The esteemed British architect on his remaking of the Royal Academy and where today’s cities are going wrong

“I’ve spent most of my life working in other people’s cities,” says David Chipperfield, whose architectural practice has offices in London, Berlin, Milan and Shanghai. “So I have to justify why I’m there. You have a responsibility, you can’t just be a carpetbagger. You have to show that you can bring something.”

As one of the most esteemed architects in the cultural realm, with successes such as the stunning conversion of Berlin’s Neues Museum, Chipperfield hardly needs to prove what he can bring. And, for once, London is about to experience the proof of that genius, when his remaking of the venerable Royal Academy of Arts opens on May 19.

But before we get on to talking about that, when we meet in a central London restaurant, we somehow plunge straight into deeper issues about his profession, and his concerns about today’s cities.

“I think architecture is in a sort of crisis,” he says. “We’ve lost our social purpose. What we are seeing now is construction as a product of investment. We are building a lot, but we are building big investment projects, as if we’re doing architecture without architecture. It’s more about investment than it is about urbanism. We used to be involved in planning and building cities, building societies. But now we are discussing housing as if it were a strange product like washing machines or something, when in fact houses are what you build a state with.

“Why is it a housing crisis, why isn’t it a housing opportunity? People are not saying: what do we need? What kind of housing do we need? What kind of environment do we want?”

With his quiet, rather gravelly voice, Chipperfield has a way of delivering radical ideas with a grave demeanour that lends authority but does not draw any of the sting.