Poised above his sketchpad, faced with the challenge of designing a roof for the 2012 Olympic velodrome, engineer Chris Wise asked himself: ‘What would nature do?’ It was no easy brief, to search for a solution which would enclose the track and seating in a minimalistic and sustainable way, and look elegant to boot. But by asking that question – one that runs throughout Wise’s portfolio of award-winning projects – he arrived at a brilliantly simple answer.
‘We knew that if we followed the pure logic of the shape, it would work and would be beautiful,’ he explained. ‘Spiders do it, people have been making tents in this way for years, and it is the shape a layer of soap film would form if you laid it across the same space.
‘We made the curve of the building follow precisely where the seats are inside, treating the top line defined by the seats like the rim of a volcano, and draped a series of cables across. It meant we could create the roof from a single layer of cables instead of a giant steel truss – it would be incredibly lightweight. We wanted to get the feeling that the velodrome was as taut as a well-designed bike.’
Recognised as a virtuoso piece of engineering, the double-curving roof was lifted into place, clinging gracefully to the Siberian-pine track inside, and the project was completed on time and under budget – the first to be finished on the Olympic park.
Lateral thinking has stood Wise in good stead throughout an illustrious career, in which he has been hailed as one of the most outstanding engineers of his generation. He is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and was awarded their highest honour, the Silver Medal, in 2007.
In 1999 he founded Expedition Engineering along with Sean Walsh, quickly making it the go-to team for projects requiring a particularly hefty dose of innovative thinking and creativity. Expedition has been involved in some truly iconic projects, including the 259-metre tall Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, London’s Millennium Bridge, Las Arenas Bullring in Barcelona, the dramatic and graceful Infinity Bridge in Stockton-on-Tees and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens.
Wise famously believes that engineers should be considered artists rather than scientists, and that engineering should be a fervently creative industry rather than one which simply prevents buildings from falling down. His philosophy centres around the conviction that engineers need to spend less time crunching numbers at their desks and instead, rediscover a sense of play.
‘When we are young, we learn by playing, by experimenting and improvising and we learn a lot because we’re not afraid of the consequences,’ he explained. ‘But you’re not trained to play as you get older. You experience professional people saying: “Do it like this”, “Build it like this”, which can sometimes be very useful, but can also be quite stifling and inhibiting. You get used to hearing that sharp intake of breath because people can be very risk-averse. But look at engineering as an opportunity to learn, experiment, take risks. If you do that, you are likely to do something environmentally or socially fantastic, something beautiful.’
Expedition’s employees are encouraged to take part in sketching and life-drawing classes, and their central London office often plays host to visiting professionals from a wide variety of seemingly disparate disciplines. British textile designer Georgina von Etzdorf recently held a workshop on colour for the entire office, encouraging the engineers to ‘fiddle around with scarves and blouses in beautiful materials’, an experience Wise describes as ‘brilliant’.
Wise believes the steel beam, used every day in thousands of building projects around the world, can be a metaphor for how the industry could change for the better. So-called ‘perfect’ or ‘fish belly’ beams follow the line of natural forces and are strengthened at strategic points rather than uniformly. This can reduce the material needed to make the beam by around 30%, which, when rolled out nationally or even internationally, could constitute unbelievable savings in terms of resources.
‘The traditional steel beam was invented more than 100 years ago, but people have stopped wondering if it’s time to have a new one, or even no beam at all,’ said Wise.
‘If I ask myself what nature would do if faced with the same problem, as sure as eggs is eggs it wouldn’t have come up with the steel beam we use now. It would be something much more natural and responsive, although harder to make.’
While engineers have faded from the public consciousness since the likes of Brunel, Telford and Stephenson headlined engineering’s 19th-century heyday, in fact their role has never seemed so important. Engineers are likely to prove crucial in designing solutions to the challenges we face today: climate change, population growth, ageing populations – namely, our very survival.
‘You have Stephen Hawking saying we have to colonise space because there’s no more room for us on the planet, and David Attenborough saying we must stop having sex because soon there will be 10bn people and we haven’t got enough energy, water and resources even now,’ said Wise. ‘Climate change is not going to kill us, but we’re quite likely to blow ourselves up or fight ourselves into a much smaller population than we have at the moment. Technology will get us so far, but in the end, everywhere you look you see people being conspicuously extravagant with the amount they consume.
‘The mindset that says, “Don’t be selfish, be considerate” actually runs counter to human behaviour. The survival of the fittest is about you keeping going while your neighbour does not, and we’re preconditioned to fight each other when we perceive ourselves to be in a worse-off situation than our neighbour. But if we carry on as we are, we’re likely to drive ourselves into the ditch – if we haven’t already.’
It is clear that Wise feels a responsibility to consider these challenges, and he makes no bones about urging others to do the same. This is because he grasps only too clearly the perils of depending on politicians to enact change. ‘If your horizon is three or four years because that’s when you’re going to be re-elected, then you’re unlikely to take even a ten or 20-year view in terms of investment or changing behaviour,’ he said. ‘It’s very difficult to imagine politicians having a fight with the steel industry, for example. They could legislate to make the use of perfect beams mandatory in every building, but the consequences of that would be the steelworkers jumping up and down in protest.
‘The Government don’t see that they’re reinforcing the tradition to make more and more and sell more. There is an expectation that everybody is in full-time employment, everybody is entitled to particular support structures. Now the developing world is trying to get up to the same levels, using a set of expectations and targets which, if you look at them for just a minute, are fundamentally stupid, because they are all about maximising consumption, with maximises manufacturing, which maximises employment which maximises tax revenue. It’s self-fulfilling – a vicious circle, or a death spiral, or whatever horrible phrase you want to use. Politicians aren’t going to do it. The institutions need to do it, the non-governmental bodies. Professional practice needs to set an example.’
Though he has strong views on the subject of sustainable master-planning, far from being a doom-monger Wise strikes me as a forward-thinking go-getter, a quietly powerful motivator and passionate advocate of human creativity. He draws inspiration from all sorts of fields, citing among his influences Howard Hodgkin’s abstract paintings and the ‘quixotic nature’ of mathematics. Music is another passion, and his iPod is stuffed full of thousands tracks from Arcade Fire to Nina Simone remixes, and he has played the guitar since he was a boy.
‘I like the parallels between music and design,’ said Wise. ‘You can’t expect to play amazing guitar solos if you’ve only just picked up the instrument, and it’s the same when you’re designing a bridge. The number of people who have written bad songs, or done crap paintings, including me … Nevertheless, it’s still worth keeping trying because once you’ve learned the basic skills, and then how to improvise, eventually you might get to the point where you’re able to do something really good.’
So which project in the history of the world would Wise most like to have been part of? ‘Salisbury Cathedral,’ he answered without missing a beat. ‘The people who built it probably lived in single-storey wooden buildings, and it took nearly 100 years in total. The difference between their own circumstances and what they managed to achieve was just so profound. I would love to have worked on the International Space Station, the Apollo Moon Landings or the 1953 Everest expedition, because they all faced the challenge of trying to succeed in a place no one had been before. And I would have been interested in being a caveman at the exact moment when they decided they could no longer just wander out and grab stuff from a neighbouring bit of Africa. I would love to have been part of that discussion.
‘What was it that made them think, after thousands of years, that they had to go? Probably starvation,’ he offered, with a wry smile. ‘But they managed to make a success out of it, eventually.’