The Wick - Amanda Levete by Matt Holyoak The Wick - Amanda Levete by Matt Holyoak
Monday Muse

Interview Award-Winning Architect Amanda Levete

Interview
Amanda Levete
Photography
Matt Holyoak
05 June 2022
Interview
Amanda Levete
Photography
Matt Holyoak
05 June 2022
Stirling Prize–winning architect Amanda Levete is building a very exciting future. Her award-winning international design and architecture studio, AL_A, which she founded in 2009 with co-directors Ho-Yin Ng, Alice Dietsch and Maximiliano Arrocet, has recently emerged as the winner to design Serbia’s new Belgrade Philharmonic Concert Hall. The landmark project will be the biggest cultural investment in the region for decades.

It follows recently completely projects that include two new buildings for Wadham College at the University of Oxford and the studio’s work on the contemporary wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Exhibition Road Quarter in London – the V&A’s largest building project in more than 100 years. Ongoing commissions also include the £42m transformation of Scotland’s Paisley Museum and the design of a prototype fusion demonstration plant for Canadian clean-energy firm General Fusion.

In recognition of her services to architecture, Levete was included in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2017 and made a CBE. She was also elected an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 2019, and a Royal Academician at the Royal Academy of Arts last year.

THE WICK:   Talk us through a typical Monday.

Amanda Levete:   My best start to the week is a run followed by a leisurely breakfast – I’m no longer a fan of early starts. Then it’s a half-hour walk from my house to the studio in Bloomsbury. I go the long way round to ensure maximum trees and minimum cars – with no headphones, so I can soak up the sounds and energy of the city. I meet with my fellow directors every day at midday, a habit we picked up during lockdown and which we enjoy even more now it’s back in person. After a full day reviewing projects with the team, I walk back home for an hour of Pilates and then cook a nice meal to be enjoyed with my husband, Ben, and a good bottle of wine.

TW:   What is your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

AL:   It’s not open yet (it’s due to complete in 2024), but the V&A East Storehouse, designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is going to offer an entirely new museum experience in London. The V&A is reimagining the storage of its collections. It will be a new immersive experience that takes visitors behind the scenes and will provide unprecedented access to one of the greatest collections in the world.

TW:   You have been awarded the contract to design the new Philharmonic Concert Hall in Belgrade following a year-long competition process. Tell us about the significance of this project.

AL:   It’s incredibly significant. The Belgrade Philharmonic Concert Hall is the largest ever cultural investment in Serbia. You couldn’t dream of a better site – the magnificent setting of Ušće Park, close to the Palace of Serbia and overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. It’s a wonderful vantage point from which to project Serbia’s progressive vision for the future. The concert hall will be an expression of a new harmony, between landscape, music and architecture – a place without limits – a place to bring together people from different cultures and music from different genres.

TW:   Which design project are you most proud of?

AL:   I find pride in all our projects, even those which were never built. Some of our best work is in competition entries we have lost, but if you see it as part of your repertoire than you can rescue success from defeat. Success comes not just from what you build, but from what you imagine.

“Success comes not just from what you build, but from what you imagine.”

TW:   The prototype fusion facility for General Fusion will be the first magnetised target fusion facility in the world. How do you approach a brief like this?

AL:   Fusion has the potential to provide the planet with clean, low-cost, zero-carbon energy forever. This potential has been understood by the scientific community for decades, but with the demonstration plant it can be communicated to the public. We set out to find a physical way to express the extraordinary power and promise of fusion. To make fusion palpable from inside and out – to reveal what goes on, to set up a new relationship between nature and technology, and by doing so take away the fear.

TW:   Which building do you wish you’d designed?

AL:   Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe. Designed for Edith Farnsworth after a chance meeting with Mies at a dinner party in 1945, it is a seminal building; an essay in the poetry and purity of a space. It is a single idea pursued ruthlessly to its ultimate end. A simple platform hovering above the landscape with an absence of walls, the inside becomes outside and the outside becomes inside. I visited it many years ago when it was still used by Peter Palumbo as a weekend retreat. He had restored it immaculately – I had a sense of how mood-enhancing living there must have been.

TW:   How important is sustainability as part of the architectural debate?

AL:   It is completely central – we build because we believe in a future, and we won’t have a future unless we put sustainability at the heart of everything we do. Wherever we build, whatever the context, we have a responsibility to address sustainability, biodiversity and wellbeing – to create places where we can live better together and live better with nature.

TW:   What advice would you give to aspiring architects?

AL:   Be entrepreneurial and don’t be afraid to push boundaries.

TW:   Do you see art and architecture as being intertwined?

AL:   Of course. Architecture is about form and aesthetics, but also about identity. Buildings are the physical representation of a culture, of social ideas and political intent. If they were just about being necessary, there would be nothing left to say.

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

AL:   It is everyone in the studio – the buzz as you walk through the door and past the messy pile of shoes (at AL_A, we all take our shoes off, even our clients). The youthful energy of the team and my four directors is inspiring and infectious.


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