Out to lunch with Chris Wilkinson RA

Published 28 February 2013

The architect and Academician talks over lunch about searching for “the beautiful idea” when he designs a building.

  • 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.”

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  • For his current project, the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, opening this spring, he conceived the idea of a mussel-shell shape to enclose, protect and display Henry VIII’s ship: “You wouldn’t say that because it’s a maritime project we’ll start with a mussel shell – that form comes out of the function, the need to enclose the Mary Rose. My presentation started with the idea of a ring in a box – the most important thing is the ring, not the box.”

    He pauses for the arrival of our bouillabaisse: Cornish sea bass on top of red mullet drizzled with black aioli (rather than the typical yellow) tinted with squid ink. “When you’re eating out, it’s nice to have something that in your wildest dreams you would never prepare,” he smiles.

    Over dessert (pear sorbet with apples baked in hibiscus and a blackberry hibiscus sauce), Wilkinson talks to me about being a member of the RA: “I love talking to the painters and sculptors – it has changed my approach. The architects have as well, because we are all very different, so the Academy acts as a sort of mediating place. Last year, when I was hanging the architecture room in the Summer Exhibition, I had interesting discussions with the painter Tess Jaray RA: I was desperate to line things up but she didn’t like that. So I had to look at it from another point of view.” As chair of the committee overseeing architectural works at the RA, Wilkinson is particularly looking forward to the restoration of the Keeper’s House this autumn: “It will become a special place for Friends, with cultural events open to the public as well, like poetry readings and lectures. We are making it exciting without losing the character of the RA.”

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