Chris Wilkinson Architects has been one of the practices that set the tone for Britain's visual identity over the past 10 years. Now the man behind it is sharing the limelight with the rest of his team – above all partner, James Eyre.
It is 10 years since international high-brow journal The Architectural Review tipped Chris Wilkinson Architects as one of Britain’s up-and-coming practices. At the time, like most fledgelings, it was a modest operation – just Wilkinson, partner Jim Eyre and a handful of staff subsisting on a diet of conversions, with a few juicy titbits thrown their way by high-profile contacts (a house for Marco Goldschmied’s mother and an exhibition pavilion for Renzo Piano). They were a regular feature of competition shortlists but always the runners-up. Even then, it was clear they were hungry for more.

Today, Chris Wilkinson (left) and Jim Eyre sit replete in their spacious light, white offices, a haven of calm and good taste above the chaos of London’s Old Street roundabout. Wilkinson, now 54, talks slowly and thoughtfully about the hard work that got them this far, and why certain geometries are more pleasing than others; 40-year-old Eyre talks animatedly about expanding into different markets, the future of architecture and the imperative of creating buildings that are enriching as well as functional.

The office has grown steadily to 43-strong, doubling in the past four years, and in the past week alone three new projects have come into the office. The practice is winning competitions with a strike rate of about 25% – even better if it is a bridge design – and have gathered shelves full of awards.

“I think we counted 38 in the past three years,” says Wilkinson. Including the recent RIBA award that was given to Stratford Station? “I guess that's 39, then. We've got a system for filling out award forms now,” he explains. “In a lot of cases, we just send off the forms and they come back as awards.”

Where are you growing?

A good time, then, to take stock, think about where the company is heading, reposition and rename the company. As of yesterday, the practice is calling itself Wilkinson Eyre Architects, in belated recognition of the fact that Jim Eyre, the man behind some of the practice's most famous projects, such as Stratford Market Depot and South Quay footbridge, has been a partner since 1987.

A subsidiary group, Wilkinson Eyre International, run by new director Clinton Terry, has been formed to expand the practice's overseas portfolio. Other long-serving associates have also been rewarded – Paul Barker, Keith Brownlie and Oliver Tyler – have been rewarded with directorships, and two associates have been appointed. Although Wilkinson and Eyre both stress that they will continue their hands-on management style, they hope the new structure will help advance them in new fields and other countries.

“We're giving the practice a broader face,” says Wilkinson. “It also seemed appropriate to credit people for the work they did. Whatever we said to journalists, they always credited every project to me. And it will help directors get recognition when dealing with a client.”

Wilkinson and Eyre have worked together since the early days when they met on a project for Michael Hopkins. Each takes it in turns to lead a project while the other acts as a member of the design team. They emphatically do not regard themselves as the sort of double-act that relies on two contrasting characters, and say that they “share the pain and the pleasure” – in other words they both do their fair share of admin.

“I like the idea that when you're in a design partnership there's a dialogue between you, a forum for discussion where you can bounce ideas off each other,” says Eyre. “We both have very broad minds and respect each other’s creative abilities,” agrees Wilkinson.

The practice’s big break came in 1991 when it won the competition for the £18m Stratford Market Depot, possibly the world’s most elegant train shed. Since then it has dominated the fields of transport, with the recently opened Stratford regional station and the Paragon transport interchange in Hull, for example; and bridge design, including the Metsovitikos Suspension Bridge in Greece, South Quay footbridge on the Isle of Dogs, Hulme Arch in Manchester and Gateshead's Millennium Bridge, to name but a few. It has gained a reputation for a projects with a high engineering content, and published the decade’s most influential work on industrial buildings, Chris Wilkinson’s Supersheds.

More recently, it has begun to amass large-scale museum projects (now six in all), and has just won its first contracts in commercial, retail and higher education.

If you really like a project you have to pull out all the stops

Chris wilkinson

“The thing was, we both came from a background of working on big projects in larger offices.” Wilkinson had worked on the Lloyd’s building, Eyre on Hopkins’ Willis Faber Service Centre. This gave them the ambition to work on larger projects “because there’s more scope on them”, says Eyre.

Although the words “ambition” and “growth” crop up frequently in our discussion, they do come with a proviso: they must be “the right projects”. Wilkinson elaborates: “There has to be some opportunity for innovation. We try to get something new in all our structures.”

This does not, however, mean that the practice is casually turning down work; most of it still comes through competitions.

“If you really like a project, you go for it,” says Wilkinson. “If you really want to win it, you have to pull out all the stops.”

The architectural engineers

If their workload seems to have a high percentage of projects that might otherwise have been considered the province of the engineer, it is no coincidence. These offer them the chance to pursue aesthetic and structural interests such as geometry, curves, lightness, new technology and responsive systems. They are adamant that the architect has a vital role to play in even the most straightforward civil engineering job. “You can say stations, for example, could be designed by engineers alone, and most civil engineers do think they design them, but you only have to go on a tour of the Jubilee Line Extension to see what a difference architecture makes,” says Eyre.

In particular, what Chris Wilkinson Architects has given its very functional structures is a lightness and drama: the single solid curved plane of Stratford Station; the seemingly floating wave rippling over the Dyson headquarters in Wiltshire; the delicate balance of the two arcs of Gateshead’s Millennium Bridge; the sine wave of South Quay bridge.

When they talk of their excitement about interactive systems they do not just mean automatic blinds that come down when the sun comes out, but a 9 × 90 m intelligent glass wall for explore@bristol that responds to passers-by with special lighting effects.

“Interactive technology should be something that can be enjoyed,” continues Eyre. “It should be able to enrich the experience of walking over a bridge or through a building.”

Given Chris Wilkinson Architects’ success over the past decade, where will Wilkinson Eyre Architects be in another 10 years? “Of course, we want to expand in new fields and get more work abroad,” says Eyre, “but we don’t have the ambition to grow to the size of somewhere like Fosters. I think there comes a point where you cease to be involved on a personal level, and I don’t really want to reach that point.”

Personal effects

What forms of transport do you use? Wilkinson: Train (mainly for work) and car Eyre: Train, car and bicycle Who are your architectural or engineering heroes? Wilkinson: Mies van der Rohe, for his combination of beautiful spaces, the relationship between inside and outside, and his use of materials. Eyre: Renzo Piano for the attention to detail in the way he puts his buildings together, and Le Corbusier for his forms. Who designed the suits you’re wearing? Wilkinson (in a soft black Nero jacket teamed with crisp white collarless shirt): Adolfo Dominguez. Eyre (in dark, well-cut suit set off by co-ordinated purple shirt and tie): Hugo Boss, although Adolfo Dominguez does feature a lot in my wardrobe – his clothes are quite good for a larger frame. How will you be celebrating new year’s eve? Wilkinson: I’ll be at a party in London with friends, although I haven’t decided where. And if no one invites me to one, I’ll throw it myself. Eyre: In my tiny salmon fishing station in the Scottish Borders with no television, radio or phone, but lots of champagne and fireworks.

Curriculum vitae

1983: Chris Wilkinson Architects set up by Chris Wilkinson, a former employee of Lasdun, Foster, Hopkins, Rogers 1986: Wilkinson joined by Liverpool and AA graduate James Eyre from Michael Hopkins Architects 1990: Goldschmied House, Barnes, London 1991: Wins competition to design Stratford Market Depot Supersheds by Chris Wilkinson, published by Butterworth 1996/97: Named Designer of the Year by the Chartered Society of Designers, in association with the Design Council 1997: Stratford Market Depot completed. Wins awards from the Civic Trust, Financial Times, Building, RIBA and the Institute of Structural Steel. Its movable WC pods later chosen as Millennium Products South Quay footbridge opens. Given Millennium Product status and AIA award 1996: Prince’s Club Ski-Tow Pavilion, Middlesex. Wins RIBA award and the Architects’ Journal small buildings award 1997: Hulme Arch, Manchester 1998: Challenge of Materials Gallery, Science Museum, London. Glass suspension bridge given Millennium Product status Dyson headquarters, Wiltshire April 1999: £25m Stratford Jubilee Line Extension terminus and interchange with Central Line and local rail lines Early 2000: Metsovitikos suspension bridgein Greece to start Gateshead millennium foot and cycle bridge, which opens like an eyelid to to let boats pass