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Thoughts on paper: the sketchbooks of Chris Wilkinson RA

Published 28 August 2015

Chris Wilkinson RA has continued to value hand drawing in an age where digital software prevails in architectural offices. Hugh Pearman meets him as a show opens at the RA to accompany the publication of his sketchbooks.

  • From the Autumn 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “These are OK,” says Chris Wilkinson RA, looking at a sheaf of watercolours, “but they’re just a response to a site. You wouldn’t hang them on the wall.” Well, actually you would, and they have, at the Royal Academy, not to mention putting others in glass cases and also publishing them in a book. But Wilkinson’s point is that in Thinking Through Drawing, his show in the Academy’s Fine Rooms, he is not presenting works of art. He is an architect, he says, and though fascinated by art and a keen drawer, he thinks and sees like an architect. That’s different.

    “Look at this one,” he says, pulling out a 12-inch square of thick Italian paper. It’s of a church in Lucca. “As an architect you have to get the proportions right,” explains the man whose UK designs include Portsmouth’s Mary Rose Museum, a Maggie’s Centre in Oxford and the masterplan for the Dyson Headquarters in Malmesbury. He says it almost sorrowfully, as if bound to a sacred vow. “An artist wouldn’t care about that so much, they would be more concerned about the overall feel.” And indeed, you could say that the church in question is depicted with slight over-exactitude, almost as if Wilkinson had refined the vertical perspective in his head. In other examples his style is looser, but he is right: an architect sees differently and depicts differently from artists. There is more emphasis on the direct communication of the idea. And people, when present in these works, are subservient to the buildings, handy devices to show a sense of scale.

  • Chris Wilkinson RA, Concept drawings for the Crown Sydney Hotel (due for completion in 2019)

    Chris Wilkinson RA, Concept drawings for the Crown Sydney Hotel (due for completion in 2019), from a 2013 sketchbook.

    Photo Royal Academy of Arts. Photography: John Bodkin, Dawkins Colour. © Chris Wilkinson RA.

  • By and large, most of Wilkinson’s sketches are not necessarily about him sitting down to capture a scene for the sake of it. One landscape watercolour, for instance, is of the Barangaroo harbour redevelopment area in Sydney, Australia, where his firm has designed a skyscraper that houses the Crown Sydney Hotel. He had just arrived, he said, was dead tired but didn’t want to crash out. So he went to the site of his building, got out his HB pencil, his usual A4 sketch pad and his little watercolour box with its collapsible brushes, and off he went. Drawing the waterside site was the prelude to drawing the building, a stepped, curving skyscraper.

    Later sketches show him working with the plan form of the tower – starting off with the idea of a rippling Alvar Aalto vase extruded upwards, then dropping that in favour of a biomorphic spiralling tri-lobed plan (pictured), and culminating in details of a white marble ‘veil’ to the tower’s podium, with particulars of how the individual piece of marble would be clamped together with post-tensioned rods. Most of the drawings have a sparing colour wash applied, to distinguish various areas or to emphasise particular elements and uses. So here you get, in a few sketches, a complete building from empty site through to practical construction suggestions.

  • Here you get, in a few sketches, a complete building from empty site through to practical construction suggestions

  • He’s not a copious sketcher, he says, recalling his young days in the studio of Norman Foster RA who could, he says, consume a whole sketchbook at a sitting, drawing at speed, ripping pages out as he went, leaving a literal paper trail of ideas. He admires that facility, but he “wouldn’t claim to be so dynamic as that”, because for him “drawing is a more contemplative process”.

    The exhibition will be in two sections: ‘Drawing what I think’ and ‘Drawing what I see’. It shows some 20 black-covered A4 sketchbooks dating back to his first sizeable project in the mid- 1990s, the Stratford Market Depot on the then- new Jubilee Line. So it’s roughly one sketchbook per year. His notebooks accompanying these drop down a size to A5. Then there is the special 12- inch square Italian paper used when he is drawing for pleasure, and an abstract work to show how far he pushes his interest in paint and colour.

    It’s strange in a way that Wilkinson is still so wedded to the hand drawing, given that his firm – now Wilkinson Eyre – were pioneers in the 1990s of the seductive computer rendering, working with Alan Davidson of visualisation experts Hayes Davidson. In consequence, Wilkinson’s early buildings looked ‘real’ long before they were built, which gave him an edge at a time when such seemingly perfect visualisations were rare. But although his 200-strong office is today as fully computerised as you would expect (Rhino Grasshopper being its software of choice), Wilkinson himself thinks that the hand drawing brings something else to the party – that old architectural business of drawing plans, sections, elevations and projections, in which all the parts of the buildings relate to all the others in a considered way, rather than just falling into place. So many of these sketches represent the process of architectural thought, stages along the way rather than finished items.

    Some architects, it is rumoured, like to dash off a ‘concept sketch’ of a building after it has been finished, as if to demonstrate some Eureka moment. Wilkinson looks shocked at the idea. Rarely, he does go back to a completed building of his to draw it. “It’s an odd thing for an architect to do because all the memories, the struggles, come back. It’s not unpleasant, but not as satisfying as you might think.”

    For Wilkinson, the strength of the drawing lies in the way it is part of his thought process. The marks on the paper are towards another goal, are not the goal in themselves. These, then, are fascinating by-products. And yes, you would hang them on the wall.

    Hugh Pearman is the architecture critic of The Sunday Times and editor of the RIBA Journal, the magazine of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

    Thinking Through Drawing: Chris Wilkinson RA is in the John madjeski fine rooms from 3 September – 14 February 2016.

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