My studio life: Chris Wilkinson RA

Published 20 November 2015

The architect’s sketchbooks are currently on display at the RA. We visited him at his practice to find out why, in an age of computers, drawing is still at the centre of what he does.

  • Chris Wilkinson RA wears an Apple watch and drives an electric BMW. “I like technology,” he confesses – and yet he also favours the most analogue process of his profession. As an exhibition at the RA reveals, the architect keeps detailed and considered sketchbooks, and has done for over thirty years. His sketches give us a glimpse into his working mind: pencil lines washed over with pale watercolours show buildings at each stage of their completion, the details emerging on the page.

    WilkinsonEyre – which was started in 1983 by Chris Wilkinson and later joined by Jim Eyre, and now has six further directors – has a portfolio of award-winning international projects. They have designed one of the tallest buildings in the world, China’s forward-looking Guangzhou International Finance Center, but they have also worked on projects steeped in history, including the new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth and the refurbishment of the New Bodleian Library for the University of Oxford.

    The sketchbooks reveal a more personal element to Wilkinson’s work. We visited him in both his Clerkenwell practice and his Dulwich home to talk about architecture, and the role drawing plays in both his professional and his everyday life.

  • Three Academicians in a row

    Three Academicians in a row

    “We moved to Clerkenwell in the early 90s and were originally in the same building as Zaha Hadid. But we needed more space and so we moved to Old Street, but when that started to be redeveloped, we came here. These used to be publishing offices, as Clerkenwell was the centre for printing, and it’s full of architecture practices now. Zaha is opposite and Piers Gough is just down the road, though we don’t run into each other much. We’re currently turning the floor above into more offices, and from there you can see St Pauls from the window”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • London is a haven for architects

    London is a haven for architects

    “I try to create a studio feel to the office, but it’s very difficult because there are so many of us – about 180 people – and we all work on computers. The atmosphere here is friendly. London is a haven for a young architects and so the people who work here are from all over the world. It’s important for people to get to know each other because many of them are new to London. We have a buddy scheme, when new people are paired with someone they can relate to, and on Friday evenings we have “beer o’clock”. We want the younger architects to feel part of WilkinsonEyre”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • Drawing is part of the process

    Drawing is part of the process

    “I carry the projects I’m working on around in my head, I can’t get rid of them. When I want to get to know a project, I start drawing in the hope that some ideas will emerge which will help formulate the way forward. But it isn’t just a linear process. It depends how complex the brief for the project is. And drawing is only part of the process: there are all the regulations and how the architects might interpret the site, which is especially tricky if you’re working in a dense urban setting”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • I use watercolours and coloured pencils

    I use watercolours and coloured pencils

    “Over the years I’ve become interested in the drawing for its own sake. I only need to do a rough scribble, but I started to make the scribble look more appealing and easier to understand. I use watercolour as a wash to help emphasize aspects of the drawings. It’s much quicker than shading, and I’ve really enjoyed working with colour. I do some of the work on my sketchbooks in the office, and I keep my watercolours on my desk with the brushes rolled up”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • Architecture is a form of communication

    Architecture is a form of communication

    “When I’m in the office I’m generally in meetings, on the telephone or in design sessions. A lot of the time I spend on my sketchbooks is when I’m out of the office, either travelling or when I’m at home in the evening. For me, drawing is about reflecting on what we’ve been talking about, about thinking ahead and trying to get my head around the brief. I’m always trying to find an architectural vocabulary that seems appropriate to the project. I think it’s important young architects understand that drawing is still important – working on computers isn’t enough. Architecture is a collaborative process, a way of communicating, and drawing is part of that”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • We don't exactly have routines

    We don't exactly have routines

    “We work in teams on different projects, which currently include the Battersea Power Station development, an arena in Barcelona and two resort hotels in Melbourne and Sydney. While we don’t exactly have routines, we have been having teleconferences at 7.30am with Australia. I don’t like getting up early so sometimes that’s quite difficult for me. Throughout the projects we sketch, make 3D models and create digital images, so we’ve been looking at the briefs in lots of different ways. There’s only so much you can do on the screen, you have to go back to basics and use other techniques, including free-hand drawing”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • I carry the projects I’m working on around in my head, I can’t get rid of them. When I want to get to know a project, I start drawing in the hope that some ideas will emerge which will help formulate the way forward.

  • An exciting project in Sydney

    An exciting project in Sydney

    “These are models for the resort hotel in Sydney – a high rise building with swimming pools, shops, restaurants and a casino. The upper floors will be high-end apartments. It’s an exciting project but we’re still waiting for consent; building casinos is always political. The apartments are fun to design, because the people who tend to live in these kinds of flats want exciting spaces with good views – they’re less interested in spaces for cooking and laundry. We’re talking $100m for the top apartment because it has panoramic views of the city”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • Models, and bits of models

    Models, and bits of models

    “The model workshop is full of very noisy machines. We have numerically controlled machines which rout shapes out of perspex laser cutters, and recently we bought a desktop 3D printer, which creates upside-down prints from resin. Elsewhere in the office we have models and bits of models from lots of different projects, made out of timber and foam”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • Drawing is about reflecting on what we’ve been talking about, about thinking ahead and trying to get my head around the brief. I’m always trying to find an architectural vocabulary that seems appropriate to the project.

  • On drawing at home

    On drawing at home

    “I designed this space with my wife. We were both interested in the artist James Turrell, and what he was doing in the 1990s. It’s the only new room in the building, and it’s got lightness and a relationship with the garden which I like. We’ve been able to make it into what we want, rather than just accepting what was originally there. I wanted to create the sense of not being enclosed in a space but of being open to a landscape. We have a policy of not having clutter, of clearing things away. The painting on the wall is by Johnny Dewe Mathews, which I love. It’s a good place to draw”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • On sketchbooks and travelling

    On sketchbooks and travelling

    “I was in Chicago last week and this was the view from my room on the 23rd floor, which I found really interesting. It wasn’t a very good hotel and I didn’t have much time to paint, but I had an hour and so I did this drawing. When I work on my sketchbooks, I take photographs of what I am seeing and I often come back to the drawing later to add a watercolour wash if I haven’t had time to finish it on site”

    © Eamonn McCabe

  • Italian stationary shops are the best

    Italian stationary shops are the best

    “I’ve got a very nice small paint set which I take travelling with me. I bought it in Italy. There’s a great paint shop in Lucca, where I have a house with my wife. Italian stationary shops are the best: when you go into them you want to buy everything because they’re so nicely presented. These are Winsor & Newton travelling brushes which fold out, and when they’re wet, they go to a perfect point”

    © Eamonn McCabe

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