Jiri Skopek - life of an architect

03-06-2005

Jiri Skopek is a Czech-born architect who left the country of his birth with his when he was just 19. Studying in London Jiri soon became involved in projects that included building a recording studio for the legendary The Who, and in the 1970s designing the first solar house in Britain's Milton Keynes. In later years he worked on the Arabian Peninsula, and - in the eve of the 90s - drew up the master plan for one of the most recognisable sites in Toronto.

Downtown Toronto. A famous complex of buildings known as BCE Place covers a full city block, the site including two gorgeous 50+ story towers. At their base: sweet granite. Rising up: windows of dreamy green: tapered peaks, a pointed spire, skyscrapers that complement each other.

Since 1990 BCE Place has been one of Toronto's most distinctive landmarks, in a way the culmination of a lifetime of work: Jiri Skopek drew up the master plan but his architectural journey began long before, in studies in Europe. Here in Prague. It was back in the 1960s, as a teenager, that he first considered a career in the arts.

"Architecture seems to have been a good combination between the arts and the technical, so that's what sort of led me to be interested in architecture and to study it. I did one year at the Technical University in Prague's Dejvice. And, then 1968 came. 1968 was really like 'shooting into a bunch of sparrows'. It was quite an impact, quite a horrible experience. I remember at about 2 am [being woken up by a neighbour and this horrible droning noise. It was just a concentration of Russian troops in tanks and military vehicles. It was just like an invasion from Mars!"

Following the Russian invasion Jiri Skopek's family decided to leave Czechoslovakia, and Jiri - at 19 - made his way to Great Britain. It was there that he settled for some time, eventually completing studies at one of the country's most exciting schools at a time when the counter-culture was in full swing.

"The school where I was, was probably one of the most avant garde schools at the time, and still is. It's called the Architectural Association School of Architecture. There was lots of music going on, and as students we actually ended up building a recording studio for The Who, which was quite an experience, so I was exposed to, you know, lots of that culture. It was absolutely fantastic."

As for the new studio? That was an experience in itself.

BatterseaBattersea "The studio was in an old church hall in Battersea in a working class part of London, known for the filming of 'A Clockwork Orange', which probably says it all! But, the studio was a bit of a universe in itself and when we started the work there was architect designing this 'ideal' project. But, when it was nearly finished The Who came in, they found it very unsatisfactory because it didn't have the right kind of reverberation."

"There are stories of famous rock 'n roll studios in Nashville or even in Richmond, London, where on some of the recordings you can actually hear the toilet splashing! So, reverberation for rock n' roll was very important! What we actually had to do, we had to take everything down and we started from scratch! We put in insulation, took it down, cut it to pieces, put it up, took it down again, so there's a total trial & error that the result was that I believe it's still one of the best recording studios in London, because it does have that kind of rock 'n roll resonance. They would start their recording & Keith Moon was a very colourful figure and a very good-natured guy despite his craziness! It was kind of a fun period too!"

In his final year of studies Jiri Skopek became interested in environmental issues and the design and creation of environmentally-friendly structures which is something he has pursued and developed throughout his career. His first such project was in 1972, when he got involved in building the UK's first solar house in Milton Keynes.

"Purely by accident I became the environmentally-happening person in London, through organising events and bringing environmental artists and participating in the Edinburgh Arts Festival. And, I was very lucky that I got support from an older colleague of mine, already known in Milton Keynes, and we actually built the UK's first active solar house. After that we started a group of architects and planners dealing with environment and energy problems."

Sustainability has remained a guiding principle for Jiri, whether in England or the Middle East, ever since. More recently, Jiri put together a respected guideline system in Canada - where he has lived since 1982 - known as Green Globes. I asked Jiri which factors contributed to making buildings "green".

"We look at a number of elements: first of all, it's the site itself. You know, even if you're downtown you can still enhance the ecological quality, and you can do that by adding a green roof, planting trees and native plants on the roof or around the building that require little water and actually support local wildlife. And, believe it or not, downtown does have some wildlife! The other thing is energy. We are obviously very interested in creating energy-efficient buildings. You can do this from a planning point-of-view by optimising the space, orienting the building so that it doesn't get over-heated, has proper shading, uses wind so that there is not a wind tunnel on the ground floor but wind can actually be used to cool the building and so on. There are different mechanical systems to choose from, so you have to plan correctly to get the desired result."

Sustainability is certainly something to be passionate about and there is a reason to be positive as it seems more builders have begun taking a more environmentally friendly approach.

"The question is 'how to do it'. First of all you need some kind of a road map."

Toronto, Canada: it seems far way from Prague which inspired Jiri Skopek with its Baroque architecture in his youth. But, it's the city where he has made a mark and it's the city which he calls home. If you have a chance to visit, BCE Place is highly recommended, a gem on the Toronto skyline, both near and from afar.

03-06-2005