Infinite Global’s Tal Donahue caught up with Chris Wilkinson, Founder of WilkinsonEyre, one of the world's leading architectural practices, to find out more about his ideas on placemaking.
TD: Welcome to the Infinite Global Podcast. This edition is part of our series on placemaking and place storytelling, a topic that continues to be front of mind for the property industry as we grapple with issues from the housing crisis, to the revolution in the retail market and the growth of smart cities. My name is Tal Donahue and I'm delighted to be joined today by Chris Wilkinson, founder of architectural practice WilkinsonEyre. Chris, thank you for your time today and for being here with us. Could we begin with a brief overview of yourself and WilkinsonEyre?
CW: I founded the practice 35 years ago, having spent time at Norman Foster's office, Richard Roger's office and Michael Hopkins. So I had a good grounding. When I came to Norman Foster's office in the 70s it was a small practice, but it was really changing the face of architecture. Since then I've tried to continue that idea of innovation thinking, trying to get to new places, thinking of new ideas and to create a beautiful architecture. That's really what I've been interested in.
TD: We're here to talk about placemaking today. It's a concept which seems to have a lot of different definitions by lots of different people, with lots of stakeholders involved in the process. All of them quite often have different visions of what placemaking means and what places have to become to be considered good places. What does placemaking mean to you? What does it mean to WilkinsonEyre?
CW: It's a very important part of our work. We design buildings, we do quite a lot of master planning and we're involved in large projects which attract lots of people. I think placemaking is really about creating somewhere that people want to go and enjoy themselves. It could be going to restaurants, buying food, work, all the normal things in life. Meeting people is very much part of it.
TD: What are the elements that make a good place for you? Are there a set of ingredients that go into building or designing and creating a great place?
CW: Well, I'm tempted to look backwards and forwards as well as thinking about the present because it’s a changing situation. The original ingredient of place was really locality - being a local area to you with the facilities that you need. I think now we travel great distances so the local is not so important, it's more global. Wherever you are you're attracted to certain kinds of places that have the things that you want to see and do. Part of that is meeting people but I think the place's architecture plays an important part.
Everyone has different attitudes about architecture, but I think quality can be seen in old and new buildings. Buildings that have an identity and help to contribute to the sense of place are popular really, regardless of style and so on. I think architecture and landscape are very important. The two work together so hard and soft landscape, plantings, all those sorts of things are very important. The mixture of uses, certainly in towns and cities, is key. You can order things online but it's so much more enjoyable to go to a place and choose what you want to buy, what you want to eat and to enjoy the company of other people. All those sorts of things I think contribute to a desirable place.
TD: When one thinks about architecture one instantly thinks about buildings but it seems what you're saying is that it's actually the spaces between the buildings and the public realm in which people congregate is perhaps even more important?
CW: Absolutely, yes. The public realm with the right landscape and materials is absolutely, fundamentally important. We like big spaces but we also like the more intimate alleyways and being able to go off the beaten track a bit. In cities that is so important because the main thoroughfares tend to have too much traffic for instance. I know that's changing and it will change more in the future, but I think people are attracted to smaller, intimate spaces rather than the big, huge piazzas and so on. Although I have to say that I spend a lot of time in Italy and I love the Italian cities which have these beautiful, intimate piazzas with coffee bars, restaurants and interesting shops where people can be seen to be enjoying themselves.
TD: I think that's exactly where the Italian, and Mediterranean culture in general, does a very good job. In some ways they do much better than we have traditionally done in the UK at using town centres, or the spaces between buildings, to create something that encourages human interaction. I live in Devon and we have a plethora of seaside towns, some of which are suffering slightly, and they seem to be trapped a little bit of a time warp. I always think 'if this town was in Italy or the south of France, you'd have a seafront of interesting coffee shops, squares and people playing ball on the beach'.
CW: Weather plays a part in this but it's about quality really, and unfortunately that's quite low on some people's priorities. If you look at cafes, we are all attracted to some and not to others. It's about the quality of the building, the space, what they have to offer in terms of the quality of the coffee, cakes and so on. We need to concentrate on creating places that people want to go to.
TD: Identity is often an evergreen thing that evolves over time and has a history and a heritage. How do WilkinsonEyre go about giving a building an identity that fits?
CW: Well the context is a starting off point. Buildings don't exist on their own, they're either in an urban context or a rural context and that has a big effect. When in a city or town the building has to fit in, but it doesn't have to look like the other buildings. In my opinion, the new and old go very well together and the building should really be representative of its time. I like the idea of placing something quite modern and new in with the old and generally it works.
TD: The new planning policy that's been introduced by Government has a strong focus on good design principles and putting urban design into the planning process more robustly than it has been before. Do you think the planning system helps or is a hindrance to developing the kinds of buildings and places that you're talking about?
CW: I think the planning system helps but it's down to the people that are actually funding, building and designing it to make it work. I walk through Clarkenwell Green every day to work and that's such a lost opportunity. It's got interesting buildings but not great buildings and has been a public space for centuries. It's now a sort of car-park and people find it hard to cross from one part to the other there. It has a couple of cafes which is fine and on a summer's evening it's full of people, but it could be functioning as a public space throughout the day, they need to get the cars out of there. There's an old Victorian public lavatory which is closed off in the middle of the space and the materials that makeup public realm are just bits and pieces leftover from the past, so it needs to be designed really. There are one or two nice trees which you can keep but it needs much more and I think greening is quite an important aspect now. Since more than 50% of the population world's population live in towns and cities we're rather remote from the natural environment and we need to bring that into the cities and into the places that we're talking about. You can't put enough green in to encourage biodiversity, insects, the birds and the bees. All these sorts of things are terribly important that's really the future, to make them greener and bring nature into the cities.
TD: How do you think cities will evolve and adapt over time to meet the challenges of growing and ageing populations?
CW: Interestingly a lot of places are designed for young people but actually there is a case for designing for old people because as you say, the demographic is changing. People with more time and money nearer the end of their life still spend time in places and they buy things as well. When I talked about the past, present and future, I think it's an evolving situation and we don't quite know where it's going to end up. However, it's wrong to just think of now, you have to plan for the future.
TD: I was speaking with someone recently who championed the versatility of Victorian terrace houses. These buildings have been shops, they've been officers, they've been homes, they've gone back to being shops and converted to houses again. The uses have changed over time because the space has proven to be incredibly flexible. Nowadays there seems to be a predisposition to purpose built office blocks or retail units, buildings with one use in mind. Is that a problem?
CW: It's not really a problem because it's serving a purpose and that purpose will change. I agree with the need for flexibility, but things come and go. People don't really know what's going to happen, that's the trouble. So they're building what they think is right. The one thing that's consistent though is quality and identity, which I think is important. When you think of faceless places, which could be just buildings on their own with no architecture, they're just buildings around a space, they don't create a place. I think that's more or less gone now but certainly we should be looking much closer at the idea of creating the sort of place that people want to be in.
TD: A good example is King's Cross. Your contribution Gasholders is up for an award at MIPIM this year so congratulations for that. What makes King's Cross such a great place?
CW: Well, I'm proud to play a small part in the King's Cross story because I think they've transformed what was a rundown post-industrial area, almost a no go area at one time, into a really desirable place. It's absolutely throbbing with life and it's not just one factor that makes it, it's a s a whole series of very clever decisions by the developers Argent. The mixture of uses and the public realm is really excellent. There are a number of different places with different characters, different landscaping, different buildings, and the mixture of old and new is clever as well. It's much more difficult to start from scratch and create something that everybody likes. Retaining some of the old buildings and renovating them, updating them, imposing new, crisp architecture works really well. Planting the trees, making use of the canal, bringing water into the space with fountains all appeals to a generation.
When I go through Granary Square on the way to my flat I see kids enjoying themselves playing in amongst the fountains. The area changes throughout the year, from week to week, from day to day. They hold lots of events there which draws people in. You don't necessarily go for a particular event but you go there knowing that there's going to be something happening. The buildings are all by different architects which I think is quite good. They tend to go for good architecture, not outrageous in any form, new or old, but just quality really. The overall effect is really excellent. The only concern I have is that it’s almost too popular. I tried to book a table at a restaurant there for Saturday night and three of four of the restaurants I rang were full already and this was on a Tuesday!
The new element has been the shopping and that's very popular. They've very cleverly chosen individual shops rather than chains, which you don't see in other places generally. So it's more individual, you could find clothes and objects that you wouldn't generally find in the high street.
TD: Retail is going through some challenges at the moment but there are a lot of successes as well, particularly those where there has been some thought about placemaking and how the bricks and mortar is activated so that it compliments the online as well. What role do you think placemaking will have in the retail world?
CW: Well, I think the most important thing is to attract a whole range of people rather than just going for the teenagers or the families. You need to attract everybody. For example, many of the shops at Coal Drops (Yard), which just opened, don't just major on one thing. You have a clothes shop, which also has interesting books and coffee bars that sell unusual objects.
TD: One of the other things that makes Kings Cross successful is because it's the centre of an interchange in terms of infrastructure and transport. How important are these crossroads and links? What are some examples of the kind of projects that you've worked on where you've tried to maximise that?
CW: One of the aspects of design that we get involved with is bridges and our Gateshead Millennium Bridge for instance has been very successful in joining the Newcastle and Gateshead communities. It's called Gateshead Millennium Bridge because they paid for it and they want to be joined up to Newcastle. But actually it's working both ways because a lot of the really interesting new activities or on the Gateshead, so it's working really well. It attracts people down to the waterfront because it's quite hilly there. In Newcastle a lot of people would stay in the centre of town and not necessarily go down to the river, but now the bridge has bought a focus to the river with the addition of cafes, bars, restaurants, there's an art gallery and concert hall too. All of these things have come together to make this an important part of both cities. I'm very proud of that and I think bridges have always been important and still are very important.
TD: Are there any other projects that you're particularly proud of? Do any of them show how important economically a big investment in the public realm can be?
CW: A big project we're involved with that's also on the waterfront, but in Sydney, is really exciting because it was a container port originally. This is Barangaroo which is just on the edge of Darling Harbour. It was literally just a big slab of concrete and is being transformed into a 50% public space and parkland with the other 50% new buildings to help pay for the parkland. I'm lucky to have won a competition to design one of the key buildings there at Barangaroo. It's a tall building and there was concern in the early days as people were unsure of whether there was a need for another tall building. But actually the answer is yes really because the alternative to having tall buildings is too spread out and as the density increases it's got to go somewhere. The tall buildings can do something amazing to the skyline and the skyscape. We are building a cluster with three Richard Rogers buildings, two Renzo Piano buildings our building on the corner is in good company.
The public realm side has been really carefully thought out and it's absolutely full of the kind of restaurants and bars that the people working in the buildings need at lunchtime and in evenings. It's packed full at all times of the day now and attracting people who aren't just working there. Initially they were just thinking of the people who are working there but actually it's so successful. The building we're working on is called One Barangaroo and it’s a hotel- casino and high-end residential building. It's an interesting mix because the it's what they call a resort hotel and we don't really have resort hotels in the UK. It's absolutely full of swimming pools, gyms and some of the best restaurants in Sydney. There are 20 restaurants in this building, viewing galleries and so on. The whole building adds up to a big attractive scheme with the cafes and restaurants spilling out onto the waterfront. At the higher levels people can look over the amazing harbour views.
It was an architectural competition so the architecture was considered to be a very important part of the scheme. One Barangaroo this is a very sculptural building, so it doesn't look like the other buildings in the city. I'm interested in the way Sydney is developing because they have the best waterfront in the world and they are making use of it more and more.
TD: I'm assuming this public investment on the public realm has had a knock-on effect elsewhere and the challenges that were perhaps being voiced earlier in the process have been navigated successfully?
CW: Yes in my experience people complain about every project in the early stages because it's the unknown, it's new and they worry about it. Once the buildings are there it all quietens down and they begin to fall in love with the it. Particularly if the building is in the right place and it's got the right uses.
TD: WilkinsonEyre’s Gardens by the Bay project in Singapore is really interesting from a branding and communications perspective because one of the end goals seems to be to develop the reputation of Singapore as a place to visit and not just to do business. What do you hope people feel about the places that you are creating and creating?
CW: It used to be a postcard that you sent home but nowadays it's the Instagram image. It’s people taking photographs all the time on their phones and you have to give them something new and interesting which they can talk about. Gardens by the Bay is just phenomenal when you see it on posters and the backdrop of TV programmes all over the world. It's the innovative architecture and landscaping that makes it it's like nowhere else. Looking to give people something they can see is different is an important part of it.