From a shining future to a bitter end as 'blob' architecture pioneers part company

Couple who rebranded Birmingham with space-age store divide their practice

Their 20-year partnership produced one of the great creative flowerings of recent British architecture. The husband and wife partnership of Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete rebranded Birmingham with a Selfridges store that shimmered with sequin cladding. In 1999 they scooped the Stirling prize for the building of the year by dragging cricket into the 21st century with a media centre which arrived at Lord's like a unidentified flying object.

But now Future Systems, the firm they built during 15 years of marriage, is to split, and the break-up is being seen as a defining moment for "blob" architecture, the design movement which prizes free-flowing forms for which Kaplicky has drawn inspiration from anything from stealth bombers to the curve of a Brazilian sunbather's thong.

The Czech-trained designer, with a reputation for passion and angst, and Levete, one of the leading female architects of her generation, are now in the final stages of talks with lawyers over dividing the practice. Their broken relationship has already seen them divorce.

"The split is going to happen," a source confirmed. "They have been the most courageous British architects in a generation. They were driven by experimental ideas and they managed to build them, and for that they stand out."

Levete, 53, will now trade under her own name and will set up with about 40 staff, while Kaplicky, 71, will retain the Future Systems name he established in 1979 and will work with about 10 staff, according to Building Design.

They divorced in 2006 and have both since remarried. One architect said the atmosphere in the offices in Notting Hill, west London, which they share had been so tense it was "like a bad smell". Yesterday they declined to comment on the split. They have a son, Josef, 13.

Levete will start her solo career with a commission from James Murdoch, the chief executive of News Corporation in Europe and the Middle East, to rebuild "Fortress" Wapping, the headquarters of the Times and Sun. Observers suggested this may have given her the impetus she needed to finally go it alone.

Meanwhile, Kaplicky has drawn up designs for a pair of startling projects in his home country, which he left when the Soviet tanks rolled in in 1968. He has said his scheme for a new national library in Prague could be the "grand finale" to his career.

The project has been compared to a giant yellow octopus and is one of the most dramatic designs he has ever proposed, but it looks unlikely to be built because the mayor opposes the plan.

Kaplicky has been fighting so hard for it that he cancelled his honeymoon after marrying the Czech film producer Eliska Fuchsová last autumn. The "sensual freeform curves" of a planned concert and congress hall outside the Czech capital appear more realistic.

"It is a matter of great regret they have agreed to split up," said a close friend of them both. "But the reality is Amanda now does work that Jan doesn't want to be identified with. Jan is continuing to do blobby extraterrestrial work and she is doing more rational work. In fact, she was always the doer and he was the creative genius."

Kaplicky has always been one of the most emotional figures in British architecture and in 2002 published a book entitled Confessions which revealed his innermost anxieties. In it, he wrote: "How to resist so many wrong temptations? Commercial pressures. Financial needs. Comforts. Glory. Poverty. Survival. Attacks. Jealousy. Arrogance. Very rarely praises. How to survive horrible people, bad television, bad books, ugly people? How to be strong enough every single morning, organise your mind, and above all create something?"

"They didn't build in the current commercial style and that has been risky," said Nigel Coates, professor of architecture at the Royal College of Art, who is one of a group of architects who promote the same kind of free-form design as Future Systems. "Selfridges and the MCC, both relatively conservative clients, recognised the value of taking that risk."

The media centre at Lord's was built by boatbuilders rather than conventional contractors and was the first all-aluminium, semi-monocoque building in the world. The design for Selfridges defied retail orthodoxy by featuring hardly any shop windows. Instead, the opaque curving sequinned facade was intended to sell the goods within, and the number of shoppers in the opening months defied expectations.

In 1998 Levete and Kaplicky designed an underground home in the Pembrokeshire hills for the Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews, and their own home became a testbed for their radical ideas, including a dinghy-like cross between a bed and a sofa in their living room. They have also designed champagne buckets for the Ivy restaurants and coathangers for Marni, the Italian fashion house.

The CVs

Amanda Levete

Born Bridgend in 1955, and educated at the Architectural Association in London

Career Worked with Will Alsop and Richard Rogers in the 1980s and joined Kaplicky as partner in Future Systems in 1989

Designs With Kaplicky, the Lord's media centre and Selfridges.

Also becomes successful furniture designer

She says "For me, plasticine is the most effective method of capturing a fleeting idea, and it fits with our freeform aesthetic. I like the imprecision of it."

Projects after the split News International headquarters in Wapping

Jan Kaplicky

Born Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, and educated there at the College of Applied Arts & Architecture. Escapes to London in 1968 following the Prague Spring

Career Worked with Rogers on the winning entry for the Pompidou Centre in Paris and later with Norman Foster. Set up Future Systems in 1979

He says "Your personal happiness or unhappiness comes out in your work, it's a reflection of your emotional state and you can't separate the two"

Projects after the split National Library in Prague and Concert and Congress Centre, Czech Republic


Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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