridges Birmingham and the lozenge-like Media Centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, giving Levete a taste for unlikely collaborations. The Lord’s project was the world’s first all-aluminium, ribbed building. “The client thought it was a radical design and too risky,” Levete recalls, “so we spent six months trying to get the construction industry to do it, and they said it couldn’t be done.” Refusing to accept defeat, Levete and Kaplický visited the London Boat Show at Earl’s Court, and commissioned yacht builder Pendennis to fabricate the curved sections that form the hull-like pod. The building won the prestigious 1999 RIBA Stirling Prize.
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Yet, in 2009, Levete walked away from Future Systems. Her decision was largely about an attitude to form. At Future Systems, where each project started with a sketch, “we were becoming quite reverential”. She wanted to pursue a more discursive approach. Then, just as she was about to leave, Kaplický died unexpectedly in his native Czech Republic.
In these difficult circumstances, Levete’s new practice took time to develop. As part of Future Systems, her profile was high; at AL_A she has been under the radar. She puts that down to a number of factors: the long lead time on AL_A’s two major projects; the youth of its other three directors, Alice Dietsch, Maximiliano Arrocet and Ho-Yin Ng; and the unhappy events surrounding its establishment. “The way that the practice started, coming out of the trauma of Jan’s death, for me I had to show that I wasn’t going to fail,” she says.
Now 55 strong, AL_A’s set-up illustrates Levete’s new way of working. Staff and visitors must remove their shoes at the door of the open-plan studio – a former transport depot in north London – meaning everyone pads noiselessly around the red carpet in socks or slippers, or in the case of Levete, bare feet. “It makes people more relaxed; it’s a great leveller,” she explains.
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Her change of process is also aided by AL_A’s structure. Levete and her three directors work on every project at the start, and instead of beginning with sketches, they start with conversation. “Our aim is to understand the purpose of a project, what’s going to drive it and unlock its potential.” Sometimes that can be an abstract idea. At the V&A, they began with the notion of “making the invisible visible”, which in turn led to the desire to raise awareness of the museum’s encyclopaedic collection of ceramics by building a porcelain-tiled courtyard.
AL_A’s interest in surfaces, and tiles in particular, proved to be a gift to MAAT. “We wanted to respond to the site, so we used the facade to speak of where it is,” says Levete. AL_A developed a bespoke tile in reference to Lisbon’s rich tile tradition. The shape of the 15,000 crackle-glazed tiles reflects the light and shadow of waterside Belém, where it is based.
AL_A will follow up MAAT and the V&A with buildings for Wadham College at the University of Oxford, the transformation of Paris’s 44,000-square-metre department store Galeries Lafayette, and the conversion of 39 Soviet-era cinemas in Moscow into mixed-use schemes. Levete is not only back on the map, but also all over it. To her, though, she is just one among several unusual collaborators. “We are dependent on forging relationships with makers as curious as we are,” she says. Even if it takes two-and-a-half years to find them.