Chris Wilkinson. Interview and text by Vladimir Belogolovskiy
Wilkinson Eyre Architects is one of participants of an exposition of Russian pavilion of XI Architectural biennial in Venice
Written by: Vladimir Belogolovsky
10 September 2008
Chris Wilkinson, 63, is an architect and a painter. He has a mind of an engineer and a philosopher. In 1970, after graduating from London Polytechnic Institute, now known as Westminster University, Wilkinson traveled throughout Europe and then went on to work for several of the most successful architects in the United Kingdom, including Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Michael Hopkins. Chris Wilkinson founded his own firm in 1983 and a few years later, he promoted his collaborator Jim Eyre to become partner and renamed the firm Wilkinson Eyre Architects. Wilkinson Eyre Architects built a number of widely recognized projects including the Stratford Regional Railroad Station and the Kew Gardens’ Alpine House in London, as well as the National Waterfront Museum Swansea in Wales and the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, England. Currently the firm is overseeing the construction of the 437 m tall Guangzhou West Tower in Guangzhou, China. However, the firm’s most celebrated projects are their bridges. The architects have designed over two dozen beautiful kinetic structures in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Greece, United Arab Emirates, New Zealand and the United States. Among the firm’s most widely known bridges are the Gateshead Millenium Bridge in North East England and a tiny Bridge of Aspiration, twisting like a ballerina skirt to gracefully connect the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden, high above Floral Street in central London. Wilkinson Eyre Architects won the coveted Stirling Prize twice (2001 and 2002) for the best building of the year in Britain. In January 2008 the joint team of Wilkinson Eyre and Russian developer giant Glavstroy won the competition to design the masterplan of the Apraksin Dvor district in St. Petersburg, Russia, which will feature a spectacular new footbridge over the Fotanka Canal. I met with Chris Wilkinson in his office in Islington, London where the practice of about 140 architects occupies two full floors in a low-rise modern office building. Tell me about your winning Apraksin Dvor project in St. Petersburg?
It is a very exciting project for us because St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, almost every building is a historical masterpiece, and the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Therefore to build anything new in such a situation is a special challenge. Apraksin Dvor is a run down market area near Nevsky Prospect. The idea is to turn it into high-end retail space, apartments, offices, hotels and museums. It will have a London’s Covent Garden feel to it. We kept all the buildings at the perimeter and removed the run down structures at the core, which will provide an opportunity to have a covered courtyard and streets under a glazed roof with outdoor cafes. We also linked this area to Fontanka Canal and designed a pedestrian bridge on the other side with a cloud-like sculpture. A huge crystalline glass tensegrity roof hangs over the canal and reflects the water and the sky. How is the relationship with your client Glavstroy developing? Did you notice anything different working in Russia compared to Britain and other places?
The client is very professional. All the expenses at the competition stage were paid for and once we won, they organized an exhibition of our design in the Union of Architects of St. Petersburg. At the very final stage of the competition we presented our scheme along with Foster and Partners to the governor and jury and then the projects were exhibited for a couple of weeks at the City Hall. What impressed me is that the decision after these two presentations was made on the spot – in just 15 minutes. This would never happen in the UK. Decisions take a long time here. How familiar were you with the local context of St. Petersburg and how does your project address it?
We spent a lot of time on site and we had all the necessary surveys and historical data, which was very helpful. Personally, I went there three times. The key idea was to renovate most of the historical buildings and make any new architecture not very noticeable. This is very tricky because if you make new architecture too invisible you might as well just not bother at all. So I think the contrast between old and new is very exciting. I think if you don’t allow for new development a city will die. Cities have to regenerate themselves. But of course, we need to try to keep as much of the historical fabric in tact as we can. Do you think St. Petersburg is ready for progressive contemporary architecture? How is working in such a sensitive historic city different from working in other places?
Well, there is a reluctance on the part of the people of St. Petersburg to accept any new development. I definitely got that impression when I was interviewed by the press. My feeling is that new interventions need to be sensitive. The only way you can explain your intentions is by showing examples and we have worked in historic contexts before. For example, we just completed the Liverpool Arena and Convention Centre and that is in a World Heritage site. It is a very modern building and it is very well accepted by locals. We are also building a transportation interchange and a school in the center of Bath.
Do you think it is beneficial for Russian cities to invite foreign architects to build?
I think it is. I think there is a benefit in the mixture of cultures and thinking. London is a very international city and we have many international architects building here even though we have plenty of great local architects. It provides a healthy competition and it helps to improve the standards, hightening the benchmark of quality. I think it is very good to have some input from outside. Right now many foreign architects are working in London – Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Mecano, and of course, we have a lot of major American firms here SOM, KPF, HOK, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects and so on. How personally are you involved in this project and how often do you come to St. Petersburg or Russia? What is your impression of the country and its culture?
I am personally involved in the project because I like to design. I’ve been to St. Petersburg four times and I’m going there again. I visited Moscow twice before the competition. The last time I was there was for a conference on high-rise buildings organized by ARX magazine. I like the vitality in Russia. When I visit Russia, I always pick up this excitement and interest in things that are happening so I was really excited to get the project there. I have a particular interest in projects by constructivists and have visited the Melnikov House. I am also aware of contemporary architecture being designed and built in Russia. I think we will see much better projects in the next few years because there is a very strong desire to move forward. I went to see some towers that are under construction in Moscow with the city chief architect Alexander Kuzmin. He also took me to see the new Christ the Savior Cathedral. It was extraordinary because it was built so quickly. How do you feel about the fact that your project proposal was chosen over Norman Foster’s, whom you worked for as a young architect?
Well, it is not the first time. Sometimes they win, sometimes we win. We actually have a good record of winning competitions. Today the architecture scene is very competitive, hence one always has to compete for new work.
What was your childhood like and how did you get interested in architecture?
I was brought up in the suburbs of London and my father was a surveyor. I met architects through my father and I think I was attracted to architecture because of the people I met. They were very interesting to me so I was interested in architecture very early on and art was my favorite subject at school. Tell me about your path as a young architect after graduating from Polytechnic Institute?
Right after school I worked for one of my professors and three years after, I took three months off to travel and search for what I wanted to do next. I went to France, Italy and Greece. I wanted to leave London for a while. This was in the early 1970s. While traveling I realized that I wanted to work for either Norman Foster or Richard Rogers. They were not well known then but I wanted to work for them because they were definitely forward thinking. So, I rushed back and applied for work at both places. Foster offered me a job. At that time he had about 30 people. After working there for a few years, Michael Hopkins, who was then a partner at Foster’s, left to open his own firm and asked me to join him. I worked for Michael for five years. Then I was offered a job at Richard Rogers and worked there for a few years. And then there was a point when I decided that if I ever wanted to set up my own practice that was the time. I was 38 years old and I made the decision to start my own practice with no work. I’m going to be 38 this year. Tell me how do you open your practice with no work?
Well, people were very good to me. Michael Hopkins helped me with work. Also, I continued to work for a while for Richard Rogers. Also, Peter Rice, a well-known engineer from Arup, gave me a couple of projects. One of them was to look after the IBM traveling technology exhibition, which is a building designed by Renzo Piano. This exhibition pavilion was traveling throughout Europe and I looked after it in the UK – putting it up in London and York. Gradually I got more work. All this time I was working by myself. Then I got one person, then another. Initially, I shared space with a former coworker at Richard Rogers. For a while, I had five or six people and then in 1990 we won two major projects for the London Underground Jubilee line – the Stratford Train Depot and Station. Other projects followed subsequently.
You worked for all of the key high-tech British architects. What did you learn from them?
In my last year at university, I went to Richard Rogers’ lecture, which made me aware of new architecture technology, which I had never heard of before. It was about prefabricated joint construction, new materials, fascinating gaskets and details and all of those things that seemed so interesting. So, intellectually, I felt that architecture is constantly evolving. I was always attracted to Modernism, but Modernism that would evolve. Suddenly, I could see that it was the new technology that was going to change architecture. That’s why I was attracted to Foster, Rogers and Hopkins--because of their new approaches, which were still within Modernist principles. When I started my own firm, I had to make some big decisions because I didn’t want to repeat what I had done in the past and it took me a while to find my own approach. I am not really a high-tech person but I am interested in using technology. I like exploring forms, structures and new materials. It is not about just one thing – we do very site specific projects and they are all different because every site is specific and unique. In one of your texts you say that the philosophy of your firm is about bridging art and science and that in your projects you like to explore the boundaries and crossovers between architecture and engineering. This approach is very characteristic of British architecture. How do you see your role in continuing this tradition and how do you try to distinguish your architectural style?
I think the technical aspects of architecture should not take over. I have a particular interest in aesthetics, proportions and beauty. Atmosphere is another important aspect that deals not only with how a building looks, but also how it feels. The objective is always to make architecture uplifting so when you enter the space you feel good and there is a potential to lift your spirit. Then there is meaning. For me architecture has to have meaning and be relevant. I like to think that there is always a narrative within a building and it is not just a fancy. For example, in St. Petersburg the meaning is to bridge old and new, and to create a new life. All old cities need to regenerate themselves and it is the architects’ responsibility to make that happen. So there are three words that guide me: aesthetics, atmosphere and meaning. In addition to being an architect, you are also a painter.
I started painting about ten years ago when my wife, who is a professional sculptor, decided to study painting in art school. I followed what she was learning. I find it very relaxing and stimulating. We have a house in Italy and I usually paint a lot whenever I go there. I noticed that the paintings I do in Italy are much more colorful than the ones I do in England. How does painting relate to your work as an architect?
I don’t believe in starting a project with a painting as an inspiration. I think this is where the art and science split. Mental process in painting is very different to design, which has a very rigorous process, whereas in abstract painting you have to try to forget everything and just go for it. Yet, when you apply art to design it gives you a risk-taking element and a freedom of spirit. For me this “freeing” of myself is very important. I gain a lot of confidence from my love for painting. Your bridges are very complex and beautiful. What prompted your fascination with engineering?
It started with buildings. We did a long span for the Stratford Regional Railroad Station which we worked on very closely with our engineers, particularly to ensure that the structure would be very efficient. Based on that project we were invited to take part in a pedestrian bridge competition in 1994 at Canary Wharf, which we won and built the bridge for. Then we were asked to do another bridge competition in Manchester, then another one. So we won five bridge competitions in a row. Overall we have built at least 25 bridges.
Your Apraksin Dvor masterplan in St. Petersburg has a footbridge over Fontanka Canal with a hovering sculpture above it. It is very light, delicate and evocative of Naum Gabo’s kinetic sculptures. Does he or other Russian constructivists play any role in inspiring your architecture?
Definitely. I think what Naum Gabo offers to me inspirationally is this magic quality, which seems to capture light. His sculptures look very light and delicate. It is very inspiring for our bridge designs and we push our engineers really hard to refine the structure of our bridges. In your texts you say, “Good buildings have spiritual qualities”. What are the qualities that you would like people to notice and feel in your architecture?
I would like people to feel good. When I say the buildings are “spiritual”, I mean they have the power to lift the spirit. It is a combination of space, light and acoustics that can have such an uplifting effect. When you go into a cathedral, for example, you get a feeling of being somewhere special. I think all buildings could give that comforting and spiritual quality.
Wilkinson Eyre Architects office in London 24 Britton Street, Islington April 23, 2008
For All Times
The modular technology combined with the building material of glued wood allows the architectural company Rhizome to create quick-mount hotels (no less!) that are highly rated by the architectural community: last week, the new hotel “Vremena Goda. Igora” scored three awards. Below, we are examining the project in detail.
The Other Way Around
Few awards instead of many, the award ceremony conducted on the first day instead of last, projections instead of sketch boards, trees inside and art objects outside – the renewal of the Architecton festival seemingly took the sure-fire path of turning all the professional traditions upside down – or at least those that happened to be within the scope of the organizers’ attention. There’s certainly a lot to pick on, but the exhibition does feel fresh and improvisational. It looks that pretty soon these guys will set trends for Moscow as well. We shared with you about some elements of the festival in our Telegram channel, and now we are examining the whole thing.
ArchiWOOD-14: Building Bridges
This season, the festival’s jury decided not to award a grand prize: judging by the fact that the shortlist included several projects that had not reached the award in previous years, and the “best house” was pronounced to be an undoubtedly beautiful but mass-produced model, the “harvest” of wooden buildings in 2023 was not too abundant. However, there were many unusual typologies among the finalists, and restoration and revitalization projects received their share of recognition. Let’s take a look at all the finalists.
The Chinese Symphony
The construction of the Chinese center “Huaming Park” has been a long story that came to fruition relatively recently. The building is adjacent to a traditional Chinese garden, but it is very modern, laconic and technological, and the simple-in-form, yet spectacular, white lamellae promise to someday be incorporated as a media facade. This complex is also truly multifunctional: it contains different types of living spaces, offices, a large fitness center, conference halls and restaurants – all wrapped in one volume. You can comfortably hold international forums in it, having everything you may possibly need at your fingertips, and going outside only to take a walk. In this article, we are examining this complex in detail.
Ensemble of Individualities
Construction of the first phase of the INDY Towers multifunctional complex on Kuusinen Street, designed by Ostozhenka, has started. The project opens new angles of similarity between the column and the skyscraper, and we examine the nuances and parallels.
Black and Red
Kazakov Grand Loft received its name for a reason: responding to the client’s brief and proceeding from the historical industrial architecture of its immediate surroundings, Valery Kanyashin and Ostozhenka architects proposed a new version of a modern house designed in the fashionable “loft” style. What makes this building different is the fact that the bricks here are dark gray, and the facades of the romantic “fortress” towers blossom with magnificent glazing of the windows in the upper part. The main highlight of the complex, however, is the multiple open air terraces situated on different levels.
Mezonproject has won the national architectural and town planning competition for designing a hotel and a water recreation center in the city of Irkutsk. The architects chose hummocks of Baikal ice as a visual image.
The Mastery of Counterpoint
In the sculpture of Classical Greece, counterpoint was first invented: the ability to position the human body as if it were about to take a step, imbuing it with a hint of the energy of future movement, and with hidden dynamics. For architecture, especially in the 20th century and now, this is also one of the main techniques, and the ATRIUM architects implement it diligently, consistently – and always slightly differently. The new residential complex “Richard” is a good example of such exploration, based on the understanding of contrasts in the urban environment, which was fused into the semblance of a living being.
The project of the museum of Aleksey Gastev, the ideologist of scientific organization of work, located in his hometown of Suzdal, is inscribed in multiple contexts: the contest of a small town, the context of avant-garde design, the context of “lean production”, and the context of the creative quest of Nikolai Lyzlov’s minimalist architecture – and it seems to us that this project even reveals a distant memory of the fact that Aleksey Gastev learned his craft in France.
In memory of Jean-Louis Cohen
Marina Khrustaleva – about Jean-Louis Cohen (20.07.1949-7.08.2023), French architect and architectural historian that specialized in modern architecture and city planning.
On the Hills
In the project by Studio 44, the “distributed” IT campus of Nizhny Novgorod is based on well-balanced contracts. Sometimes it is hovering, sometimes undulating, sometimes towering over a rock. For every task, the architects found appropriate form and logic: the hotels are based on a square module, the academic buildings are based on a “flying” one, and so on. Modernist prototypes, specifically, Convent Sainte-Marie de La Tourette, stand next to references to the antique Forum and the tower of a medieval university – as well as next to contextual allusions that help inscribe the buildings of the future campus into the landscape of the city hills with their dominants, high slopes, breathtaking river views, the historical city center, and the Nizhny Novgorod University.
The Magic Carpet
The anniversary exhibition of Totan Kuzembaev’s drawings named “Event Horizons” shows both very old drawings made by the architect in the formative 1980’s, and now extracted from the Museum of Architecture, as well as quite a few pictures from the “Weightlessness” series that Totan Kuzembaev drew specifically for this exhibition in 2023. It seemed to us that the architect represented reality from the point of view of someone levitating in space, and sometimes even upside down, like a magic carpet with multiple layers.
A Copper Step
Block 5, designed by ASADOV architects as part of the “Ostrov” (“Island”) housing complex, is at the same time grand-scale, conspicuous thanks to its central location – and contextual. It does not “outshout” the solutions used in the neighboring buildings, but rather gives a very balanced implementation of the design code: combining brick and metal in light and dark shades and large copper surfaces, orthogonal geometry on the outside and flexible lines in the courtyard.
The Light for the Island
For the first time around, we are examining a lighting project designed for a housing complex; but then again, the authors of the nighttime lighting of the Ostrov housing complex, UNK lighting, proudly admit that this project is not just the largest in their portfolio, but also the largest in this country. They describe their approach as a European one, its chief principles being smoothness of transitions, comfort to the eye, and the concentration of most of the light at the “bottom” level – meaning, it “works” first of all for pedestrians.
Spots of Light
A new housing complex in Tyumen designed by Aukett Swanke is a very eye-pleasing example of mid-rise construction: using simple means of architectural expression, such as stucco, pitched roofs, and height changes, the architects achieve a “human-friendly” environment, which becomes a significant addition to the nearby park and forest.
Ledges and Swirls
The housing complex “Novaya Zarya” (“New Dawn”) designed by ASADOV Architects will become one of the examples of integrated land development in Vladivostok. The residential area will be characterized by various typologies of its housing sections, and a multitude of functions – in addition to the social infrastructure, the complex will include pedestrian promenades, shopping malls, office buildings, and recreational facilities. The complex is “inscribed” in a relief with a whopping 40-meter height difference, and overlooks the Amur Bay.
Agglomeration on an Island
Recently, an approval came for the master plan of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk agglomeration, which was developed by a consortium headed by the Genplan Institute of Moscow. The document provides for the creation of 12 clusters, the totality of which will give the region a qualitative leap in development and make the island more self-sufficient, more accessible, and less dependent on the mainland. We are inviting you to examine the details.
Ivan Grekov: “A client that wants to make a building that is “about architecture” is...
In this article, we are talking to Ivan Grekov, the leader of the architectural company KAMEN (translates as “stone”), the author of many high-profile projects that have been built in Moscow in the recent years, about the history of his company, about different approaches to form making, about different meanings of volume and facade, and about “layers” in working with the environment – at the example of two projects by Osnova Group. These are the MIRAPOLIS complex on the Mira Avenue in Rostokino, whose construction began at the end of last year, and the multifunctional complex in the 2nd Silikatny Proezd on the Zvenigorodsky Highway; recently, it received all the required approvals.
Grasping and Formulating
The special project “Tezisy” (“Abstracts”), showcased at Arch Moscow exhibition in Moscow’s Gostiny Dvor, brought together eight young “rock stars of architecture”, the headliner being Vladislav Kirpichev, founder of the EDAS school. In this article, we share our impressions of the installations and the perspectives of the new generation of architects.
The White Tulip
Currently, there are two relevant projects for the Great Cathedral Mosque in Kazan, which was transferred to a land site in Admiralteiskaya Sloboda in February. One of them, designed by TsLP, was recently showcased at Arch Moscow. In this article, we are covering another project, which was proposed during the same period for the same land site. Its author is Aleksey Ginzburg, the winner of the 2022 competition, but now the project is completely different. Today, it is a sculptural “flower” dome symbolizing a white tulip.
The architectural company ATRIUM opened a gallery of its own in a metaverse. Inside, one can examine the company’s approach and main achievements, as well as get some emotional experience. The gallery is already hosting cyberspace business meetings and corporate events.
From Darkness to Light
Responding to a lengthy list of limitations and a lengthy – by the standards of a small building – list of functions, Vladimir Plotkin turned the project of the Novodevichy Monastery into a light, yet dynamic statement of modern interpretation of historical context, or, perhaps, even interpretation of light and darkness.
Modernism in Avant-Garde
The contest proposal that Studio 44 made for the Krasnoyarsk Opera and Ballet Theater is bright in all senses, and in many ways even provocative – just like a modern theater performance should be. Being in context with modern culture, it even shocks you in some respects. At first, you are amazed at the red color that is present all around, and then you gradually make sense of the picturesque congregation of volumes that share a multitude of functions. And it’s only later that you realize that this conglomerate conceals a modernist building, most of which the architects save intact.
The Black Mountain
The project of reconstructing the Krasnoyarsk Opera and Ballet theater developed by Wowhaus, which won the competition, proposed a total demolition and new construction, as well as considerable expansion (up to 8 floors) – and transformable multifunctional spaces. The new project, however, does retain the recognizable elements and the image of the old theater. As for the main spectator hall, it is turned – figuratively speaking, of course – into a semblance of a black volcano.
Recently, Moscow saw the presentation of a project by Yuri Grigoryan, devoted to turning the truck garage on Novoryazanskaya Street, designed by Konstantin Melnikov, into the Museum of Moscow Transport. The project involves restoring the monument of architecture, adding a new underground floor and a new entrance, as well as a whole park. The implementation is already underway.
Houses by the Lakeside
Approvals came for the project of a housing complex that DNK ag designed in Kazan. The complex is low-rise; its sections are designed as separate volumes united by a common podium. Everything is very much like DNK: delicate and sometimes even lyrical, especially where the yard meets the lakeshore.
In Novosibirsk, the construction of a school has been completed, whose project is standing every chance to set a new standard for the nation’s educational institutions. SVESMI Architects and Brusnika company started by developing the brief that would answer the modern teaching practices, and then they proposed the optimum plan, versatile classrooms, and reserved, yet expressive, image in the spirit of this Amsterdam alliance.
An 800-room hotel complex, designed by Ginzburg Architects, offers the seaside city of Anapa a fragment of well-organized urban environment that keeps up the cultural spirit of the place. The architects break away from traditional white facades, turning to the antique and even archaic periods of the history of this land, and drawing inspiration in the color of red clay and simple, yet lightweight, shapes.
In Plumage Colors
Working on the facades of a mid-rise residential area in Odintsovsky district, GENPRO architects “adjusted” a number of features of the volumetric composition, which they received without the right to make any changes to, by purely “decorative” means, such as ornamental brickwork, including glazed bricks and the rhythm of the windows. Interestingly, the starting point in the search for the color code was the plumage of birds that are found in the Moscow region.
Julius Borisov: “The “Island” housing complex is a unique project – we took it on with...
One of the largest housing projects of today’s Moscow – the “Ostrov” (“Island”) housing complex built by Donstroy – is now being actively built in the Mnevniky Floodplain. They are planning to build about 1.5M square meters of housing on an area of almost 40 hectares. We are beginning to examine this project– first of all, we are talking to Julius Borisov, the head of the architectural company UNK, which works with most of the residential blocks in this grand-scale project, as well as with the landscaping part; the company even proposed a single design code for the entire territory.