The habit of drawing and painting brings huge benefits for architects, says Chris Wilkinson
For me, the process of drawing helps to inform my architecture; but painting is part of a different world of mine which is inevitably influenced by architecture.
Like centuries of architects before me, I enjoy sketching, both what I see and what I’m thinking. Drawing is the language for communicating ideas and is still very much part of the design process. I carry a sketchbook around with me and I also carry each project in my head, so I use quiet time as an opportunity to develop ideas and solve problems. Generally, I don’t see the sketches I produce as art, but more as part of the design process.
However, I am a keen painter, and use acrylic on canvas to produce abstract paintings which, in a way, relate to my work. The process is very different to that of design. With painting, one has to free the mind from inhibitions and let oneself go. Mistakes can easily be rectified by overpainting, which often leads to opportunities for improvements and changes in direction. This encourages risk-taking, which is not acceptable in the world of design unless it is carefully controlled.
Architecture is also a collaborative process, with teams working together over quite long periods of time, and this reduces spontaneity, while painting is more personal. However, I feel my architecture has benefited from my painting through increased confidence and a freer attitude to conceptual design. This is particularly important with architectural competitions, which demand quick decisions and schemes with a strong design concept.
I am also increasingly interested in working with an appropriate narrative that needs to come in at the early drawing stage to explain the basis of the design. Narrative did not really feature in traditional Modernism but, in my view, it can add to the richness of the architectural concept.
The Crown Sydney project I am working on, for instance, is a tall building on an important waterfront site at Barangaroo in Darling Harbour. Our interpretation of the site seemed to call for a sculptural form and the idea for the design came from an installation I had worked on previously with three petals that twist as they rise up to the sky. In this instance, the spaces between the petals are filled in to provide the tower accommodation and a fourth petal peels off early to form the hotel element. The twisted form and its double curvature is complex, but possible to build with current construction technology.
Similarly, at King’s Cross, we are working on the design for the Gasholder Triplet, which has apartments constructed within the cast iron framework. Here we have used an industrial aesthetic for the exterior skin, which is made up with perforated steel shutters, like a veil, that open at the touch of your iPhone. For the interior spaces we have tuned in to the more refined watchmaker aesthetic, which relates to the circular form of the frames, which are segmented by the radial walls of the apartments. Just the use of this analogy has helped people’s understanding of the concept and it will be used in the marketing.
The Crystal in London’s Royal Victoria Docks started as a quick response to a limited competition, which was organised by Siemens for their Urban Sustainability Centre. The early sketches of crystalline forms drew inspiration from the waterfront site and the fragmented angular shapes are intended to reflect daylight in different ways, picking up reflections from the water. When the project went into construction and the sketches became a reality, its crystalline shape prompted its choice of name.
In a very different way our Maggie’s Centre at Oxford was conceived as a tree house, which sits lightly on a sloping site at the edge of the Churchill Hospital. Again, the narrative has been extremely helpful in describing a concept for the building, which people can understand and relate to. Like the Crystal, it also uses fragmented, triangular forms for dramatic effect. So, while my drawings from the sketchbooks relate quite closely to the completed buildings in each case, the paintings of the same period are abstract but have a relationship in my mind to what I am working on at the time.
For instance, the 2012 painting entitled City Place has a reference to an urban space, but the perspective is false and the composition unreal. Of course, there is no logical explanation for this, but it doesn’t have to be explained. It is an artwork, not a design.
Another painting from around that time Sense of Proportion 2 is just an abstract composition that plays with colour. It doesn’t have a narrative and can only be judged on what you see.
However, Structural Abstract from 2013 is a more recognisable reference to architectural steelwork, albeit in a sort of dreamlike fantasy. And the 2014 painting Scale and Materials refers back to rectangular grids, which are possibly building panels degraded by graffiti.
In conclusion, there is a complex relationship between architecture and art, which is hard to define. Painting and architecture, for example, require an entirely different approach and lead to a different purpose. Nevertheless, there are huge benefits for architects who keep drawing and who experiment with painting as a way of freeing up the daily drudge.
Chris Wilkinson is founding director of Wilkinson Eyre Architects