I was extremely upset to read of the death of Chris Wilkinson yesterday – a very good architect and an exceptionally nice, decent and shrewd person who devoted a great deal of time and energy to the Royal Academy when I was there, including chairing the Client Committee which was responsible for the major building project in Burlington Gardens and being Treasurer, a very onerous role, during the last three years. He did quite a bit of work in East London, including the Stratford Market Depot for the Jubilee Line and the Arts Two Building for Queen Mary with a wall to the main road designed by Jacqui Poncelet (he was interested in collaboration with artists).
In 2015, he asked me to write the introduction to a book about his drawings and I reproduce part of it in his memory:-
Through knowing Chris at the RA, I became a great admirer of his work and of his practice. Some of it I already knew before coming to the RA, like Magna in Rotherham, the highly inventive science centre in a disused industrial building, which won the Stirling Prize for architecture in 2001; the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, which snakes across the River Tyne connecting Newcastle to its long-standing urban rival to the south and which won the Stirling Prize the following year; and the elegant twisting bridge which connects the Royal Opera House to the Royal Ballet School across the street. I even remember seeing the Stratford Market Depot, one of the early projects on the then new Jubilee line, when I was a judge on the Building of the Year Award some time in the mid-1990s.
More recently, I had the opportunity to be taken round the amazing Wilkinson and Eyre project in Singapore: Gardens by the Bay, which consists of great bubble domes of exotic botanical specimens celebrating biodiversity in an equatorial city. I am very familiar with Arts Two, the project he and his firm completed recently on the campus of Queen Mary, University of London, which is just up the road from where we live in east London and which includes a ceramic façade of books by Jacqueline Poncelet, indicating his willingness to work and collaborate with artists. And, for the Summer Exhibition in 2012, Chris designed a very beautiful, extremely simple, geometric installation for the courtyard which consisted of a series of frames converting from Landscape to Portrait.
What I didn’t know — but it doesn’t at all surprise me — is the extent to which Chris thinks about the process of designing new buildings projects by way of drawing in a sketchbook which he carries with him. I love the way he describes the process of drawing in the introduction to this book, as a system of facilitation for the process of thinking, working out his ideas on paper. He does this not with any conscious aesthetic intent, but the results are frequently aesthetically pleasing precisely because they are pure expressions of design thinking.
What one sees in the book are the different ways in which he uses drawings: the outline doodle; the slightly more worked out sketch; the ground plan showing the use of space; the more finished watercolour; the presentation drawing done to seduce a client; the depiction of a particular detail which is worrying him; the drawing which looks as if it has been done for pure pleasure. They are infinitely various and demonstrate very clearly the ways in which he uses drawing as a visual language, now sadly rare.
One thought on “Chris Wilkinson: In Memoriam”
As a writer I had the pleasure of Chris Wilkinson’s company some years ago at the Taipei International Book Fair in Taiwan. He was far nicer than many architects I have encountered, a modest and grounded man, very funny and I am sure missed by many. I am sorry to hear of his passing.