Chris Wilkinson reflects on cutting-edge facade technologies

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Detail, WilkinsonEyre's Cooled Conservatories, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. (Courtesy WilkinsonEyre)

Detail, WilkinsonEyre’s Cooled Conservatories, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. (Courtesy WilkinsonEyre)

Ask London-based WilkinsonEyre Director Chris Wilkinson to describe some of the interesting facades he has worked on recently, and you will hear him rattle off a dizzying array of materials, from glass to stone, concrete, brick, and timber.

But while his firm’s varied portfolio includes the gamut of traditional building materials, his approach to envelope design could hardly be classed as such. Wilkinson, who will deliver the opening keynote at the Facades+ Chicago conference in November, professes a special interest in exterior technologies having to do with reflectivity, shading, ventilation, and responsiveness.

WilkinsonEyre's Guangzhou International Finance Center, Guangzhou, China. (Courtesy WilkinsonEyre)

WilkinsonEyre’s Guangzhou International Finance Center, Guangzhou, China. (Courtesy WilkinsonEyre)

With respect to color and reflectivity, Wilkinson prefers to look back—way back—at Westminster Abbey Chapter House, built around 1250 and restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the early 1870s. The Chapter House “is the most magnificent stone and glass facade, full of color and very elegant,” said Wilkinson. “That’s inspired some colored projects we’ve done,” including the Queen Mary, University of London mathematics building and the University of Exeter Forum. Wilkinson is also eager to talk about the Dyson campus in Malmesbury, UK. “It’s a research building in the middle of the country,” he explained. “It’s a relatively large building, but you can’t really judge the size of it because of its reflectivity.”

On the traditional materials front, Wilkinson is particularly excited about the stone “veil” WilkinsonEyre has developed for the Crown Sydney Hotel in Sydney, Australia. “It’s equivalent to what I would call Gothic stone tracery,” he said. “We’re using modern technology to recreate the sort of effect you got in Gothic times. It’s something that they found very interesting in Australia, because they don’t have any old buildings there.”

Wilkinson’s apparently never-ending curiosity extends to responsive facades. In addition to his firm’s work with dichroic glass, he points to a scheme to construct drum-shaped residential buildings within the 1867 gasholder guide frames at King’s Cross. “It’s a fairly normal facade system, but with an outer layer of shading shutters that open and close at the touch of your iPhone,” explained Wilkinson. “These are circular buildings, so you can imagine the effect will be quite dynamic.”

As to why the materials and systems he uses changes so much from project to project, Wilkinson is clear that everything originates from the brief and context rather than a preconceived commitment to diversity. “I’m not trying to be different for the sake of being different,” he said. “I’m looking for something that’s relevant to that particular project.” At the same time, he balances pragmatics with an inner drive for innovation. “I and many of my colleagues have an interest in exploring possible new uses of old materials, and in exploring uses of new materials,” said Wilkinson. “We like pushing the boundaries, really. And we try not to do anything that’s ordinary.”

Hear more from Wilkinson and other movers and shakers in the world of building envelope design and fabrication at Facades+ Chicago. Visit the conference website for more information or to register.

Detail, WilkinsonEyre's Olympic Basketball Arena, London. (Courtesy WilkinsonEyre)

Detail, WilkinsonEyre’s Olympic Basketball Arena, London. (Courtesy WilkinsonEyre)

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