From the Spring 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
Two monumental glass greenhouses – one filled with a mountain cloud forest and waterfall, the other a Mediterranean flower dome where it is perpetually spring, rise out of a tropical landscape like a vision from a sci-fi film. But, in fact, these ‘biomes’ are among the latest creations of the architect Chris Wilkinson RA and his office Wilkinson Eyre. His award-winning Gardens by the Bay in Singapore has been built on over 100 hectares of reclaimed waterfront land, where the only vegetation is small, bushy trees. It’s become a major attraction, drawing five million visitors since it opened last May. In the midst of the Mediterranean garden is Pollen Singapore, a branch of Mayfair’s Pollen Street Social restaurant, where I meet Wilkinson for lunch. “I had a wonderful dinner there but I’ve never been able to book a table here at the London restaurant, so I wanted to try it.”
Pollen Street Social hums like a well-oiled machine – it is a sleek, chic restaurant, full even on a freezing Monday lunchtime in January. The chef, Jason Atherton, ex-Gordon Ramsay, prepares a seasonal menu of original interpretations of classic dishes, with a mix of influences, both European and Asian. The quality is exceptional, the execution brilliant – its flawlessness is arguably its only flaw: for a restaurant with the name ‘social’, Pollen Street doesn’t feel particularly cosy.
The menu, Wilkinson notes, “requires a lot of concentration”, given the elaborate list of dishes, full of unexpected ingredients. But after much deliberation I order poached hen’s egg with smoked haddock and wild garlic puree to start, he chooses Orkney scallop sashimi, and we both order the sea bass and red mullet Bouillabaisse as a main. He picks the house red (a Syrah from south-west France) and I choose a glass of the California Viognier, honeyed and mellow.
Wilkinson is so soft-spoken and modest about his achievements that it is hard to reconcile the futuristic drama of his Singapore project with the gentle giant sitting before me. But the double Stirling Prize winner is quietly daring. After working for the modernist architect Denys Lasdun after architecture school, he sought out the other great modernists of British architecture, working for Norman Foster RA, Michael Hopkins RA and Richard Rogers RA before forming his own practice 30 years ago. “At first it was just me. Now we have 130 people and offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai, because a lot of our work – 35-40 per cent – is abroad.”
His recently opened 103-storey Guangzhou tower, is 100m higher than the Shard. Its concept is “elegant simplicity,” he says. “Since it is going to dominate the skyline, it has to be beautiful and seem effortless in the way its rounded edges taper upward into the sky, rather than towering over the city. The 30-storey atrium – big enough to fit the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral inside – is like a kaleidoscope, with the lights making a diamond pattern on the exterior at night.”
The son of a surveyor, Wilkinson (b. 1945) first became interested in buildings while accompanying his father in the school holidays: “The most interesting people I met were architects – that’s why I got involved in the field. From a teenager I thought that most modern buildings weren’t beautiful and that I could do better. I went to St Albans, a public school where – at that time – architecture, let alone art, wasn’t encouraged. But I did as much art as I could and I used to go to the abbey to draw. I wasn’t very academic. My intellect was in a different place.” He still has an artistic side: he paints at home and draws all the time. And last year his courtyard installation From Landscape to Portrait – part bench, part sculpture – was a hit of the Summer Exhibition.
When the starters arrive, his scallop sashimi is the show-stopper: it comes atop ‘snow horseradish’, an ingredient that takes us both by surprise – frozen horseradish that looks like snow and melts in your mouth. The truffles on the side add to this intense combination of flavours and textures.
Once we finish marvelling at the food, Wilkinson tells me about his recent British projects, notably a cable car over the Thames that leads to the Siemens Crystal in east London: a diamond-shaped complex dedicated to urban sustainability. He is, he says, always searching for “the beautiful idea”: a design that is aesthetically pleasing, fits the brief and solves a problem in a beautiful way. “I conceived the idea of a crystal at a weekend, as I was walking along the riverside site. I like to build next to water because of the reflections you get. So I wanted to recreate that jewel-like idea in a building.”