Fighting gravity

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

Tom Wright, Atkins’ principal designer behind Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab, has been battling against the tide in his work as an architect for some time – as well as coming up with a good idea or two. What keeps him coming back for more?

There are two lists you should write. The first is all the things that you do at which you’ve excelled or where you think you have been exceptionally good, even if other people don’t. The second list is all the things you do where you become so absorbed that you lose track of time. Don’t restrict your lists to just work, include all aspects of your life.

Combine the two lists and ask yourself how much they reflect your life. My list is quite close so I spend a good percentage of my time doing things that I enjoy and that I have half a chance of doing well. Somewhere in here is the reason I come back for more.

Architecture is one of the most enduring forms of art – it could be still standing in a thousand years. It’s a massive responsibility – if a sculptor hates his work, he can hit it with a hammer. Once a building is built, people have to live in it, work in it, play in it. You affect their mood and life in a big way.

If people have to drive past something they really hate every day for a thousand years, it’s not going to do them any good is it?

Design should be uplifting, within its context, for the people interacting with it. It doesn’t have to be massively different, but the end result has to have a sense of harmony and balance that is enjoyable. If you can achieve that, if you can make people comfortable or thrilled or excited or pleased to be somewhere, you have gone a long way towards creating what I call architecture.

What inspires you?

Working with the team in the office. When we are given the opportunity to design a new project, we get together and draw inspiration from within the team and see where it goes. By approaching a design in this way, we challenge the obvious stylistic solutions. As a result, the schemes that come out of this office don’t always sit with the trends of the moment.

I’d rather be slightly off the wall and not following the trend, because if you’re following a trend, you’re nearly always some way behind it.

Are there any limitations?

The biggest limitation to architecture is gravity. If you have engineers that can dream up solutions that start to defy gravity in some economical way, then you can start to push the boundaries and create some interesting buildings. That combined with the capacity of computers to take information directly from complicated drawings into the construction process. Repetition of building components was once essential to keep cost under control. These days, the use of the computer in fabrication has made it possible to create highly complex buildings without the massive cost penalties of the past. Once we replace the workers on-site with robots…. Either that or do it all in the virtual world where there are no rules at all and the engineer is no longer required.

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