Thinking through Drawing

An insight into the creative process of Chris Wilkinson, architect of the mighty Gasholders

Posted: Wednesday 11th April 2018

Gasholders’ architect Chris Wilkinson reaches for his propelling pencil and sketchbook when seeking inspiration for his projects, whether they are high, low, complex or (deceptively) simple, discovers Richard Holledge.

Architect Chris Wilkinson is explaining the complications of building a tower more than 200 metres high to me. The talk is of the core, wind pressure, outriggers and concrete columns three metres thick. For the layman, this is puzzling stuff. That is, of course, before he whips out a well-used notebook for a quick sketch, and all suddenly becomes clear.

Wilkinson is rarely without a propelling pencil poised to explain a concept or express an idea. His notebooks are full of first impressions and refinements made as the development of a project takes shape — proof that for all the computer-generated images, technology and tricky engineering challenges of modern building, young architects should understand that working on computers alone is not enough; drawing is important.

“When you begin a new project, you have an empty sheet of paper before you, plus usually a blank site and a brief,” explains Wilkinson. “So how do you start?” Answering his own question, he says, “We study the brief and explore the site, understand the context, then the ideas start to come. I find more and more these days that I like to draw the site because when an architect is designing, he draws what he is thinking. The drawings are part of a creative process which spark off ideas.”

It is a process which has helped Wilkinson, co-founder of WilkinsonEyre, one of the UK’s most prominent architectural practices, to design an astonishingly eclectic range of buildings, from the Guangzhou International Finance Centre in China, (all 440 metres of it) to The Mary Rose Museum, which now houses the wreck of the fated Tudor warship in a huge mussel-like matt black container on Portsmouth’s dockyard. “I am trying to create a situation where something interesting is happening. I do not want to build anything too obvious”, says Wilkinson. Indeed, the clean straight lines of the Splashpoint Leisure Centre in Worthing could hardly be more different to the razzle-dazzle of the redevelopment of the market district in St Petersburg, Russia, where painstakingly restored historic buildings have been covered by a roof of crystalline glass.

The most recent fruit of that creativity is the Gasholders development, which now looms above a regenerated King’s Cross. Many of Wilkinson’s sketches from the last 20 years appear in a book, The Sketchbooks of Chris Wilkinson, published by the Royal Academy of Arts in 2015. They offer insight into the project’s genesis, from a rusting reminder of a lost Victorian industrial age to today’s sophisticated and original blocks of flats.

The earliest drawings appear to reflect the limitations of the circular shape and the Grade II listing with just a few simple curves as if to say, ’what am I going to make of this?’ But they swiftly take the form of the three interlocking gasometers that we see today, by showing the detail of the balconies and the way the differing heights of each gasholder reflect the way the originals rose and fell depending on capacity. “When it came to the presentation for the competition we showed a sketch of it as it would appear,” he explains. “We wanted to show the concept of a place which would appeal to young urbanites.” In an elegant watercolour, he has depicted ‘the mishmash’ of carefully contrived features which include windows and doors on different levels and perforated screens that reflect the light and, when closed, bring a unity to the building.

His painting contrasts the mighty Victorian columns and the original lattice work in their uncompromising grey with glittering dashes of brass and steel which lighten the industrial aesthetic. And to make the young urbanite feel at home, he has added in a welcoming deck chair on a balcony of one of the 145 units. “There was not much for people to judge what we were trying to achieve in the early days but the painting gave something for them to look at and like.”

It is an appealingly painterly illustration — perhaps not surprising given Wilkinson’s status as a Royal Academician who uses watercolours in a meticulous, figurative style to paint, say, Venice or a Sydney waterfront. He also works with acrylic to bring bold, intense colour to abstracts, some of which reference architectural features, while others are more akin to the luminous rectangles of an early Rothko.

“Wilkinson is rarely without a propelling pencil poised to explain a concept or express an idea.”

The basic design of Gasholders was inevitably circumscribed by its shape and Grade II status, but what is intriguing (perhaps again merely to the layman) is how Wilkinson’s early sketches of other buildings he has worked on bear a remarkable likeness to the final product. A brief to compete for the Crown Sydney Resort Hotel on the Darling Harbour Waterfront in Sydney, Australia, for example, dropped on his desk just before the Christmas break of 2012 and he spent the holiday season mulling over the challenge. “I knew it had to be a tower and it would have to incorporate a podium because of the amount of rooms it would need. Most of the towers in Sydney are just big black rectangular boxes built in the 1970s and 1980s, but this is a beautiful site overlooking the harbour with the bridge and the Sydney Opera House, so it seemed to me that the site called for a sculptural building.”

Wilkinson knew he had a big challenge on his hands. “Two things go through your mind: cracking the brief and the narrative of the building, what is the architecture about? Then; how do you sell the idea?” He explains, “My mind was jumping around asking, what can we do here? On the whole, towers are very simple because the complexity of the brief is so great, that it’s almost all one can do just to meet its demands. That’s why most towers are a series of floors on top of each other around a central core with as much glazing as you can get… I didn’t want to do that. It had to be special.”

What he came up with is a structure with three petal-like airplane blades connected at the centre which twist as they go up, blossoming out and tapering at the top in double curvature. As to how the petals hit the sky at three different heights, he took inspiration from an Aalto vase, a classic Finnish design from the 1930s, which has three wavy sections and whose shape he adopted to emphasise the fluidity of the building.

“The result is rather feminine, whereas most towers are very masculine,” he says. “It was extremely complicated with lots of different shaped rooms and no floor the same. We made it difficult for ourselves and it was expensive.” Happily, technology and engineering have kept up with his flight of fancy. Explaining how his concept needed twisted columns to support the petals, out comes the notebook for a drawing of the way in which the columns and the core are connected.

“Technology and engineering have kept up with his flight of fancy.”

Early sketches portray the building as something between an orchid and a rocket in pastels of blue, yellow and pink with notes reading: ‘Sculptural forms emanate from the central core, organic growth of leaves/petals contrasts with the rectangular surroundings’. There are hints at classical influences too, from notes about the podium with its ambitious marble-clad latticed exterior when he refers to ‘blinds like St Mark’s Square Arcades’ (in Venice) and ‘High Tech Gothic.’

The hotel could hardly have been more different from Maggie’s Centre for cancer patients in Oxford which is more like a ‘bungalow.’ Even the very first doodle — an almost abstract swirl of clouds and angular shapes — is incredibly close in likeness to the finished building, appearing to float away over scrubby land into the trees. This is no ordinary bungalow. “It needed complexity,” explains Wilkinson. “The original suggestion by the hospital was to build on the car park but we felt it would be more appropriate to build out into space as a sort of tree house” with, as his notes have it: ‘folded planes of triangular geometry fabricated in cross-ply laminated timber’.

The final design sees three rooms come together in a central kitchen-cum-meeting area. At first glance, it is a minimalist concept but look closer, and each room is an uneven triangle with windows of varying heights under over-hanging roofs and held up by angled supports. It combines functionality with informality. Even the table is a triangle. “It was an honour to be asked to design Maggie’s,” he says. “It is perhaps my favourite building.”

This article first appeared in the spring 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below. 

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