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Blurring the boundaries

Chris Wilkinson explains how Wilkinson Eyre's work is inspired by nature, and is a fusion of science and art

All good buildings have a spiritual quality, which affects one's emotions, but there is no simple formula for creating it. Architects look towards art for solutions, but the artistic processes involved in design are quite different from those of fine art. Design involves a rational decision-making process where functions have to be fulfilled, risks eliminated and buildability ensured, whereas art demands high risk factors and a freer, more intuitive process.

As both painter and architect, I am acutely aware of these differences. When I paint at the weekends I try to be free and lose the discipline of my architectural training. I decide on a starting point and see where it goes from there. Sometimes this leads to an almost complete painting in one session; but when I return to it, it almost invariably changes dramatically and this process continues until I feel comfortable with the result. There are times when a decision has to be made but I try not to worry about the consequences and, if it goes wrong, I quite enjoy having to retrieve the situation, for this often leads to something new and different. The implications of 'chance' seem to be important to the creative process in art but are seldom allowed for in design. Having been trained as an architect, I am still in favour of the rigorous design process, but I now believe there should be more scope for intuitive input, and at Wilkinson Eyre we try to accommodate this in our work.

Perhaps architecture can be a natural bridge between art and science. In the past, the differences were less pronounced and the quintessential Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, succeeded in being a master artist, scientist and architect. The distinction between architecture and engineering is relatively new.When Brunelleschi, the architect and goldsmith, designed the great dome to Florence Cathedral in 1436 he also worked out the engineering and had to invent ways of constructing it. At the end of the seventeenth century Sir Christopher Wren was an eminent mathematician, Professor of Astronomy and President of the Royal Society as well as the country's leading architect. Even in Victorian times, Brunel was able to engineer the Great Western Railway and design the stations as well.

Later, at the start of the Modern Movement, there was more of a bias towards the arts but the importance of innovation and technology was recognized. Le Corbusier, who painted in the mornings and designed buildings in the afternoons, combined some of the fluidity and colour of his paintings with the latest technology in his buildings.

More recently, the Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava has made a powerful impact on bridge design. Being trained in both disciplines perhaps allows him to break the rules with confidence. His designs are not necessarily the most obvious engineering solutions, but they do make strong visual statements.

At Wilkinson Eyre Architects we seek a synergy between architecture and engineering and try to extol the best aspects of both disciplines. We like to take a broad look at each design problem with the design team, sort out the functional aspects first and then allow time for creative ideas to emerge. There are always many possible options but soon one approach will stand out. This idea is tested with sketches, working models and drawings of all kinds, including threedimensional computer modelling. The structural and environmental concepts are developed at the same time. It is a team effort and the scheme is rigorously challenged in terms of its intellectual, visual and technical aspects. Since much of our work is won in competitions, we have learned to progress from initial ideas to developed concepts in a very short time.

Good design comes from a combination of technical expertise, a high level of visual awareness and creative skills combined with confidence.

Science (technical) and art (creative) inform the five main visual elements of architecture: space, light, form, structure and materials. Other factors, such as context, social aspects, function, cost and programme, may have more or less significance depending on the project. These all relate to time and are likely to change. They also relate to nature, which provides inspiration for both art and science. It would seem likely that all known structures, geometries and proportions already exist in nature. They are evident in plants, shells, landscapes and rock and bone structures, and if you look through an electron microscope you will discover a world of molecular structures that can open up an immense range of possibilities.

Space and light are two fundamental elements of architecture. Most people are accustomed to rectangular spaces of modest proportions and it is exciting to experience something different. In nature, spatial enclosures are often curvilinear, organic shapes and if you imagine shell structures large enough to inhabit they would make dramatic architecture. Our design for the Retail Warehouse in Merry Hill draws inspiration from the sea urchin and our Merry Hill Multiplex follows the spiral geometry of the nautilus shell. The transparent beauty of a waterspider's air enclosure creates an interesting space and one can get an idea of what it might be like to inhabit from our Air Pavilion at Magna.

From art, we can admire the experimental installations by the Californian Space light artists. James Turrell, in particular, has produced spaces where the enclosing surfaces lose clarity. Solid elements become immaterial due to the way they are lit and the space becomes almost infinite. The blue space of the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum in London, designed by Richard MacCormac, explores some of these ideas and we found that it provides an ideal environment for computerized interactive exhibits and digital displays.

Richard Serra's planar steel sculptures explore and control space in new and exciting way. The space, defined by planes of thick steel plate, is reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe houses. These are modern spaces that allow free movement from inside to out, which is something we have worked to achieve on, in particular, the Four Seasons House, the Goldshmied House and, more recently, the Istanbul Science Centre, where the walls act as planes that define the space.

The control of light is important. Light from above is more powerful than from vertical planes and north-light glazing is more neutral than south-light glazing. Spaces that allow sunlight to penetrate feel human and friendly, due to the warm colour of the light and movement of shadows. The rooflight at Park Hall Road, London, draws inspiration from James Turrell's Meeting House installation and helps to create an expansive space in which the interior opens out to the sky.

Clouds passing overhead seem to invade the space and when it rains, you are very much aware of the external elements.

At Explore@Bristol, the huge plane of north-facing glazing not only prevents solar gain but also allows clearer views through the building and ensures that light within the space is neutral and of even intensity.

Where less light is required on the first floor, glazing is restricted to a narrow band of clerestory glazing at each end, overlaid with a blue gel which greatly reduces light levels.

The clerestory glazing here (and at the Dyson headquarters in Malmesbury) (AJ 3/10.12.98) separates the wall and ceiling planes, giving clarity to the construction.

Form is particularly important to sculptors concerned with the shaping of materials and how light falls on surfaces. Michaelangelo took an idealized form of the body for his statue of David, while modern sculptors often distort and simplify the body to great effect.

Richard Deacon's work is more architectural in that the forms enclose and engage with the surrounding space. His 'Let's not be stupid' piece at Warwick University allows a twisted form of steel construction partially to escape from a pen-like enclosure, which seems to provide form and metaphor at the same time. The Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida also explores space and form in a way that relates to his training as an architect.

We are fortunate to be living in an age of advanced technology which allows us to design and construct much more sophisticated forms than ever before, but we cannot compete with nature, which still provides the ultimate source of inspiration. We are only now beginning to learn about the remarkable geometry that exists in our natural surroundings. It is fascinating to read in Ian Stewart's book Nature's Numbers how often spiral forms and the Fibonacci series (an infinite series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the previous two) occur. The magnified view of the fly's eye shows how a dome can be constructed of smaller elements in much the same way as a geodesic structure. Sand dunes and wave patterns offer a rhythmic beauty, which surpasses most human constructions.

Similarly, there is much to learn about structural systems in nature, where economy of means is a priority: the shape of bone structures, for example, clearly follows the patterns of stresses applied to them just as the skeleton works in conjunction with the tension members of muscles and tendons.

The beehive sets a precedent for lightweight honeycomb structures and parabolic curves occur in plant forms, but even more basic than that is the geometric code of life itself in the wonderful form of the double helix. Crick and Watson's splendid first model of DNA resides in our Making the Modern World Gallery at London's Science Museum.

Embodied in our bridge and building designs is our extensive research into structures. For example, our 'tree structure' proposal for the Willis Faber headquarters courtyard enclosure, which was worked out with the engineer Tony Hunt in 1984, would have been one of the first of its kind had it been built. It was unusual in the way it branched out like a tree, to cover a large area of support for the glazed roof above.

More recently, the Challenge of Materials Bridge at the Science Museum (AJ 31.77.8.97) drew inspiration from several different sources. In the initial dialogue with the engineer Bryn Bird, four images were produced which influenced the concept for the structure. These were a spider's web, a sculpture by the Australian artist Ken Unsworth called 'Stone Circles II', the first manpowered flight machine Gossamer Albatross and a glass sculpture by the artist Danny Lane. The completed structure utilized a deck of glass plates standing on edge, supported by an array of high tensile steel cables so fine as to be almost invisible like the spider's web.

Finally, the study of materials and the possibilities for their innovative use plays an important part in the development of our architecture. Understanding the qualities and performance of materials is essential to achieving the right design and specification. This is relatively easy with traditional building materials because there are so many precedents, but new materials provide more of a challenge and with it the opportunity for innovation.

New products are developed to fulfil a need and although this may not be specifically for the building industry, there are many opportunities for transfer technology.

The teflon coatings developed by NASA for the space industry are now widely used with fabric membranes to provide a long-life durable finish. Similarly, the 'shot peening' process developed in the aircraft industry for creating smooth curves on metal sheeting, is now used for other applications. We specified its use for stainless steel cladding at Stratford Station (AJ 31.7-7.8.97), where it has proved to be extremely durable and London Underground has adopted its use throughout the network.

Composite materials such as carbon fibre are widely used in boat building and Formula 1 motor racing, but have been slow to take off in the building industry.With their high strength to weight ratio, we see their obvious relevance to bridge building and have been working on an experimental bridge project with DERA at Farnborough to progress these ideas. We have also used the material successfully on our Lockmeadow Footbridge at Maidstone (AJ 31.7-7.8.97) for the balustrade supports. This was originally instigated by a subcontractor working on our South Quay Footbridge, who suggested that he could match the price of stainless steel for balustrading in carbon fibre and give us any shape we wanted.He showed us a sample of the Lotus bicycle frame used by Chris Boardman to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games and we were hooked. It was only a matter of time before a situation arose in which we could put the material into practice and the result is the spectacular-shaped balusters that support the stainless steel wedge wire infill.

Materials science continues to advance and the new area of development is in the field of nanotechnology, where the molecular structure of materials is changed to suit the requirements. We know, for instance, that the molecular structure of carbon, when changed to a spherical geodesic form, becomes more fluid. This new carbon molecule C60 has been named a 'fullerine' or 'bucky ball' after Buckminster Fuller. With the progression of this kind of technology, it will not be long before we are able to specify the performance of the materials we want to use in construction instead of being restricted to the use of known materials.

Adriaan Beukers, in his book Lightness, says: 'The most important thing to do when choosing a material for a certain function is to keep an open mind'. At Wilkinson Eyre Architects we see ourselves as a creative design force, keen to find exciting new solutions to old problems. It wasn't until 1991 that we started to work on railway projects; we are now recognized specialists in that field.

Similarly, it wasn't until 1994 that we designed our first bridge, but we are now working on bridge design throughout the world. We very much enjoy designing museums, educational buildings and leisure facilities as well as industrial and commercial projects.We have successfully completed several commissions for product design, exhibition designs, landscaping and masterplanning, all of which have been both challenging and enjoyable. There are no areas of design that we would not attempt, as long as the problem is interesting and the opportunity exists for a good design solution.

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