Architect in Profile - Chris Wilkinson

Whilst undertaking his college studies, Chris Wilkinson’s tutors tried to discourage a career in architecture. After a further year at art college, instinct kicked in, and Chris overlooked his teachers’ deterrent, treading the architectural career path. Today, he sits at the helm of Jo Cowen Architects (JCA). In this Q&A, we talk to Chris and follow his route to landing several positions at some of the country’s most notable architecture firms.


Chris Wilkinson

is Managing Director at Jo Cowen Architects (JCA)

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

To cut a long story short, my interest in architecture emerged from my experiences at college, where I was making things like guitars, furniture and so on, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. University applications came around quickly, and I told my tutors that I wanted to do architecture, but they steered me away from it. I heeded their advice and went to art college for another year, doing a foundation at the Cleveland College of Art and Design, where I experienced a plethora of artistic mediums. Instinctively, I still felt I should go into architecture, but it was nothing more than an instinct. It was an opportunity to be creative but with a high degree of professionalism to it. At art college, I was delving into things like photography, which I really enjoyed but felt that all of these had their limitations. At the same time, architecture was an opportunity to embody many different art and design principles within one career.

What has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

It sounds cliche, but going to the Pompidou Centre in Paris as a teenager. I went to work at Richard Rogers’ off the back of that experience. It was like a giant spaceship that had crash-landed, which was striking to me, having come from Teesside. I didn’t grow up with money, so it was only this school trip that took me out of Teesside and into Paris to see architecture at that scale for the first time. It was my first throw into proper urban design.

What has been your most notable project to date?

I spent quite a few years on the British Museum’s North West Development with Rogers, on their world conservation and exhibition centre and public exhibition hall. This was an amazing opportunity to work on many different types of project arrangement, on a very detailed design.

For Jo Cowen Architects (JCA), one of the first projects I worked on involved dealing with the historic fabric of an old Victorian bakery, stripping it back to exploit its existing features. This meant using restoration and conservation to reimagine what was already there while creating new homes. There were so many nooks and crannies that we wanted to keep, and it became a real exercise in truly trying to understand the building.

How do you approach your projects?

I try to understand what both the site and local area can offer one another. This gives us the ability to design a building that thinks about the ground level first, and how people will interact with it regardless of its use. I also seek to promote new pedestrian connections, whether we’re using cheap or expensive facades, and whatever the brief defines, exploiting aspects of the site to celebrate the area in which it sits. This means understanding the local area first and foremost, and then looking at how it can work in tandem with the function of the building being designed. It’s often an exercise of testing things, throwing drawings in the bin and completely recalibrating the concept, but this comes down to the fact that we want to work to ensure the concept is right throughout the duration of the project. This isn’t uncommon and usually involves a lot of research and evaluation.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for designing in sustainability?

The nature of the changing technologies available and the material costs. There’s a whole host of economic factors, which a lot of clients have acknowledged. It is expensive to be truly sustainable. Technology is helping, but it’s still not necessarily affordable. We have to look at not just what to embed within the scheme on day one, but how to make it sustainable in the future, which is something people are increasingly looking at – how the site can remain flexible. If you take a 50-year lifespan and allow it to be reimagined, it doubles its lifespan.

If you look at older buildings, they’re often unsuitable for modern energy standards, but they’re preserved for their beauty. A challenge is ensuring you can bring this beauty into modern design.

What is your favourite building?

The Seagram Building in New York. There’s a pure, clear rationale behind the scale and proportion of it. It’s able to get away with the black frame because of how carefully calculated its proportions are. It’s a beautiful building, one of those where it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why you like it more than other buildings. It’s just really striking and has exploited repetition in such a magical way.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architects today?

It comes down to economics. Without stating the obvious, with an unlimited budget, you can design pretty much anything you want. But the world is changing, and there’s more emphasis on strict budgets, which is often something that degrades the quality of many architects’ work.

Those able to avoid this problem keep scale and proportion in mind. As long as you’ve built in beauty by considering proportion and setting, it’s hard to make it look bad or as if you’ve stripped costs out of it. You need rigour without reliance on materiality.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architecture students at the moment?

There’s such diversity in the types of education you get from different universities. Portfolios can vary to such high degrees that it can become difficult to drill into an architect’s capability based on their education. But beyond that, there’s not enough vocational experience being linked into the education system. We’ve got an apprentice working with us right now, who, to me, represents the first of a new wave of evaluating how we should educate architecture students. Vocational training gives you an excellent opportunity to understand what the world of architecture really commands because people often come in with very artistic portfolios.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

To get some work experience as early on as you can. Sitting in a practice and being around the people who work in the industry can give you a real understanding of what it feels like day to day. Architecture students often spend their first three years of study without any work experience and then start work in an office and drop out because they don’t have a prior understanding of the working environment. An artistic routing is often not directly relevant.

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

We’re currently working on reimagining single-family housing, and using modern methods of construction that can promote it. We will start construction on our net-zero, single-family housing sites for Present Made at Eddington (Cambridge) and Mill View (central Bedfordshire). We’re also looking at multi-unit build-to-rent schemes, which we’re trying to push to the forefront of the build-to-rent market, and helping to build buildings that are functionally correct and promote longer-term rental lifestyles.

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