When the Tuscan city of Pisa commissioned David Chipperfield to create a master plan that would bring new vitality to this historic place on the Arno, an exhibition of a selection of work produced by him in the last 25 years was also invited. Chipperfield chose “Form Matters” as a title for the exhibition, as ‘Form’ and ‘Matter’ are all-important key elements of the language of architecture. We asked him to lead the way through the models, drawings and photographs to explain his designs, which were realized all-over Europe, China, Japan, the United States and Mexico and to give us an accounting of his creative direction at each stop.
In the exhibition catalog, Chipperfield writes:
The title of the exhibition, ‘Form Matters’ plays on the two aspects of our work that concern us as architects: form and matter, shape and material, the physical realisation of formal ideas. Implicit in the title is an acceptance that whatever organisation or material ideas we may pursue, however complex architecture may be, however many concerns we may grapple with, our work as architects is evaluated by its formal result, that is to say its form.
Architects continuously seek reasons to justify form. The 19th-century obsession with stylistic revival, which became a battle of styles, finally gave way to the revolutionary break of the modern movement with its own mantra of ‘form follows function’, trying to suggest an almost scientific link between a building’s purpose and its form. This desire to look for justification through a process of determinism overlooked the complexity and rich potential of architecture. While the early buildings of the modern movement did indeed suggest a concern for rationality, they were at best poems celebrating an aspiration not a reality. Le Corbusier’s vision of the home as a ‘machine for living’ came true in ways that he did not anticipate.
We have witnessed over the last ten years an evolving experimentation in architectural form, an experimentation that has responded to architecture’s more complex relations to the growing influence of media and globalisation. Architecture has suffered the contradictory encouragement of both the spectacular and the conservative, while the general production of the architecture that forms our environment normally maintains the lowest standards enforced and justified by the commercial system that motivates most development.
As architects we must both be part of and stand apart from the culture within which we operate. To be effective we must embrace power, but also distance ourselves; we must engage in dialogue and we must refuse to listen; we must explore the familiar and the unfamiliar; we must embrace history and reject it. Finally we must resolve our ideas in matter and form.