Lisbon’s MAAT by Amanda Levete Architects

Amanda Levete

Amanda Levete founded AL_A studio in 2009, after partnering with Jan Kaplicky at Future Systems, where she realised the legendary practice’s organic vision with built works such as Selfridges, Birmingham (1997) and the Stirling Prize-winning Lord’s Cricket Ground Media Centre (1999). With projects from 10 Hills Place, London (2009) to the mixed-use Central Embassy skyscraper (2015) in Bangkok, AL_A has brought a unique, unexpected curviness to urban settings. But it’s about more than the curves, as she revealed to Herbert Wright at MAAT

Amanda Levete
Amanda Levete

Blueprint: Fluidity of form is perceived as a hallmark of Zaha Hadid designs. Is the fluidity of MAAT echoing a contemporary style that we owe to her?

AL: Future Systems started fluidity before Zaha did. We were great friends. For one of her birthdays, I bought her a set of French curves (drawing tools)!

With the sun set, the new volume is illuminated. Note the passageway cutting through to the roof
With the sun set, the new volume is illuminated. Note the passageway cutting through to the roof

Blueprint: Certainly, curvature distinguished Future Systems’ work. Thinking of the form of, say, the TWA Terminal at JFK (1962), was Eero Saarinen an ultimate influence?

AL: He’s a real hero of mine. The fluidity of those spaces came out of the context, creating spaces that were expanding architecture as a piece of topography. The Oval Gallery (at MAAT) was there early on — we wanted to create theatrical spaces in part inspired by the success of the [Tate Modern’s] Turbine Hall, and also so it’s accessible to all. Fluidity also came from the interaction of the three disciplines [that MAAT brings together] — architecture, technology, art. They interconnect, spaces flowing into each other, public spaces flowing into the building.

Lord’s Cricket Ground Media Centre (1999) by Future Systems. Photography - RichaRd davies
Lord's Cricket Ground Media Centre (1999) by Future Systems. Photography - Richard Davies

Blueprint: Is the great ramp around the Oval Gallery a reference to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim New York (1959)?

AL: Of course. That’s one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century. It was such a well argued proposition. What’s different for us is you’re going down. It’s quite counter-intuitive to go into a museum and go down. We could have gone higher but this was a more sensitive approach. It’s a theatrical passage. You enter, you see the ellipse [of the Oval Gallery] in front of you. The brief was about exploration.

The V&A Exhibition Road project, currently underway. Photography - AL_A
The V&A Exhibition Road project, currently underway. Photography - AL_A

Blueprint: Are there any common themes or elements between MAAT and the Victoria and Albert Museum Exhibition Road extension project?

AL: There are similarities, not formal ones, but conceptual. It’s about creating public space as much as a gallery, a space to hang out in. The success of both projects will be how they’re used. At Exhibition Road, we’re doing the first porcelain courtyard. The tiles are made in Holland [by Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum].

Central Embassy skyscraper in Bangkok. Photography - AL_A
Central Embassy skyscraper in Bangkok. Photography - AL_A

Blueprint: Yes, the glazed, non-slip, Sackler Courtyard surface. Has porcelain not been used for outdoor surfaces before?

AL: Porcelain was used a little in Victorian times in porch design. Porcelain is harder than granite!

Blueprint: How central is materiality in your design?

AL: What’s very important to us is craftsmanship. Here we use the digital to set out the ceramic tiles. They’re all different. By taking the steps down into the water [there is] the interplay with the forces of nature and the architecture — you look at the light on the water, how can we capture that? We came up with this series of ceramic tiles. It gives a texture and richness to the surface. At the MPavilion [a translucent canopy for Melbourne’s annual commission, 2015] we used composite materials.

Blueprint: MAAT is a great building with a strong curatorial ethos, but in the end is it relevant to ordinary people rather than just a metropolitan elite?

AL: More people go to museums than to football matches. And it’s not just about going to the museum, it’s a place where you can connect to the city.

Blueprint: How does MAAT address the fact that the waterfront is cut off from the city by the road and rail lines?

AL: The idea of the roof was [that] we create a metaphysical link between city and waterfront. Next year, there will be a 60m-span physical bridge [over it]. So we have this literal and metaphysical connection.

Blueprint: Technology is part of MAAT’s conceptual vision, but when it comes to its use in architecture, does it stand up to the non-digital, unconnected technologies that leave ancient structures so robust?

AL: When you look at some of the great builders of the past, like Brunelleschi, they did work as complicated as we do now with digital. Digital can be overplayed. The other thing is that the more we inhabit this digital world and overloaded imagery, the more people want to be with people. MAAT is designed for people to do that, to rub up against each other.

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