When Martin Knight joined Chris Wilkinson Architects in 1997 the company was made up of fewer than twenty people. By the time he left to launch Knight Architects in 2006 it had nearly 150 staff, a stellar reputation and had notched up back-to-back Stirling Prizes. Knight recalls the exhilaration of those extraordinary years and pays tribute to Chris Wilkinson’s passion, wisdom, generosity and charm.
In the course of a few grey December days, we have lost two of the most colourful and brilliant architects of modern times.
I never met Richard Rogers, knowing him vicariously through Bryan Appleyard’s biography and glowing reports from friends who worked at Thames Wharf Studios. And of course through the output of his practice and those responsible for it. But, most importantly, I know how brilliant he was because Chris Wilkinson said so.
Among an extraordinary cast of designers, Chris worked at Richard Rogers Partnership on Lloyd’s of London, arguably the most daring building of its kind in the UK. He often used it as a benchmark project, alongside his formative experiences in the studios of Michael and Patty Hopkins, and before that of Norman Foster and Denys Lasdun. Chris’ architectural pedigree was second to none.
Maggie’s Centre, Oxford. Photograph by Ben Bisek.
I am very grateful to have known Chris. We met working on neighbouring millennium projects at Bristol 2000 and he invited me to join Chris Wilkinson Architects in 1997, when the company was less than twenty strong, and I left Wilkinson Eyre Architects in 2006 when we had grown to nearly 150. It was an exhilarating time for the company – during which it won back-to-back Stirling Prizes – and Chris led from the front.
As a designer, he believed in the power of a clear organisational diagram, whether in plan, section or three-dimensions and was expert at sketching these quickly and beautifully, invariably in pencil and annotated in a distinctive style. The enduring and frequently distinctive work of the practice reflects this clarity of thinking, developed in fruitful collaboration with Jim Eyre and many others.
He was passionate about architecture and very hands-on, yet he also was generous in placing trust in others and sharing the credit when it inevitably came. Alongside that humility came sincerity, charm and sensitivity. Belying his outward confidence, Chris took criticism to heart, particularly when he felt it unfair, and this motivated him to work extraordinarily hard throughout his long career.
He was serious about the success of the firm yet wore that responsibility with lightness and a great sense of humour. I immediately recognised Patrick Bellew’s comment last week about crying with laughter in Chris’ company. Similarly, Carolyn Larkin wrote fondly about the joys of sharing a cab with him, and there was always a sense of journey and adventure in his presence.
On one occasion, a warm and sunny day, we drove from Old Street to Kings Cross to deliver the winning pitch to Argent for the design of the ‘triplet’ gasholders. Feeling buoyant, Chris lowered the roof of his convertible, crushing flat the intricate scale model we had just put in the boot. Not at all crestfallen, the subsequent client presentation revolved around the event, his hilarious narrative encompassing dynamic structures, construction and deconstruction.
When I left to start my own company, at the same age he started his (he told me), he was supportive and generous in his encouragement. We caught up from time to time and I corresponded with him last year, having read his warm tribute to Richard Rogers in The Architects’ Journal. I was particularly struck by his comment about taking lessons learned from Richard Rogers with him when he set up his own practice. I told him I very deliberately did the same when I left Wilkinson Eyre.
I am doubly sad that we lost these two architectural heroes at once. The Master, and the Apprentice who became a Master.