wise up to risks
With a credit as the engineering brains behind the wobbly Millennium Bridge and headquarters in his son's bedroom, it would have taken a brave punter to bet on Chris Wise's new practice generating work on projects valued at almost £1.4 billion in just one year. But the former leading conceptual designer with Ove Arup & Partners has done just that with Expedition, his fledgling practice which celebrated its first anniversary last month.
Wise, 43, left Arup immediately after handing over detailed designs for the bridge and so has avoided the fallout of its now notorious design defects. It seems he left at the right time, because while Tony Fitzpatrick, his erstwhile colleague at Arup, has been burning the midnight oil to solve the bridge's problems, Wise has been building on his 20-year history of working with Lord Foster and Lord Rogers to reel in a string of exciting new projects with a number of big-name architects.
The success means that Wise junior's bedroom privacy has been restored, a modest open-plan office in Islington in north London has beenrentedandExpedition'sstaffoffour, which mostly followed Wise from Arup, is to be expanded with at least two more recruits.
Meanwhile, a TV film crew has been shadowing Wise for a six-part, 20-minute series aimed at explaining science careers to teenagers. But, as Wise says, engineering is not always a scientific subject, and the prolonged puzzlement over the fault on the Millennium Bridge shows just that.
Wise quickly points out that he cannot talk about the current problems on the bridge, claiming he is too far from Arup's remedial work to comment authoritatively. It is a useful alibi, but he is refreshingly open about his fears for the bridge ever since the design idea was first conceived in a West End wine bar one summer evening in 1996.
'The wobble we were worried about that night wasn't from people, it was from the force of wind, and as it happens the wind has been fine, ' he says.
'The wobble we got was completely unexpected, we thought we'd checked everything.'
Wise is happy to accept his failure and describes the bridge as 'the only thing I've ever worked on which hasn't worked'. Similarly, he refuses to accept that blame should be shared with the architects.
'I think Foster's performance on the bridge has been exemplary, ' he says. 'He was fantastic at getting planning permission and the details on the bridge have that hallmark of being worked over and over.Foster did exactly what you'd expect an architect to do.'
Wise denies that his relationship with Foster, with whom he has also designed the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, was stretched to breaking point by the project. But it is perhaps telling that Foster and Partners does not yet feature on Expedition's list of projects and competition entries.
By leaving Arup Wise avoided the brickbats which followed the bridge closure but he has also failed to be credited as the man who drove through its radical design.But this does not bother him.'I'm quite happy to take my son down there and wander around, ' he says.'He knows what I did.'
The number of architects queuing up to enlist his skills must also help soothe any bruises to his ego. In the past year, Richard Rogers, Michael Hopkins, David Chipperfield, Chris Wilkinson, Shigeru Ban and Richard Murphy have all approached Expedition. In fact Lord Rogers is so keen on their work that he has called on the team on 15 separate projects, ranging from a £100,000 house refurbishment in London to a £45 million conversion of a bullring in Barcelona. It was the sheer volume of demand from Rogers in particular which led Wise to establish the new practice after quitting Arup.
'I was planning to build a house and take six months to travel to Spain, learn flamenco guitar and to speak Spanish, ' he recalls. But Rogers nipped these thoughts in the bud and piled on the pressure for Wise to stay in London and take on his jobs. Wise caved in, seeing Rogers' interest as a great opportunity and set up practice with three others.
In the office empty workbenches await the imminent arrival of new staff, one a student at Imperial College where Wise is a professor and teaches one day a week.
At Imperial, Wise is trying to change the perception of engineers as playing second fiddle to architects in the design process and he is running a course on project design to encourage students to take the design lead. He admits that many architects still like to see engineers as a safe pair of hands with no creative design ideas. But with Arup acting as the lead consultant on the Millennium Bridge and receiving a fee reported to be three times more than Foster & Partners, it makes sense to him that engineers are recognised for their architectural abilities. Most of all he wants engineers to push back the boundaries of building technology.
'As an engineer you are in an interesting place between your experience of doing something you know which works and doing something which is the right solution for the site but which may not have been done before, 'he says.'You try to come up with something that is on the edge of being possible and then try and prove it. There is something fantastic about testing an idea and making it work.' Couldn't this happen within Arup?
'By starting Expedition I wanted to take risks.
Inside Arup things were becoming too easy and people were just accepting what I was doing, ' he reasons.
On the bridge, he may have pushed too far, but this engineer seems determined not to be held back by the fear of failure and is increasingly loved by architects for it.