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.