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Futuristic facades and high-profile buildings: A chat with architect Chris Wilkinson

The principal at WilkinsonEyre discusses some of his firm standout projects

Singapore's Garden by the Bay
WilkinsonEyre’s Garden by the Bay in Singapore, a massive indoor greenhouse and public park
Craig Sheppard

While he’s not always included in the starchitect roll call, British architect Chris Wilkinson has made just as significant a contribution to the field as many of his peers. The commission to redevelop Battersea Power Station, which his firm is currently engaged in, one of the more high-profile projects in England, doesn’t come to those without a track record.

After working for some of his country’s biggest names, such as Norman Foster, Michael Hopkins, and Richard Rogers, Wilkinson launched his own firm in 1983, which partnered with Jim Eyre in 1987 to form WilkinsonEyre. In the decades since, the practice has developed a reputation for technological innovation, as befitting his mentors, seeking to bridge art and science and continually test and refine new ideas (his design for the 2001 Magna Science Center in England won a Sterling Prize, and the firm just completed a new research center for another innovative English firm, Dyson). Curbed spoke with Wilkinson about his firm’s work and projects in progress, especially some of the more high-tech facades that have become features of recent designs.

Interior of Gardens by the Bay in Singapore
Interior of Gardens by the Bay in Singapore

Gardens by the Bay in Singapore: A striking greenhouse in the tropics

For Brits or Americans, public gardens and greenhouses normally showcase tropical plants far from their natural habitats. But what about greenhouses in the tropics? For this massive enclosed public park created for the Singapore government in 2012, part of a citywide push to enhance greenspace, WilkinsonEyre needed to create an energy-conserving glass facade in a climate where solar heat gain presented a big challenge. The indoor environment also needed to be cooled, to keep the big attractions, Mediterranean plants, from overheating.

The design solution balanced the desire for openness and sunlight with the need to cool the interior. The curved glass, which utilized a double glazing system, snakes above the greenery below, held up by exterior supports and arched ribs that allow more light and less bulky structure. Shading devices also unfurl during particularly hot or bright days to protect the plants below. These glazing and shading systems allow building operators to maintain the proper interior climate without introducing a more costly, expensive air conditioning system (plant clippings are burned to provide energy for the buildings environmental systems).

“Singapore wanted to create a destination, and I think we succeeded in creating a leisure spot for the general public,” says Wilkinson. “They’ve had 20 million visitors over the last four years.”

Bay Park Centre Towers in Toronto
Angled glass creates a shimmering facade for the Bay Park Centre Towers in Toronto

Bay Park Centre Towers in Toronto: Adding some luster to the skyline

Sometimes, small tweaks to a standard facade can significantly change the silhouette of a building, and even a downtown district. When WilkinsonEyre was tasked with creating a series of towers above and around a train station in Toronto, their design, which linked a series of high-rises with a rooftop sky park above the rail lines, will help improve and expand the streetscape. The project will also remake part of the skyline with a series of faceted glass facades that added a slight sparkle to the city.

“We wanted it to shine a bit,” says Wilkinson. “Traditionally, the dark glazing you see on midcentury modern towers was there to prevent heat buildup in the summer and heat loss in the winter.”

These new additions, which broke ground this fall, will stand out in downtown Toronto, which has a score of darker glass towers, including Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre. Wilkinson says the glazing scheme isn’t necessarily anything special, but the ability to add patterns and textures to the exterior, while using angled glass that reflects light and decreases heat gain, offers more dynamic cladding. Just 75 centimeters deep, the undulating, diamond-shaped panels will add an elegant ripple across the surface.

“It’s something you couldn’t have done in the past,” he says. “You can think of it as a kind of artwork in a way. By taking advantage of simple physics—without spending a lot of money—you can add character and identity to a building.”

Crown Sydney
Set on the waterfront, the Crown Sydney (right), will be the top of a stairway of high-rise in the Australian city.

Crown Sydney Hotel in Sydney: A sculptural addition to the waterfront

Situated on the Sydney waterfront near the famed Opera House, Barangaroo, a neighborhood just outside the central business district, offers a striking place for a skyscraper. WilkinsonEyre took advantage of the singular setting when designing what will become the city’s tallest tower. The curving design of the forthcoming 885-foot-tall Crown Sydney Hotel, which broke ground this fall, will add an iconic silhouette to the skyline while taking full advantage of the site’s wrap-around harborfront views.

“It’s an inhabited sculpture,” Wilkinson says about the under-construction high-rise. “We couldn’t have designed something like this five or ten years ago.”

The basic shape and form, a series of three petals that wrap around a central base, required some innovative solutions for the glass facade. Significantly curved sections of the building will be covered in triangulated panels to better capture the bends of the building (Wilkinson compared it to the way Buckminster Fuller used triangles to form his famous domes). In certain spaces, the construction teams will utilize a technique called cold pressing: three corners of a glass panel will be inserted, with the final edge bent, or “ironed,” into place. The resulting glass exterior gives the building a lighter profile and helps reflects the generous amount of light that bounced back from the harbor.

“We always try to do something a little bit different for competitions such as these,” says Wilkinson. “We try and push. That’s how innovation works; you do something that may seem outrageous, and then it becomes commonplace.”

King’s Cross Gasholder
The apartments set inside these antiquated cast iron structures utilize unique parcels of unused space in central London

King’s Cross Gasholder Park in London: Turning a Victorian landmark into a modern dwelling

The site of these new residences seems more steampunk than contemporary; a series of cast iron rings, known as gasholders, had been preserved, but the owners were struggling to figure out how to best utilize the space. WilkinsonEyre came up with a series of cylindrical apartments, high-end residences in a formerly under-utilized section of central London, that added character to the redevelopment site. While working with a historic site wasn’t easy–the iron rings needed to be removed for touch-ups and preservation–one of the biggest challenges was aesthetic.

“The Victorian iron frames add a significant constraint,” says Wilkinson. “You can’t build, say, a brick apartment building in the middle, since it would look so old. We went with a more industrial aesthetic.”

Wilkinson turned the site’s unique characteristics into an advantage. The wedge shaped apartments, which are in the process of being completed, feature central atriums, and control mechanisms on the facade that allow owners to open and close front sliding windows that follow the curvature of the frame. Inspired by the mechanisms and movement of a watch, the new structures manage to combine both contemporary and classic styles.

Design sketches for the Kings Cross Gasholders
Design sketches for the King’s Cross Gasholders