'Simplicate [sic], and add lightness' is the advice Bugatti is reputed to have given to designers. Chris Wilkinson, Jim Eyre and their colleagues have taken this to heart.
Now is a great moment for this young firm, with the Dyson factory and Lockmeadow footbridge recently completed and with the Tyne bridge (see right) and Magna at Rotherham opening. So a blaze of publicity is appropriate, with an exhibition at London's Science Museum, and a book on their philosophy and buildings written by the architects themselves.Not bad for a firm that first came to my notice barely 10 years ago.
Wilkinson Eyre has kitted out several galleries for the Science Museum, starting with the Materials gallery, with its impossibly light glass and wire bridge. On the ground floor its Making the Modern World gallery takes the best exhibits of the museum to give an instant summary of the last 200 years. It is a surprisingly modest design - one's memory is of the Rocket and of the Lockheed Electra, not of the architecture. This is followed by the fit-out of the new Wellcome Wing, where there are virtually no exhibits and display and animation batter the senses.
Wilkinson Eyre's own exhibition is in a quiet space on the second floor of the museum, and can be approached by walking over the glass and wire bridge. It is good to see an architectural exhibition in a place which a large number of the general public walk through, but there is little wall area; hence the exhibition is formed of a series of freestanding cubes, five illustrating 'themes' and five with examples of the firm's work.
The practice deals especially with bridges, big sheds, and exhibitions - and its skill in exhibition design stands it in good stead here. I thoroughly enjoyed it - the visuals are wonderful, the writing mercifully jargon-free - though I am not sure how compelling it will be to average visitors in the midst of all the dramas that the museum throws at them.
The book covers much the same ground as the exhibition. It is beautifully and colourfully produced. Its first half consists of eight articles written by Wilkinson or Eyre. These are very different from the usual writings that make architectural issues so obscure; here all is sweetness and light. The arguments that structure can be the key to architecture, that architecture and engineering are a unity, and that it is our job to make beautiful things, are clearly and passionately presented.
It all makes a convincing read, especially as it is backed up by illustrations that are often exquisite in themselves. You may feel that this architecture lacks cosiness, or that it is not responsive to context, but there is no doubting the consummate skill of Wilkinson Eyre or the visual delight of its products.
This is an architecture that requires considerable technical know-how to make it work. Given the poor standard of technical teaching in our architecture schools, our students will find it too difficult to handle.
Silly shapes are easier.
I was interested in Wilkinson Eyre's preference for curved forms, and continual reference to the forms found in nature. In discussions on Modern architecture it is often assumed that logical geometric design and organic shapes are opposite; here they are seen as one and the same, with the computer allowing us to break away from rigid geometries.
After the coarseness of Brutalism and the banality of Post-Modernism, we need an architecture of sensuousness and glamour.
We have it.
John Winter is an architect in London