Creating an Urban Icon: WilkinsonEyre’s Chris Wilkinson on Adding a Sculptural Form to the Sydney Skyline

Set for completion in 2021, mixed-use skyscraper development One Barangaroo is set to add a unique sculptural form to the skyline of Australia’s Sydney Harbour. Lucy Ingham speaks to Chris Wilkinson, founder of WilkinsonEyre and the acclaimed British architect behind the project, about its design, the supporting technology and the changing nature of urban architecture

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By 2021, the Darling Harbour area of Sydney, Australia, will have a new addition: One Barangaroo, a luxury mixed-use development combining high-end residences and a Crown resort hotel.


Sitting at the edge of the central business district (CBD), the building is a key focal point of the area. It rises above the adjacent stepped trio that form Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ International Towers, completed in 2016, to an impressive 275m, providing dramatic views of Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the process.


Such a key location naturally requires a striking design, and for architect Chris Wilkinson, founder of WilkinsonEyre, it was the opportunity to produce a building with a more sculptural finish than traditional skyscrapers.


“My feeling about the site was that it needed to have a sculptural form,” he says. “Because it's interesting in that it's on Darling Harbour, but it's the northwest corner of the CBD, so it sits in to some extent with the other taller buildings around Circular Quay.”

Transforming One Barangaroo into inhabited artwork

WilkinsonEyre was appointed following an international competition, which saw the firm selected from a five-practice shortlist. However, Wilkinson’s vision for the project was crystallised relatively early into the process.


“The competition details came the day we broke up for Christmas,” he explains. “I took the brief away with me and spent a lot of the holiday period thinking about how you would make a tower different; and make it sculptural in form rather than a vertical extrusion.”

Chris Wilkinson, founder of WilkinsonEyre

“ Sometimes a good concept gets watered down, but we didn't let that happen and it came out in the form that we're building it. 

Inspiration came in the form of a sculpture Wilkinson had been working on with his wife, a professional artist.


“This was a much smaller thing, it was just 100ft high sculpture, but it involved three petals that twisted as they rose up to the sky,” he said. “It didn't go ahead, but I rather liked the form you got from that and I had the idea that if one connected up the tips of the petals in some way, you could create an inhabited building rather than just a sculpture.”


Upon returning to his office in the New Year, Wilkinson set about modelling the design and adjusting it to fit the highly specific competition brief.


“We made a computer model of it to see how it would look, and it looked really interesting; it clearly had potential. So then we took that basic concept and then tried to work through the programme of the brief, which was quite specific about how many hotel rooms, how many apartments and so on,” says Wilkinson.


“It meant moving it about a bit; taking the form and twisting it a bit more to make use of the best views over towards the bridge and the opera house, for instance, and just generally trying to make it work as a building.”


From there it was a matter of ensuring it was structurally feasible.


“We were talking to ARUP about the structure having a central core, and the outriggers which you need with a tall building, they have to twist with the building, which is quite unusual and complicated but all feasible,” he says.


“Once we'd felt comfortable that it was structurally possible, we developed the design in detail. I think it got better and better: sometimes a good concept gets watered down, but we didn't let that happen and it came out in the form that we're building it.”

An ever-changing structure

Unusually for skyscrapers, One Barangaroo does not feature identical floorplans across each storey, but instead changes as the building twists skywards.


“It was part of the brief to have the apartments on the upper levels. They vary in size, there are some which are two or three apartments to a floor; others where they are two to a floor; some one to a floor and then sometimes a duplex,” explains Wilkinson.

“ Because the walls are twisting, each floor is different. So from an architectural point of view it's quite complicated designing every floor differently. 

“They're different areas because the building's shape, it tapers as it goes up so the higher buildings have a smaller floor plate.”


This created a relatively unique design challenge for WilkinsonEyre, both in terms of the interior layouts and the building’s skin.


“Because the walls are twisting, each floor is different. So from an architectural point of view it's quite complicated designing every floor differently,” he says.


“And how the walls meet the outside skin, the glazed skin, is complicated because the glazed skin is on a curve, a double curve actually, so there were lots of complications, but in fact with modern technology it's all possible.”


As part of this there were of course cost considerations, which involved creating a glazing solution that resulted in an overall curve while allowing the glass itself to be flat.


“We didn't want to have curved glass, so we had to devise means of dealing with the curvature,” he said. “So where the biggest curvature is on the Darling Harbour side, we triangulated that so it's easier to construct.


“On the other faces we've used a stepped glazing system, which is floor-to-floor, but they can be different widths, so the heights are the same and the widths can be different to suit the layout of the apartments, but also it helps to take up the curvature.”


The conclusion of the curve at the building’s peak takes the form of three petals, which give the building a striking and highly structural silhouette.


“The way it touches the sky is very important. So we used the three petals and expressed the petals individually as they hit the sky at different heights and different angles.”

Pioneering skyscraper design with technology: from parametric design to VR

With such a complex design, technology was naturally a vital part of the process.


“I think technology has moved so much that it's much easier to build these complex buildings now than it was 10 years ago,” he says.


In particular, WilkinsonEyre used parametric design to make adjustments, a relatively new technology that is now becoming commonplace among major architecture firms.


“Over the last five years it's been developed by most architects, really,” Wilkinson says.


“Personally I'm not brilliant with computers, but we have teams of people who are and like to keep in the forefront of technology and we've been working in 3D for a long time, for many years; it's only more recently that it's become more parametric.

“ Technology has moved so much that it's much easier to build these complex buildings now than it was 10 years ago. 

“So you can arrange it so that if you change one bit it changes the whole of the model, and that's really what parametric design is: it's being able to almost play with it and sculpt the form.”


Given the complexity of the building, which not only includes the residential areas and hotel, but vast leisure facilities, including swimming pools and tennis courts, this kind of ability is vital to making the project viable.


But given the sculptural form of the structure, other technologies to support designing in 3D also provide significant benefits.


“Being able to design in 3D is a huge advantage. And we make physical models as well, but to be able to draw the building in 3D and be able to work through it – we have a virtual reality studio in the office as well, so we can sort of walk round the building and look at the spaces we're creating,” he says.


Virtual reality, like parametric design, is relatively new to architecture but is being readily embraced by major firms.


“It’s relatively simple to do, that's the point, and it's improving all the time,” he says.


“But even now it's possible to walk round a building, as it were, inside and see what it looks like, and more importantly for your clients to be able to see what's going to be built before it is actually constructed. So I think VR is actually quite an important new advance really.”


These technological possibilities also extend to cladding systems that are, in Wilkinson’s opinion, allowing for a greater level of sophistication in architecture, which he anticipates will continue to advance.


“I think we're going to see more buildings with interesting architecture,” he says.


“From the 50s, 60s and 70s towers were very rectangular, they were just vertical extrusions and in order to keep the sun out, they had to use dark glass, like sunglasses. That in itself is fine, but if all the buildings are like that it's a little monotonous.


“The technology of glass has improved a lot, and [to be] able to use clearer, more reflective glass, for instance, instead of the darker glass, low-iron glass is a huge advantage, and of course that technology's improving all the time.


“But it isn't all just about glass, it's about the whole cladding systems, which are much more able to adapt to more interesting forms than they were without it being too exclusively expensive.”

Mixed-use developments: transforming the urban environment

As a scheme, One Barangaroo is part of a trend of mixed-use developments that have become so commonplace that it is easy to forget they were once a relatively radical approach to urban planning.


“In the past buildings tended to be one use: they were office buildings or housing buildings, and nowadays buildings are much more multi-purpose, multi-use,” explains Wilkinson.

“ I think it's very important that the streets are animated, and the best way of animating them is to have publically accessible facilities so that the private spaces are above. 

“[With One Barangaroo] you've got a mixture of apartments, hotel and the leisure facilities and the cafes, bars and restaurants and so on. It's a much more multi-use building, and I think that's certainly increased in popularity over the last few years, internationally that is.”


For Wilkinson, this change in city design has been a welcome one.


“If you take the commercial district, for instance, you don't want it to be just office blocks with no life and activity at street level,” he explains.


“I think it's very important that the streets are animated, and the best way of animating them is to have publically accessible facilities so that the private spaces are above, and I think that's pretty much accepted internationally now.”

Intelligent buildings: Wilkinson’s view of the future of architecture

With all the technological and planning advancements that have been made, what lies ahead for the world of architecture? In Wilkinson’s opinion the future lies in intelligent buildings.


“I'm interested in buildings being more interactive; I think buildings should respond to people that are using them and also to the changes in the weather and so on,” he says.

“ I think it's not unreasonable in the future to imagine that a building will respond to the sun when it comes out. 

“This is still a little bit advanced, really, and we have managed to do a few things, make some smaller things interactive, but I think it's not unreasonable in the future to imagine that a building will respond to the sun when it comes out.


“Obviously you can do that at the moment with shading devices, but I think it could be a lot more subtle: the whole building will gradually change a bit, allow the right amount of light without taking in the heat from the sun and the glare from the sun, but it will respond to temperatures, high winds and so on.”


He sees similar changes occurring inside buildings, too.


“I think inside the buildings can be active and respond to people. I mean they do to some extent already; we have thermostats and we have computerised systems. But I think the technology is going to make that very much more advanced, so that the building will respond to you,” he says.


“I can't predict all these things, and I'm getting on myself in age, but I've seen an awful lot of change in my life as an architect, and I that that's the way it's moving, really: I think it's moving towards intelligent buildings.”