“We talked a lot about pie,” British architect Chris Wilkinson muses, a smile flitting across his face. “We had a framework that we had to work within, so we had ways of dividing it up, so different apartments were different slices of pie.”
It wasn’t exactly how I imagined the Stirling Prize-winning architect would talk about his work – but pie, I guess, is one way of discussing the challenges of working with circular buildings. The “pie” that Wilkinson is describing is actually three Victorian gasholders – enormous, cylindrical, cast-iron frames – that surround new residential buildings that he has designed in London’s King’s Cross. This luxury development is appropriately called Gasholders, and is the latest in a long line of high-profile projects for Wilkinson’s studio, WilkinsonEyre, which is also currently working on the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro and the revamp of Battersea Power Station.
Although Gasholders is on a smaller scale than those two mammoth projects, it did come with its own unique challenges. The triplet of gasholders with which Wilkinson was working were built sometime between 1860 and 1880 and – despite falling out of use long ago – were still protected structures.
“We had to work very carefully with English Heritage,” Wilkinson explains. “But they’ve been very positive about it. From their point of view, what was important was finding a use for these buildings, so that they would continue on forever. If we didn’t have this, then what would you do with the gasholders? They’re just big frames.”
Another obvious problem was that the apartment buildings inside the gasholders would have to be circular, which always complicates floor plans. This was compounded by the fact that each of the gasholders had a different diameter. “There are essentially seven types of apartment,” Wilkinson says. “And depending on which gasholder it is in, it has a different base geometry. So in the end, there are 145 apartments and 65 unique plans.”
Wilkinson himself, though, wasn’t too intimidated by the unusual shape of the blocks. “People said, ‘How can you make apartments work in a circular building?’” he recounts. “But what you get is what I call expansive space – when you go in, it opens out towards the outside. This shape actually works very well because it’s always opening out on to the light.”
Inside each of the buildings is everything from studio apartments to duplex penthouses, all of which have access to a spa, business lounge and an entertainment suite with a 14-seat cinema. On top of designing the exterior, WilkinsonEyre also took charge of the communal interior space, taking inspiration from the gasholders’ past. “We have a very industrial building here,” Wilkinson admits. “But when we were looking at the circular plans, we also started thinking of a watchmaker aesthetic, which seemed to hit a chord with people. So inside we have a much more refined, detailed arrangement with materials that you might see on the inside of a watch – brass and bronze and stainless steel.”
Gasholders is part of the much larger King’s Cross development, which is primarily being managed by property developer Argent. In addition to Wilkinson, Argent has employed a string of other leading architects – including Thomas Heatherwick, David Chipperfield and Eric Parry – to work on projects across the site. So when King’s Cross is completed, scheduled for late 2017, it may well become a new favourite destination for architecture fans.
Alongside his work on Gasholders, Wilkinson has been busy restoring and redeveloping another iconic London structure – the hulking Battersea Power Station, which sits like an industrial cathedral on the south bank of the River Thames. “It’s a similar problem but on a different scale,” Wilkinson admits. His studio has been entrusted with revamping the original building – transforming it into office, retail and residential space – while Frank Gehry and Norman Foster are working on new apartment complexes on either side of the red-brick colossus.
In a very different part of the British capital, in the Palladian palaces of Piccadilly, Wilkinson has recently been the centre of attention at the Royal Academy of Arts. Wilkinson was elected a Royal Academician in 2006, and from September 2015 to February 2016 was given a solo exhibition, Thinking through drawing, in the institute’s hallowed halls.
“I’ve spent 30 years on the WilkinsonEyre business, and I had 25 personal sketchbooks that were stacking up, so I thought I might as well do something with them,” Wilkinson explains. “The Royal Academy said they’d like to publish them, and said they could offer me an exhibition as well, so it seemed like a good opportunity. On display there are the 25 sketchbooks, architectural models and some photographs of the finished buildings.”
“I think one of the reasons I did it was because there’s a reluctance among younger architects to draw. I think it’s a very important part of an architect’s vocabulary to be able to communicate through drawings. And not necessarily just through finished drawings, but to illustrate the ideas of the concept and the narrative.
“The other aspect is that the process of drawing sparks off ideas. I suppose some people get the same through the computer, but from my point of view, sitting down with a bit of peace and quiet and just drawing starts to work my brain.
“The other exhibition room has my travel sketchbooks. I travel with a sketchbook and I go all around the world, so I’ve got drawings of New York and Sydney and so on. They put those in, as well, which I’m a bit more embarrassed about because I was expecting a lot of flak, really, from the RAs. They’re kind of amateurish – I’m an amateur sketcher. As far as architecture goes, it’s my job, so I’m not an amateur. But when it comes to drawing Chicago or something, then I am an amateur. But I haven’t heard any flak yet.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone giving Wilkinson a hard time, especially as his team seems to be growing quietly larger. WilkinsonEyre now has an office in Hong Kong and currently employs more than 180 people in its headquarters in London, where they work on (and compete for) projects in every corner of the globe.
The process of competing for commissions can be draining, even for such an established studio. “This arena,” Wilkinson says, gesturing to a sweeping architectural model on a desk, “has just been sent off to Barcelona. On Friday I have to go and present it there, and it’s a
pretty international competition.
“It’s very competitive and it’s very depressing when you don’t win. Funnily enough, I was talking at a conference with one of the Snøhetta partners, and he was saying that they have to virtually give counselling to the team when they don’t win. You work flat out for months, and you feel you have a really great scheme and you can’t imagine that anyone will do anything better – and then you don’t win. It’s tough. The only way that I deal with it is that I think of it as a game, as sport.”
But, for the Gasholders project at least, WilkinsonEyre was the chosen one. “King’s Cross has a lot of different activities happening around Gasholders, and that’s what makes it rather special,” Wilkinson says. “Now King’s Cross is home to Central Saint Martins, and you’ve also got cafes, bars, restaurants, office buildings and then residential and quieter spaces.
“Of course we’re telling you the way we see Gasholders. We don’t know how people will use it, but we think people will be excited by this. It’s not a normal apartment block – it’s actually something special.”