The Magic Carpet

In celebration of Peter Davey 1940 - 2018
An intelligent, thoughtful and authoritative voice in architecture.
In 2007 Peter Davey's essay 'The Magic Carpet' was published in the practice's monograph Exploring Boundaries (Birkhäuser, 2007)

One of the most powerful designs to have emerged from the WilkinsonEyre practice is a bridge in North-West Greece. The deck, carried simply on a slender curve of high tensile steel cables, conveys the road from cliff face to cliff face of the narrow cleft carved into the Pindos Mountains by the river Metsovitikos. On each side, the road is tunnelled into the rock and the cables are fixed directly to anchorages on the rock faces, so no supporting towers are needed. Working with Arup, the architects reduced the suspension bridge to its simplest possible form, a spare and elegant horizontal plane between the chasm walls—the archetypal magic carpet, flying in light and air between caverns in the cliffs. 

Sadly, the project will not be built because the client abandoned the scheme, yet the design demonstrates many of the architects’ most characteristic and powerful qualities. It shows determination to push to the edge of known possibilities and to investigate and use creative imagination and the potential of modern technologies, to explore and extend boundaries of the possible. At the same time, it is a link—a literal one between the two sides of the valley, but simultaneously it connects the life of our times to immemorial geological form, the present to history, and specificity of place to the global generality of the technological culture that makes today’s world work. 

All good architecture has many dimensions, and WilkinsonEyre’s work can be explored from numerous points of view. One of its most significant characteristics is its continual inventiveness. The practice has no house style (too often a sign of architects who have run out of ideas or who are stuck in a groove). Nor has it restricted itself to a set of readily identifiable formal tropes (usually the sign of architects who are more interested in themselves than anything else). Unless informed in advance, you surely could not tell that, for instance, the Magna project in Rotherham, which reinvents a huge superannuated industrial building, and the Royal Ballet School’s Bridge of Aspiration twisting high above London’s Covent Garden were designed by the same firm—nor that the Kew Alpine House and the Swansea Waterfront Museum emerged from the same stable. 

But WilkinsonEyre do have some predilections. For instance, their choices of materials and technologies tend to be based on High Tech tradition, and their approach often involves innovatory applications of engineering and other disciplines. Though neither Chris Wilkinson nor Jim Eyre is an engineer, they have shown that they can work with a range of technical consultants to generate coherent works of great integrity. As Jim Eyre says, “while a working understanding of the capabilities of other disciplines, trades and specialisms has always been in the architect’s remit, now science . . . is so complex that every area requires specialism, but nevertheless, while one can no longer meaningfully complete a complex design alone...the spatial, structural, formal and ‘light and colour’ possibilities unleashed mean that distinct boundaries between disciplines are more ambiguous.” Indeed, the firm is committed to extending and blurring boundaries between traditional disciplines.

As much contemporary architecture shows, it takes a lot of skill to manage a process of design that must necessarily involve many participants: too often, the result is an incoherent mess or an over-rigid attempt by the architect to impose order at any cost. But the way in which WilkinsonEyre work with their consultants is similar to the creative process of design evolution in their own office. Chris Wilkinson and Jim Eyre lead small teams of architects on different projects. Directors suggest but do not dictate, and the team collaborates to achieve what Wilkinson calls a “beautiful solution.” Well run, the process is clearly exhilarating, causing director Paul Baker to enthuse about “the joy of collaborative thought” in a small design team.

For WilkinsonEyre, one of the keys to creating a beautiful solution is specificity. Analysis of each project begins by exploring context and programme without preconceptions. Context in this sense does not simply mean the physical nature of the site and its environs (its topography, vegetation, micro climate, visual characteristics and so on) but its history, and social and cultural implications—in short, everything that makes the site a particular place. Onto this empirical exploration, the pragmatic requirements of the brief are layered and woven during the design process until a solution begins to emerge.

A striking instance of this layering of programme to site is the genesis of the Swansea National Waterfront Museum. There remaining fragments of railway track that served the port in its industrial heyday are not only preserved but help to generate the planning geometry of the new complex. Another notable example of the approach is the daring design for the exhibition hall at Crystal Palace, in which the new glass-clad volume hovers precisely over the axis and foundations of the transverse aisle of the great Victorian building. Its height is the same as the aisle, so from central London, it will evoke Paxton’s presence without in the least resorting to pastiche. The Magna project in Rotherham is specifically intended to evoke the past, and it does this by imaginatively repairing the vast shed—but being careful to leave scars and perforations as reminders of the Promethean forces that were contained in it. Earth, air, fire and water (all the Aristotelian elements involved in steel making) are evoked in individual pavilions that provide zones of clarity, light and heat within the nebulous dark area—destinations on a journey through time and space in which all the human senses, even scent, are dramatically involved. 

As part of their concern with exploring particularity of place and programme, the notion of destination is important to WilkinsonEyre. Some of their buildings are real destinations, like the Stratford station (completed 1999). It links the underground, overground and Docklands Light Rail systems with ingenious geometry and creates a grand hall that made a real contribution to its part of London and initiated a process of regeneration in a previously much ignored and run-down part of the city. But WilkinsonEyre’s destinations are not necessarily components of transport systems. A more recent instance of destination-making is the Guangzhou tower, a landmark designed to put the city on the world’s mental map, to help give it identity and to be a symbol of its citizens’ aspirations. In a similar way, the urban interventions at Gateshead, Swansea, Liverpool, IJburg and Crystal Palace are all intended to attract attention to their cities or districts, and to help revitalise them by drawing on the past to regenerate the present.

Spectacle is one of the devices used to make the buildings memorable and therefore attractive as centres of regeneration. Spectacle is characteristic of much contemporary architecture, but WilkinsonEyre’s exploration of spectacle is completely different from that of many architects, who want to impose their brand (in both senses of the word) on cities as different as Seattle and Singapore, Berlin and Beijing. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge (pictured above) is a dramatic example of WilkinsonEyre’s approach to spectacle: a quite remarkable reworking of an ancient type, the river crossing that can be adjusted to allow precedence either to waterborne or to land-based traffic. But there has never been a bridge like this one. When its two delicate arcs rotate upwards to herald the passage of a ship, they pay reverence to the curve of the Tyne Bridge further upstream. Yet it is the moving, dynamic bridge that attracts spectators, and it has already replaced the older structure as the icon of the area, a recognition to be reinforced when it appears on English pound coins. It has the same sort of iconic power as London’s Tower Bridge, but it is much more delicate and integrated than the Victorian conjunction of brute engineering and the neo-gothic.

Other bridges explore different kinds of spectacle. Hovering midway between sculpture and engineering, the bridge proposed for the Pension Building in Washington will change continuously as its integral lighting alters in response to the stresses imposed by people walking across it. It will undoubtedly become one of the sights of the U.S. capital. One of the practice’s favourite tactics is to celebrate the act of progression, literally raising the spirits, by moving dramatically into light and air from dark and undistinguished approaches: what might be called the Metsovitikos gambit. At the smallest scale, this is the scenario used in the Royal Ballet School’s “Bridge of Aspiration” where from both sides, after muddling through boring and totally unmemorable passages, you suddenly come to the elation of the astonishing, dancing space high up above the street. On a much larger scale, the same is true of the Gatwick airbridge, where, after plodding along what seem to be hundreds of metres of anonymous airport corridors, you are suddenly, surprisingly, in daylight, walking over the huge aeroplanes in which you are going to take off. Magna, by the way, is in a sense a reversal of these tactics; there, the bridges are routes through mysterious darkness between the light and drama of the pavilions.

For all of WilkinsonEyre’s fascination with spectacle, their work is never driven by formal considerations alone, unlike that of the self-indulgent gestural architects, whose caperings have been so extensively illustrated in the last couple of decades. WilkinsonEyre’s formal moves are always based on function or empathy—usually a combination of both. Thus, no matter how huge one of their landmark buildings may be, it always retains human scale near the ground. The buildings are welcoming and celebrate the magic threshold moment of movement from outside to inside. 

To achieve this command of form, it is necessary to have a thorough command of geometry, and the work has demonstrated some quite remarkable geometrical tours de force—the most obviously dramatic of which is the Ballet School’s bridge, a solution that creatively reconciles the different alignments and heights of its approaches with astonishing geometrical originality and skill. A thorough understanding of the craft and process of building is as important as geometry. British architects of the last half century have been blessed with a couple of generations of innovative, imaginative and helpful engineers who initially astounded the world with radical structures, but who in recent years have extended their range to environmental and other aspects of the design process. Like some of the exponents of British High Tech, WilkinsonEyre have worked fruitfully with engineering consultants, but without (unlike some of the more extreme High Tech exponents) being overwhelmed by them, or becoming obsessed by the forms of late 20th century technology. Technology is never the master; it is always made subservient to human values. 

Virtually all the best architects in the world are responding to the planet’s environmental crisis. WilkinsonEyre’s initial involvement with structural issues has broadened into inventively exploring environmental elements of design. For instance, at Stratford (pictured below), the curving roof is not just a welcoming and comforting shape but a key element in the solar-assisted ventilation, for as the roof is heated by the sun it acts as a thermal chimney, conducting air from the concourse up to be discharged at the eaves. One of the most recent results of this concern with sustainability is the remarkably ingenious Alpine House at Kew Gardens. Alpines need a cool climate with a gentle constant flow of air, yet they also have to thrive on as much daylight and sunshine as possible. The requirements almost seem mutually contradictory and are certainly difficult to achieve in a glass house a few metres above sea level. But WilkinsonEyre, working with environmental engineers Atelier Ten, produced a low-energy building by using the cooling principle employed by termites in their mounds, where air is drawn in at low level and cooled in underground chambers. At Kew the cooled air flows over the plants before rising upwards by convection to be expelled at the apex. Elegant fan-like devices rise automatically to shade the plants when the sun’s heat threatens to become too intense. Plenty of people are experimenting with low-energy structures, but few have produced anything so ingenious and original. 

Kew is a small, dramatic and intense example of sustainability, but the principles are being applied to even the largest projects in many different ways. For instance, the double skin walls proposed for the Guangzhou towers contain a louvre system that will greatly reduce solar heat gain. The glass shell of the Crystal Palace gazebo gallery encapsulates photovoltaic cells that provide the energy to drive the climate control systems of the space. Perhaps the most extensive use of such thinking is in the exemplar schools where, among other measures, there will be no artificial cooling (save in IT areas); most ventilation will be by convection and heating fuel will be locally grown biomass. 

The schools programme, and its first built project, the John Madejski Academy, are further examples of WilkinsonEyre’s continuing concern for regeneration and urban form. Stratford was one of the first major WilkinsonEyre urban interventions intended to renew and strengthen decayed and fringe urban areas. Others include of course, the Gateshead and the IJburg bridges, Magna, Swansea and the Brighton Marina project. The Liverpool King’s Waterfront is by far their largest regeneration-related project so far. Like the Swansea National Waterfront Museum, it is intended to bring lively new uses to its area, and like the Welsh project, it engages physically with the city at many levels. For example, from the Mersey, it is intended to complement the dramatic cityscape by defining an axis between the waterfront and the two cathedrals on their ridge. At closer range, the new urban space created within the complex is inflected towards the city centre so that it can become an organic extension of the traditional fabric, a physical link which is expected to induce social ones: in the architects’ terms, the new development will become a destination within the city. 

Destinations deserve to be celebrated by landmarks, and WilkinsonEyre are not afraid of creating them—though, unlike many well-known contemporary architects, they do not so for self-aggrandisation or showing off. One of the most thought-provoking recent landmark projects is the re-use and relocation of the gas holders at King’s Cross as housing to act as a reminder of the history of the site and to signal the much overdue radical redevelopment of the largest derelict site in central London as a series of new urban spaces. The tower at Brighton Marina serves the same purpose, as a signal to both land and sea, a marker of the new destination, but its colour (and to some extent form) draw on the white architecture of the resort’s seafront and the curves of sails in the wind. 

In some ways, WilkinsonEyre are part of the British picturesque tradition, with its love of progression along routes that join events (both expected and unexpected) in a pictorial narrative. But, unlike the great picturesque designers of the 18th century such as William Kent or Lancelot Brown, WilkinsonEyre rarely try to identify the nature of the events they create: meaning is for users and spectators to provide. Exceptions are of course, Magna and the Mary Rose, where the architects and exhibition designers explicitly wish to evoke Aristotle’s elements and to portray life in the Tudor navy. 

Picturesque WilkinsonEyre’s work may be, but it is always imbued with a thoroughly Puginian respect for truth, both to materials and to function. Like Pugin, they believe that architecture is not an autonomous art intended for the sole gratification of its practitioners and their clients, but a discipline that should serve everyone. WilkinsonEyre’s work is as much concerned with its human implications as its artistic ones, but the architects are not afraid of asserting their artistic nature. They think of their designs as fusions of art and science, but the art component is just as important as the technological one. 

By mentioning some of WilkinsonEyre’s relationships to British traditions like the picturesque, Puginism and High Tech, I do not wish to imply that they are in the least provincial. As the projects shown here demonstrate, their approaches of searching out the specificity of programme and place, of relating contemporary life to history and context, and of reconciling art and technology, work wherever they are applied. The practice continues to be remarkably imaginative and innovative, so this book is an interim statement on a continuously evolving creative process.