The Magic Carpet

Peter Davey

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.

This is an extract from Peter Davey's essay 'The Magic Carpet' which appears in the practice's monograph Exploring Boundaries (Birkhäuser, 2007).