Interview: Chris Wilkinson, Architect / Founder WilkinsonEyre
Share Button

Interview: Chris Wilkinson, Architect / Founder WilkinsonEyre

Meet the man behind Crown’s One Barangaroo.

By Terry Christodoulou
Wed, Apr 14, 2021 10:00amGrey Clock 6 min

Crown’s One Barangaroo has forever changed the drab Sydney skyline. Acclaimed international architect Chris Wilkinson – of WilkinsonEyre and the man responsible for the project – opens up about the impressive legacy project he labels an ‘inhabited sculpture’.

Kanebridge News: A very broad question, granted, but in your opinion, what are the fundamentals of good architecture?

Chris Wilkinson: I would say that there are several important factors. A building in context is very important. I really don’t like the idea of having a design for a building and then finding a site for it. You start with the site and then you work from there. Linked to that is the whole ‘placemaking’ situation where you’re trying to create interesting places to visit, and the architecture is part of that. I’m also interested in both art and science; technology and innovation are very important. I like the idea of using the latest technology in architecture, and looking at ways to make something interesting out of it.

KB: It’s impossible to match the pace of new technology, though…

CW: Technology is, of course, moving at a pace, yes. But I do think, on the whole, it’s for the better, rather than anything else, because we can do things that we couldn’t have dreamt of before. Building Barangaroo now would have been very difficult 10 years ago because of the way they manufacture systems, construction methods… they have all evolved.

KB: Before we enter into a detailed discussion about that specific build, what do you make of Sydney’s cityscape in general?

CW: Like all cities, there’s good and bad. There’s some brilliant buildings in Sydney, but I suppose, when you look at the centre, the skyline, you’re seeing a lot of buildings from the 1960s. I’m not saying they’re bad, but they’re of their time. I do think there are some fantastic modern buildings, like Finger Wharf in Woolloomooloo, where things evolve—they’ve been updated and sensitively done. What’s interesting is that Sydney has got great aspirations. That’s what’s exciting for us, because I think there are aspirations to create some beautiful buildings, and some beautiful places to visit. So Sydney, it’s already great, but it’s going to evolve more. It’s a world destination, but it could get better.

KB: There’s one Sydney building that’s caused some recent consternation—the Sirius building in The Rocks. Due to a focused and loud public outcry, original plans to level this brutalist structure have recently been rescinded, and future proposals now involve preservation and refurbishment. What are your thoughts on the original design? Would you want to demolish such a building?

CW: I think it’s a building you must keep—it’s of its time and we need to keep that, we need to keep the story of how it was. It’s really like the Barbican in London—
it’s brutalist and all, but it’s also very strong and has a big impact.

KB: One Barangaroo sits not too far from the Sirius building, and is another project set to make its mark on the city. This is an ambitious build. Was it always part of the plan to go big or go home, so to speak?

CW: Well, the brief was extremely detailed. We knew exactly how much accommodation and how many rooms—which is good, because if you’ve got all the facts you can start working on it. And then there was a mid-term interview, which was a really helpful way of doing things. At that stage, you’re throwing ideas around—and in this instance we had a very positive conversation. And then when we went into the final stage, the last six weeks, we were able to develop our ideas, meaning we began the build with some confidence.

KB: Can you talk us through the design inspiration for the tower.

CW: I always had a feeling that the site needed a sculptural building. And I went into the final presentation saying that we wanted to design an inhabited sculpture, which is quite a strong thing to suggest. There were these sketches that came from a competition that I entered with my wife and son, and among them was an idea for three petals twisting as they rise up… I was looking for something completely new and it just looked exciting to me.

KB: There’s a notion of architecture being the bridge between art and science. How much does art influence your approach to architectural design?

CW: I’m a bit mixed. I sit on the art side, but then, as I said earlier, I’m also very interested in technology and the engineering aspects of buildings.

I started painting when my wife went to art school as a mature student. I began drawing and then moved more into abstract painting. But it’s very difficult. It took me a long time to get anywhere, so I carried on drawing in my normal ways in architecture. When I draw I’m the architect, and when I’m painting I’m more of an artist. But my approach to architecture has been opened up by the work I was doing as an artist. It gave me a certain liberty and confidence, and now I feel like I’m more prepared to take risks and push things as far as we can. Whereas in studying architecture, there’s an obligation for the buildings to ‘perform’. Of course, they always have to perform, but it’s a matter of how you approach it.

KB: Back to the design of One Barangaroo. Ever since you won the competition in 2013 and plans for the site were made public, there have been loud criticisms regarding the proposed height. Do you think those attitudes have changed now that people can see the building at its tallest and because, well, we’re seven years on?

CW: The politics of height is the same in almost every city actually, where there’s a reluctance to allow tall buildings. But the reality is, when it’s a cosmopolitan city, which is expanding in many places, you’re only going to end with a bit of a sprawl, or you densify the centre and go up. Of course, there are implications for densifying the centre, but I think Sydney is spread out enough. The idea of going off and densifying the suburbs doesn’t seem right to me because you tend to lose the power of the city. And in the Sydney CBD, there were a lot of buildings of a certain period… there was an opportunity to replace them, which is exactly what’s happening now with taller buildings.

KB: Ultimately, One Barangaroo is set to define the Sydney skyline. It’s likely to become a symbol, one that enters the culture of the destination. Do you think that the idea of buildings as ‘cultural capital’ has altered the way architects think about designing structures such as this?

CW: I’d say yes, but for the better. Because when you go to a city, your reactions are related to the architecture and the spaces around it. So why wouldn’t you want it to be good architecture and interesting—it’s a logical thing.

KB: The One Barangaroo tower is also an intrinsic part of Sydney’s urban regeneration, isn’t it?

CW: Absolutely. Often these post-industrial areas suddenly become popular and fashionable places—but to transform them you have to get it right. We’ve been working in Kings Cross and on Battersea Power Station in London, both urban regeneration projects, and there is a kind of pre-requisite to make them interesting and attractive without them being superficial. Kings Cross was a no-go area 15 to 20 years ago. Now it’s one of the most popular places in London. That’s all about the mix of uses and the quality of the public spaces as well as the architecture.

KB: Is an eco-conscious approach now key to design and what’s delivered?

CW: It is a chance to innovate, it really is. And it’s a most important subject on our agenda. We’ve done some projects which are really fundamental to it. [Singapore’s] Gardens by the Bay, for instance, is all about climate and the effects of climate change. What we’ve done there is build two artificial environments. We created a Mediterranean climate, which is an endangered climate, and a ‘cool moist’ climate, which is a mountain climate. Very few places in the world get both, and we’ve recreated those under a glass dome. Most of the energy is created on site, so it’s not like we’re stripping the grid to make this. We proved that you can do it. In the worst situations, we may need to have an artificial environment one day. Architecturally, we’re conscious of the want and pursuit of sustainability, and believe that we’ve been at the forefront of that. I believe that the only way we are going to fix the problems of the future is through technology. You could build a house with straw bales, and it would be sufficient, but you can’t build a central office building with the material—the only way you can build an office is through technology. And this is where we’re going to progress, through all the new ideas that go into how we can create sustainable buildings. It really is the most important thing. And everyone needs to look at it.

KB: And what do you hope its legacy will be 25 years from now?

CW: I haven’t really thought about that—but I hope that it will be of its time. Good for its time. Maybe even slightly ahead of its time. Obviously, in 25 years’ time, it’ll be of this period, and I hope that it will still be appreciated as a good example of this generation.

Crown Sydney One Barangaroo is now open, with a 349-room hotel, 14 restaurants and bars, and selected retail outlets. Crown Residences, located on the upper levels, are set to become habitable during the first half of 2021. onebarangaroo.com.au



MOST POPULAR

What a quarter-million dollars gets you in the western capital.

Alexandre de Betak and his wife are focusing on their most personal project yet.

Related Stories
Property
China’s Housing Market Woes Deepen Despite Stimulus
By REBECCA FENG 18/06/2024
Property
I.M. Pei’s Son Speaks of His Father’s Legacy of Creating ‘Places for People’ Ahead of a Retrospective in Hong Kong
By ABBY SCHULTZ 12/06/2024
Property
THE EAST COAST CAPITAL SETTING THE PACE IN THE AUSTRALIAN REAL ESTATE MARKET
By Robyn Willis 06/06/2024

Home prices declined at a faster pace in May in major cities, while other data show a mixed picture for the world’s second-largest economy

By REBECCA FENG
Tue, Jun 18, 2024 3 min

China’s broken housing market isn’t responding to some of the country’s boldest stimulus measures to date—at least not yet.

The Chinese government has been stepping up support for housing and other industries in recent months as it tries to revitalize an economy that has  continued to disappoint  since the early days of the pandemic.

But fresh data for May showed that businesses and consumers remain cautious. Home prices continue to fall at an accelerating rate, and fixed-asset investment and industrial production, while growing, lost some momentum.

“China’s May economic data suggest that policymakers have a lot to do to sustain the fragile recovery,” Yao Wei, chief China economist at Société Générale, wrote in a client note on Monday.

The worst pain is in the property sector, which has been struggling to deal with oversupply and weak buyer sentiment since 2021, when a multiyear  housing boom ended . The market still doesn’t appear to have found a floor, even after Beijing rolled out its most aggressive stimulus measures so far  in mid-May  in hopes of restoring confidence.

In major cities, new-home prices fell 4.3% in May compared with a year earlier, worse than a   3.5% decline in April, according to data released Monday by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Prices in China’s secondhand home market tumbled 7.5%, compared with a 6.8% drop in April.

Home sales by value tumbled 30.5% in the first five months of this year compared with the same months last year.

“This data was certainly on the disappointing side and may ring some alarm bells, as May’s policy support package has not yet translated to a slower decline of housing prices, let alone a stabilisation,” said Lynn Song, chief China economist at ING.

Economists had also been hoping to see a wider recovery this month after Beijing started  rolling out  a planned issuance of 1 trillion yuan, the equivalent of $138 billion, in ultra-long sovereign bonds in May. The funds are designed to help pay for infrastructure and property projects backed by the authorities. Investors  gobbled up  the first batch of these bonds.

Monday’s bundle of economic data, however, underlined how the country still isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Retail sales, a key metric of consumer spending, rose 3.7% in May from a year earlier, compared with 2.3% in April, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. While the trend is heading in the right direction, it is still a relatively subdued level of growth, and below what most economists believe is needed to kick-start a major revival in consumer spending.

The expansion in industrial production—5.6% in May compared with a year earlier—was down from April’s 6.7% increase. Fixed-asset investment growth, of which 40% came from property and infrastructure sectors, also decelerated, to 3.5% year-over-year growth in May from 3.6% in April.

Key to the sluggish economic activity data in May—and China’s outlook going forward—is the crisis in the property market, which has proven hard for policymakers to address.

The property rescue package in May included letting local governments buy up unsold homes, removing minimum interest rates on mortgages, and reducing payments for potential home buyers. It also included as its centerpiece a $41 billion so-called re-lending program launched by the People’s Bank of China, which would provide funding to Chinese banks to support home purchases by state-owned firms.

The hope was that by stepping in as a buyer of last resort for millions of properties, the government would manage to mop up unsold housing inventory and persuade wary home buyers to re-enter the market. In turn, Chinese consumers, who have  most of their wealth  tied up in real estate, would feel more confident about spending again, thereby lifting the overall economy.

But the size of the re-lending program wasn’t big enough to convince home buyers, said Larry Hu , chief China economist at Macquarie Group. “Meanwhile, their income outlook also stays weak given the current economic condition,” he said.

For the property market to bottom out and reach a new equilibrium, mortgage rates, which stand at around 3-4% in China, need to be as low as rental yields, which are currently below 2% in major cities, said Zhaopeng Xing, a senior China strategist at ANZ. He said that a large mortgage rate cut will need to happen eventually.

The other key part of China’s push to revive growth revolves around the manufacturing sector, with leaders  funnelling more investment  into factories to boost output and reduce the country’s reliance on foreign suppliers of key technologies.

The result has been a surge in production. But with domestic consumption not strong enough to absorb all those goods, many factories have been forced to cut prices and seek out more overseas buyers.

Data released earlier this month showed that  Chinese exports rose  faster in May than the month before.

However, the export push is  butting into resistance  as governments around the world worry about the impact of cheap Chinese competition on domestic jobs and industries. The European Union last week said it would  impose new import tariffs  on Chinese electric vehicles, describing China’s auto industry as heavily subsidised by the government, to the point where other countries’ automakers can’t fairly compete.

The U.S.  has also hit  Chinese cars and some other products with hefty duties, while countries including Brazil, India and Turkey have opened antidumping investigations into Chinese steel, chemicals and other goods.

Beijing says such moves are protectionist and that its industries compete fairly with global rivals.