Chris Wilkinson, who died at the age of 76, was a co-founder of the architectural firm that epitomized the millennium projects era’s technocratic optimism. WilkinsonEyre were the first architects to receive the RIBA Stirling Prize two years in a row, in 2001 and 2002, for their Magna science facility in Rotherham and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, both of which exhibited the firm’s artistic reworking of British high-tech heritage.
Wilkinson presided over a 200-strong business with projects ranging from streamlined buildings in China to futuristic botanical gardens in Singapore as a result of their achievement.
With a post-industrial thud, the Magna Centre ushered in the new century. It was a spectacular reinvention of a massive disused steelworks, which was to science what the Tate Modern was to art, both establishing the precedent for a generation of tourist attractions located within striking industrial structures.
It led guests on a theatrical voyage through elevated gantries between a succession of luminous pods, concluding inside a silvery sci-fi zeppelin floating in the red-tinged darkness within a silvery sci-fi zeppelin hovering in the red-tinged gloom.
Wilkinson Eyre’s “blinking bridge” over the Tyne used similar theatrics to address the age-old problem of spanning a body of water while allowing ships to sail through. It was designed to rotate on an axis, like an opening eyelid, and became an elegant icon of Gateshead’s riverside regeneration that has stood the test of time.
Composed of two graceful parabolic arcs, one forming the pedestrian deck and the other supporting it, it was designed to rotate on an axis, like an opening eyelid, and became an elegant icon of Gateshead’s riverside regeneration that has stood the test of time.
The practice sought work overseas after the success of these two projects, and the accompanying glare of the media spotlight, prompting it to build the sleek Guangzhou International Finance Centre tower, followed by the Gardens By the Bay in Singapore, launching it on the path to becoming a globally recognized firm.
Wilkinson was born in the Buckinghamshire town of Amersham. His father, Tony, worked for Unilever as a surveyor, and his mother, Norma (née Treleaven Beer), had served in the war effort as a child. He went to St Alban’s School, where he developed an interest in sketching that prompted him to enroll in an art foundation degree before going on to the Polytechnic of Central London to study architecture (now University of Westminster).
After graduating in 1970, he worked on the National Theatre under Denys Lasdun before taking three months off to travel in Greece, where he discovered Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, whom he described as “the future that I wanted to be a part of.”
In 1971, he raced home and applied to both businesses, and was accepted by Foster’s. It was “an incredible time,” he said, when the practice was still young and innovative, and he “learned everything” there. Wilkinson worked mostly with Foster’s colleague at the time, Michael Hopkins, then joined Hopkins when he opened his own practice in 1976, when he worked on the Greene King brewery and Willis Faber’s offices at 10 Trinity Square. He departed after five years to join the Richard Rogers Partnership, where he was a crucial early contributor to the design of Lloyd’s of London, which in 2011 became the world’s youngest Grade I-listed building.
Wilkinson’s encounters with these three forefathers of the British high-tech movement were formative, inspiring in him a passion for exposing building structures and appreciating the newest technology utilized to construct them. He merged his expertise in technology with his own more aesthetic sense, delighting in sensual curves and more streamlined shapes, and created a design that has since become ubiquitous for airports, conference centers, and corporate offices all over the globe.
In 1983, he opened his own practice, and four years later, Jim Eyre, with whom he had previously worked at Hopkins, joined him (the firm was rebranded WilkinsonEyre in 1999). They started with little contracts that Rogers and Hopkins passed on to them, but their big break came in 1991 when they won the competition for the Stratford Market railway station on the Jubilee line expansion.
The building emanates the duo’s fascination in heroic steel constructions, with a diagrid space-frame roof that jumps over the 190-meter-long atrium in a graceful arc, supported by treelike columns.
Many of the ideals stated in Wilkinson’s book Supersheds, published the same year, were incorporated in it. It was a paean to warehouses, railway sheds, and other long-span industrial buildings, based on Wilkinson’s travels in the US.
It was described by Building magazine as “the book that put the glamour back into the large-volume, clearspan space.” It reignited interest in the possibilities for “universal space” covered by suspended canopies, space frames, and tensile fabric membranes, which would last far into the 1990s, affecting everything from train stations to supermarkets.
Wilkinson’s lean, techno-centric approach caught the attention of inventor James Dyson, who commissioned the firm to build his company’s headquarters in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, in 1992, commencing a three-decade association. The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology’s campus perfectly follows the company’s history, from the initial undulating roofed factory through mirrored glass office pavilions to a current cluster of modular student housing pods.
Dyson was especially fond of the flagship shop they developed for him in Paris in 2000, according to Wilkinson in a 2019 interview. He said, “We put all the vacuums on pedestals.” “They were like works of art.” That appealed to him.” It sparked a trend for technology shops to be created in the style of modern art galleries, which Apple and Samsung have subsequently pushed to extremes.
A change in size occurred with the turn of the century. Wilkinson received an OBE in the millennium honours list, and the Millennium Commission, which was financed by the lottery, created a pipeline of significant possibilities for architects of this age. Starting with the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, WilkinsonEyre made a fortune, followed by the Explore@Bristol science facility, which sparked an interest in working with listed structures.
The Magna Centre and the Gateshead Bridge followed, enabling the firm to expand and exposing the architects to a degree of public prominence that, although rewarding, was also unsettling. In an interview this year, Wilkinson remarked, “It was great in many ways, but it caused us a few problems.” “We decided to stay low for a while rather than taking advantage of every opportunity that came our way because some articles written about us were a little personal.”
Instead, they concentrated their efforts on China, where they were awarded the commission for the 440-meter-high Guangzhou Tower. It was a crucial project for Wilkinson, who was increasingly focused on the sculptural characteristics of their work and eager to adopt a more free creative approach – whereas Eyre, the bridge expert, was fascinated with the exact geometry and rationalization.
Wilkinson’s admission to the Royal Academy in 2006 was a watershed event in his career, allowing him greater flexibility and motivation to pursue his longtime love for painting and sketching. He spent the Covid lockdowns in his garden-facing dining room, which he constructed in 1996 with full-height frameless windows and a rooflight inspired by artist James Turrell, creating large abstract acrylic paintings while listening to Pink Floyd and Mozart.
WilkinsonEyre was able to get further business in Asia thanks to the Guangzhou Tower, including the Singapore Gardens project, which was envisioned as an Avatar-like realm of organic glasshouses and bizarre luminous steel trees. In 2012 and 2013, the two projects received the RIBA’s worldwide Lubetkin award back-to-back, catapulting the firm into further large global mandates. However, as the office became bigger, the quality of the work became increasingly variable.
One of Wilkinson’s most divisive legacies currently stands above Sydney’s waterfront in the shape of the 271-meter-high One Barangaroo casino hotel complex, the city’s highest structure, dubbed “Packer’s Pecker” after its billionaire supporter James Packer. For many, the building embodies all that is wrong with Australia’s anything-goes attitude to city planning, since it was built on a site that was previously slated for parkland for a developer accused of facilitating money laundering for criminal groups.
Other controversial later works in the UK include the Siemens Crystal at the Royal Docks, a twisted glass corporate showcase that will soon be home to the relocated City Hall, and the nearby Emirates Air Line cable car, whose flaw is less in the quality of its design than in its questionable utility.
Wilkinson stated the Maggie’s Centre at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, which he completed in 2014, was the project he was most proud of throughout his 40-year career. It was designed as an angular treehouse to explore the potential of cross-laminated wood and Eyre’s desire for freer geometries, which he claims reflects his love of jazz music. The Dodington Art Gallery for James and Deirdre Dyson on the couple’s estate, set to open in 2023, will bring his obsessions full circle, with a slim diagrid ceiling overlaying a clear-span area below.
Wilkinson is survived by his wife, Diana (née Edmunds), and their children, Zoe and Dominic, whom he married in 1976.