Issue Number: 115
Chris Wilkinson RA has made a bench with spiralling picture frames in the courtyard of the RA to greet Summer Exhibition visitors. He tells Hugh Pearman about his plans for co-curating the Architecture Room with Eva Jiricna RA.
Chris Wilkinson RA, twice winner of the prestigious Stirling Prize, is very aware of the distinction between art and architecture. You can blur the boundaries, he says – that’s what he is setting out to do as he co-curates the Architecture Room with Eva Jiricna RA this year – but each demands a different mind set. And so he is clear that his other contribution this summer, his installation From Landscape to Portrait (2012) in the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard, is ‘a site-specific architectural contribution’, not a sculpture. Architecture is about collaboration, he says, art is about single-mindedness. ‘They are very hard things to combine. You have to re-programme your brain.’ As a spare-time painter himself, he knows whereof he speaks.
'Landscape to Portrait' in the Annenberg Courtyard, Summer Exhibition 2012.
From Landscape to Portrait is a 12m-long structure consisting of a sequence of 11 giant timber ‘picture frames’ that twist through space. The frames are set on a stainless-steel plinth that incorporates concrete seating. Along their spiralling route they rotate in a gradual shift from horizontal (landscape) to vertical (portrait) format. As is often the case with architecture, the different elements in the work help each other out: the plinth conceals the structure that clamps the frames in place, and the weight of the concrete seating serves to counterbalance and stabilise the whole work.
The collaborative aspect of Wilkinson’s architecture is manifest: his practice is Wilkinson Eyre, and his partner Jim Eyre is an equal contributor, with a specialism in the bridge designs that the practice is famous for – such as the Stirling-winning Gateshead Millennium Bridge (2002). Wilkinson himself – who worked in turn for three other RAs, Norman Foster, Michael Hopkins and Richard Rogers, before setting up his own firm in 1983 – is noted for large-scale enclosures, such as the shrink-wrapped reuseable Basketball Arena at the 2012 Olympics. But increasingly he designs more complex permanent buildings, such as the Earth Sciences faculty at Oxford University (2010) – the practice is also redesigning the New Bodleian Library there.
Much of Wilkinson’s work, including, at 440m, one of the world’s tallest towers, in Guangzhou, is now focused on China. But he relishes the personal, hands-on nature of the Annenberg Courtyard project. ‘It’s quite a big, extravagant piece, a marvellous opportunity,’ he says, adding that the aim is to find a more permanent home for it once the Summer show closes. It’s also something of a family affair. He has called on the talents of his wife, artist Diana Edmunds (for lighting advice) and his architect son Dominic, charged with bringing the project from concept to reality.
Eva Jiricna RA and Chris Wilkinson RA as they take a break from hanging the Architecture Room in the Summer Exhibition. Photo © Richard Dawson. From Landscape to Portrait defines space in a very architectural way. It is structurally sophisticated stuff, using stained laminated timber sponsored by the Finnish Metsä Wood company, of the kind that architects with sustainability credentials often favour (he briefly considered, and rejected, gilding the frames). Moreover, Wilkinson is also working with engineers Flint & Neill, bridge specialists who previously helped on a key precursor to the RA installation, the Bridge of Aspiration (2003) which links the Royal Ballet School to the Royal Opera House above a street in Covent Garden (see RA Magazine, Spring 2012). That too is a rotating-frame form, though enclosed.
This, however, is only part of his contribution to the Summer show. Working with Eva Jiricna RA on the Architecture Room (opposite), he has enlisted the help of the painters and sculptors in the galleries on either side. In consultation with the show’s overall organiser, Tess Jaray RA, his aim is to blur the boundaries between art and architecture and create a more interlinked series of spaces. ‘The Architecture Room tends not to take notice of the adjacent galleries,’ he says. ‘I’ve asked architects, including students, to consider submitting more painterly works. We are putting a group of plinths in the middle of the room for models, and leaving the walls free for hanging.’
Wilkinson is the first to admit that the curators of the individual rooms can only exhort, not demand – working only with the material submitted. It’s a similar situation to the Venice Biennales – the extent to which national pavilions and individual artists and architects choose to stick to the themes is largely up to them. But Wilkinson commands great respect among his peers, and my bet is that his influence will be strong.
He points out how, in single-artist shows at the RA, such as the hugely successful David Hockney exhibition, this enfilade of five galleries is arranged and viewed in sequence. So he is trying to do something similar in the Summer show. ‘I have talked to some of the artists, and they’re willing to make moves that are relevant to architecture. It’s about what the disciplines have in common. With the painters it’s colour, form, materials and texture. With the sculptors it’s form, geometry, materials and space. These are common links.’
It has been to the benefit of the RA that Wilkinson has been able to concentrate on these two projects while taking a sabbatical from his practice. He’s back at the helm there now – with significant buildings nearing completion, such as the museum housing the Tudor battleship Mary Rose in Portsmouth, the great conservatories of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, and the Emirates Air Line cable-car system crossing the Thames from North Greenwich to the Royal Docks. All these projects, like his installation in the Annenberg Courtyard, are about finding elegant and appropriate responses to unusual problems. ‘That,’ he says, ‘is what makes architecture difficult but interesting.’